Hope

The Violence of Peacemaking

Blessed are the peacemakers Bible passage, Wellford Tiller / Shutterstock.com
Blessed are the peacemakers Bible passage, Wellford Tiller / Shutterstock.com

Jesus says some stuff in the inaugural speech of his ministry that really upsets the status quo of both the religious and non-religious. In essence, he says, "If you are to follow me as King of this newly inaugurated Kingdom of God, you will need to start loving your enemies as much as yourself. You will need to start getting creative in how you deal with your oppressors in order to choose the way of love and reconciliation rather than the way of revenge and contempt. In fact, when you live as peacemakers, you best reflect what it looks like to be children of God. Those of you that choose this way of life will be blessed."

A few years later — after Jesus has been announcing the good news of the Kingdom through both word and deed — he looks over Jerusalem and begins to weep. Here is the people and the city that is to symbolize right relationship with God and humanity. It is to be a place of shalom where salvation flows through all aspects of life. It is to be the city of peace. Instead, Jesus stands on the Mount of Olives overlooking the city and laments, "If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace!" 

Finally, Jesus, as king, messiah, and deliverer models this way of life to the point of death on a cross. Refusing to accept the lure of power through military might or pursuing peace through violence, Jesus embodies the life of suffering and self-sacrifice that he is calling his followers to emulate. Jesus, as the ultimate peacemaker, shows us that the life and work of peacemaking isn't some fairy tale euphoria, but the gritty, subversive and sacrificial life of faithfulness to a God and kingdom that lives by a different standard than the systems and powers of the world.

Enslaved at the Border

MARTA AND LUISA had always fantasized about leaving their small town in northern Mexico to become dancers in a big city.

As the teenage sisters sat in the bed of a rusted pickup truck speeding toward the U.S. border, they thought their dreams would soon become reality. After sunset, the truck screeched to an abrupt stop. A middle-aged man with a skeleton tattoo on his arm hopped out of the driver’s seat, gritted his yellow teeth, and mumbled, “Vamos.” The time had come to complete the journey by foot.

Marta and Luisa walked closely behind the man and his two associates for hours along the desert paths they believed led to a brighter future. When they crossed the border into Arizona at about midnight, the tattooed man forcefully grabbed 16-year-old Marta and separated her from her older sister.

He explained that although he previously offered to help the girls cross the border for a small fee, the transportation cost had risen. Now Marta would have to work to pay off her debt. Alone.

Cecilia Hilton Gomez, director of Hispanic outreach programs for Free for Life International, describes the way that many human traffickers prey on vulnerable girls hoping to emigrate to the United States from Mexico and other parts of Central America. Since girls like Marta often have little education, lack formal paperwork, and have no knowledge of English, they become prime targets for traffickers looking to profit by selling women to brothel owners in the U.S.

“This is an epidemic, and it’s increasing,” Gomez states. “A lot of people think slavery has been gone for years, but it’s one of the largest criminal enterprises that exists now, and it’s right here in America.”

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Stale Words in Fresh Tragedies

We support and grieve with Boston, but where is our new language? Photo courtesy FLASHFLOOD®/flickr.com

Something happened last week and I still can’t shake the funk of it off me. It happened in Boston and Texas; I saw it in Chicago as well, and the week before in Afghanistan. Last Sunday I tried to be a dutiful pastor and make sense of it from the pulpit, but ended up saying that I couldn’t make any sense of it. It wasn’t in what happened but the response. Not that they were making too much out of it — no, these tragedies were tragedies — but that maybe we weren’t making enough of it.

When the smoke of the bombs rescinded, we did what national pride dictates — we put “Boston Strong” all over everything and took up pledges to run the Boston Marathon (the first 10-miler will cause significant reassessment of this showing of national pride) — but we also began a collective process of national mourning and deep reflection, of asking, “How could this have happened?” When we knew nothing of the perpetrators, we asked instead about terrorism and mental illness — root causes (?). We expanded our search, into new territory that resembled 9/11 in some ways, back when we knew nothing and all parties were guilty parties. Accountability was spread wide, including home. This was not a search for a scapegoat but a search for the soul of a nation.

America's Rough Week

Hands photo, Andreas Gradin / Shutterstock.com
Hands photo, Andreas Gradin / Shutterstock.com

Life is difficult. It can knock you down. Sometimes, an entire nation gets knocked down.

