Monday, March 16, 2015

If War is not the answer

There is a sign in front of the Mennonite Church in Fairfield which reads “War is not the Answer.” Recently someone slipped a letter in the front door asking, “if war is not the answer, what is? And don't say prayer.” After a lot of thought and yes, prayer, here is my answer. To your question, “If war is not the answer, what is?” Here are a few thoughts to start a discussion. 

There are no easy answers or short term solutions to the problem of war. Any solution involves addressing the the culture of violence and retribution that is so prevalent around the world. That will take time. A long time.

As a follower of Jesus I am convinced that the place to start finding different solutions to conflict  is within the Christian Church because Jesus, whom we call Lord, taught the way of non-violent resistance. Rather than fight Rome he chose to die on the cross. He taught us to “love one another, even love our enemies, and to do good to those who despite-fully use us.” For the first 300 years the early church practiced non-violent resistance to aggression and tyranny. Thousands chose to die rather than fight back. Then came Constantine, the Roman emperor who made Christianity legal, baptized his troops and marched to war in the name of Christ. Augustine followed with his doctrine of “just war” and it has been downhill ever since, Salvation has been delegated to an after life, even though Jesus' teachings were all about how we should live in this life. Granted, the Jesus way is a tough way to run a nation.

Given the reality of our violent world, war is viewed as the quickest and easiest response to difficult national and international problems. Diplomacy and negotiation not only takes time but require everyone to enter into serious give and take given that few of us want to admit that we are part of the problem. Diplomacy is challenging. Even so, it's still true that the real goal of war is to force the defeated party to the negotiating table, so why not start there and avoid all the death and devastation? Then there is the additional problem that war creates new problems that often end up being worse than what came before. We learned this in Iraq.   Killing off Saddam Hussein simply opened Pandora's box unleashing a plethora of new problems and religious rivalries that have actually escalated the vicious cycle of killing.

In the short term, war often seems a realistic response, especially if done in conjunction with a long range commitment to confronting the multiple challenges underlying rivalries and unrest, such as income and opportunity inequality, religious intolerance, violent struggles for power, and genocide.

If war is not to be the answer, what is? Justice. Peace is not the opposite of war, justice is. Therefore if we want to change the culture of violence within the United States and the world we must start with our own justice issues so we can truly become “ a more perfect union.” We can rationalize that we are better than most other countries but that is not an excuse for our current system of racist, elitist, systemic injustice.  Justice for all, not just the rich and white race. The only way we can authentically demand the rest of the world to stop human rights abuses and move toward more democratic forms of government is by addressing the unmet needs and unjust practices within our own country.  Doing this would give our words and actions credibility! By modeling peace through justice we'd address the endemic racism that shapes our so called justice system, pass realistic comprehensive immigration reform, stop the legalizing corruption the comes from such decisions as Citizens United, unjust voter ID laws that disenfranchise millions, and address the income inequality that has reduced too many to virtual slavery. If war is not the answer, what is? Justice. To quote Scripture: “do justice, love mercy and walk humbly.”
Follow the money,” we often say. Well, 59% of our national resources go into the  military and -related programs and financing the military debt. Most of that is not included in the budget so the real costs of war are hidden. But hiding the cost of war in unfunded deficits is not only bad policy, it weakens our economy and nation, making us more afraid. This is why Congress needs to pass a war tax so we, the people, know where our money is really going, why there is not money for health care, roads, schools, etc.

Re-introducing the draft is another important answer to “if now war, what?” Why? Because all of us, rich and poor, educated and uneducated, young and old need to share in the consequences of our national and political decisions. Too many wars are started by older white men who never served in the military and have romantic notions of what war is. 

If every young person served a minimum of 2 years in some form of national service, we could address many of the ”justice” issues listed above,  develop greater tolerance and understanding for the plight for others and open our eyes to other ways of seeing, doing and being. This could create a new patriotism that is strong and vibrant.

It is the nature of young people to long for meaning and purpose. They are idealistic and critical of “the establishment.” Let's give them real and viable ways to create positive change. For those who wouldn't opt for military service, they could serve in an expanded Peace Corps, Ameri-Corps, etc. They could become fire fighters, do community development, work with inner city gangs, do needed conservation work, housing rehab programs, disaster relief, legal services, prison rehabilitation, health care in under served areas, work in nursing homes, etc. 

