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A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, August 6, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Matthew 14:13-21
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

I would like to change the world.  I would like to broker peace in Israel/Palestine and the Korean Peninsula.  I would like to reverse climate change.  I would like to end racism and rape culture.  I would like to end crime and to heal the brokenness that leads to crime.  I would like to feed the hungry multitudes and end hunger.  I would like to make healthcare available to everyone without fear of debt.  I would like the change the world.

I’m not going to, at least not in a big way, like one of the ways I just listed.

I look at what Jesus accomplished in just, what, 33 years, and I realize how little I’ve done.  Maybe it’s not fair to compare myself to Jesus.  You know:  the whole God thing.

William Barber, II

But look at what Martin Luther King, Jr. accomplished in 39 years.  Or what William Barber, II is accomplishing – and, yes, he’s younger than me.  (If you don’t know who William Barber is, don’t worry.  You will.  Just keep coming to worship, and by the end of September …)  Heck, even Barack Obama is younger than me.

The chances are that I will not ever do some great, society-changing, justice-making, peace-creating act or series of acts.  So maybe I should just give up.

Jesus fed 5,000 people – well, 5,000 men, plus the women and children who most people thought weren’t worth counting.  Not so for Jesus.  While most folk didn’t think women and children counted, Jesus did.  He made sure everyone got enough to eat.  “All ate and were satisfied,” Matthew says.

And Jesus didn’t just feed this multitude.  He did it with five loaves of bread and two fish.  How impressive is that?  Impressive enough that the story is told six times in the four gospels.  That’s right.  Two of the gospels repeat the story.  And Jesus didn’t just walk up to the wall and say,

No replicators out there in this deserted place.

It’s all pretty crazy.  I mean, we all know “that the laws of Newtonian physics aren’t suddenly flexible if you just have enough faith.  Atoms and molecules don’t just shape shift wily nilly.  It’s more reasonable to believe that things are only what they seem.  Water stays water, 5 loaves stay 5 loaves and the dead stay dead.”[1]

I suppose it’s possible that “everybody felt so compelled to be good people after hearing Jesus preach that they all opened up their picnic baskets and gave parts of their fried chicken and potato salad to their neighbors[, and] so that … is why there was enough food to go around.”[2]  Thousands of people sharing with their neighbors is pretty miraculous.  And if the only lesson you take home today is, “Be nice and share your juice box,” well, that’s a pretty good lesson.  In fact, sharing is a necessary part of God’s economy, so it’s a really good lesson.  But maybe there’s something else going on here.

Nadia Bolz Weber asks us to consider “that we [just might] have a God who can actually feed so many on so little.   A God who created the universe out of nothing, that can put flesh on dry bones [of] nothing, that can put life in a dry womb of nothing.  NOTHING is God’s favorite material to work with.  Perhaps God looks upon that which we dismiss as ‘nothing,’ ‘insignificant,’ ‘worthless’ and says, ‘Ha! Now that I can do something with.”[3]

Jesus was working on self-care when the crowd interrupted.  News of King Herod’s execution of John the baptizer reached Jesus and he decided to take a break.  He decided to go to a deserted place by himself.  I imagine he needed it.  Preaching and teaching and embodying God’s truth is dangerous business – it was then and it is now.  John died for it.  And Jesus knew he could be next.  So he went to a deserted place by himself.

But taking this personal space doesn’t last.  The crowd hears that he’s gone away and they go after him.  “Jesus responds with grace and compassion to the crowds that come, healing their sick.  As the day draws to a close, the disciples make a pragmatic suggestion:  There is no food here, and the people must eat.  Send them away to fend for themselves.  Jesus’ response is to make the disciples waiters of the Spirit. …

“The ‘lonely place apart’ in the end does become a place of rest, healing, and nourishment [– but] for the larger group,”[4] and not so much for Jesus and the disciples.  It isn’t until later that Jesus gets his alone time.

Like I said, the disciples’ suggestion that Jesus send the crowd away was pragmatic:  There is no food here, and the people must eat.  Only it turned out they were wrong.  “Maybe the mistake the disciples made wasn’t only that they forgot [that God likes to work with nothing], but also that they forgot that they too were hungry.  They defaulted to ‘what do I have’ rather than ‘what do I too need, and is that also what the people in front of me need?’  The disciples seemed to forget that their own personal need for bread, and not their own personal resources was the thing that qualified them to participate in the miracle of feeding thousands with nothing on hand.  It was not their cooking skills, it was not their ability to preach enough Law that they guilted everyone into sharing; it was their own deep hunger which exactly matches that of the crowd.  How often do we forget this ourselves?”[5]

I know I forget it.  I get so caught up in the hunger I see around me that I think I have to solve it.  So I look at what I have at my disposal to feed them, and I keep coming up short.  I’m short on compassion, or will, or time, or skill.  “And I think of how God called me to this and needs me to feed God’s people and so I lean on my own resources and when I do I quickly see how little there is.  A few loaves?  A couple fish?  It’s never enough.”[6]

Chances are I’m not the only one who’s worry about coming up short, who’s afraid of being found out.  “That sense of ourselves comes from the same economy of scarcity that makes us fret over how to stretch bread and fish, our selves, and our love.  In the face of such want, and of our own failings and limitations, it seems utterly foolhardy to trust in God’s abundant gifts, laid out before us and coursing through our veins.  Yet this is the presumption God commends us to embody.  While we run around readying ourselves – accruing the right skills, the right personality, the right spirituality – God is busy calling us as we are now …”[7]

God doesn’t ask if we can do big things.  God asks if we’ll live faithfully.  Here’s the thing – and I know this; I just don’t always get this.  Even in the midst of that call, God loves me totally apart from any work I do.  Even in the midst of that call, God loves you totally apart from any work you do.  That’s not to say that the work you do isn’t important to God.  It is important.  It’s just not necessary for God to love you.

What is necessary – at least I think it’s necessary – is remembering this, especially if the work you’re involved in is important, transformative, kin-dom building work.  That’s right.  I think that the deeper your work is in building the kin-dom of God, the more you need to know that you are loved by God whether you do that work or not.  When Jesus looks out through you and asks, “Where are these hungry people going to get food?” he’s “including you in the category of hungry people and himself in the category of bread.”[8]

“When I rely only on my strengths which, trust me, are few, when I think I have only my small stingy little heart from which to draw love for those I serve, when the waters are rough and storms are real and I am scared – filled with fear of what is happening or not happening in the church, filled with fear that I don’t have what it takes to be a leader in the church, filled with fear that everyone will see nothing in me but my inadequacies, I have forgotten about Jesus – my Jesus who’s making something out of my nothing and walking towards me in the storm.  That’s our guy.  The Man of sorrows familiar with suffering, friend of scoundrels and thieves, forgiver of his own executioners, resurrected on the 3rd day, … the great defeater of death and griller of fish and savior of sinners.”[9]

And that’s why, when it comes to size matters, the size of what you’re doing really isn’t important.  What’s important is the size of the love we put into what we’re doing.  And when there are days when all you can do today is sit on the ground and let someone pass you the bread and fish, do that.  Do that with great love.

