Reflections on Land and Columbus Day

By Nathan Hosler

Navajo activist Mark Charles’ lecture on “A Native Perspective on Columbus Day” is a valuable accompanying piece to this blog post. You can view it here. 

“The arrival of Europeans was experienced by Native Americans as nothing less than an invasion. This invasion was not just of the land; it was an assault on the humanity of the native people and their holistic way of living. Europeans tended to regard anyone different from themselves as inferior subjects to be conquered and destroyed.”

-1994 Church of the Brethren Statement, “Community: A Tribe of Many Feathers”

 

Psalm 104

Bless the Lord, O my soul.
O Lord my God, you are very great.
You are clothed with honor and majesty,
    wrapped in light as with a garment.
You stretch out the heavens like a tent,
    you set the beams of your chambers on the waters,
you make the clouds your chariot,
you ride on the wings of the wind,
you make the winds your messengers,
fire and flame your ministers.

You set the earth on its foundations,
so that it shall never be shaken.
You cover it with the deep as with a garment;
the waters stood above the mountains.
At your rebuke they flee;
at the sound of your thunder they take to flight.
They rose up to the mountains, ran down to the valleys
to the place that you appointed for them.
You set a boundary that they may not pass,
so that they might not again cover the earth.

10 You make springs gush forth in the valleys;
they flow between the hills,
11 giving drink to every wild animal;                                     the wild asses quench their thirst.
12 By the streams[e] the birds of the air have their habitation;
they sing among the branches.
13 From your lofty abode you water the mountains;
the earth is satisfied with the fruit of your work.

14 You cause the grass to grow for the cattle,
and plants for people to use,
to bring forth food from the earth,
15     and wine to gladden the human heart,
oil to make the face shine,
and bread to strengthen the human heart.
16 The trees of the Lord are watered abundantly,
the cedars of Lebanon that he planted.
17 In them the birds build their nests;
the stork has its home in the fir trees.
18 The high mountains are for the wild goats;
the rocks are a refuge for the coneys.
19 You have made the moon to mark the seasons;
the sun knows its time for setting.

 

The Doctrine of Discovery required that the land be empty of its indigenous inhabitants and made it morally good for Europeans to take and cultivate the land. By raising consciousness of how this continues to sustain and support the national myth and legal system, the church may repudiate its participation and propagation of this sin and seek ways to repent. Psalm 104 proclaims that the land is the Lord’s and that it is sustained and created through God. This psalm aligns more closely with Indigenous people’s understanding of the land as lived upon rather than owned by individuals. Chief Lawrence Hart (Southern Cheyenne) writes, “The earth is for the circle of people. And since the earth is for the whole, no one individual can own any part of it. The earth belongs to the Creator, and is gifted to peoples” (“The Earth is a Song Made Visible: A Cheyenne Christian Perspective,” Buffalo Shout, Salmon Cry, 155). By attending to both the Doctrine of Discovery and Psalm 104 we can recognize our rootedness in the land, as well as the fact that our understandings of ownership must be changed. Palestinian theologian Munther Isaac, in a biblical theology of land writes, “Human beings are only tenants in the land, and as such must share the blessings of the land with their neighbors….the land is something to share, not possess” (Munther Isaac, From Land to Lands, from Eden to the Renewed Earth, 370).

While geography encompasses all and should include all peoples as co-inhabitants, it has often been seen as a possession and its inhabitants as objects of conquest. The relationship to the land and its inhabitants is both affected by and has shaped understanding of race and ethnicity.  Willie James Jennings in The Christian Imagination: Theology and Origins of Race writes, “The question of how one should imagine space is by far one of the most complex questions facing the world today. Space continues to be ever further enclosed inside the economic and political calculations of nation-states and corporations. Yet one imagines space as inseparably bound to how one imagines peoples and their places in the world. Although the history of Christians in the colonial West shows the difficulty of people imagining space and peoples together, Christianity itself offers hope of their joining…If space and race go together in the making of modern peoples, then what would be involved in the spatial and racial unmaking of modern peoples, that is, the remaking that should be the constitution of Christian people? This question poses a seeming impossibility, the transformation of social imaginations shaped in the fragmenting of place as private property and the slicing of human existence in racial vision” (Jennings, Christian Imagination, 250).

Getting wrong the relationship to land and other people is challenged first by Psalm 104 in recognition that the land is the Lords and in James 2:1-9. In the book of James unequal treatment is serious enough to call into question one’s connection to Jesus. We read,

 My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ ?For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?

You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.”

James condemns favoritism. Simply seeking to give up favoritism still, however, allows us to retain for ourselves in the role of power. By imagining that it ours to welcome, we perpetuate the assumption of ownership and dominance. Of course, changing this does not mean that privilege simply disappears. While understanding power and privilege is critical to undoing oppression, theologically we are all in need of God’s grace, mercy, and justice. Jennings writes, “The colonialist moment helped solidify a form of Christian existence that read this text [Jesus healing the Canaanite woman] as though we were standing with Jesus looking down on the woman in her desperation, when in fact we, the Gentiles, are the woman…”(Jennings, 262).

