Disciples Pre Assembly Event Closing Statement

We are all indebted to our speakers for their very insightful presentations on our theme, presentations that reflected their own contexts and challenges to peacemaking. There were any number of important themes, running throughout the presentations, that I hope we will remember.

We are all indebted to our speakers for their very insightful presentations on our theme, presentations that reflected their own contexts and challenges to peacemaking. There were any number of important themes, running throughout the presentations, that I hope we will remember.

For example:the need to collaborate with people of other faiths, as well as non-religious groups, in our efforts at peacemaking;the need to pray for one another and, generally, to share more than material resources;the urgent need to educate our children and mobilize our youth for peacemaking;the need we have in the United States to pressure our government in response to the voices of Christians in other countries (to advocate for a more constructive, proactive role in Palestine/Israel, to advocate that more attention be paid to West Africa, to advocate for withdrawal of U.S. troops and a lessening of politically threatening rhetoric in Korea).

As theologian-in-residence for this event, however, I want to close this time together by lifting up some of the theological implications of these addresses, especially the ones by Mr. Koroma, Ms. Shubeita, and Reverend Yoon. Our friends were not asked to write theological papers; but, in fact, they have raised for us several crucial issues.

The first has to do with the paradigm we use to think about mission. Let me explain. This past May, I served as a consultant at the WCC-sponsored World Conference on Mission and Evangelism in Athens. Much theology of mission, articulated in recent years under the auspices of the WCC, has been liberation oriented, advocating aggressive engagement in the promotion of justice. The plenary speakers and workshop leaders in Athens generally affirmed the importance of liberation, but coupled it, almost across the board, with reconciliation - which implies involvement with perpetrators as well as victims and reconstruction of societies on the other side of the struggle against oppression.

I want to be clear: Nearly every speaker insisted that authentic reconciliation includes concern for justice; but, seen in the context of the past forty years, the tone was quite different (symbolized by the move from a Program to Combat Racism to a Decade to Overcome Violence). The Roman Catholic theologian, Robert Schreiter, argued that the church is called beyond political action to participation in the healing work of God - creating safe, hospitable places where truth can be spoken and heard, helping to rebuild relationships, and fostering the sort of tough-minded forgiveness (not forgetfulness) that makes a different kind of future possible for both victim and offender. This, he said, is nothing less than a new paradigm for mission. I will add that some participants, mainly in private conversations, complained that language of reconciliation can mask a conservative vision of society that doesn’t press for change in political and economic structures - but these were minority in Athens.

The reason I bring this up is, I’m sure, pretty obvious. All three of our speakers prominently used the language of reconciliation - "rehabilitation and reconstruction" (Mr. Koroma), "reconciliation and reunification" (Reverend Yoon), "reconciliation and justice" (Ms. Shubeita). Our friends from the Middle East and Korea certainly spoke about oppression; Rula, in particular, made justice a key to the pursuit of peace. But even she then called us beyond justice to a "real reconciliation" marked by respect, forgiveness, and dialogue.

The difference in tone between these papers and the one by Ken Brooker Langston was striking to me, and it has to do, in my judgment, with this issue. The move from liberation to reconciliation as the conceptual center of mission theology seems appropriate in Rwanda and South Africa and Sierra Leone - places that are striving to pick up the pieces in the aftermath of oppression or horrific violence. It makes sense in Eastern Europe and Korea - places that are striving to reintegrate fragmented societies. But what about here? Many of us, I suspect, feel a calling, a responsibility, to confront a government bent on military response to perceive threats, corporations apparently unattentive to the human cost of their decisions, and a society captive to the idolatry of consumption. What mission paradigm is appropriate for our context? What mission paradigm will best enable us to pursue what makes for peace?

2. I was struck that all three papers, and especially those from Africa and Korea, spoke of the church’s historic focus on evangelism and charity. In all three situations, however, the church has now been led/forced by historical circumstances to engage in political advocacy as a dimension of mission. Reverend Yoon calls this a "remarkable change from the silence of the past."

Here in the United States, we also have many persons in our pews who think that the church’s proper role is charity, not political advocacy - that individuals have the right to act in the public arena on the basis of conscience, but that the church should stick to more spiritual matters. Thus, it is important for us to remember the theological affirmations of our Reformed heritage. For example, the Christian doctrines of creation and reincarnation affirm that life in this world, though distorted by sin, is supremely precious to God - as is the life of every neighbor, each of whom bears God’s image. In Jesus Christ, we claim to see the purpose of God who has drawn near that humanity (creation) may have abundant life. Reformed Christians have affirmed that the church, as an instrument of God’s purpose, is called to promote social transformation toward the day when God’s will for shalom is realized on earth. When the state serves what we understand to be God’s purposes, we are called to cooperate with it; when it doesn’t, we are called to criticism, even resistance. In either case, however, the church engages in political advocacy as part of its very nature. That is the tradition in which we stand. Thanks in large part to Ken Brooker Langston, there are at least three resource groups in the assembly that pick up these themes.