Yes, Jesus tells the disciples, “You give them something to eat.”  So they do what they can with who they are and what they have – and Jesus makes the magic happen.  Amen.

[1] Nadia Bolz Weber, “Sermon the Feeding of the 5,000,” Patheos, http://www.patheos.com/blogs/nadiabolzweber/2015/07/sermon-on-the-feeding-of-the-5000-preached-for-pastors-musicians-and-church-leaders/ (posted 25 July 2015; accessed 1 August 2017).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid, though I did some grammatical corrections. (Some of her emphases have been changed – bolds, italics, etc.)

[4] Julie Polter, “Servants of Boundy,” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/servants-bounty (accessed 1 August 2017).

[5] Weber, op. cit.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Kari Jo Verhulst, “Take and Eat,” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/take-and-eat (accessed 1 August 2017).

[8] Weber, op. cit.

[9] Ibid.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, March 22, 2015, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: Mark 8:34-36 and Matthew 6:24-33
Copyright © 2015 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

I told her that I wished there was some way for me to make her pain go away, that I wished there was a magical way I could make her problems disappear. “Oh, we all have our crosses to bear,” she said. “No,” I thought. “We all have problems and pains in our lives, but they are not our crosses. At least not the way Jesus meant it when he says, ‘Take up your cross.’” I didn’t say it aloud; it wasn’t the moment for a theological discussion. But this is.

It may sound like a command – take up your cross – but it’s really an invitation. We don’t have to do it. We have the choice.

It reminds me of a conversation I read about once. A man was part of a Christian group that was adopting a life of simplicity in order to live in solidarity with the poor. A poor woman said to him that there was nothing holy about being poor if you didn’t have a choice.

There was nothing holy about the Romans torturing people in Jesus’ day and there’s nothing holy about a government – ours or any other – or any group of thugs torturing people today. Choosing to take up a cross is very different from having a cross thrust upon you.

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” There’s a letting go of something here in order to pick something else up. And this denying of oneself is the letting go – and I think it means the letting go of ego.

Here again, one has to have enough of an ego that there’s one there to let go of. A person living in an abusive situation needs to have enough of an ego to stop it – to move out, to refuse to tolerate it – and live with that strength long enough to have it established before he or she can lay it down.

Denying oneself and taking up the cross is about choosing obedience to God’s way and God’s will. We’ll get back to this idea in a minute. Let’s turn now to the Matthew reading.

“No one can serve two masters,” Jesus says. I’ve never been a slave and I live in a culture were slavery is technically illegal. I acknowledge that slavery exists still, even right here in the United States. We call it human trafficking now, but it’s the same thing, just packaged differently. One way it’s packaged differently is that contemporary slavery is kept under wraps, kept hidden away. Because I’m not exposed to slavery, I have to use my imagination to really understand what Jesus is saying.

Household authority was very established in Jesus day. There was a definite pecking order and the final authority was the man of the house. If you were a slave, you might be ordered about by the woman of the house, but those orders couldn’t contradict an order given by the man of the house. You had one master. If you had two masters of equal authority, whose orders are you supposed to follow? Jesus’ point here is that if you’re going to let God be the master of your life, you can’t let something else be.

It’s interesting that of all the potential masters Jesus could have picked, he picks wealth. “You can’t serve God and wealth,” he says. I tried to think of other masters we might choose to serve. I came up pretty dry. The only two additional masters I could come up with are fame and power.

We do love our celebrities and I suspect there are people who will do whatever is necessary to be seen as a celebrity, to serve fame. The master I understand better is power. We call the work of politicians “public service,” and I’m sure there are people who go into politics for the sake of public service. There are plenty of others who go into it for the power. And it’s not the only place where people serve power.

Consider the Koch brothers. David and Charles Koch have a combined net worth of about $86 billion (with a “b”) according the Forbes’ real-time net worth website this morning.[1] That makes them tied for position 6 of the richest people in the world. The two big differences between the Koch brothers and Bill Gates (#1 in the world with a net worth that is nearly the combined wealth of the Kochs) – at least as far as I can see – is that Gates is using his wealth to make the lives of people around the world better. For instance, Gates’ foundation is trying to eradicate polio and malaria around the globe and has agriculture projects running in developing countries.

Meanwhile, in addition to their charitable donations that probably add up to the hundreds of millions each year, the Koch brothers have announced they plan to spend $889 million in the 2016 elections.[2] Why do they plan to spend that much money? Either they’re serving the master named “Power” or they are trying to influence the political process in the service of the master named “Wealth.”

We don’t need to have Gates’ net worth, or even the Kochs’, to serve wealth. All we need to do is to choose to let it be our master. And Jesus points to why we may choose to let wealth be our master: worry. No one wants to be kept up all night worrying about – well, whatever it is that you worry about. So we start serving a master that we think will conquer our fears.

At Women’s Fellowship this past Monday, I asked what we worry about. I wrote a few notes, but I didn’t capture all their answers. I remember them talking about their children and grandchildren – worrying about how their lives are going and how they will unfold. Other worries include: being good enough, security, not being able to keep my mouth shut, being needy, being embarrassed, growing old alone. Someone wondered if the day laborers who hang out at the Home Depot worry about getting their daily bread. Several people mentioned how worry disrupts sleep patterns.

We have all these worries. How do we respond? One participant noted that she might accumulate stuff in an effort to stave off her worry. Perhaps it is a symptom of serving wealth. Or perhaps Stuff can become another master we choose to serve. Another wondered if the stuff she saves is treasure or trash.

“Worry is the interest we pay on borrowed trouble,” Bessie Troyer once said. Not that any of you know who Bessie Troyer was. She was a little old lady (and I use that label with affection) at the first church I served. Coming of age during the depression, she had no interest in paying interest on anything. She was a cash and carry kind of lady. And she figured that the things she worried about were almost always borrowed – typically borrowed from the future. Whether it was the grandkids possibly getting in a car accident or her possibly needing to give up driving, those things were off in the future (if they were going to happen at all). So why borrow those troubles from the future only to pay interest on them now?

“Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear,” Jesus says. Right after telling us we can’t serve God and wealth, he says not to worry about material things.