Divisions within humanity (caused by the oppression of some over others) and between humanity and the land may be healed through the biblical understanding of shalom. Cherokee theologian, Randy Woodley, in Shalom and the Community of Creation: An Indigenous Vision though maintaining a strong critique more explicitly reflects on peacemaking through a comparative reading of the biblical idea of shalom and what he terms the Harmony Way. He writes, “In their nature as constructs, shalom and the Native American Harmony Way have much in common. Shalom, like Harmony Way, is made up of numerous notions and values, with the whole being greater than the sum of the parts. Both are meant to be a way of living life in concrete ways that include more than all the terms found within the construct” (Woodley, Shalom and the Community of Creation: An Indigenous Vision, x). This biblical vision of shalom, is acted out through a vocation of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:18, Romans 12-16-21, Matthew 5:9) which is defined by justice and seeking the well-being of all. (Mark Charles, a Navajo theologian and activist, uses the term conciliation rather than reconciliation since there was not a previous state of unity between European-American Christians and Native American communities. http://wirelesshogan.blogspot.com/2014/12/doctrine-of-discovery.html).

Along with the vocation of peacemaking the church is rooted in the land. Isaac writes, “A church in a particular land exists for the sake of that land and takes her mission agenda from it. The church, in other words, derives much of its purpose from its locale” (Isaac, From Land to Lands, 368). For Christians in the U.S. this rootedness and connection to the land requires a recognition of whose land this was and how it came to be possessed. The church’s misappropriation of biblical “Promised Land” imagery was wrongly used to claim theological warrant to clear the land of Indigenous inhabitants. By following Isaac’s urge to understand that land is now universal but still connected to geography we begin to understand the call of the church in a particular land, in this case a land that has been stolen from others. In this context the vocation of reconciliation requires repentance, concrete action, and relationships based on listening and mutuality.

Statement on Iran Deal

The media is reporting that the Trump Administration has decided to de-certify Iran’s compliance with the Iran nuclear deal. The deal, negotiated by the UN Security Council, put restrictions on Iran’s uranium enrichment abilities and gave the international community access to the country to verify their compliance with the restrictions.

The Church of the Brethren has a long history of outspoken opposition to nuclear weapon development, use, and proliferation. In 1982, the denomination issued “A Call to Halt the Nuclear Arms Race,” which said:

Since its inception the church has understood the biblical message as contrary to the destructive, life denying, realities of war. The position of the Church of the Brethren is that all war is sin and contrary to the will of God and we confirm that position. We seek to work with other Christians and all persons who desire to abolish war as a means of resolving difference. The church has consistently spoken and continues to speak against the production and use of nuclear weapons. We have called upon our government to “dismantle its nuclear arsenal, pledge not to use nuclear weapons, refuse to sell nuclear fuels and technology to any state not agreeing to the Non-Proliferation Treaty and inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency, work tirelessly for a comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, take unilateral disarmament initiatives as a way of breaking the current stalemate, and strengthen global institutions that facilitate nonviolent means of conflict resolution and the process of disarmament.”

The United Nations’ work on the Iran Deal is exactly the sort of “global institution” process that facilitates nonviolent conflict resolution, and the deal has been largely successful. It has allowed international monitoring of Iran’s nuclear capabilities, and allowed for the lifting of sanctions and increased economic integration between Iran and Western nations like France and Germany. These are important steps in the right direction.

The rhetoric surrounding the upcoming Iran Deal decision brings to mind the Church of the Brethren’s 1984 statement, “Terrible Belligerence,” written in response to Cold War tensions.

“Our nation has contributed to a world situation in which few serious negotiations are taking place to reduce the danger of nuclear annihilation. We assume that all liberation movements are “communist” inspired and controlled. We reduce international relationships to a conflict between “the free world” and “an evil empire.”We replace diplomacy with military confrontation as a means to world stability.”

Nuclear negotiations are difficult, imperfect and too little, too late. However, the deal with Iran represents a meaningful step forward for the global community in using diplomacy to prevent nuclear conflict. It is essential that, as it says in the 1980 COB statement, “The Time is so Urgent: Threats to Peace,”  

“To break this mad cycle we call for bold and creative initiatives such as a unilateral decision by our government to terminate all nuclear tests and the production of all nuclear weapons and their delivery systems.”

We continue to call for an end to the development and proliferation of nuclear weapons, and urge the United States government to do everything within its power to ensure the success of nuclear negotiations that bring the world closer to peaceful, stable coexistence without the threat of nuclear annihilation.

David Young: Thoughts on Washington DC

The following blog is a guest post from David Young, the founder of Capstone Community Gardens in New Orleans. You can learn more about his work at www.capstone118.org

I had the opportunity to be in Washington D.C. from September 20 through 23, 2017. This was made possible by the Church of the Brethren Office of Public Witness and the Global Food Initiative. The main purpose was to do a presentation with Nathan Hosler of the Office of Public Witness, at the University of D.C. during their Urban Agriculture Symposium and Association of Vertical Farmers Summit. Our presentation topic was: Food and Faith; The New Orleans Story of the Church of the Brethren. It ended up being so much more than that.