3. All three papers, while they don’t talk about it explicitly, assume that God is active in history, calling us to pursue what makes for peace and justice and reconciliation. Despite our theme for this event, liberal Disciples have often shied away from using such language for an obvious reason: Humans, being self-centered, tend to see historical developments in terms of our own self-interest and label them the work of God. How many times have Americans marched off to self proclaimed holy wars, claiming God’s blessing on our decisions?

What I want to stress, however, is that there is also a danger in not speaking of God’s presence in historical events, because our reticence allows others (the secular culture or fundamentalists religion) to define the framework for making sense of history. The only U.S. Christians I hear speaking about God’s initiative in recent events in the Middle East are fundamentalists who read these events in apocalyptic terms - and that doesn’t begin to do justice to the biblical narrative.

This is a complex topic that deserves deeper treatment than I can give in this brief response, but I do want to suggest that this is a place where getting our theology straight can have real payoff. God was in Christ reconciling the world to God’s own self. Therefore, wherever we see acts of reconciliation, we don’t toast our own achievements but give thanks to God. God is the one who tears down dividing walls of hostility. Therefore, wherever we see barriers of division being breached, we don’t celebrate our triumph but give thanks to God. We are called to pursue what makes for peace; but we do so as participants in God’s mission of peacemaking. Such a theological posture keeps us from "leaving it all in God’s hands," but also from claiming credit for ourselves.

4. Numerous scholars have observed that, while the twentieth century was dominated by ideology, the twenty-first seems likely to be dominated by identity as groups artificially lumped together or divided by colonialism or the Cold War now struggle to define their sense of community. I heard this theme of identity in all three papers, but especially in Ms. Shubeita’s. When listening to her I was reminded of the book by the well-known pastor from Bethlehem, Mitri Raheb, entitled I Am a Palestinian Christian. Rula refers to herself as a Christian Palestinian - and therein lies an issue of great significance.

I try to convince my U.S. students that "Christian" is the noun that defines us, with all other identities as adjectives. We are black Christians and white Christians and brown Christians and, therefore, are related at a level deeper than race or ethnicity. We are Cuban Christians and American Christians and Iraqi Christians and, therefore, are related at a level deeper than nationality. This, however, is highly problematic in a place like Palestine where the struggle for justice is shared with Muslim neighbors while Christians in the West often seem indifferent, if not hostile, to the struggle. The question of identity, and therefore of identification with one another, will demand far more of our attention in the years ahead if we are to pursue what makes for peace.

5. Each of our presenters dealt, in one way or another, with the familiar issue of unity and diversity, but especially Reverend Yoon who ended his paper by urging us to seek a coexistence that does not "oppress or eliminate those with different thoughts or ideas." This is just the right way to put it. We cannot pursue peace by eliminating other persons, no matter what ideas they hold. But surely that doesn’t mean we should refrain from opposing those ideas that threaten other persons. Reverend Yoon affirms Americans but not American attitudes of hegemony.

I tell students that the greatest challenge they will face in this age is to be both open to diversity and firmly opposed to diversities that are demonic. You see, the experience of religious and culture diversity has led many in this generation to conclude that religious beliefs and moral values are a matter of personal preference - which has the benefit of opening them to differences, but won’t stand the test of evil. If all beliefs are to be accepted, how do we say No! to tyrants with sufficient conviction? To put it another way, we are called to love those whom God, the universal creator, loves; and, for that very reason, we are called to oppose those ways of acting, those attitudes of mind, that meaness of spirit which threatens those whom God loves. Saying yes to neighbors who aren’t like us means saying no to all that diminishes them. Otherwise, we will not truly pursue what makes for peace.

6. Finally, I am pleased that the tone of all four papers, as well as the panel discussion, was one of hope - which, properly understood, is the hallmark of a counter-cultural world view.

To live in hope is to resist short-term thinking. In a culture where public policy is oriented to election cycles, it is vital that our pursuit of peace think in terms of future generations.

To live in hope is to resist arrogance. It is God’s future for which we hope, and the criterion of God’s future is that it will be good news for our neighbor, not just for us.

On the other hand, to live in hope is to resist passivity, because those who hope refuse to accept what is as all that will be.

But to live in hope is also to resist easy optimism. Optimism predicts a brighter future based on present data, which is why optimists can easily give in to despair. Whereas those who hope often do so with full awareness of a tragic present. To put it another way, hope that is blind to the deep-rootedness of war isn’t hope at all.

Reverend Yoon captured this nicely when he spoke, at the end of his paper, of "our vision of peace." As Christians, we pursue what makes for peace because we dare to hope in God’s promise of the day when nation shall not raise up sword against nation. And we demonstrate the credibility of our hope by acting to make it so.

Again, I say to our speakers, please accept my deep appreciation, our deep appreciation, for your helpful, stimulating words.

 


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