I’ve got a question about this glass. I could ask you if it’s half full or half empty. And maybe that would give you some insight into how much you worry. What I want to ask you is, how much do you think it weighs?

I put it on a letter scale this morning and it came in right around 12 ounces. But when it comes to holding it, the weight really becomes cumulative. The longer I hold it the heavier it seems to become. If I hold it out here at arm’s length for a minute, I’m fine. If I hold it out here at arm’s length for an hour, my arm’s going to be screaming. And if I held it out here all day, I’d probably end up causing paralysis and doing some damage to my body. The mass of the glass doesn’t change, but it sure becomes heavier.

Our worries are like that. The longer we hold on to them, the heavier they become and the more damage they do. They can even paralyze us. Don’t worry about these things, Jesus says. Put the glass down.

One of the really cool insights from that Bible study, for me at least, was the difference between stewing and striving. I worry about climate change. I don’t think that’s news to anybody. Now, I can stew about climate change. I can wring my hands about how access to water and food will be disrupted with climates changing. I can be anxious about the coming famines. I can stress about the coming mass migrations of peoples, and even wars because climate change.

Or I can do something. I can strive. I can act to combat climate change in my personal habits. I can send letters to the politicians. I can attend demonstrations. I can work on getting institutions I’m connected to to divest from fossil fuels. I can even put my body on the line and face arrest in acts of civil disobedience. There are things I can do.

I can stew about climate change, or I can strive to address the problem.

Don’t worry, Jesus says, but strive first for the kin-dom of God and God’s righteousness.

M.K. Gandhi

At some point in his life, Gandhi identified what he called “the seven deadly social sins.” You know about the classical seven deadly sins: pride, covetousness, lust, anger, gluttony, envy, and sloth. Those are sins we individually commit. And they get in the way of striving for the kin-dom of God. There are corporate sins that get in the way, too. Here’s Gandhi’s list:[3]

  • Politics without principle
  • Wealth without work
  • Commerce without morality
  • Pleasure without conscience
  • Education without character
  • Science without humanity
  • Worship without sacrifice

I am struck by how many of these connect to what I’m talking about. Politics without principle is another way of talking about serving power. Wealth without work and commerce without morality are other ways of talk about serving wealth. Pleasure – maybe that’s another master we can choose to serve, and if we seek pleasure without conscience, surely we are serving it and not God. Worship without sacrifice …

Jesus said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” I started today’s sermon by talking about externally imposed suffering not being the same as taking up the cross. That doesn’t mean that when we take up the cross we won’t suffer. We will. When we lay aside our egos and take up the cross, we are taking up sacrifice. Striving for the kin-dom of God requires sacrifice, and we may suffer for the sacrifice. What that sacrifice will look like will vary from person to person, but we will need to sacrifice.

And this is where today’s sermon theme comes in. Denying ourselves and picking up our cross gives us freedom and peace. On the surface that makes no sense. Taking up the cross, choosing to serve God sounds like it would require giving up freedom and letting go of the goal of peace in our lives. But denying ourselves and picking up our cross does paradoxically give us freedom and peace – freedom from the worries of the world, freedom from the pursuit of wealth, freedom from the lure of temptation, freedom for the pursuit of the kin-dom of God.

This is the last sermon in this Lenten series and we’ve been giving you assignments each week. Here’s this week’s assignment.

  • Identify one (at least one) worry and put it down.
  • Identify one way (maybe in relation to that worry) that you can strive for the kin-dom of God, and start striving.

Yes, this striving will likely entail sacrifice. I am convinced that in that sacrifice we will find freedom and peace.

Amen.

[1] See http://www.forbes.com/billionaires/ for Forbes’ list of world billioinaires.

[2] Nicholas Confessore, “Koch Brothers’ Budget for $889 Million for 2016 is on Par With Both Political Parties’ Spending,” New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/27/us/politics/kochs-plan-to-spend-900-million-on-2016-campaign.html?_r=0 (posted 26 January 2015; accessed 22 March 2015).

[3] I have seen this list in several places. This version is from an advertisement for a poster in Sojourners magazine. You can find the list on Wikipedia at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seven_Social_Sins. It is interesting to note that here, they are in a different order and rather than “education without character,” they list “knowledge without character.”

Last night, during our 11:00 p.m. Christmas Eve worship service, as we held our candles in the darkness, we remembered the 100th anniversary of the Christmas Truce that took place in World War I.  I shared the following words:

100 years ago tonight, young men from Great Britain and young men from Germany were five months into a war that would eventually be called “The Great War,” “The War to End All Wars,” and finally, “World War I.”

100 years ago tonight, young men from Great Britain and young men from Germany were living in trenches, having already experienced attacks and counter attacks that gave each side nothing more than injury and death.

And 100 years ago tonight, in Flanders Fields and in other places all along the Western Front, young men from Great Britain and young men from Germany called their own truce. In one place it started with the two sides lobbing Christmas Carols instead of artillery at each other. When one of the Germans started singing Stille Nacht, the Brits joined in, singing in English. Before the night was over, the “no man’s land” between the trenches had become a soccer field, and soldiers from opposing sides where sharing pictures of their families at home and sharing Christmas treats those families had sent them.

In the weeks following this incident, thousands of soldiers on both sides had to be transferred to other units serving in other places along the front, for they refused to shoot at these people they got to know and with whom they had shared Christmas.

After I shared these words, our choir director sang Stille Nacht, and the congregation joined in singing “Silent Night.”

For more information on the Christmas Truce, I recommend the following:

A sermon by the Rev. Fred Small, that he posted on Facebook.

This song by John McCutcheon, that introduced me to the story:

This video from a PBS program:

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, December 7, 2014, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: Isaiah 11:1-9 and Luke 1:46b-55
Copyright © 2014 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Today’s reading from Isaiah has inspired lots of art, none perhaps as famous “The Peaceable Kingdom” by the American artist from the early 19th century, Edward Hicks. That might be because Hicks painted 61 versions of inspired by these verses.[1] It is not surprising that a Quaker would embrace these verses as an inspiration for his painting. The Quakers are an historic peace church, a church that views all war as immoral and that one cannot follow Christ and fight in a war at the same time.

I find it interesting that in at least a few of his versions of “The Peaceable Kingdom,” Quakers and Native Americans are in the background meeting peacefully, maybe even agreeing to a treaty establishing peaceful relationships between them. In the foreground of the paintings you find the animals (including children) listed in the verses from Isaiah 11, hanging out together.

