On the ML King birthday holiday, I propose an experiment: Take this week to reflect on and follow Dr. King’s profound daily “rule” for participants of the 1963 Birmingham campaign.
Meditate daily on the teachings and life of Jesus.
Remember always that the nonviolent movement … seeks justice and reconciliation, not victory.
Walk and talk in the manner of love, for God is love.
Pray daily to be used by God in order that all might be free.
Sacrifice personal wishes in order that all might be free.
Observe with both friend and foe the ordinary rules of courtesy.
Seek to perform regular service for others and the world.
Refrain from violence of fist, tongue, or heart.
Strive to be in good spiritual and bodily health.
Follow the directions of the movement and captains.
In his extraordinary book Biography as Theology, James McClendon contended that “The truth of faith is made good in the living of it or not at all.” He went on to say,
“Christianity turns upon the character of Christ. But that character must continually find fresh exemplars if it is not to be consigned to the realm of mere antiquarian lore. That is … why in Christianity there have been ‘the saints,’ not merely in the original, biblical sense of all members of the Spirit-filled community (I Cor. 1:2), but in the historic sense of striking and exemplary members of that same community.”
“Striking and exemplary” lives expand, enlarge, and correct our understanding of what it means to love God and neighbor in this world. Lives I have been privileged to know like this first hand include John and Vera Mae Perkins, Jean Vanier of the L’Arche Community, and Angelina Atyam of Uganda. I can honestly say I am a different person from my close encounters with each of them.
But the saint on my mind today, on the anniversary of his sudden passing away two years ago, is another mentor, Syngman Rhee. Elected in 2000 as Moderator of the Presbyterian Church (USA) General Assembly, Rhee was the first Asian American to serve in that position. He also served as president of the National Council of Churches from 1992 to 1993. It was my great joy to journey with him from 2004 to 2015 on the Lausanne Reconciliation Project and a Northeast Asia reconciliation initiative
“Peace” has become such a popular and sentimental word. But theologian Willie Jennings once said something like this at Duke Divinity School: “Being a missionary to your people can mean being seen as a traitor to them.” This is what Syngman’s life reveals, in his journey from a 19-year old refugee during the Korean War, to the Korean marines, to his transformation in the U.S. during the civil rights movement, to his pioneering work across the divide between North and South Korea.
Peace, he learned, was “cross-bearing.” I leave with you two quotes from Syngman below (from a 2009 interview). In them is “striking and exemplary” truth so desperately needed across the divides of our time.
“When I first became involved in [Korea] peace and reconciliation work, it was extremely dangerous and risky. Anyone that even mentioned reconciliation between the two Koreas was branded as being pro-communist, a North Korean sympathizer, or anti-South Korean. I have been labeled a bbalgangi moksa — a communist minister — despite the fact that I lost my father in a North Korean prison, that I myself have been imprisoned, and that I fought with South Korea for 5 years during the Korean War. Those of us involved in reconciliation work, however, have seen these opinions as a form of cross-bearing.”
“What resonates with me most from that [American civil rights movement] era is the late Martin Luther King Jr.’s message about the oppressed and oppressors. He asserted that the Civil Rights Movement was not only for the liberation of the oppressed black people but also a movement to liberate the oppressors — the white people — who had a history of oppressing. By liberating both oppressed and oppressors together, it is possible to create a force that could establish a new society. He also stressed that the key to a new society was held by the oppressed. The oppressed had a choice: either seek revenge out of anger or forgive in an effort to create a new society. His vision — a very clear vision — impressed me and I became a follower and admirer of King.”