One of the things the Office of Public Witness does is look at policy and how they effect Brethren and projects of the Brethren.

Having had previous meetings and discussions with Nathan he was familiar with some of the challenges Capstone faces as an urban farm. One of those is being in the Lower 9th Ward of New Orleans. Orleans Parish (county in other states) has a 100% urban designation by USDA which prevent us from using many of the benefits USDA makes available to those with rural designation.

Nathan and Tori from the Office of Public Witness arranged for me to meet with staff of the three legislators from Louisiana. Within a few hours of arriving I found myself on Capitol Hill, spending about 30 minutes with each staff person, explaining how federal, state, and local policy effect how we can operate with our mission to grow food and share it with those in need.

One of the most pleasant surprises was a World Day of Peace service at the Washington City Church of the Brethren. Multiple churches of different denominations worked together to coordinate the service on the evening of September 20th, a day early, since Nathan and I would be occupied at the symposium on the 21st. The garden theme was included as part of the service. It was a nice gathering with a handful of denominations represented as one worshiping and praying for peace.

The Urban Ag Symposium started with Nathan and I doing a brief TV interview about what the Office of Public Witness provides and the community mission of Capstone. Since the mid 70’s I have understood the important role our land grant colleges play with agriculture. The University of D.C. is the only Urban Land Grant College. I also found it surprising to hear the Dean of the University talk about the faith based involvement the university has.

Later that afternoon Nathan and I completed our presentation at the symposium which was well received. The symposium partnered with the Association of Vertical Farmers. There were presentations that talked about some of the various vertical farming systems. Capstone has a combination of in -ground farming, elevated farming (raised beds), as well as some vertical farming with the aquaculture systems.

The second day started the Association for Vertical Farming Summit. The make-up of those in attendance changed from the previous day. The Vertical Farmcing Summit included more people who held titles of Scientist, PhD, Artificial Intelligence (A.I.).

There was dialogue and presentations on controlled environment, high capacity, 6 to 30-foot-high vertical growing systems. Complete grow systems self-contained in shipping containers. There was also an emphasis on using technology and Artificial Intelligence to analyze and evaluate plant needs. This ranged from mini drones gathering samples in mid-air to leaf mounted cameras and scopes.

Going back to when I was part of commercial agriculture in the late 70 and 80’s and currently doing urban farming I ask, what are you testing for? Most people I know now typically do more harm to their crops by overreacting to the test results. The group agreed with me. I’ve never tested much, I look at the plant and figure out what if any corrections I should take. The group said we don’t have that experience or knowledge to do that.

It comes very close to feeling like I’m watching a movie that was made a long time ago and this would have been considered sci-fi. I found myself in unfamiliar territory as I ask myself are these scientists, PhDs, and Artificial Intelligence people our next generation of farmers even though they admit they don’t have any experience in growing food. One representative from USDA said this type of farming will never replace conventional farming.

One three story vertical system in Jackson Wyoming cost 4.5 Million dollars to build. While they are at the other end of the spectrum of production and a for profit business I think back to my first two seasons with the gardens at Capstone. 4’x14’ and I spent $100 each growing season. If someone wanted to help I asked them to bring the plants or seeds they wanted to have grown. We’ve grown considerably since then. Going to the Garden Grants and Global Food Initiative grants have been beneficial to our success. Even as we continue to grow I feel we maintain a solid well-grounded relationship between the food we grow and our community we share it with.

On the last day, we took a tour of two urban gardens that were operated by Cultivate the City. These two gardens have a combination of raised and vertical farming and are doing some aquaculture. Even though both were rooftop gardens these gardens had a more familiar feel to them. At one farm the founder said we have people water the plants with a watering can. I feel it makes them more attuned with what they are growing. Quite a contrast to having micro drones collect samples.

Here is where I share my lack of following sports or having TV coverage. While I was in Washington I kept seeing a large cursive “W”. I kept thinking a certain large drug store chain was doing a lot of advertising. It was only when we went to the baseball stadium to see their roof top garden and the “W” was more prominent that I realized the “W” was for the Washington sports teams.

In D.C. there are many rooftop gardens because there is a storm water fee. If you allow storm water to openly drain away from a building or hard surface such as a parking lot you pay a fee on that. The roof top gardens make flat roof areas green space for growing plants or food which in turn offers relief from the storm water fee.

The University of D.C has a large green roof including a greenhouse. They grow succulents as well as produce. At the baseball stadium, the roof top gardens are on top of the concession stands. You open a gate on an upper level in the parking garage, climb up a ladder, down the other side of a wall, and onto the roof. It’s covered with hundreds of milk crates. Each milk crate contains a 5-gallon bag made of recycled material. This holds soil or compost and the plants.

One benefit to this type of garden is if you have to relocate the garden due to turning over ownership of the site or other factors you simply pick up the milk crate with the soil and plants, load them and move them to their new location. When we harvest honey, we put the 5 gallons buckets containing honey in a milk crate to make them more stable for transport and easier to handle.

While the material expense may be above our budget I think the concept in an urban setting is great. Having rehabbed a total of 40 lots in the Lower 9th Ward and returning many of them to families or organizations who decided it was time to develop that property it would have made things much easier in some cases to be able to just load the entire garden on a trailer and move it to another site.

