Friday, December 23, 2005

Have the Churches Abandoned Peace on Earth?

[This is the text of my opening remarks from yesterday’s forum which I talked about here]

On November 26, Christian Peacemaker Team members Norman Kember, Harmeet Sooden, Jim Loney, and Tom Fox were taken hostage by a group calling themselves “The Swords of Righteousness Brigade.”

On November 29, right-wing radio show host Rush Limbaugh, commenting on the hostage taking said, I quote: "part of me likes this…here's why I like it. I like any time a bunch of leftist feel-good hand-wringers are shown reality…any time a bunch of people walk around with the head in the sand practicing a bunch of irresponsible, idiotic theory confront reality, I'm kind of happy about it, because I'm eager for people to see reality, change their minds, if necessary, and have things sized up." (

I’m guessing the “irresponsible, idiotic theory” that Limbaugh was referring to comes from the favourite philosopher of a certain US president, a little known wandering sage called Jesus of Nazareth, who said:

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

“You have heard that it was said, "You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy." But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you.”

I could go on and on but you get the idea.

Given the full-throated support folks like Limbaugh have given the Iraq war, not to mention their defense of the US as a so-called “Christian” nation, together with some of their high profile Canadian clones, the question of “have Christians abandoned peace on earth?” is, on many fronts, a very appropriate one.

However, not since apartheid in South Africa has there been such an overwhelming worldwide consensus among religious leaders regarding an important issue until the war in Iraq. From the pope to the Archbishop of Canterbury to the eastern patriarchs to African Pentecostal preachers, the message to George Bush and Tony Blair was clear; the invasion of Iraq did not meet the criteria of the Just War.

At the local level, the message remained the same.

In the run-up to the Iraq invasion, my congregation in Halifax, Lutheran Church of the Resurrection, held prayer services each Saturday at noon. We kicked them off with an ecumenical gathering which included leaders from a variety of denominations and faith communities. We raised a united voice in prayer, pleading for peace, unified in opposition, and in a greater vision for the world than one provided for us by many world leaders.

From there we joined thousands of others opposed to the impending war, and marched through downtown Halifax in the cold January wind. Two Anglican bishops joined the march. As did most of the pastors in the city.

My congregation was well represented. But one member stands out in my mind. Aino Brzak was 90 years old, a refugee from post-WWII Europe. She had seen war up close and very personal, having lost many family members to the war. Although she harboured a special hatred for tyranny – a Saddam certainly fits that category –she hated the human cost of war even more. She marched because she knew that Jesus’ message of self-giving love for neighbour and even for enemy was more powerful than any weapon of mass destruction.

She’s not alone. I find it interesting that the those in my congregation who were most opposed to the war were war veterans and European immigrants. People who still bore the scars of war.

It’s easy to sit back and criticize churches for not doing enough. I, too, often play that game. But I’m a parish pastor because I believe passionately in the power of ordinary Christians doing God’s work underneath the radar screen. While Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, and Rush Limbaugh maybe the loudest voices in Christendom, we need to remember that they don’t speak for Christianity. Theirs is a partisan political agenda that confuses the gospel of Jesus Christ with gospel of worldly power.

But to ask whether churches have withdrawn from contemporary social and systemic issues by focusing on more individual matters is, in my opinion, a false choice. When way say that we need to, “confront sinful structures that keep people in poverty” we need ask ourselves what that really means. When we confront government, by whose authority do we speak? And if so, why should government listen? Do we then become a left-wing version of the religious right by demanding government adopt our agenda? What is the relationship between church and state?

The underlying question is: how is society and the world transformed? I have helped organize grassroots anti-poverty organizations and rallies. I have helped organized days of Action to protest draconian cuts in our social safety net. I have spent many hours in the cold rain and snow with a placard in my hand. I have written countless letters to and visited with government and private enterprises, advocating a more just treatment of our world’s poorest citizens.

But over the years I have become less enamored with “changing social structures” than I have with changing peoples’ hearts. Like poverty, social structures are not abstract, impersonal notions, but are the product of people. So I wonder if, to change structures, we need to change people. But I also wonder if we let ourselves too easily off the hook by saying we need to confront sinful social structures than to engage living, breathing human beings.

And that’s where churches come in. That’s where churches excel. Most Christians are deeply concerned with poverty, racism, the environment, war. And we do believe that we are called to witness to a different reality than the realty presented to us.

Hard work is being done by individual Christians, walking together down the hard road of faith. When I flip through my congregational directory, I see a diverse group of men, women, and children; people from both ends of the political spectrum, people who despite many, almost irreconcilable differences, have followed the Spirit’s leading and live together in the bond Christian love..

I’m thinking of two church members, one a liberal and one a conservative. They sit down for coffee to talk about the most divisive issue facing the church: the blessing of same-sex unions. They share openly and honestly. They argue. They pray. Then they shake hands and agree that no matter the outcome, whatever the church decides on this issue, they will still be brothers in Christ, because baptism trumps politics.

Or I’m thinking of the crotchety old-man who’d been a thorn in the flesh of one congregation over fifty years. Particularly of one man who’d been a pillar of the church for almost as long. These two men sat on opposite sides of the table, one yelling at the other, who quietly asserts his view. They agree on nothing for over five decades. But when the old-guy starts to fail and can’t get out, even to get groceries, this guy he’s been tormenting for 50 years, makes these trips for him twice a week. “No big deal,” he says, “The guy’s gotta eat.”

Or I’m thinking of the teenage mom who stumbles unexpectedly into the church one day, holding her new born baby. She hasn’t been to church since she was a little girl. She has little money. Few clothes for the baby. Some women of the church conspire and throw this young mom a baby shower. Nothing big or extravagant. Just enough to get her started. The women do this because she is loved, no matter where she came from.

I could go on and on, but you get the idea. That’s what the churches are doing. Is this social justice. Maybe. But not really. Is it life-giving? Definitely.

Have the churches abandoned peace on earth? Not by a long shot. Could we be doing more? Absolutely.

Peace on earth is not a political agenda, but a deeply human one. I think the fact that churches are trying to figure out what peace on earth looks like is a sign that God hasn’t given up on us yet. That’s why Christians celebrate Jesus’ birth, the poor child born in a barn, who brought life and salvation to a hurting and broken world.

But the Christian task is not done yet. Together we struggle to live Jesus’ message of the kingdom of peace, justice, and life. Some times we get it right, other times we mess up completely. That’s because, at the beginning and end of the day, we are only human.

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