If you look at the list of animals and which animals are listed next to each other, you’ll find predator next to prey. The wolf and the lamb will live together. The leopard and the baby goat will sleep with each other. The calf and the cattle fattened up to get ready for slaughter and the lion will hang out together, and a little child shall lead them. Remember, lions once ranged from what is now South Africa to Greece and Morocco to India, so they were a real threat to farmers’ herds and even to children.[2] And speaking of children, Isaiah adds that infants and toddlers will play with poisonous snakes and not be hurt. And, though Isaiah doesn’t mention humans, it seems that everyone is becoming a vegetarian – the cow and the bear shall graze and the lion shall eat straw like an ox (never mind that oxen eat hay, not straw).

As I contemplated what it would take for this actually to be possible, my first thought was about power and fear. The predator would have to give up being a predator. The predator would have to give up the power the predator has over the prey. And the prey would have to give up being afraid of the predator. Then my scientific mind kicked in and I thought about the evolution that the meat-eaters would have to go through so they could be nourished on a vegetarian diet. But if you’ll set aside my scientific meandering and stick to the poetry of the text, you’ll see that overcoming fear and giving up of power is a pretty important step to fulfilling the hope within this text.

Our Gospel lesson for today is Mary’s song. It is the culmination of Luke’s story about Mary’s pregnancy. The angel appears to her, she finds out she’s pregnant, she goes off to see her cousin who is also surprisingly pregnant, and she bursts into song. Before we get into the song, let’s go back to the beginning of the story. The angel appears and, after he offers a perplexing greeting, he tells her, “Do not be afraid.”

Have you noticed how prevalent fear is in our culture? All you need do it turn on the news (and I think cable news networks are the most guilty of this) and you’re bombarded with reasons to be afraid. The three primary tools of advertising are lies, fantasy, and fear, with fear being an important tool used to hook parents to buy stuff for their kids. The use of fear doesn’t stop with advertising.

Peter Block has noted, “The marketing of fear is not just for profit; it also holds a political agenda. Fear justifies the retributive agenda, fundamentalist in the extreme, that has been on the rise for some time. The retributive agenda believes that a just and civil society is one that gives priority to restraints, consequences, and control, and underlines the importance of rules. It gets packaged as spiritual values, family values, the American way, love it or leave it, all under the umbrella of law and order. It helps build the incarceration industry and the protection industry, it creates a platform so that those in power can expand their power, and it discounts the rehabilitation industry. Fear forms the basis of our recent foreign policy and drives much of our legislation. Fear also fuels the allure of suburban life and is a subtle but clear argument against diversity and inclusion.”[3]

We’ve seen exactly what Block writes about on the streets of cities across the United States these past few weeks. We’ve seen how fear has been used to manipulate us into prejudiced feelings and assumptions. We’ve seen how fear has been used to try to rally political support for one cause or another. Do you remember how panicked the airways were about Ebola right before the election and how, as soon as the election was over, headlines about the crisis disappeared?

If we can get past fear, if we can get past the ways fear controls us, we will be substantially freer and we will be a step closer to the peaceable kingdom Isaiah describes.

When Mary bursts into song, she proclaims some amazing things that God is doing: God has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly. God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.

A power shift is occurring, Mary proclaims. When the predators no longer hunt the prey, when the powerful are brought down and the lowly are lifted up, we are a step closer to the Peaceable Kingdom. Is it any wonder that, when the angels proclaim the birth of Jesus in Luke’s gospel, they come to shepherds and not to the elites?

Isaiah says how this power shift will occur. The shoot that shall come forth from the stump of Jesse – remember, Jesse is the father of King David, so Isaiah is talking about a descendant of King David. And this shoot “shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth.”

Today, our criminal justice system is really a criminal punishment system. Even if it ran ideally, it would be a criminal fairness system – all people who committed the same crime would be treated equally, “fairly.” But equality is a far cry from justice.

You may remember a sermon Pastor Brenda preached a few months ago. The cover of the bulletin had two pictures of three kids of differing heights standing on boxes to look over a fence to watch a ball game. In the picture on the left, each kid is standing on a box. That’s equality – each kid has a box. But even standing on a box, the shortest kid can’t see of the top of the fence. The other kids can, but the shortest kid can’t.

In the right picture, it seems that the tallest kid’s box has been given to the shortest kid. The tallest kid is still tall enough to see over the fence, the middle kid can see over the fence standing on one box, and the shortest kid could see over the fence standing on two boxes. That’s not equal: the short kid got two boxes and the tall kid didn’t get any. It’s not equal, but it is what justice looks like.

Only when we move away from fear and power over and create a court system that seeks restorative justice for all will we have real justice.

I read story[4] online about almost two weeks ago about a lesson a high school teacher taught. He had his students, sitting at their desk in their neat rows, each take a piece of scrap paper and crumple it up. He placed a recycle bin under the whiteboard and told the kids that the assignment was to throw their wads of paper into the can from their seats. The kids in the back immediately called out, “Unfair!” The kids in the front row, especially the kids in the center of the front row, had a privileged position for this assignment. Interestingly, none of the kids in the front row objected to the unfairness of the assignment. And not only was it unfair, it was unjust because some of the kids were great at beanbag tossing and other couldn’t hit the side of a barn.

Of course, that was the whole point of the assignment. My point, so far in this sermon, is that we’ve got a ways to go before the work of the shoot from the stump of Jesse is complete, that we have a lot of work to do before the visions of Isaiah’s Peaceable Kingdom and Mary’s song of justice are fulfilled.

This is true, but it’s not the whole story. It turns out that we’re actually on the way. The 20th century was the least violent century in human history and we are learning that nonviolence is actually more effective than violence.

I realize those two statements are hard to believe. The 20th century included two world wars, so how could it possibly have been less violent than other centuries? There’s a British woman who attends the Bible study I lead each month at Alma Via (or whatever it’s being called these days). Her mother grew up in Kent and she told me at our last Bible study that every household on the street where her mother grew up lost a son or a father in World War I. Every household. How could the 20th century possibly be the least violent in human history?