If we are to prevent future wars we must harness the dreams of our young who aren't afraid of change. By providing our young people with meaningful opportunities to address social issues such as racism, religious intolerance, immigration, and economic inequality far fewer youth will be attracted to radical groups such as ISSIS. We could create an alternative culture to that of war and violence. Our nation could become truly exceptional by being less threatening to others and model a better way for the rest of the world.

Several years ago some “dreamers” started an organization called Christian Peacemakers. Christian Peacemakers are trained in methods of non-violent resistance and conflict resolution. They go into difficult areas such as the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, Iraq, Central America, Pakistan, Mexico, Columbia. They serve as witnesses to human right abuses, land grabbing, gang violence, drug lord abuses, war crimes, and stand with the persecuted. Christian Peacemakers understand that until we who call ourselves Christian are as willing to die for peace and justice as soldiers are to die in war, wars will prevail.

Non-violence works. Non-violence shaped our own Civil Rights movement. Non-violence conquered apartheid in South Africa. Ghandi's non-violent movement brought the British empire in India to its knees.

There is another way. But, peace-making, like warfare, demands that we who care, especially those of us who call ourselves followers of Christ must be willing to die when necessary that others might live. Peace (justice) will take just as much time, money, commitment, and long term political will as our current climate of perpetual war, but the end results could be very different. Jesus said “love your enemies. Forgive those who persecute and abuse use you.” His is not an easy solution but in the end Christ-like non-violence is no more difficult or painful than that demanded by war. And the outcomes would be so much better!

As the song says, “let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me.”

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Love your neighbor, we need each other

Fear and polarization are tearing our nation apart, preventing us from solving the very real problems facing us, whether in families, churches, communities, the world. The rare times we listen to others we do so to rebut rather than understand. But then true listening means being open to understanding and change rather than “being right.” Probably the greatest barrier to resolving the conflicts that devastate so many of us is the self centered belief that we have the divine right to impose our way of life, thought, religion, government on others.

Reading an old Tony Hillerman book about the Navajo culture I was reminded the difference between “white” and “Indian” cultures is: “white” culture is based on individualism while “Indian” culture is communal with complicated systems of inter-dependencies and shared property. Instead of making values judgments as to whether one is better or worse, it behooves us to we acknowledge our differences and respect other ways of doing and being. Many marriages break up because the two “partners” come from very different family systems and instead of seeking a new or middle ground they try to change each other.

We have so much going for us as a nation that it's sad we are becoming a people of “me” rather than “we.” Surely we can find that balance between “my” needs and wants and “your” needs and wants. Surely we can find ways to respect our differences while protecting the rights of everyone. For instance, why do we have to choose between no guns or anything goes? Surely there is a middle ground where I can feel safe walking down a city street or sending my grandchildren to school without worrying about some angry gun owner venting his rage on “innocents.” We can, if we choose, respectfully work together by acknowledging our differences without dividing ourselves into them against us. In the end, there is no them or us. There is only ”us” so we'd do well to remember that Jesus said, “ a house divided against itself cannot stand.”

Much as we worship at the altar of individualism and individual rights, we cannot exist for long apart from community. We need each other. Farmers raise our food. Stores provide goods. Laborers create the products we buy, harvest our food. Wholesalers, managers, sales clerks, teachers, truckers, inventors, technicians, secretaries, government employees, restaurant workers all provide needed services. These are only a few examples of our inter-related, inter-dependent lives. There is no such thing as a self made man. Even the Warren Buffets need the millions of little people “slaving” away at low paying jobs to accumulate their wealth and power.

Whether in Congress, the Chamber of Commerce, labor unions, local governments, churches or families, we'd do well to focus on “we the people” instead of “me the individual.” Ultimately what is best for you will be best for me, because I can't exist without you. We'd do well to remember that when we are engaged in a family conflict or international politics.

Joyce Shutt is pastor emeritus of the Fairfield Mennonite Church.

Perception is reality

Perception is reality. Just by putting a cheap wine in an expensive bottle we can fool ourselves into thinking its a fine wine. A bad dining experience colors how we perceive all restaurants in that chain. Democrats and Republicans heard very different things in the President's state of the union speech. Perception is reality.

Pascal, the French philosopher, suggested that since we have a choice between believing in God or not believing in God, it's better to believe. If we believe in God, heaven, and hell and we're wrong, we've lost nothing. We just die. But if we reject God and some form of immortality truly exists, things could get really interesting. To further complicate the matter, our perception of heaven and hell colors how we see today.

