Last week, here in Kabul, the Afghan Peace Volunteers welcomed activist Carmen Trotta, from New York, who has lived in close community with impoverished people in his city for the past 25 years, serving meals, sharing housing, and offering hospitality to the best of his ability. Put simply and in its own words, his community, founded by Dorothy Day, exists to practice “the works of mercy” and to “end the works of war.” We wanted to hear Carmen’s first impressions of traveling the streets of Kabul on his way from the airport to the working class neighborhood where he’ll be staying as the APVs’ welcome guest.
He said it was the first time he’d seen the streets of any city so crowded with people who have no work.
Carmen had noticed men sitting in wheelbarrows, on curb sides, and along sidewalks, unemployed, some of them waiting for a day labor opportunity that might or might not come. Dr. Hakim, the APV’s mentor, quoted Carmen the relevant statistics: the CIA World Fact Book uses research from 2008 to put Afghanistan’s unemployment rate at 35 percent — just under the figure of 36 percent of Afghans living beneath the poverty level. That’s the CIA’s unemployment figure. Catherine James, writing in The Asian Review this past March, noted that “the Afghan Chamber of Commerce puts it at 40%, the World Bank measures it at 56% and Afghanistan’s labor leaders put it at a shocking 86%.”
The history of religious wars in human civilization is a tragic commentary on those who adhere to religious traditions. From the French Wars to the Crusades, much blood has been shed in the name of the Holy. The dissonance between movements to perpetuate Goodness and the actions which deliver Evil is proof of how much the religious communities often miss the mark. Where violence reigns, religious people are acting out of ideology, rather than following a God of benevolence.
There is a variant form of religion war taking place online. Seth Godin, a popular blogger, remarks on today’s marketing in the digital age as hailing back to the ancient ways humans organized themselves: tribes. He rightly notes the easy accessibility these days for ordinary citizens to congregate around shared values. His book, Tribes, inspires leaders to harness the power of tribes to affect great change. Yet it is precisely because we tie our identities so closely to our online tribes that when tribal conflicts break out on the internet, we are armed and ready to fight.
During my recent visit to Gangjeong, on Jeju Island, South Korea, where a protest community has struggled for years to block construction of a U.S. military base, conversations over delicious meals in the community kitchen were a delightful daily event. At lunchtime on my first day there I met Emily and Dongwon, a young and recently married couple, both protesters, who had met each other in Gangjeong. Emily recalled that when her parents finally travelled from Taiwan to meet her partner, they had to visit him in prison.
Dongwon, who is from a rural area of South Korea, had visited Gangjeong and gotten to know the small protest community living on the Gureombi Rock. Drawn by their tenacity and commitment, he had decided to join them. When a barge crane was dredging the sea in front of Gureombi Rock, Dongwon had climbed up to its tip and declined to come down. On February 18, 2013, a judge sentenced him to one year in prison for the nonviolent action.
America is stunned by what is happening in Iraq right now, and happening so quickly. We may be facing the worst terrorist threat to international security so far — despite all we have done and sacrificed. Both our political leaders and media pundits are admitting there are no good options for the U.S. now. But there is an option we could try for the first time: humility. Let me turn to two biblical texts that might provide some wisdom for both the religious and non-religious.
If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Rom. 12:20–21)
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God. (Matthew 5:9)
All nations use propaganda to tell half-truths and spread misinformation about their enemies, which should be honestly challenged. Even so, it is also true that we have real enemies in this world, as individuals, groups, and nations. To assume otherwise is foolish, from the perspective of history, certainly, but also in light of good theology about evil as part of the nature of the human condition. According to the Bible, even our faith communities will encounter enemies. Jesus’s teaching assumes that we will have enemies, and he teaches us how to treat them. In the passages above, Jesus and Paul the Apostle offer guidance for more effective ways of dealing with our enemies. It seems to be clear that our habit of going to war against them is increasingly ineffective. For the past several years, we have found ourselves in a constant state of war with “enemies” who are very hard to ﬁnd or completely defeat.
On this 70th anniversary of D-Day, I thought of my father, who died several years ago. James Emerson Wallis, Sr. was commissioned in the Navy, graduated from college at the University of Michigan, and was married — all on the same June day in 1945! After a very quick honeymoon, my Dad was sent out almost immediately to the Pacific as the engineering officer on a destroyer minesweeper. I heard most about that day, and the days that followed, while sitting with my father on the benches at the World War II Memorial shortly after it opened in Washington, D.C. I soon realized why there were so many benches there — so old war veterans could sit down for a while, even for hours, to remember and tell their stories to the ones they most love.