Well, according to Harvard Professor of Psychology Steven Pinker, it is.[5] Looking at the percentage of population that dies violently, Pinker says that we have come from 15% of the population in the pre-state area (before agriculture and the city) to less than 1%. His research documents five shifts that have led to this decline, interesting reading but more detailed than you need for this sermon. If you’re interested in reading the details, I’ll include a link in the manuscript I post online.[6]

When Professor Pinker looked at violence in the first decade of this century, he found, “documented direct deaths from political violence (war, terrorism, genocide and warlord militias) … is [at] an unprecedented few hundredths of a percentage point. Even if we multiplied that rate to account for unrecorded deaths and the victims of war-caused disease and famine, it would not exceed 1%.”[7]

Pinker also notes the import impact of nonviolent direct action at reducing violence in general and violent deaths in particular due to lynchings, pogroms, violence against women, and homophobia. He adds, “In recent decades, the movement for children’s rights has significantly reduced rates of spanking, bullying, paddling in schools, and physical and sexual abuse.”[8]

And, as I said a moment ago, it turns out that nonviolence movements are more successful than violent movements. Erica Chenoweth, an Associate Professor at the University of Denver, and Maria Stephan, a strategic planner in the U. S. State Department, found that “nonviolent resistance is more than twice as successful as violent resistance, even in the face of brutal regime repression.”[9]

They examined 323 social change campaigns that had 1000 people or more in them from around the world between the years 1900 and 2006, and those were their results. They also found “that countries experiencing nonviolent uprisings are much more likely to emerge from the conflicts democratic and with a lower risk of civil war relapse compared to places where insurgencies were violent.”[10] They suggest that nonviolence works better than violence because it gets a broader and larger base of support and because when violence is met with repression, the repression gets some support because the violence it’s repressing is, well, violent. If you want more details, you can watch her TEDx talk here; it’s worth the 12 minutes.

For their research, Chenoweth and Stephan purposefully set aside the question of which method of resistance is right or wrong morally and assessed, instead, which was the superior strategic choice. Since it’s my job, I’ll bring morality back into the discussion. I’m really glad to find out that nonviolent movements are twice as likely to be successful than violent one because even if the data showed the opposite conclusion, nonviolence would still be the moral choice for change. Nonviolence requires discipline and courage. Without moving past fear, nonviolence is not possible. Interesting that one of the hallmarks of the Peaceable Kingdom is a necessary element of building it.

So, that’s what this sermon is about. God’s intention for us is a peaceable kin-dom. Establishing it requires those who are marginalized to give up their fear. Establishing it requires those who have power over others to relinquish it. Establishing it requires us to let go of “fairness” as our sense of what is right and to embrace a justice that restores wholeness. The good news is that we are on our way.

Amen.

[1] “Edward Hicks,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edward_Hicks (accessed 6 December 2014).

[2] “Lion,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lion (accessed 6 December 2014).

[3] Peter Block, Community, p 38; quoted by Diana Butler Bass on Facebook, https://www.facebook.com/d.butler.bass/posts/10152883835729496 (posted and accessed 5 December 2014).

[4] Modified from Nathan W. Pyle, “This Teacher Taught His Class a Powerful Lesson About Privilege,” BuzzFeed, http://www.buzzfeed.com/nathanwpyle/this-teacher-taught-his-class-a-powerful-lesson-about-privil (posted 21 November 2014; accessed 25 November 2014).

[5] Steven Pinker, “Violence vanquished,” The Wall Street Journal, http://online.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424053111904106704576583203589408180 (posted 24 September 2011; accessed 6 December 2014).

[6] See previous note.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Erica Chenoweth, “Why civil resistance trumps violent uprisings,” CNN, http://globalpublicsquare.blogs.cnn.com/2012/09/19/why-civil-resistance-trumps-violent-uprisings/ (posted 21 September 2012; accessed 1 December 2014).
Chenoweth has an interesting TEDx talk on this work that you can see at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YJSehRlU34w.

[10] Ibid.

As part of my pastoral prayer today, I focused on Memorial Day.  This is that portion of the prayer:

Holy One, as I stand here in prayer before you on this weekend when we acknowledge those who have died in war wearing our nation’s military uniforms, I confess that my mind swirls with concerns and feelings about the futility of war, about how the economy is a defacto military draft, and about our political system that seems too eager for war.

I also remember our history.  I remember that Memorial Day has its roots in the actions of a group of former slaves who, on May, 1, 1865 in Charleston, South Carolina, in gratitude for fighting for their freedom, honored 257 dead Union Soldiers who had been buried in a mass grave in a Confederate prison camp by giving them a proper burial.

And when I quiet those thoughts and think about friends and family who have worn or are wearing our nation’s military uniforms, I know that every one of them celebrates the freedoms we enjoy.  And every one of them, regardless of how they felt or feel about our nation’s military strategies and the morality of any given war, believes that those freedoms are worth protecting.  And so I pause and acknowledge those who have died in uniform and I stand in awe of their sacrifice.  And I pause and grieve with the families of those who have died in uniform.  And I pause and pray for the safety of all people who wear military uniforms and for the day when none need wear a military uniform.  And I trust that, as you do in all things, you are drawing life out of each one of those losses and that you are drawing the world closer to your just peace.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, December 8, 2013, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Isaiah 11:1-10 and Matthew 3:1-12
Copyright © 2013 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

These words from the prophet Isaiah are even more powerful when read in their context.  Chapter 11 begins with the line, “A shoot shall come out of the stump of Jesse.”  “At the end of chapter ten, the prophet says that God is going to cut down all the trees; that’s why there’s ‘a stump’ in the first place.  It’s not accidental, or random, and it’s not just sitting there; it’s the result of God’s sweeping movement across the land.”[i]  And the clear cutting is coming because the Hebrews have not been living according to God’s will.  They are not treating the needy justly, the widows and orphans are not cared for, and the poor lose their rights.

“We aren’t sure whether this text dates from the time of the threat from the Assyrians (8th c. BCE) or from the Babylonians (6th c. BCE), but in any case, the political situation of the people of Israel is in total disarray.  Into this setting, however, just when things appear hopeless and the future looks very bleak, the prophet promises that God will send a leader who will rule with justice toward all, and with mercy toward the most vulnerable in society.  The little ones, the defenseless ones, the innocent ones will be protected and cared for.”[ii]

The result of this new kind of leadership is earthshaking.  Not only are the Hebrew people transformed, but nature itself is transformed.  What we learned in science class – about the natural order of predator hunting and killing the prey – will become out of date.  Wolf and lamb will live together.  The leopard will lie down with the goat kid.  The calf and the lion will live together.  Bears will graze along side cows and lions will eat straw like the ox.  A child shall lead the animals and toddlers will play safely around the home of poisonous snakes.