First it was Boston. Some mad man (or men) lays waste to one of America’s most hallowed sporting events — the Boston Marathon. Sidewalks that should have been covered with confetti were covered in blood.

Then it was the quintessential small Texas town of West. Populated by hearty Czech immigrants, folks in West worked hard in their shops, bakeries, and fertilizer plant until the plant exploded. A magnitude-2.1 on the Richter scale, witnesses compared it to a nuclear bomb. Dozens are feared dead.

In the nation’s capital, we had the bitter realization that something is broken that will not be easily repaired. A commonsense proposal that emerged from the Newtown, Conn., tragedy, background checks to prevent convicted felons and the seriously mentally ill from purchasing guns online or at gun shows, fell prey to Washington gridlock. None of the Newtown proposals — the ban on assault weapons, limits on the number of bullets a gun can hold or expanded background checks — could garner the 60 votes necessary to overcome a Senate filibuster.

Finally, there were the ricin-laced letters sent to a Republican senator and the president.

Growing Up Trinitarian

I WAS BROUGHT UP up on stories of my family's emigration to Russia from England in the 1850s and of the three generations we lived there and intermarried. My grandparents fled the upheavals of revolution in 1917, returning to England. Having drunk deeply from the springs of Russian spirituality, it is second nature to me to hear the scriptures with Russian ears. As Eastertide culminates at Pentecost (rounded out in the wonderful coda of Trinity Sunday), I find myself murmuring as a mantra the great injunction of St. Sergius of Radonezh, "Beholding the unity of Holy Trinity, to overcome the hateful disunity of this world!" The doctrine of the Trinity is no mere antiquity, but a beacon pointing to the future that God desires for the world. In the Trinity, "hateful disunity" can be transformed into life-in-communion; our life together as human beings incarnating our identity as ones made into the image and likeness of God. I will find myself doodling on my notepad the provocative claim of the Russian lay theologian Nikolai Fedorov: "Our social program is the dogma of the Trinity."

Taking in again the Trinitarian grammar of our prayer and faith, I will find myself reinvigorated for the task of forging a spirituality that, as a great Anglican priest Alan Ecclestone wrote, "takes its Trinitarian imagery more seriously than ever before, relating the creativity, the humanizing, and the unification of [humankind] in one growing experience of mutual love." This from a man who was a passionate political activist writing from the thick of gritty urban politics, not from an ivory tower.

Martin L. Smith, an Episcopal priest, is an author, preacher, and retreat leader.

[ May 5 ]
What We Carry Into Zion
Acts 16:9-15; Psalm 67; Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5; John 5:1-9

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'The impacts are quite severe on the ground'

FOR MANY IN the global South, climate change is not an abstract theory. Victor Mughogho, executive director of the Eagles Relief and Development Programme in the southeast African country of Malawi, has experienced firsthand the toll of global warming and extreme weather. He works with local churches to develop practical and faithful solutions to mitigate the effects of climate change. Sojourners assistant editor Elaina Ramsey interviewed Mughogho early last year when he visited Washington, D.C.

Elaina Ramsey: How has climate change affected the people of Malawi?

Victor Mughogho: The impacts are quite severe on the ground. Rural people in Malawi constitute about 85 percent of the population. These people are subsistence farmers. For them, rainfall is everything. Without the rain, there's no agriculture, no livelihood.

The weather patterns have changed and are so unpredictable now. In the past 20 years, official records from the government show that we've had five severe droughts. Because of the cycles of drought, there is less and less water in the ground. The water table is sinking. Trees and grass are stunting and rivers are drying up.

If you asked a person "What will happen in the next 10 or 20 years?" they'd say that what's bad now, in retrospect, is going to look like a good time. It looks like worse times are coming ahead.

How is your program responding to these extreme weather changes?

There's a story in the Bible where Jesus Christ asks his disciples and the people who are following him, "What do you have to feed those who are hungry?" There was a little boy with five loaves and two fish. Jesus did not just create a miracle out of nowhere. It started with what the people had. Thus, we are helping our communities and local churches to focus on what resources are currently available.

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Balancing our Budget through Humility, Shared Sacrifice, and Hope

Dome inside the U.S. Capitol Building, gary718 / Shutterstock.com
Dome inside the U.S. Capitol Building, gary718 / Shutterstock.com

This week a large number of Americans are celebrating Holy Week, leading up to Easter Sunday. Churches will be packed with both the regulars as well as the once- or twice-a-year worshippers for the "Super Bowl of Sundays" to celebrate Christ’s victory over death and sin and his glorious resurrection.    

