Last week I was blessed to attend the Big Tent event in Indianapolis for the World Mission Matters conference. Those few days were packed with worship, food, and opportunities to listen and discuss what God is doing and how we as Presbyterians are being led to participate in God’s mission in the world.
The World Mission unit of the PC(U.S.A.) has identified three critical global issues around which to focus its work as we move forward:
- To address the root causes of poverty, especially as it impacts women and children
- To work for reconciliation amidst cultures of violence, including our own
- To share the good news of God’s love in Jesus Christ, together with other members of Christ’s body
I was honored to be invited to speak about reconciliation amidst cultures of violence in the opening plenary session. What follows is the text of my remarks and most of the visuals that were used in the presentation.
What would the world look like if we worked for reconciliation amidst cultures of violence, including our own?
We are a people of hope, and working to promote reconciliation in God’s world is a central Christian calling. Jesus showed us what it means to live out God’s peace. His ministry was about restoring relationships, valuing human dignity, and creating a new type of community with high expectations and an open invitation. In self-giving love, Jesus went to the cross and took on the full force of human hatred and fear, and by his resurrection showed that the sins of the world cannot quench the power of God’s love.
As it says in Ephesians 2:14, Christ Jesus “is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.”
We claim our identity as people of reconciliation, as followers of the one who breaks down the divisions between us. And yet we live in a world where dividing walls—walls of concrete and metal, less visible walls of prejudice and economic injustice—are being built taller and thicker and stronger than ever. What is the role of the church in these places, as the body of the one who in his flesh overcame hatred and division and by his resurrection proclaimed a new reality in God’s love?
It can be easy to look at the world or read the news and feel overwhelmed by the places where violence and division have taken hold. But when we look through the eyes of Christ’s reconciling love, we can also see places where that love is at work against the odds, and we can discern opportunities to serve as active agents of Christ’s peace.
Earlier this year, mission co-worker Doug Baker wrote about a murder that took place in Northern Ireland, an attempt to uproot a fragile peace that is being nurtured in that long-fractured society. Ronan Kerr, a young Catholic constable, was killed by a car bomb planted by dissidents who oppose the ceasefire and seek to reenforce the sharp division between Catholics and Protestants, Nationalists and Unionists. You see, as a Catholic member of the police force, which for generations had been overwhelmingly Protestant, Ronan was a symbol of the “new” Northern Ireland, a person who “straddled worlds that a few years ago would have been almost mutually exclusive.”
Ronan’s death was celebrated by some who would rather see violent division than the hard work of building a peaceful path together. But a stronger voice rose up. Ronan’s mother urged Catholic/Nationalists to stay the course and continue working for long-term peace and equality. Ronan’s funeral mass was attended by Unionist political leaders, as well as protestant leaders of the Church of Ireland, the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, and the Methodist Church. Elsewhere, brave young people painted over graffiti that applauded the killing, and a peace rally was held outside Belfast City Hall.
Doug closes his letter with a reminder that even while we give thanks for this unprecedented display of unity, the need for reconciliation remains. We must pray for courage and commitment for the people of Ireland to continue the hard work ahead, even as we pray for guidance to discern the ways we too are called to be at work for Christ’s peace there and around the world.
Cultures of violence require our particular attention, those places where militarism, domination, fear, and exploitation are accepted as the status quo, or even as something good. A culture of violence is one where “the people love darkness rather than light” and may even have come to mistake the darkness for the light. We see this in places where domestic abuse is condoned; where one group of people is placed categorically in an inferior position; where armed conflict is assumed to be the best or only option for addressing opposition; where financial profits or material comforts are given greater value than fullness of life for human beings and the rest of creation.
Cultures of violence are present around the globe. And, as our partners have helped us to recognize, in many cases violent economic and military policies of the United States are directly connected to the cultures of violence that our sisters and brothers face in other countries. We live in a world where violence of different forms has become the norm. As followers of Jesus Christ, how will we respond?