I don’t know that my visit to D.C. is going to change anything or even influence any of the policy decisions. I do know the response from several of the smaller urban farms has been positive as we look to continue the discussion and enhance our relationships and collaboration.

 

Reflection on Christian Peacemaker Teams Trip

The Office of Public Witness has been meeting with U.S. government agencies to advocate for the use of Unarmed Civilian Protection (UCP). Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) is one organization that uses UCP methods to nonviolently work towards justice. In this guest blog post, Tim Heishman reflects on his experience with a CPT delegation.

By: Tim Heishman

This past August I was privileged to take part in Christian Peacemaker Teams’ Indigenous Peoples Solidarity Delegation to Manitoba and Ontario with my wife Katie. Christian Peacemaker Teams is an organization founded by the historic peace churches and based on the notion that Christians should be as willing to put their lives on the line for peace as soldiers are for war. During my time on the CPT delegation I heard many stories about the effectiveness of unarmed civilian protection and peaceful efforts to bring about solutions to injustice.

We learned about the story of the Shoal Lake 40 indigenous community in western Ontario. About 100 years ago the city of Winnipeg decided to build an aqueduct from the lake next to the indigenous community to carry water to the city. The problem was that the lake was split during construction, half of it was then contaminated, and half of it was clean. The clean water was reserved for the city of Winnipeg and the contaminated water was left for the indigenous tribe. Contaminated water is a huge problem for indigenous people because so much of their life and culture revolves around water. For example, the fish that made up a significant part of their diet now made them very sick. The way the city of Winnipeg divided the water when constructing the aqueduct also cut the community off from the rest of the world. They could get out during the summer by boat and in the winter by driving across the ice, but in the fall and spring they were stuck. Fast forward nearly 100 years and Winnipeg built the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. A successful campaign organized by indigenous leaders and settler allies highlighted the fact that the human rights museum was getting its water by oppressing an indigenous tribe. It was a bit of an embarrassing public relations issue, to say the least! The organizers even came up with their own Museum of Canadian Human Rights Violations! A peaceful campaign worked to call out and transform structural violence committed by the city of Winnipeg over a period of 100 years.

We met with leaders from the Grassy Narrows indigenous tribe in Ontario and they told us the story of how they successfully organized a blockade to stop illegal logging by corporations on their land. It began when a teenager cut down a tree to block the road so the logging trucks could not get through and complete their work. Soon others from the tribe joined in and a protest camp was established next to the road. Christian Peacemaker Team members joined to stand in solidarity with the tribe. For four months, from December to March, indigenous and settler allies stood together to stop illegal logging on indigenous land. They were ready to stand peacefully against the violence of the corporations and the state. The corporation eventually decided to do their logging in another place and for now the tribe has been successful in peacefully defending their right to the land that belongs to them.

Christian Peacemaker Teams does work like this all over the world. They believe that Christians should put as much energy into working for peace as militaries do for war. Working against injustices and violence with peaceful methods allows us to retain the moral high ground and expose the injustices of the perpetrator in a way that a violent response would not. Sometimes violence is physical and other times it is structural. It can be stopped with unarmed civilian protection.

Sometimes governments and militaries choose to lay down their weapons and protect a place peacefully. The peninsula on which Common Ground is located is one such place. Common Ground is located in Kenora, Ontario. Many years ago several indigenous tribes and settlers fought over this piece of land. The opposing sides came together, they decided to hold it mutually, and they called it Common Ground. Today it is surrounded by several miles of beautiful hiking trails and it is still a place where all people can come together and enjoy the beauty of God’s creation. May all people come together to embrace God’s call to model our lives after the Prince of Peace and settle our conflicts nonviolently.

Update on North Korea

Image Credit: Wikipedia Commons

North Korea has been in the news over the past few weeks as tense rhetoric between the U.S. and the North Korean government escalates. North Korea continues to build its nuclear arsenal and test long-range missiles- even going as far as to fire a missile over the nation of Japan, and claiming to have successfully tested a hydrogen bomb this past week. President Trump threatened “fire and fury” in a speech on the conflict, and U.S. policy towards potential military action on the peninsula continues to be unclear to both citizens and our international allies.

If military conflict does break out on the Korean peninsula, there will be massive loss of human life. Even former presidential advisor Steve Bannon admitted as much, saying recently, “There’s no military solution, forget it. Until somebody solves the part of the equation that shows me that 10 million people in Seoul don’t die in the first 30 minutes from conventional weapons, I don’t know what you’re talking about, there’s no military solution here.”

In addition to the people of South Korea, there are over 25 million people in North Korea who would be impacted by military action- not to mention the 28,000 American soldiers stationed on the peninsula.

The Church of the Brethren has consistently called for peace and nonviolence in the Korean peninsula. The Church was a signatory on the 2013 World Council of Churches “Statement on Peace and Reunification of the Korean Peninsula,” which called “upon the churches of the world, and upon those holding social, economic, political, and governmental power, to pursue a lasting and sustainable peace with justice that will reunify and reconcile the people of Korea.”