Today, celebrating the Baptism of the Lord (Christian calendar, January 9), these words come as a great gift to us: “This is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22). Jesus has not begun his public ministry. He hasn’t done anything significant yet – no preaching, no healing, no organizing. He is beloved without doing anything. This character of love of God for God’s Son is the lens which reveals how God sees each and every person: We are beloved without doing anything. We cannot do anything to make God love us more, nor anything to make God love us less. But in a world that desires performance and praise, this is not easy to internalize. The sabbatical year in 1999 after my 17 years of intense ministry in Mississippi was not easy for me. Who was I apart from my work, the speaking invitations, the “importance” of what I did every day, and the recognition I received from it all? I felt irrelevant. It is not easy to believe that we matter, what we are beloved, without doing anything. It was a difficult year of internalizing that my most important identity is not in what I do or what others think of me. Yet it was an absolutely liberating journey. When we internalize that we are beloved without doing anything, the “anything” that we do is less frantic, more centered on “needful” things, less concerned about what others think of us, and less demanding of them, more accepts the reality that there is much we cannot fix or solve, and leaves more room for God to work. The discovery of true significance is a journey from performance and praise to belovedness.
A recent interruption of my activist impulses by the power of poetry inspired me to do what I haven’t done in at least 10 years: write a poem. This came as a great gift, on Thanksgiving day no less, because I have come to believe that sometimes it is poetry which can communicate life as “sign” and “wonder” in a way that prose cannot. To be specific, living in South Korea and serving with the Mennonite Central Committee in engaging North Korea as well, it can be difficult these days to communicate hope about healing the divide. But a visit to a small sign of hope inside the (heavily-militarized) Demilitarized Zone near the border inspired this poem, which I claim (in faith) as primary reality.
On a Visit to the Border Peace School
But I saw the majestic red-crowned crane.
As tanks nearby and the tumult of nations clamored all around —
South, north, west, east —
For the first time, in the DMZ of all places, I saw the legendary crane.
And I heard a prophet whisper “peace …. someday soon,”
As he slipped away to pray on a mountain nearby.
Thanksgiving Day, Korea, 2016
The poetry of Denise Levertov inevitably, for me, gets life right. Frustrated with a number of situations I cannot solve, I happened upon her poem “Let Us Sing Unto the Lord a New Song.” My activist impulses to “fix” were interrupted. The greater neglect in our world is not activist revolution, but poetry; yet when they mesh, “the singing begins.” Here’s an excerpt:
breaks the chest almost,
and if its beat
life itself shall cease.
and if that pulse
fever shall parch the soul, breath
choke upon ashes.
But when their rhythms
then though the pain of living
never lets up
The singing begins.
Grace Day 2016: 4 Quotes on the Upside-Down, Unfair, Often Unsettling, and Utterly Beautiful Gift of Grace
In 1997, after experiencing a wondrous breakthrough to deeper love in our life together, the members of our Antioch Community in Jackson, Mississippi declared every October 18 forward to be “Grace Day.” A day to remember all of God’s wondrous interruptions in our lives. A day to remember that if the gospel we live comes to be mostly about trying harder and doing more, it is not good news. A day to remember to not take ourselves too seriously… and to get enough sleep. A day to remember, as the old folks used to say in Jackson, that “God might not come when you want Him, but He’s always right on time.”
Today, on Grace Day 2016, here are 4 of my favorite quotes about grace—from Nadia Bolz-Weber, Spencer Perkins, Pope Francis, and Flannery O’Connor. Lord knows these days we need a dose of what they speak of.
“I think a lot of congregations have a situation where there are more people talking about God in the basement during the week; the basement of their church is more full of people talking honestly about their lives and connecting that with some kind of trust in God. I think that happens more frequently in their basements than it does in their sanctuaries. … You know what organization is not really having a problem is AA; it’s doing fine. They’re not in a crisis. There aren’t meetings in AA where they’re like, ‘How can we get people to start showing up more?’ So I think that there’s something about people speaking honestly about their lives, and sometimes, I think, church is more about pretending your life is fine, and, I think, less and less people have time for that.”
— Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber, Lutheran pastor of The House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver, on basing some of her practice on Alcoholics Anonymous
“But grace is not about being fair. We wouldn’t dare demand fairness from God. What’s so amazing about grace is that God forgives us and embraces us even though we don’t deserve it. What’s new about grace, at least for me, is that because we are grateful for what God did for us, we allow him to do the same to others through us. This means that if I know this loving God who is so full of grace, then I will forgive, accept, and embrace those who, like me, don’t deserve my grace and forgiveness. Our willingness and ability to give grace or to forgive others is an accurate indicator of how well we know God … What I am learning about grace lifts a weight from my shoulders, which is nothing short of invigorating. When we can forgive and accept those who refuse to listen to God’s command to do justice, it allows them to hear God’s judgment without feeling a personal judgment from us. Which, in the end gives our message more integrity. The ability to give grace while preaching justice makes our witness even more effective.”
— Spencer Perkins, in the final article he published
“I am always struck when I reread the parable of the merciful Father. … The Father, with patience, love, hope and mercy, had never for a second stopped thinking about [his wayward son], and as soon as he sees him still far off, he runs out to meet him and embraces him with tenderness, the tenderness of God, without a word of reproach. … God is always waiting for us, He never grows tired. Jesus shows us this merciful patience of God so that we can regain confidence and hope — always!”
— Pope Francis, Homily on Divine Mercy Sunday, April 7, 2013
“All human nature vigorously resists grace because grace changes us and the change is painful.”
— Writer Flanner O’Connor, The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor
This is my first time to announce a new published writing of mine with both great delight and a bit of dismay.
The delight: A wonderful new book was just released, Conflict Transformation and Religion: Essays on Faith, Power, and Relationship (Palgrave Macmillan). My chapter in this multiple-author book is “‘Word Made Flesh’: Toward a Pedagogy of a New We.” I tell the story of a conflict that broke out between Rwandans and Congolese at our 2013 African Great Lakes Institute in Kampala, Uganda, and use this as a backdrop to describe the methodology we developed which seeks to bring divided “us and them” groups into a new we.
For me, our pedagogy became a response to a question which haunted me from my first visit to Rwanda in 2004 , posed by a church leader there: “How do we form Christians who say no to killing?” The Duke Divinity School Center for Reconciliation (where I was co-director with Emmanuel Katongole) sought to provide an answer from the world of theological education. Could we create a school of conversion–a space that would bring together Christians from divided countries, denominations, institutions, and ethnic groups; change their hearts and minds and relationships; and form them into a community of change in the region? The “Word Made Flesh” methodology I describe is now embedded into the Duke Summer Reconciliation Institute, the African Great Lakes Institute, and the Northeast Asia Reconciliation Initiative. The gift of writing the chapter was to express how pedagogy can become a means of grace. What a privilege to work with the other authors, both scholars and practitioners, and to see the various ways we approach conflict transformation and education.
The dismay: I can barely fix my mouth to say this book costs $69.99 on the Palgrave site (an electronic version at that), and my single chapter can be purchased for the walloping price of $29.95. My goodness, this a book, not caviar. Still, do consider buying a copy for your church or organization, or ask your university or public library to order it. My fellow authors wrote some terrific chapters (and I am grateful for the tireless work of editor Ellen Ott Marshall of the Candler School at Emory). Here is what Palgrave says about the book:
Writing from a variety of contexts, the contributors to this volume describe the ways that conflict and their efforts to engage it constructively shape their work in classrooms and communities. Each chapter begins with a different experience of conflict—a physical confrontation, shooting and killing, ethnic violence, a hate crime, overt and covert racism, structural violence, interpersonal conflict in a family, and the marginalization of youth. The authors employ a variety of theoretical and practical responses to conflict, highlighting the role that faith, power, and relationships play in processes of transformation. As these teachers and ministers engage conflict constructively, they put forward novel approaches toward teaching, training, care, solidarity, and advocacy. Their stories demonstrate how conflict can serve as a site for positive change and transformation.