All of this is the result of justice.  “The rules of life will be changed, bent in the direction of gentleness and peace, not just any peace, but shalom.  ‘Shalom,’ Walter Brueggemann says, ‘is creation time, when all God’s creation eases up on hostility and destruction and finds another way of relating’ (Peace).  Things are going to go back to the way … things were meant to be.  ‘This poem,’ Brueggemann says, ‘is about the impossible possibility of the new creation!’  We are told that ‘the old practice of the big ones eating the little ones is not the wave of the future,’ and we can actually look forward to a ‘detoxified’ world, including nature itself, that will be ‘safe for the vulnerable’ (Isaiah 1-39, Westminster Bible Companion).”[iii]

This earthshaking transformation of the world happens because the situation of the poor and vulnerable changes.  When the principalities and powers change their ways, an opening is recreated for peace.  “Note that the promise is not social evolution or developmental improvement.  It is rather the inversion of the present in which the devalued will become the properly valued.  So the promise is, at the same time, an enormous hope and a heavy judgment on how things now are.”[iv]  And so, this promise makes “the present provisional and tentative, even while we tend to make it absolute and treat it as an eternal arrangement.”[v]

John’s call to repentance takes on a new dimension in this context.  John doesn’t shout only about confessing our personal, petty sins.  John calls the whole community to repent.  No wonder he calls the Pharisees and Sadducees, “you brood of vipers.”  You who treat the present order of oppression and injustice as an absolute and eternal arrangement are a brood of viper.

“Bear fruit worthy of repentance,” John challenges them.  I think he has in mind a new order, an order where the poor are judged with righteousness and the meek of the earth with equity.

“God’s interruption into human history is not without its consequences.  As true peace, God’s peace is forged with justice.  According to the psalmist, the Messiah will ‘defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor’ (Psalm 72:4).  In assuming human form, God teaches us a new way to be human and to relate to one another:  with justice, righteousness, and a special love for the poor and the needy.  John reminds us that God does not request that we love justice, God insists upon it.  Therefore, we too must take stock of our actions and beliefs, separating the wheat from the chaff and cutting down ‘every tree … that does not bear good fruit’ (Matthew 3:10).  The justice and compassion that serves to nourish the world, like wheat, will be retained, but the chaff of judgment, exclusion, and hatred ‘he will burn with unquenchable fire’ (Matthew 3:12).”[vi]

Advent is a time of anticipation, a time for pondering the promise.  We hear in Isaiah what John the Baptizer heard:  the promise of one coming who will establish justice and, by establishing justice, establish peace.  And John was right.  “Jesus did indeed come to do exactly what … Isaiah 11 had promised.  He came to cause [the great] inversion, to displace the old marginalizing arrangement.  He summoned people to abandon the old patterns for God’s new truthfulness.”[vii]  And “Jesus was received, celebrated, and eventually crucified precisely for his embodiment and practice of this vision of social possibility.”[viii]

This week, the world started mourning the death of Nelson Mandela.  The Mandela I knew was the Mandela who led South Africa out of apartheid and into democracy after he was released from prison in 1990.  During the days that followed his death, I learned more about the earlier life of Mandela, including information about his leadership in the African National Congress during the struggle for equality in the 1950s.

Prior to 1960, the ANC had been a nonviolent organization.  Then, on March 21, 1960, after a day of demonstrations, a group of several thousand black South Africans went to the police station in Sharpeville.  The police open fire on the crowd and killed 69 people.[ix]

After the Sharpeville massacre, things changed.  The government banned the ANC and the Pan-Africanist Congress.  The ANC went underground and decided that an armed struggle was necessary.[x]  As a Christian committed to social change through non-violence, as someone who believes that non-violence is the only means for social change, I find this decision impossible to embrace.  But I know that I am a white man living in the United States in 2013, not a black man living in South Africa in 1960.

Regardless, in retrospect, many contend that it was not the violence of the ANC in the 1960s through the 80s, but international pressure that finally brought down apartheid.  George Houser, cofounder of the American Committee on Africa in 1953, an organization that supported antiapartheid work, said:  “I contend, however, that what really brought the change in South Africa was not the armed struggle, which was never equal to what the government had, but international pressure, sanctions and all that sort of thing which we helped work on here.  And also the internal struggle in South Africa, the boycotts and the strikes and such that took place within South Africa while the ANC was banned and other movements arose.”[xi]

Once apartheid fall and democracy was established, I was amazed that there wasn’t a bloodbath.  We all know how horribly black South Africans were treated by the white South Africans.  We all know that black South Africans had ample reason to be filled with hate, to be filled with rage.  And yet there wasn’t a bloodbath.

Why was that?  Justice, I think.

Reflecting on his prison experience, Mandela said,[xii] “As I walked out the door toward my freedom, I knew that if I did not leave all my anger, hatred, and bitterness behind that I would still be in prison.”

Mandela realized how fundamental justice is to establishing peace – real peace that is more than the absence of war.  He said, “Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is people who have made poverty and tolerated poverty, and it is people who will overcome it.  And overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity.  It is an act of justice. It is the protection of a fundamental human right, the right to dignity and a decent life.”

He realized the importance of education in establishing justice:  “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

And he understood that imperfect people are called to this kin-dom work:  “I am not a saint, unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.”

Reconciliation became the key to establishing justice and avoiding the bloodbath.  Rather than punitive justice, South Africa, under the guidance of Mandela, pursued restorative justice.  During his imprisonment and after his release, Mandela issued a constant, nonviolent demand that he and other blacks be treated with dignity.  Ultimately, this demand allowed the white minority government to negotiate first an end to apartheid and finally a new constitution and democracy.  He demanded what Isaiah said the new shoot from the stump of Jesse would bring.  “He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth.”

This is an image of justice that stands in sharp contrast to our notions of cold neutrality.  The justice that brings peace is a “justice that takes sides with the oppressed-poor and leaps into the struggle to liberate them from their oppressors.”[xiii]  “One is reminded of Jesus, who wasted no energy on the legions of the Roman Empire, but kept his attention on the sick, the marginalized, and the broken, and exerted his power on their behalf.”[xiv]

I am struck by contrasts today.  The United States, the world’s most powerful nation; Isaiah’s Israel, waiting for another empire to invade and crush them.  We, the domesticated great-great-grandchildren of The Way; John the Baptist, the feral prophet crying out in the wilderness that we should prepare the way of the Lord.[xv]

Each week in Advent, we light another candle on the wreath and claim another aspect of the promise of the kin-dom of God.  Last week, we claimed a hope that empowers us.  Today, we anticipate the peace that is so much more than the absence of war.

And I hear John crying out – not just to the Jews of his day, but to me and to you – “Prepare the way of the Lord.”  There is work to do to create the conditions for the kin-dom’s peace, and the first step is moving ever closer to the justice that freedom demands.

This is our work as we anticipate peace.

Amen.


[i] Kathryn Matthews Huey, “Sermonseeds – December 8, 2013,” The United Church of Christ, http://www.ucc.org/worship/samuel/december-8-2013.html (7 December 2013).

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Walter Brueggemann, “The End of the Known World,” Sojourners, http://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/end-known-world (3 December 2013); emphasis added.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Michaela Bruzzese, “God of Fire,” Sojourners, http://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/god-fire (3 December 2013); emphasis added.