While I really want there to be something on the other side, the heavy judgmental “I'm in and you're out” stuff many preach gives me the willies. What is there about“judge not that you be not judged” we don't understand? In The Shack there is this really provocative scene in which Sophia (Wisdom) asks Mac to choose which 2 or his 5 children should go to heaven, which three to hell. Mac insists he can't make such a terrible choice because he loves all of his children. To which Sophia replies something to the effect “but that's exactly what you folks demand of God, even though God also loves all of his children.” Which reminds me of the old doggerel “it hardly behooves the best of us to criticize the worse of us...”

Since we can't know for sure what lies on the other side, I'm choosing a third option. I'm choosing to live each day as if this is the only life I will ever live. Knowing that I can't undo the past or control the future, I am choosing to gratefully make the most of each day, embracing each moment, each experience as a gift. I'm choosing to see the beauty that is always around me, doing today what I might otherwise put off for tomorrow, deliberately finding good in others or situations. I am choosing opportunities to “pay it forward” confident that by being positive, thoughtful, compassionate, and forgiving I can make a difference. By choosing to see this world as the only heaven or hell l will ever experience, I am motivated to seek heaven in today.

With bad news bombarding us twenty four seven, it's too easy to ignore the miracles and wonders that shape our days. There is so much goodness, so many ways others help us, even in the worst of times that we simply take for granted. For instance, we who live in Adams County tend to ignore the breathtaking scenery that surrounds us. Even though I am 78 with most of my life behind me, my get up and go getting up and going, wrinkles and sagging body parts defining my appearance, I am choosing to become “like a little child” as Jesus suggested. I am choosing to reawaken that childlike wonder in a blade of grass, a bird song, sun glittering on the snow, the taste and feel of ice cream, the sweetness of music, a grandchild's laughter. My time may be running out, but I'm choosing to live each day with verve and joy gratefully relishing each moment instead of hoping for something better the next time around. You see, perception is reality.

Joyce Shutt is pastor emeritus of the Fairfield Mennonite Church.

For better or worse

The rabbi's wife challenged her husband's glowing “60 years of wedded bliss” with “ you've got to be kidding. 30 years at the most! 10 minutes here, 20 minutes there, a day here, a week there. That comes to about 30 years of wedded bliss.”

Marriage is less about romance than commitment. In fact, staying in love with our partner may be the hardest thing one can do. Working with another to create a relatively functional, relatively happy family unit is very demanding!

When hubby and I walked down the aisle we didn't anticipate the broken hearts and broken dreams that shaped our years together or that 50 of our 56 years would be shaped by chronic illness. That a significant part of our story would be shaped by teen addictions. That two of our four would drop out of high school, one be incarcerated. That my father's untimely death necessitated caring for my mother. 

We didn't anticipate the ways we'd both change. I am not the same compliant girl he married. He is not the same laughing romantic I dated. We've had to re-choose each other many times over. There have been times when I've thought, “this is not what I signed up for,” But the reality is, this is exactly what I signed up for. Our marriage vows stated, “for better for worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health.” Fortunately our shared faith, values, and goals helped us survive the challenges life dealt us, even making us softer, gentler, wiser, more accepting individuals.

Somehow we muddled through crisis after crisis, thanks to family support, marriage counseling, 12 step programs, individual determination, a strong church family. When I complained to a favorite college professor that I felt stifled and my brain was dying he suggested I go to seminary. “Stop feeling sorry for yourself and start thinking about what it's like for your family to feel responsible for your unhappiness. The only person you can change is yourself, so do what it takes to make yourself a better wife and mother and go back to school.” What good advice!

Arranged marriages involve fewer expectations of romance or hot sex since they are basically business arrangements. We feed our young the rosy promise that love and sexual compatibility will solve every problem and romantic passion will never go away. Thus few of us are prepared to get gobsmacked with the challenges of marriage, work, and family. Those of us who realize our spouse and children are not responsible for our happiness have a fighting chance to succeed. It takes friends, challenging jobs, meaningful hobbies, support groups, community involvement, and a strong faith to diffuse the demands of raising a family. Marriage, after all, is all about sharing your life with someone you mostly recognize, sometimes understand and occasionally like.

Looking back I am grateful for every challenge that came our way. We are both better persons for walking a different path than the one we anticipated that hot summer day we said “for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and health, till death do us part.“
Joyce Shutt is pastor emeritus of the Fairfield Mennonite Church.