For his 80th birthday, our family invited my dad to go anywhere in the world he wanted to go. He said he wanted to go to Oxford, England, to see the where his favorite Christian author C.S. Lewis lived — and then he wanted to go to Normandy, where so many of his high school buddies died on D-Day. He wanted to go to those beaches and to that special place himself to see the memorials to his friends. So we did both. My father got to sit at the desk of C.S. Lewis with a big smile on his face. Then I took my dad and my father-in-law to that very solemn place where American and Allied soldiers paid such a heavy human cost in perhaps the most historically significant military action in history.
Oh, Sarah Palin.
So you’ve most likely heard Sarah Palin used baptism as a metaphor for waterboarding terrorists. (I mean I heard and I’m in Australia!) I found out when fellow neo-Anabaptist Tyler Tully sent me his reflections. Many are blogging thoughtful responses. But more and more this is my conviction: the best critique of the bad is the practice of the beautiful. So I want to testify to the beauty of the baptisms I was a part of on Sunday.
I do so knowing that the despondence and darkness I feel when baptism is equated with the diabolical is driven out in the joy of the mystery of what happen when we say yes to the Holy Spirit by wading in the water. Our new sister Natha, brother Ky, and I met separately in the End Poverty movement. Both of them, in quiet different ways, found themselves being found by God while looking for a better world. And in Jesus they found the world they were looking for has started! Without a dry eye in the community that surrounded them on Sunday, they shared their wanderings in the wilderness before following Jesus through the waters.
Last week amid the closing of the Olympics, the national debt, and the latest pop culture ‘news,’ this photo was published that encapsulates the volume of pain and suffering that is happening in Syria. For years, the conflict in Syria has gone through its ebbs and flows; it has been in and out of the media’s attention. Even though thousands of people have been displaced and families have been forced to eat animal feed, this is not worthy for American front-page news. Sadly, travesties around the world, or even in our backyard, are categorized as “out of sight, out of mind.” Too often we are consumed by other things than those outside of our limited purview.
When I saw the photo of the suffering of the Syrians, I was shocked; I was shocked that so many people were in line to get food, shocked that despite their best efforts there is not enough food to go around. I felt sad for the people who, by no fault of their own, live in a country that is being ravaged by war, violence, greed, and power struggles. I felt embarrassed for all of the times I whined and complained about my own “problems.” All of them collectively wouldn’t even begin to compare to what people are facing in Syria at this very moment. I wanted to find a way to do something, to raise my voice for them ... anything.
If there is indeed a “War on Christmas,” those on the anti-Christmas side of the war have lost — big time.
The television pundits, conservative politicians, and talk-radio loudmouths who believe there is a “War on Christmas” should look around, withdraw their troops, and quit screaming. Because if there is a war on Christmas, Christmas has won.
As Christmas approaches, tens of thousands of churches around the country are planning Christmas services and expecting packed pews. Their choirs are rehearsing Christmas music; and church members have taken the Nativity scene figures out of storage and put them on church lawns. Children costumed as kings and shepherds are learning to sing “Away in the Manger.”
Christmas cards with manger scenes are speeding around the country through the U.S. Postal Service or in the form of online animated greetings that play “Silent Night” and show the wise men following the star to Bethlehem.
I’d say the moment is ripe for “Christ in Christmas” — the real Christ, of course, who shunned the privileged and aligned himself with sinners and outcasts, whose heart went out to sufferers like the homeless of Rome whom a new pope risks serving.
I’d say the moment is ripe for new life being born in stables and forced to flee the powerful and greedy. We have seen Mammon’s insatiable maw, power’s absolute corruption of the human soul, and thugs murdering the many in order to protect the few — and we know our need of something better.
So, yes, it’s time for Christ in Christmas. Time for new life, time for hope, time for the faithful to say yes to God. Time for peace, not war. Time for repentance, not comfort at any cost. Time for justice and mercy and the even-handed goodness that God promised.
This, of course, isn’t what zealots mean when they vow to “defend” the faith from a culture’s “war on Christmas.” They want a free-fire zone where moralizers can denounce all but the like-minded, and churches with huge budgets can frighten or seduce worshippers into donor mode. They mean using Jesus’ name to impose the very cultural and political oppression that Jesus escaped once as a child but couldn’t escape as an adult.