[vii] Brueggemann, op. cit.

[viii] Brueggemann, in Isaiah 1-39, Westminster Bible Companion, quoted by Huey, op. cit.

[ix] “Sharpeville Massacre” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sharpeville_massacre (7 December 2013).

[x] George Houser, No Easy Victories (2008, Africa World Press), quoted in an email from the Fellowship of Reconciliation USA, dated 5 December 2013.

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] The quotes of Nelson Mandela are gleaned from various sources circulating on social media.

[xiii] Tom Hanks, “Why People are Poor,” Sojourners, http://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/why-people-are-poor (3 December 2013).

[xiv] Huey, op. cit.

[xv] Thanks to Rose Marie Berger, “Being John the Baptist,” Sojourners, http://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/being-john-the-baptist (3 December 2013) for this image.

IMG_0342

I approach Veteran’s Day with mixed emotions.  I want to honor all who choose to serve our country, but it bothers me that the form of service we seem most ready to honor – and often the only service we honor – is military service.  This past Veteran’s Day, I saw people posting pictures and making comments claiming that the only reason our nation enjoys so many individual freedoms is because the military fights and members of the military die to protect them.  That’s easy to say but difficult to prove.  And to be honest, right now, I think the ACLU does more to protect our freedoms than does the US military.

I am also troubled by the need to honor veterans.  I think that need is very real.  We (as a country) send young men and women (and increasingly middle aged men and women) off to foreign countries to fight wars.  We ask a great deal of them and offer little in the way of compensation (particularly for enlisted personnel).  No wonder we feel a need to honor them.  But wouldn’t it be better if we didn’t fight wars like the ones in Iraq and Afghanistan?  If we didn’t send the men and women of our military off to fight in those wars we wouldn’t need to honor them, and I would argue that those wars have done little if anything to protect our freedoms.

I say all this knowing that I chose to serve my country in ways other than serving in the military and so, I turn the rest of this blog post to Nathaniel Brooks, a World War II veteran.  What follows is a sermon he preached on Sunday, November 13, at the Unitarian Universalist church in Nashua, New Hampshire.

+     +     +     +     +

November 11 was set aside to honor those who served in our nation’s wars.  The date commemorates Armistice Day when, in 1918, the guns went quiet to end WW1. I was merely five months old then but WW1 had already played an important part in my life. The war had begun in 1914 and for the next three years Americans debated whether to get into it.  At a rally opposing entry, my mother and father first met and lo, I am here. But despite the opposition, the U.S. entered the war in 1917, President Wilson calling it “the war to end wars”.

In my later childhood I came to understand that the war had been simply a contest for dominance in Europe, no more moral than a gang war; and how bloody it was – of 65 million combatants 37 million were killed or wounded. This knowledge first shaped my feelings about war, and those feelings were confirmed by subsequent wars in the 1930’s. I learned to be skeptical about declarations by governments and to question the motives of their power elites. So for some years I joined with other students to work for peace.

Then came the attack on Pearl Harbor!  Two weeks later I volunteered to serve in the Army. At that point, I thought it was a necessary war and to be true to myself I should get in promptly. Along with 16 million others I served in the Armed Forces until 1946.

Now, as a veteran, a UU and an old man who has seen much, I would like to share some thoughts with you as we consider Veterans Day 2011. A bit of history – Armistice Day, whose message was primarily “promote peace so we never have war again,” was renamed as Veterans Day in 1954, a time of Cold War, and honoring military service became the central theme.

We, in the national organization, Veterans for Peace say: thanks for honoring those who served and honor them further by working to end wars.  Unfortunately the holiday is sometimes misused to glorify militarism and war. Politicians say words like “our heroes who have kept us free and safe.”  In my view none of this statement is true. Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan were no threat to our safety; wartimes made us less free and our soldiers are not heroes – not for lack of bravery, many are very brave, but because the task they were assigned and required to carry out is evil and ugly, not heroic. I don’t fault the soldiers, indeed I deeply care for their well-being. But I am angry with those who sent them to kill and perhaps be killed – and then employ flowery phrases to mask their guilt and entice a new crop of young people.

We have been told that American troops will return from Iraq “with their heads held high, proud of their success…” Heads held high?  Yes, they will be happy to be home and we hope they are well. Many of the soldiers who already returned have had severe and sometimes crippling injuries. It is estimated that half of them have brain injuries or are suffering from Post-traumatic Stress Disorder. They come home to find a depressed economy with few jobs available. So I say “We sent them and now we owe them the best care and support we can provide.”

Proud of their success?  In what ways did the invasion of Iraq succeed?  For no reason that can stand the light of day, that country, that people, was torn apart and heavily destroyed. Considering our most basic UU value, “The inherent worth and dignity of every person”, war is the greatest obscenity and an intolerable offense to morality.

So where does one begin?  To bring change to any established way of doing things it is important to understand who benefits from the status quo and who loses by it.

So who benefits from our wars?  Clearly, the corporations that provide the war materials and services; and also multinational corporations that gain favored access to foreign markets, cheap labor and natural resources (oil for example).

On the other hand, what does it mean for our general population – the 99 percent? Sons and daughters sent to war; deaths, injuries and long-term health problems; and taxpayer costs in the trillions for wartime and after-war costs.  While some jobs are created to meet military requirements, economists say that if the same dollars were spent on peacetime needs, considerably more jobs could be created.  More importantly, while dollars spent on war are blown up or otherwise wasted, they could instead be used to improve our economy and quality of life through renewable energy, clean air and water, high-speed rail, well-equipped schools and more. Instead of such advances, war costs increase the deficit and create pressure to cut spending on social needs.

When Defense Secretary Robert Gates retired in June he said we need to decide “what is the kind of role the American people – accustomed to unquestioned military dominance – want their country to play in the world”? A good question!

Do we want to continue maintaining and expanding an empire; spending as much on our military as all the other nations of the world combined; manning hundreds of bases around the world; viewing ourselves as the ultimate judge and police in international relations?

Recently we see new forms of warfare – drones, preventive assassinations, so-called “humanitarian” wars; what do we think about these?  How to deal with the lurking dangers posed by nuclear weapons and the possible militarization of Space also challenges us. In our congregation we should create opportunities to learn and talk together about such complex and urgent questions.

And very importantly, we need to talk with our youth, who are the prime target of militarists and also our best hope for new thinking and change. Help them to think about bravery, heroism, patriotism – how these qualities may be expressed in times of peace, and how they are distorted in wartime.

