Last week, while most of Israel was focused on increasingly extreme rhetoric surrounding the upcoming elections and most Americans were listening to angry debates about guns and fiscal responsibility, a remarkable thing happened. A few dozen Palestinians captured the world’s attention quietly and peacefully.
Their methods were simple and witty. Following the example of Israeli settlers, they established “facts on the ground.” The group of Palestinians quietly hiked up a barren hillside in cold, wet weather and pitched tents, declaring themselves part of the new village of Bab al-Shams, or Gate of the Sun, a name taken from the novel by Lebanese writer Elias Khoury.
Their village was established on private, Palestinian land and the landowner (who publicly displayed his Ottoman era deed) gave them permission to camp there. But that particular piece of land is also known on an Israeli development plan map as “E-1” and came to the attention of the world recently when Prime Minister Netanyahu announced plans to annex the land for Israeli settlements. Many believe that move, which would essentially bifurcate the West Bank, would be the deathblow to the “Two State Solution.”
What does the birth of the baby Jesus 2,000 years ago have to offer the violent, troubled world we live in? Or what would Jesus say to the NRA?
I want to suggest — a lot. A whole lot.
Jesus entered the world from a posture of absolute vulnerability — as an unarmed, innocent child during a time of tremendous violence. The Bible speaks of a terrible massacre as Jesus was born, an unspeakable act of violence as King Herod slaughters children throughout the land hoping to kill Jesus (which the church remembers annually as the massacre of the Holy Innocents).
Perhaps the original Christmas was marked more with agony and grief like that in Connecticut than with the glitz and glamour of the shopping malls and Christmas parades. For just as Mary and Joseph celebrated their newborn baby, there were plenty of other moms and dads in utter agony because their kids had just been killed.
From his birth in the manger as a homeless refugee until his brutal execution on the Roman cross, Jesus was very familiar with violence. Emmanuel means “God with us.” Jesus’s coming to earth is all about a God who leaves the comfort of heaven to join the suffering on earth. The fact that Christians throughout the world regularly identify with a victim of violence — and a nonviolent, grace-filled, forgiving victim — is perhaps one of the most fundamentally life-altering and world-changing assumptions of the Christian faith. Or it should be.
So what does that have to do with the NRA? Underneath the rhetoric of the gun-control debate this Christmas is a nagging question: are more guns the solution to our gun problem?
For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
~ Isaiah 9:6
On the flight home from Connecticut, where we’d buried my beloved father a few days before Thanksgiving, I watched the film Seeking a Friend for the End of the World and dissolved into a wailing heap of tears and snot.
The premise of the uneven dramedy starring Steve Carell and Keira Knightley is this: An massive asteroid named Matlilda is on a collision course with planet Earth and in three weeks’ time, the world will come to an end. The main characters and others decide how – and with whom – they want to spend the last days of their lives.
Given recent events, this led to some soul searching on my part. If I had three weeks to live, what would I do? Where would I go? Who would I want to make sure I saw? With whom would I want to share my last breaths?
For most of my life the answer has been the same: I’d want to be with my family and, in particular, with my father.
Which is why I ended up bawling my eyes out for the last 90 minutes of the flight home to Los Angeles, much to the dismay of the fellow in the middle seat next to me.
If I had three weeks to live today, I wouldn’t be able to spend any of those moments with Daddy.
He’s in the More, now. On the other side of the veil. In Heaven. Resting in peace. With Jesus.
And I will have to wait until my earthly life ends to see him again face-to-face.
Whoops. I was joking with a co-worker today about writing a subversive post about how the song “Do You Hear What I Hear” is an extended metaphor for the Roman Empire’s takeover of Christianity, contorting Jesus’ message for its own ends. “Listen to what I say,” orders the unnamed king, as he urges adoration of Jesus and calls for peace — Pax Romana.
I did a quick Wikipedia search, and learned exactly how wrong I was. Rather than a subversive message about the twisting of the Gospel, “Do You Hear What I Hear” was actually a call for peace during the turbulence of the 1960s.
I mean, think about it: the song talks about the humbleness of the announcement of Jesus’ birth – only the night wind and the little lamb have heard about it. This whisper gets passed up to ever-increasing degrees of authority (a grassroots movement if we’ve ever seen one), until the king himself is calling for peace.
I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty sure I have sung “O Little Town of Bethlehem” every year on Christmas Eve for my entire life. But I believe this carol’s lyrics, specifically the words of the first verse, invite a little more thought than we normally give them.