In 1996, the Church released its “Statement on Nonviolence and Humanitarian Intervention,” which said that “in bringing the Good News to the poor and afflicted through serving their needs and unequivocally opposing all forms of military combat, we demonstrate that the world’s priorities still reflect too much faith in military power to solve problems and too little faith in the power of love to transform social, political, economic, and environmental threats into opportunities for cooperation and human community.”

We continue to support this approach, and believe that the current tense rhetoric is incredibly detrimental to the peace process. As we work towards human rights, nuclear disarmament, and international peace, we need national governments to speak with clarity, sincerity, and peaceful intentions. The United States, as a global leader, has the power to reframe conflict narratives by swallowing its pride and making the first moves towards peace. As John Delury wrote in a recent Foreign Affairs article, “Incessant talk of war only serves to reinforce North Korea’s worst narrative about America’s implacable hostility.” We encourage the U.S. national leadership to consider how they can actively work towards de-escalation and the normalization of relations with North Korea.

The Church of the Brethren Office of Public Witness will continue to monitor the situation in North Korea, and we will seek to advocate for a peaceful resolution to the tensions that have plagued the U.S. – North Korea relationship for far too long.

DACA Story: Erick

The following guest blog post was written by Erick, a DACA recipient who has been active in the life of the Church of the Brethren. An announcement regarding the future of the DACA program is expected to be made on Tuesday, Sept. 5th. 

Update, 9/5/17 11:27am: The DACA program has been rescinded, leaving a 6 month window for Congress to pass legislation like the DREAM Act of 2017 to protect DACA recipients. 

Hello, my name is Erick. I have formed part of the Church of the Brethren denomination since I was around 8 years. I am now 26 years old, and going strong. The brothers and sisters of The Church of the Brethren have formed a vital part of my identity as a Christian. I have been involved with my congregation, Principe de Paz in Santa Ana. Formerly, I was the secretary for my congregation for about six years. I have also been a part of our worship group playing the bass for about seven years. I have also been a part of the Young Adult Policy Board for about two years in the Pacific Southwest District. I graduated and earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Biochemistry in 2016. I am currently a first-year pharmacy student to earn my doctor of pharmacy degree at a university in Nashville, Tennessee. This is just a little background about myself.

Have you heard of the current news regarding Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA)? President Trump is being pressured into making a decision by this week on whether the DACA program remains, or not. This decision will affect more than 800,000 students and individuals like me. Like many individuals under the DACA program, I was brought to this country at an early age, at the age of 2. I do not remember anything from my country of origin. I view myself as an American; I have embraced the American culture. I want to form a permanent relationship with this country.

Some Americans argue that people like us broke the law, and we must be punished by being deported. Some Americans view us as criminals, when all we want to do is fight for our freedom, and live the American dream that many of their ancestors fought for in previous generations. Some argue that we should go through the legal route. Current laws prohibit us from gaining any sort of legal path to citizenship. I am an individual that pays his taxes. I have paid for my college education myself, because we don’t have the same privileges as American Citizens.

It saddens me that people like me have to prove our humanity. The American Culture is ingrained in me like any other American Citizen. I embrace my identity. All we ask is for an opportunity. All current individuals under the DACA program are expected to maintain a clean record in this country. DACA gives us the ability to work legally and obtain a State Driver’s license. It also allows us to continue pursuing higher education. It also means that we cannot leave the country, unless if for humanitarian or work-related reasons.

I ask you to please stand with the DACA program. Please support us. Some of us are teachers, policemen, firefighters, lawyers, etc. We are all hoping to finally obtain the American dream that many of your ancestors worked so hard to obtain. I am not going to lie and say I am not scared, because I am. Ending the DACA program has many negative implications for individuals like me. I want to continue studying to become a pharmacist. I want to impact my community in a positive manner by being a healthcare provider. I want to be a part of the change, and contribute to society. I long to be a part of this country, which is the only country I have truly known at a personal level. Ending this program might mean I may not be able to finish my studies. However, as a believer of Jesus Christ, I have maintained faith and peace. I do not hold any animosity against anyone that does not support the DACA program. I only ask them to learn more about individuals under the DACA program so that they may understand what we are going through, and maybe empathize with our situation. We are all moving forward in hopes to form a legal, and permanent place in this country, God bless America.

“God’s time is always near”: Thoughts from the African American Museum

The National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.

“God’s time is always near.
He gave me my strength,
and He set the North star in the heavens;
He meant I should be free.”
—Harriet Tubman, 1859

The path through the museum really begins outside, waiting in line with hopeful tourists and Washington, D.C., residents in the heat and humidity to receive midday tickets into the newest Smithsonian: the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Its grand opening was back in September of 2016 and yet it’s still flooded with people. Inside, another line into the exhibition itself greets attendees—a testament to how many people surge into the museum on a daily basis.

The museum features more contemporary cultural figures and movements as well as important parts of history.

The exhibition begins underground, solemnly reflecting the beginnings of many slaves’ journeys in the bowels of a slave ship. The hallway is dark and lit only by the lights of the text and artifacts’ spotlights. Museum-goers wind their way through history, from the roots of African and European trade and the formation of the concept of race, through the American Revolution and slave revolts, and into the Civil Rights Movement and beyond, recognizing contemporary cultural figures and topics.