- Worldwide, military spending has increased almost 50% in this century. We are increasingly desensitized to the horrors of war on every scale, as images of violence in places like Sudan flash across tv screens on a regular basis and video games disconnect warfare from its very real and devastating consequences on human lives and communities.
- Climate change is already affecting food security around the globe, as elevated temperatures reduce crop yields and rising sea levels threaten rice production in Asian river deltas. Indicators show that food prices will continue to rise. In the U.S. this past winter, food pantries in many parts of the country saw a 35-40% increase in the number of families and individuals needing food assistance.
- · More and more of the world’s resources are being held in the hands of a privileged few. Impoverishment, debt, and unemployment disrupt families and communities as fewer opportunities for decent work are available. Within the U.S., the gap between the super rich and everyone else is growing wider, with the richest 1% of the population holding 43% of the nation’s wealth, while the bottom 80% holds just 7% of the country’s financial resources.
Acknowledging our complicity and seeking to transform systems of violence and injustice into sources of life and hope is one way we can say “No” to the forces of death and destruction and “Yes!” to life in fullness. It is not an easy task, but we are called upon by brothers and sisters around the world to take an honest look at our reality and act faithfully as Christ’s ambassadors to bring global structures into reconciled relationship with our neighbors and with creation.
In our Book of Order we find these words:
The Church is sent to be Christ’s faithful evangelist: . . . participating in God’s mission . . . to free people from sin, suffering, and oppression; and to establish Christ’s just, loving, and peaceable rule in the world. (F-1.0302d)
One of the ways that we in the PC(U.S.A.) are acting out this mission for reconciliation is through our historic 155-year partnership with the Presbyterian Church of Colombia, or IPC. We support and challenge one another, and in the past decade much of our shared ministry has been directed toward reconciliation in the context of the armed conflict that has plagued Colombia for over sixty years, leaving around 5 million Colombians internally displaced.
U.S. Presbyterians have responded to the call to serve as nonviolent accompaniers, providing outside eyes in a difficult context, and returning home with stories to share that can be difficult to hear, illuminating a culture where violence has become normalized and witnessing to the added suffering of drug policies that don’t work and violence against labor organizers that, consciously or not, is enabled by funds from U.S.-based corporations. Our partners in the IPC have asked us to use our position as U.S. citizens to promote new policies between our two nations.
So now, the PC(U.S.A.) partners with the Colombian church by raising its voice in the public arena. In the IPC we have a bold partner in building a new culture that rejects violence of all kinds and promotes Christ’s peace. The time is ripe for Christ’s church to contribute to a new way.
At Easter this year Mamie Broadhurst, a PC(U.S.A.) mission co-worker in Colombia, was invited to preach at the sunrise service of the IPC’s North Coast Presbytery. Mamie preached about the new opportunity we know through the Resurrection, the chance to start over, knowing that death does not have the last word in God’s world. Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed!
She asked everyone to write down a commitment for how they would start over and live into God’s possibilities, and give their slip of paper as an offering to God. After the celebration was over, Mamie sat down with those little slips of paper to read through them and lift those commitments once again to God in prayer. A few stood out: I promise to forgive those who have hurt me. I will be faithful and constant, and I will leave behind the things that are enslaving me. And one from a child: I will behave well for my parents, and I will not be afraid.
Even in the midst of a culture of violence, children still grow up longing for peace, eager to live free from fear. In reflecting on those slips of paper Mamie writes these words:
I know that my sermon was in part about not being afraid, but it was so hard to read little kid handwriting saying, “I will not be afraid.” There were a number of kids at the service from some pretty hard neighborhoods in Barranquilla, and all I could think was how much I wish they never needed to be afraid. And it made me think that all the rest of us should probably change our slips of paper to promise to do everything in our power to help those kids be able to keep their promises.
Perhaps in the end that is what our work for reconciliation is all about: doing everything in our power to collaborate with God’s will for creation, building paths of peace that allow the most vulnerable among us to live into their hopes and commitments. God is doing a new thing. Are we able to perceive it? The invitation for us today is to be bold as people of hope, living as prophets and caretakers of God’s promised new creation.