O little town of Bethlehem
How still we see thee lie
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting light
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in Thee tonight
For now let’s ignore the historical inaccuracies of the song, and focus on what the words mean, especially the last four lines. How beautiful is it that through the dark world a light came to bind together the hopes and fears of all the years (I choose to see it as past and future) in Jesus?
One commentator suggested that it was precisely because God was not there that this heinous act happened. Gov. Mike Huckabee claimed we should not be surprised to see this kind of violence since we have removed God from our schools and our society. His sentiment is to say, “God is NOT here.” If that is the case, then it surely can explain the existence of pure evil that we saw displayed on Friday.
However, thinking like that of Gov. Huckabee suggests that we somehow have the power to remove God from our schools and our society. This kind of God is quite small, weak, and impotent — one that is dictated by the mere whims of humanity. This is not the God of whom Matthew spoke.
Matthew spoke of the Almighty God fully embodied and revealed in the person of Jesus. So much so that he claimed he was Immanuel: God with us. He is here not in spite of the pain, nor did he come to explain it away. God is here in the midst of our suffering.
The hope of Advent is that God responded to the suffering of humanity by entering into it with us. He did not stand outside of it and look in with a wincing face and hope that everything would somehow work out. Nor did he see humans who removed him from their schools and societies and say, “Well fine, then, have it your way!” Not at all.
Afghanistan is one of the most desperate, beat up places in the world. Forbes magazine has called it the most dangerous nation on earth. Over 30 years of war have left 2 million people dead, and much of the country in chaos. But even in the most troubled places on earth, there always seems to be a little group of people who refuse to accept the world as it is and insist on building the world they dream of, a little group of people who believe despite the evidence and watch the evidence change.
A few years ago, I began to hear about a little group of young people in Afghanistan doing exactly that. Many of them had seen their loved ones, friends and family killed. They were tired of blood. Tired of war. And so they began to organize, and educate, and train themselves for peace. They studied the heroes of nonviolence, Gandhi and King. A few of them even travelled to India to learn nonviolence and community from Gandhi’s ashram. Now they have their own ashram in Kabul, where dozens of them live together and work for peace.
And they have begun to build a movement: marching in the streets, planting trees, building parks as monuments of peace. They started wearing blue scarves as a symbolic reminder that there is one blue sky that connects us all, and now their little movement is catching the world’s attention. It is a movement of friends without borders.
The motto of their movement is this: “A little bit of love is stronger than all the weapons in the world.”
We call upon the United Nations to negotiate an immediate cease-fire to the war in Afghanistan, and to start talks aimed at ending the war and beginning the long road to healing and recovery.
That’s what the Afghan youth said on Tuesday afternoon in Kabul, along with Nobel Peace Prize winner Mairead Maguire of Ireland, as they launched their “Two Million Friends for Afghanistan” campaign and presented their petition to a senior United Nations official.
For me, it was the climax of a heart-breaking, astonishing eight days in one of the poorest, most violent, most war-torn, most corrupt, and most polluted places on the planet — and because of the amazing “Afghan Peace Volunteers,” the 25 Afghan youth who live and work together in a community of peace and nonviolence — one of the most hopeful.
In the church where I grew up, the first Sunday in Advent was dubbed the “hanging of the greens.” On that special Sunday, we sang carols in the decorated sanctuary, all culminating in the children’s live nativity scene. The service never changed from year to year. The only variables were how many kids needed roles and which young child would get stage fright, thus leaving part of the the story without visual representation.
It always seemed like the doves were cursed. The doves rarely remained on stage for the entire performance. Over the years, I was a variety of animals — a wise man, a shepherd, and finally Joseph. I never got stage fright. I was never a dove. I can only imagine what my mother would’ve done if I had been that kid.
It took me years to realize that there was a character missing from my congregation’s telling of the story. We always left out King Herod.
This was a huge oversight, because Herod plays a major role in Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth.
Israel reported last week that it successfully tested its latest missile defense system. Known as “David’s Sling,” it is designed to shoot down midrange missiles from Hezbollah rockets originating from Lebanon.
I don’t want to get bogged down in a discussion about Israel’s right to defend itself. What I want to do is explore the biblical reference to “David’s Sling” and what it might mean for us. The name is an obvious allusion to the story of David’s victory over Goliath. It’s a favorite biblical story for many Sunday school teachers, but a conundrum for those teachers who take mimetic theory seriously. Mimetic theory claims that violence belongs to humans, not to God. It also states that the Bible progressively reveals this message about violence to us. And yet, the connection between God and violence permeates the Bible, with God apparently sanctioning violence against God’s enemies.