“This trade,
so beneficial to the Adventurers,
and important to the State;
a Trade sanctioned by the Clergy,
supported by the Judges,
and authorized by the laws.”
—Robert Norris, 1788

There’s more text and information than anyone could read in a reasonable amount of time, but everyone is trying to absorb as much as possible, surrounded by stories of prominent black Americans both remembered and forgotten:

The story of Belinda, an enslaved woman who petitioned the Massachusetts legislature in 1783 for her freedom, one of the first records of reparations from enslavement.

A sack given from mother Rose to daughter Ashley before she was sold away, pecans and a lock of hair placed inside, passed along with the promise that it was filled with love.

The Point of Pines Cabin, which stood in South Carolina from 1853 to 2013—a shelter, a home, a gathering place. The cabin still didn’t protect slaves from the assault of the slaveowners.

One wall in the museum is covered in the text of newspaper advertisements for slaves.

One wall features a few photos and artifacts from slave markets and, if you look closely, you can see the text of advertisements for slaves—countless names—covering the wall.

Processing this history reminds us what injustice and cruelty has looked like in the past and helps us to understand what it looks like today. This is the history that makes up our country’s roots, and untangling them takes specific and careful work—work that was begun by hundreds of thousands of black Americans long before the museum was built.

“We need the storm,
the whirlwind, and the earthquake …
the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed;
and its crimes … denounced.”
—Frederick Douglass, 1852

So where have Brethren stood amid these issues? What did it mean to be Brethren in this time of turmoil and cruelty in our country?

The Brethren Encyclopedia entry on slavery details that “Annual Meeting denied the legitimacy of owning slaves and insisted that any Brethren holding them must be set free in order to be a member in good standing (1797-1865). […] During the Civil War, Annual Meeting decisions dealt firmly with any minister who defended slavery. In response to the obvious problem of emancipating slaves in a slave state, Annual Meeting in 1854 reiterated that ‘under no circumstance can slavery be admitted into the church.’”

On a national level, the Brethren took a clear stance against slavery, but issues with individual members regarding slaves arose. According to 1962 Sidelights on Brethren History article:

“In the Valley there were some members of the Brethren Church who, though not owning slaves, thought that it was permissible to hire them from those who did own them. Yet from the earliest date the most of the Brethren stood uncompromisingly in opposition to this traffic in human lives in whatever form it took. The Roanoke Annual Conference said in answer to the above-mentioned query that ‘it would be best for a follower of Jesus Christ to have nothing at all to do with slavery.'”

This certainly wasn’t the only instance like this in the church, and the Brethren at Annual Meeting and at regional conferences addressed a number of problems with church members in regards to slavery at the time of the Civil War. The article goes on to say:

“In spite of all that was done by Annual Conference and by council meetings, the matter continued to disturb the Brethren as late as 1863, when a query came to the Annual Conference held in the Clover Creek church in Blair County, Pennsylvania. […] After prayerful consideration the following decision was given: “In as much as the Brethren always believed, and believe yet, that slavery is a great evil, and contrary to the doctrine of Christ, we consider it utterly wrong for a brother to justify slavery either in public or in private, and that he should be admonished, and if obstinate, shall be dealt with according to Matt. 18. […]  Slavery was ended nearly a hundred years ago, by means which the Brethren could neither approve nor support. During the intervening century the Negro has demonstrated to the world – with outstanding proof such as Booker T. Washington, George Washington Carver, Martin Luther King, and Ralph Bunche – his basic equality with the white man. On their part, the Brethren still have a largely unused opportunity to show the colored people of the nation that their concern for them is one of deep-rooted, genuine brotherly love and goodwill.”

“We do not wish to make you angry,
but … consider how hateful slavery is
in the sight of God.”
—Absalom Jones and Richard Allen, 1794

What does this history mean for us now? Clearly, the conversation around race and blackness has changed quite a bit since slavery, and even since the Civil Rights movement. We cannot fall back on our historical opposition to slavery and assume that carries us into current day. Our job as the church to call out injustice looks different now, and these issues are many-layered and complex.

After making their way through the narrow halls about the foundations of slavery, visitors spill out into a room telling the stories of black people during the American Revolution.

As one plaque in the museum reads, “The paradox of the American Revolution—the fight for liberty in an era of widespread slavery—is embedded in the foundations of the United States. The tension between slavery and freedom—who belongs and who is excluded—resonates through the nation’s history and spurs the American people to wrestle constantly with building ‘a more perfect Union.’ This paradox was embedded in national institutions that are still vital today.” We must take a hard look at our institutions, especially the church, if we seek to bring God’s justice to our world.

The 1991 Annual Conference Report on Brethren and Black Americans states:

“Because racism is built into our way of life, it is extremely difficult to unmask it and honestly face the radical changes that need to be made in ourselves and our institutions if it is to be eradicated. Members of the Church of the Brethren face the subtle temptation of thinking that because there are not many black Americans in the denomination, or because many of us do not live in physical proximity to black people, that the problem of racism is not our concern. Nothing could be further from the truth. Many of us benefit from racist practices, without being direct participants, because of decisions and policies already in place in our religious, economic, and political institutions.”