People ask: can we hope for a more peaceful future?  I believe we can because human beings are intelligent, and if they are not swept away with manufactured fears they will increasingly come to realize that war is not the answer – and for a real danger they will seek every reasonable course other than military conflict.

A greater readiness to challenge war emerged during the Vietnam War, when popular opposition reached unprecedented levels. For decades following, Washington spoke of “the Vietnam syndrome” as though the people’s unwillingness to start another war was an illness.

More recently, while the American public was misled, there were massive demonstrations around the world opposing an invasion of Iraq.  Today the majority of Americans want out of the current wars.

The ultimate goal of abolishing war may seem beyond reason.  Consider however, that slavery, which was part of human existence for thousands of years, was eventually declared intolerable. And while there are still occasional examples of people being enslaved, they are considered a violation – not just of international law – but of human morality. The same is true of chemical warfare and I think torture and then capital punishment will follow in this century. I may be too optimistic but as our minister might say – “So may it be!”

When I was in college, President Jimmy Carter reinstituted draft registration as a response to the Soviet Union invading Afghanistan.  Many of us were concerned that it wouldn’t be long before a draft was started and we would be sent to war.  The English department of my college offered a January session writing class for those of us who considered ourselves to be conscientious objectors.  We would have discussions and writing assignments to get us to explore our beliefs more deeply and to help us craft a paper that we could use to explain our conscientious objections to draft boards.

The first assignment was to write a paper about whether or not we thought it was moral to start the draft back up.  I argued that it was not.  The second assignment was to write a paper answering the question, “If a draft is reinstated, should it include women as well as men.”  My paper was very short.  My paper was very short:

In my previous paper, I explained why we should not have a draft.  We should not have a draft of men.  We should not have a draft of women.  We should not have a draft of men and women.

These days, the debate is about gay and lesbian people in the military.

The Rev. John F. Gundlach, a United Church of Christ minister who retired after 23 years as an active-duty naval chaplain, recently wrote in Stars and Stripes about ending the military’s “Don’t Ask; Don’t Tell” (DADT) policy that bars gays and lesbians from openly serving.  His focus was more on the role of chaplains should DADT end then on the policy decision itself, though he supports ending DADT.

His concluding paragraph says:

This current struggle will, indeed, test the mettle of the services and their Chaplain Corps. The real question here is whether justice will be done, and whether chaplains will be part of the solution or continue to be part of the problem.

Facebook friends have posted the link to this article and one even emailed me the link.  They are universally proud that a military chaplain (even retired) is standing up against DADT and against the chaplains who are falsely claiming that ending DADT will violate the religious freedom of chaplains who are homophobic.

The truth is, almost all of my friends – LGBT and heterosexual – oppose DADT.  They think LGBT people should be allowed to serve openly and honorably in the military services of our country.  I respect them and I appreciate their standing up for LGBT equality.  And I disagree with them.

Imagine with me that DADT was expanded, instead of abolished.  Imagine what would happen if DADT included heterosexuals.  What if no one was allowed to serve in the military … imagine what would happen then.

No military at all.

Back in college, I was right.  It is wrong to draft men, women, or men & women.  It is wrong because war is not an answer to our fears and vulnerabilities and the purpose of the military is to fight wars.  The only thing that can protect us from our fears is the perfect love of God.

So, I question the existence of our military as it is presently constituted.  There may be a need for an international police force that can intervene when necessary as police (rather than as an invading army), for instance when genocides are taking place (like in Darfur), but we cannot simultaneously prepare for war and create peace.

Is it good that Saddam Hussein is out of power?  Yes.  Was war the best way to accomplish this goal?  No.

I recently received an email from FOR-USA* with an analysis of the Iraq War.  Here’s most of what it said (it was also a fundraising email, so I’ve deleted some of it’s content).

In a nutshell, this is where we are:

The U.S. presence in Iraq is still overbearing even with the troop reduction from 165,000 to 50,000. As one news correspondent reported, a service person indicated there really is no difference between an advisor and a combatant.

The U.S. military’s overthrow of the brutal dictatorship of Saddam Hussein did not lead to a better life for Iraqis — just the opposite.

Life expectancy for Iraqis fell from 71 years in 1996 to 67 years in 2007 due to the war and destruction of the healthcare system.

The majority of the refugees and internally displaced persons created by the US intervention have been abandoned.

Iraq still does not have a functioning government.

The Iraq War has left a terrible toll on the U.S. troops with more than one million American service members deployed, over 4,400 have been killed and tens of thousands severely injured. More than one in four U.S. troops have come home from the Iraq war with health problems that require medical or mental health treatment. PTSD rates in the military have skyrocketed. In 2009, a record number of 245 soldiers committed suicide.

The war has drained our treasury with over spent $750 billion on the Iraq War effort. This misappropriation of funds has contributed to the economic crises and left us without the funds needed for our schools, healthcare, infrastructure and a jobs program that are clean, green.

The U.S. officials who got us into this disastrous war on the basis of lies have not been held accountable.

The U.S. Department of Defense has been unable to account for $8.7 billion of Iraqi oil and gas money meant for humanitarian needs and reconstruction.

The war has not made us more secure — just the opposite.

The email goes on to call for action:

Given this, please join me in calling on the President Obama and his Administration and on the Congress to take the following actions:

  • Withdrawal of all U.S. troops and military contractors from Iraq and the closing of all U.S. bases;
  • Reparations to help the Iraqis repair their basic infrastructure and increased funds for the millions of internally and externally displaced Iraqis;
  • Full support for the U.S. troops who suffer from the internal and external wounds of war;
  • Prosecution of those officials responsible for dragging our country into this disaster;
  • Transfer the funds used for war into resources to rebuild America, with a focus on green jobs.
  • The lessons of this disastrous intervention should also act as an impetus for Congress and the administration to end the war in Afghanistan. It’s time to focus on defending ourselves here at home and rebuilding America.

I invite you to also consider this personal conclusion.  Violence will not save us.  War will not save us.  The deep, abiding love of God (that I believe has been revealed in Jesus) lived out in our relationships is what will save us.

We, as a nation, as the most powerful nation on the planet, need to find another way to bring peace and justice to more and more people.  War is never then answer.

____________________

*The Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) is an organization has a long history of working for peace and justice.  Started by a promise shared by English Quaker and a German Lutheran at the outbreak of World War I, FOR was born in December 1914 in Cambridge, England.  The FOR-USA was founded one year later, in 1915.

The mission of FOR is, “to replace violence, war, racism and economic injustice with nonviolence, peace, and justice.  We are an interfaith organization committed to active nonviolence as a transforming way of life and as a means of radical change.  We educate, train, build coalitions, and engage in nonviolent and compassionate actions locally, nationally, and globally.”

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