In the midst of an exasperating and polarized political debate around the U.S. budget, our national and political leaders can learn valuable lessons from Holy Week. Whatever your faith background may be, we could all benefit from a greater commitment to the humility, shared sacrifice, and hope that Holy Week embodies. An extra dose of humility, sacrifice, and, ultimately, hope represent the balm that could bridge many of our ideological differences and resolve the current political impasse around the budget that has paralyzed our political system and divided the nation.

The Real Message of Easter

Empty tomb of Jesus, Tiffany Chan / Shutterstock.com
Empty tomb of Jesus, Tiffany Chan / Shutterstock.com

In Christianity’s passage through Holy Week to Easter Day, a moment of truth will arrive.

Every detail is well known, thoroughly studied, and dramatized by Hollywood and homespun pageants — and the familiar story will reach across the divide and touch, or try to touch, every person who is listening and watching.

Many will get it, especially if they live in circumstances where people get falsely accused by the self-righteous; where the weak and vulnerable get mistreated by the powerful; where physical suffering is a daily occurrence; where death seems like the only next option.

That audience could well comprise the bulk of humanity — those who endure poverty, starvation, and violence of epic proportions, those who live in more prosperous lands and yet are the oppressed, the ignored, the expendable.

For that audience, the Gospel message is profoundly good news.

Fifty Days of Grace

HOW SHALL WE engage with scripture through all 50 days of Easter? There are clues in the haunting story of Jesus' appearance beside the sea of Tiberius. After Easter Day many of us are ready to let things quickly revert to normal. It is, strangely, both reassuring and uncomfortable to hear that those disciples, whose business had been fishing, wanted to get back to their boats so promptly after the horrors and wonders they had witnessed in Jerusalem.

Jesus is waiting for them by the shore with breakfast already cooking. All is ready, yet he wants them to bring some of what they haul up in their nets, so he can include samples of their own catch in the menu. And what a catch it was!

Easter is our time to experience the grace that is always ahead of our game and is underway for us before we are ready. Yet grace does not exclude what we bring to the table. Grace expects and includes the work of our hands, the weavings of our imaginations, and the gifts of our unique experiences. In one sense, Eastertide is more truly a season of repentance than is Lent. One thing we might need to repent of is our passivity—those times when we expect God to hand us on a plate the meaning we are hungry for. We need to bring our own bits to the cooking fire if we are to really eat with Jesus. It is part of the mix of grace that we must participate, not just receive.

Martin L. Smith, an Episcopal priest, is an author, preacher, and retreat leader. His newest book is Go in Peace: The Art of Hearing Confessions, with Julia Gatta.

[ April 7 ]
Trust But Verify
Acts 5:27-32; Psalm 150; Revelation 1:4-8; John 20:19-31

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At the River We Stand

FROM THE RIVER to the rope. From the creek to the cross. From the dove and a "voice from above" to death by state execution and profound silence.

This is Lent. This is the Jesus Road, the Christian way. O Lord, how can we follow you?

Lent is time of remembering ourselves. In the ancient church, those preparing for baptism were publicly challenged: Do you renounce your bondage to Master Satan? Do you reject the slave-mind and all its glamour and subtle temptations? Will you allow Christ to buy your freedom?

The catechumen turned to face the east and the dawn, answering: "I give myself up to thee, O Christ, to be ruled by thy precepts."

It is Lent. We go down to the river to pray. We step into the waters of repentance. We surface as a new creature in Christ. From that moment onward, we imprint on Jesus. This is our survival strategy as newborn disciples. We follow him, like ducklings behind their mother.

After his baptism in the Jordan River, Jesus is driven straight out—into the unloved places, into the wilderness. There he is pricked by demons to toughen him up. He is being prepared. He must look into his own despair. Satan is the supreme surgeon for separating us from our hope.

This too is Lent. Staring into the face of our existential desperation. We also are being prepared, forced to release our grip on hope. All the life-scenes are smoky grey, splayed across canvas from an uncertain light source. How can we stand? We just do. We follow Jesus. Even if we do it with a thousand-yard stare.

We reach into our fast-ravaged gut and find bread to share. We mix honey and oil as a salve for the sores on the soles of the lost. We carry bitter tears to the house of the one who is weeping. We listen—even when all we hear is silence. And follow him.

"This, then, is our desert," writes Thomas Merton, "to live facing despair, but not to consent. To trample it down under hope in the Cross."

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