Despite the 26-year gap since this report, this statement still rings true. It still challenges us to recognize our prejudices and demand justice in an unjust society—a society wrought with the mass incarceration of black and Hispanic people; a society in which urban areas hard-hit by poverty are largely minority communities; a society with a resurgence in the visibility of white supremacy and hate groups.

The first step is simply listening to people of color talk about their experiences, without feeling the need to argue or counter their stories. Experiences cannot be false.

However, listening and empathizing aren’t enough. The second step is moving to immediate action, especially in response to violent racist attacks and the actions of hate and white supremacist groups.

The reminders of what this dangerous hatred fuels and leads to is not only in our museums and memorials, but now in current news headlines. The National Museum of African American History and Culture should not simply be seen as a home for dusty relics of the past, but as the watchful eyes of history looking at how we respond to the daily infringements on civil rights that occur all around us.

“Though our bodies
differ in color from yours;
yet our souls are similar
in desire for freedom.”
—Vox Africanorum,
Maryland Gazette, 1783

A corner of the museum where visitors are invited to “share their story.”

Here’s an idea from the museum: Tucked off to the side in a couple corridors leading to the next level, rooms stand with the door aglow and an “In Session” sign lit up—it asks passersby to “share your story.”

How can we reach out to people sharing their stories? How can we listen to our brothers and sisters in our churches and in our midst whose words have fallen on deaf ears?

A good place to start is the resources from Intercultural Ministries, the Office of Public Witness, and On Earth Peace’s Racial Justice initiative. But perhaps we need to think through more concrete processes the church can develop to to commit to dismantling racist structures.

When Harriet Tubman said, “God’s time is always near” in 1859, it was a call to action for that day and a resounding vision for the future. We have done good work in the past. It is not enough. We must do better work now in order to bring God’s time to earth.

“Let us all unite, and … declare
that we will not leave our own country …
this is our … country; …our forefathers have
planted trees in America for us
and we intend to stay and eat the fruit.”
—Peter Osborne, 1832

Public Perception of Drone Warfare

As drone strikes become all too common, the Church of the Brethren has taken a leadership role in the faith community’s response to drone warfare. Our 2013 Annual Conference Resolution on Drone Warfare makes it clear that the use of drones is at odds with our commitment to peace.

Photo Credit: U.S. Army photo

“All killing mocks the God who creates and gives life. Jesus, as the Word incarnate, came to dwell among us (John 1:14) in order to reconcile humanity to God and bring about peace and healing. In contrast, our government’s expanding use of armed drones distances the decisions to use lethal force from the communities in which these deadly strikes take place. We find the efforts of the United States to distance the act of killing from the site of violence to be in direct conflict to the witness of Christ Jesus.” -2013 Resolution on Drone Warfare

One of the biggest battles to be fought in the campaign against drone warfare will happen right on U.S. soil- in the hearts and minds of U.S. citizens. In 2015, Pew Research found that only 35% of Americans disapprove of the use of drones in warfare (link). An AP-GfK poll the same year found that only 13% of Americans opposed drone usage (link).

Numbers like these are disheartening, considering the tremendous ethical concerns and transparency issues that arise in the United States drone program. Humans on the ground are labeled as “targets” based not on proven crimes, but because they fit a profile of possible combatants. Children experience fear for their lives and families when they hear the telltale buzzing of a drone overhead. Soldiers operating drones face emotional and mental trauma. The use of drones even contributes to anti-American sentiments around the world- increasing the chances of more conflict later down the road.  

If the public had a greater understanding of the true impact of drone warfare on civilians, soldiers, and even American security, we believe that the percentage of Americans opposed to drone warfare would increase dramatically. If public perception of the drone program reflected the true moral, ethical, and security concerns, it would be much easier to get the U.S.

This is why it is so important to work towards increased public awareness of the U.S. drone program. Our government will not take steps to increase transparency and limit the use of drones without the American public speaking out for justice and peace.

Fortunately, there are ways to get involved in changing the public perception of the U.S. drone program! The Interfaith Network on Drone Warfare, one of our partners through the Interfaith Working Group on Drone Warfare, has put together five 30-minute documentaries that can be used in congregations to start the conversation on drone warfare.

Two of the documentaries feature Nathan Hosler, director of the Church of the Brethren Office of Public Witness, who provides a Peace Church perspective.

We need individuals from congregations to host showings of these documentaries in their congregations. We will provide access to the documentaries and an easy-to-use discussion guide. These videos and discussions are a great way to engage your congregation in deep discussions about peacebuilding and the ethical problems with the drone program.  If you are interested in more information or if you decide to host a screening, please contact vbateman@brethren.org.

By helping the public understand the drone program, we can work towards a more just and peaceful world. Please join us in this effort by hosting a documentary viewing and discussion in your congregation!

 

Understanding the Work of the Church: Reflections after a Year at The Office of Public Witness

 

“There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens.”

Ecclesiastes 3:1 NIV

 

I’ve been asked what led me to serve with The Office of Public Witness. My time at Christian Citizenship Seminar in 2015 truly was a turning point for me. The CCS topic was immigration, and as I listened to the stories of the people behind the statistics, a wave of emotions engulfed me. I was struck with confusion, frustration, and fascination as various speakers used their expertise to educate our group about the many challenges surrounding the issue of immigration today. These narratives sparked my passion for social justice. I felt compelled to join in the work that the church was doing to form community through advocacy. The church empowered me, as a youth, to follow the work of Jesus.

 

My year-long position through Brethren Volunteer Service with The Church of the Brethren Office of Public Witness will soon be coming to a close. As I reflect back on this year of service, I’m struck by the many amazing connections that I’ve made along the way. The experiences that I’ve had both during my daily work in the office and while working on special projects such as CCS have been unforgettable—from quirky conversations with the director Nathan Hosler to seeing the excitement and interest of youth at CCS. Although I was a member of The Church of the Brethren before my service began, this year with the OPW has deepened my appreciation for our denomination. Not just the Brethren faith itself, but the people who exhibit that faith through their actions.

 

Service is a major piece of both the work of Jesus and The Church of the Brethren. I made the decision to join BVS after high school, and I couldn’t be happier with the outcome. Learning to live simply, experiencing the challenges and joys of living in community, and working in the OPW have changed me. I’ve become more aware of how my actions can impact others. I’ve developed skills that I didn’t even know I had prior to BVS. My time working with OPW has fanned the flames of my passions for social justice, through gaining a whole new understanding of the politics of injustice and the strong voice that faith advocacy groups can have in the conversations surrounding the issues. My experiences in D.C. have been incredibly enriching, and I can say with confidence that I am ending my term with a new perspective of what it means to continue to work of Jesus.

 

Emmy will attend McPherson College in August to major in Communications with a minor peace studies.

Peacebuilding in Tense Times: The Church of the Brethren and Russia

The Russia-U.S. relationship has become increasingly complicated over the past few years. The Syrian conflict has attracted both U.S. and Russian involvement, becoming a proxy war between several international actors. Accusations of cyber- and information warfare between the nations persist, and complex questions of global leadership have arisen.

The tensions should concern all who seek international peace. In one recent example of conflict, the United States shot down a Syrian warplane. In response, the Russians suspended the use of a military communication program that helped to prevent accidental in-air collisions in Syrian airspace. They also threatened to shoot down any U.S. plane that traveled west of the Euphrates River.

The dissolution of communications structures like these, combined with military action and general posturing on the part of each national actor, does not bode well for regional or international security.

When suspicion clouds the relationship between nations, it is often difficult to see past our national allegiances and fear. However, peacebuilding requires us to build relationships where others only see conflict.

Quote from 1947 Annual Conference statement on Russia, referenced in the Brethren Encyclopedia.

The Church of the Brethren has a fascinating peacebuilding history in relation to Russia. During the Cold War, in which tensions ran high and peace was fragile, the Church of the Brethren maintained connections with the Soviet Union in hopes that relationships could prevent nuclear war.

As part of this work, the Church of the Brethren participated in two cultural exchanges in 1963 and 1967. While in the United States, Russian church leaders ate, talked, and joked with their American hosts, and were especially interested in visiting with the youth. Their American counterparts, while visiting Russia, were fascinated by the unfamiliar political ideology and relationship between the Church and State.

A 1967 Messenger article on the cultural exchange

At these meetings, delegates were able to experience each other’s culture, learn about their religious beliefs and structures, and gain new perspectives on the other nation. These were not meant to be high-level religious or political discussions- rather, they were meetings of Christians from different countries, earnestly seeking to understand one another and forge a peaceful future.

The work done by the Church of the Brethren during this era is strikingly relevant to modern interfaith connections in U.S. and Russia. The same general distrust and military posturing that occurred during the Cold War has resurfaced in more modern contexts. As the political rhetoric once again heats up, it is essential that the faith community works to discern its role in the U.S.- Russia relationship.

There are many relational and advocacy opportunities for churches, including the Church of the Brethren, to work towards greater interpersonal understanding and large-scale investment in peace. Like the leaders of the Church of the Brethren during the Cold War, we can, and should, use our faith commitments as a powerful platform for international dialogue and peacebuilding work.

While we recognize that there are many ways in which the current tensions are different from Cold War tensions, we believe that it is important to adapt the Church of the Brethren’s historic peacebuilding mindset to the modern context. At the Office of Public Witness, we hope to continue the Brethren legacy of peacebuilding in this region, and will be working to discern our role in the relationship over the next few months.

***

A huge thanks to the staff at Brethren Archives for their research assistance!

Interested in reading more about these cultural exchanges? Check out these Messenger articles:

https://archive.org/stream/messenger1967116126mors#page/n823/mode/2up/search/%22Russian+Orthodox+Church%22%22

https://archive.org/stream/gospelmessengerv112mors#page/n83/mode/2up/search/%22Russian%22

https://archive.org/stream/gospelmessengerv112mors#page/n1243/mode/2up/search/%22Russian%22