So we rightly ask, “What about all the violence in the Bible?”
As I write, I'm stuck in the Central Wisconsin Airport (near the bustling metropolis of Wausau, Wis., for those keeping score at home). And, you guessed it, I'm waiting. Fog in Minneapolis prevented our plane from landing there, and now I'm left sitting in a very small regional airport with no restaurant and no coffee and no concrete sense of what the rest of my day will look like as I make my way to California. All I can do is wait.
I do know, barring something entirely unexpected, that I'll eventually make it to San Francisco. Right now I'm living the axiom offered by Tom Petty decades ago: "The Waiting is the Hardest Part."
Advent, a season during which Christians honor and attempt to approximate the longing for a Messiah more than 2,000 years ago, is often described as a chance to exercise our patience muscles. Advent can serve as a season of anticipation and hope and longing, void of desperation. This is Advent for those who already have most of that for which they wait. But for countless people around the globe, every additional day of waiting comes with a heavy price.
On Nov. 29, Palestinians will bid to become a “non-member observer state” in the United Nations. If approved, this would be a major step toward full statehood for Palestinians. Israel, and perhaps more important, the United States, are against this move, not least for fear of possible war-crime investigations against Israel. Israel’s rationale has always been that a final resolution cannot be achieved unilaterally, but only through direct negotiations. Ironically, Israel achieved its own independence unilaterally and through the United Nations.
Palestinian Christians leaders have sent a strong message of support for this step. A statement signed by 100 community leader says:
We believe the Palestine Liberation Organization’s initiative to enhance Palestine’s status in the United Nations to an Observer State is a positive, collective, and moral step that will get us closer to freedom. This is a step in the right direction for the cause of a just peace in the region. We fully endorse this bid, just as we supported Palestine’s application for full membership of the United Nations a year ago.
WASHINGTON — It’s an idea that feels particularly poignant this Thanksgiving: American Jews and Muslims banding together to help the homeless and other needy people.
The interfaith collaboration has been going on for five years, but the recent exchange of rockets between Gaza and Israel is weighing especially hard on both communities this week. That's why a joint session of sandwich making or a group visit to a nursing home has taken on added significance.
“In this time of warfare it was a beautiful experience to see the two come together,” said Haider Dost, a Muslim student at Virginia’s George Mason University who worked with Jewish students to feed the homeless Sunday in Franklin Park, just blocks from the White House.
A 10-year-old boy holding a grenade approaches a group of soldiers. He does not respond to their shouts. One shoots him with his M-16 and the boy crumbles to the ground, dead.
Did he have a choice? It was do or die, kill or be killed. Still he killed a little boy, and those images still haunt him.
This is a classic example of psychological trauma: A person is put in horrific life-threatening situation where they do not feel they have control. That's the situation he found himself in. It was a no-win scenario — kill a little boy or have you and your friends all die.
Soldier suicides have reached epidemic numbers. As the AP reports, More soldiers are taking their own lives than are falling in battle. Add on top of that, the many who suffer from PTSD, and who as a result find themselves estranged from their home, their loved ones, and indeed from themselves.
I remember the first time I saw the movie Awakenings. I was living at Jeff Street Baptist Center and working with a community of inner-city teenagers from the Clarksdale housing projects in Louisville, Ky.
Monday nights were Dollar Movie Nights for us and we would load up in our orange van (affectionately called The Great Pumpkin) and head out to the theater. On that Monday night I chose Awakenings as our movie of the week, hoping that my kids would identify with the 'helping each other overcome' theme in the story. My dream was deferred. They hated it!
Within 15 minutes of the start of the movie they were throwing popcorn at the screen. We got up and changed theaters to something faster paced with more action. I had to promise to check my movie choices with them before they agreed to go with me again.
Over the past four years I have had the opportunity to spend a significant amount time in the Middle East. I no longer approach the time as a tourist, but instead seek out relationships and experiences as a listener who has much to learn about the way God is at work in contexts much different than my own. In that posture, it has been remarkable how much I have learned and begun to integrate into the way I live, love and lead back in my neighborhood. Theologian Paul Knitter describes it well when he refers to ones inherited worldview as a telescope.
"No matter how objective we may think we are or desire to be, we all see the world through a specific telescope/worldview. When we choose to look through the telescope of people who are “different” than us, we begin to get a more comprehensive picture of the world and the way God is at work within it."
Leading our first Learning Community to the Middle East apart of The Global Immersion Project I recently co-founded, I was invited to take a look through the lens of friends’ telescopes who live amid conflict in Israel and Palestine. Here are some of my key learnings: