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The War, the Well, and the Wall: A Time to Break Silence

June 15, 2010

“… we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a ‘thing-oriented’ society to a ‘person-oriented’ society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered” — Martin Luther King, 1967 Riverside Church Speech, Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence

We rarely slow down to create the sacred space needed to discern the “signs of the times” and who we are as Christians in this time of America.

Yet I saw a sign of hope emerge at the recent Duke Summer Institute.  Fully aware of their political, cultural, and theological differences, participants organized difficult conversations over meals to engage critical challenges which surfaced over five days together.

What challenges?  One morning, I asked the group to consider Martin Luther King’s “giant triplets”—militarism, materialism, and racism.

First, militarism: the alarming trend of addressing conflict through violence as default mode rather than last resort, seen in a U.S. war in Iraq and Afghanistan engaged and deepened with precious little debate within churches.  The violence of the two-thirds world is in the open.  America’s is hidden and distant (including in our broken urban communities), and the danger is not to see and feel and wrestle with the trauma.

Second, materialism: an oil well spilling out a catastrophe in the Gulf from a man-made volcano cultivated deep in the sea to feed over-consumption.  I confess it has taken me a long time to get this “creation care” thing but it is beginning to shake me.  Vast gifts of beauty and creatures now spoiled and scarred to feed our need to never have to ask “what is enough?”

Finally, the issues pressed by the immense wall at the U.S./Mexico border have their political complexities.  But for Christians the primary question is not legal but theological.  The wall raises the question of who “my people” are and the relationship of baptism to nationalism and other identities.  As Virgilio Elizondo asked at the institute: “How do the borders of separation become transformed into communities of new creation?”

The War, the Well, and the Wall.  Three great tests of our fidelity to discerning who we are as Christians in our time.

Deep conversations around two of these challenges led institute participants to draft fresh documents of discernment:  a Durham Declaration on Immigration and The BP Oil Spill: A Call for Lament and Reconciliation.  Yet most striking was the journey which shaped them and speaks to faithful practices we desperately need to learn: multiple conversations over several days between Christians from different traditions, cultures, and political convictions; people invited to ask difficult questions; to not try to win but to discern; framing discussions in a theological and Scriptural framework (including the gift of lament, that is, seeing, naming, and standing in the pain); and doing all this in an atmosphere of worship and eating together.

The War, the Well, and the Wall. The headlines are filled with these challenges.  Yet we Christians remain strangely captive to either open polarization or a lukewarm silence within our sanctuaries, as if to say that these critical challenges are up to Washington and Wall Street to decide. It is time to break silence. What is fundamentally at stake is not lobbying Washington and Wall Street but seeing what space the giant triplets have taken up in our  hearts, minds, and lives and what the War, Well, and Wall say about who we are becoming.

If that is awkward and difficult, let it be so for the sake of the gospel.

About the Author: Chris Rice is co-director of the Center for Reconciliation at Duke Divinity School.  He is author of Reconciling All Things, Grace Matters, and More Than Equals. He writes regularly at the blog Reconcilers.

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