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.

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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

 

Looking Back on Ecumenical Advocacy Days 2017

On the weekend of April 22nd, I had the opportunity to attend the 2017 Ecumenical Advocacy Days. This event brings together Christians from many different denominations to advocate for peace and justice around the world. This year’s theme, based on the words of Martin Luther King, Jr, was “Confronting Chaos, Forging Community.” This focus revolved around countering racism, materialism and militarism in our society- very fitting, considering that the venue was just minutes from the Pentagon. The political “ask” of the conference, to be presented to legislators during Hill visits on Monday, was for the U.S. budget to reflect our values, and to be a “moral document” that actively countered racism, materialism and militarism.

Friday night began with a keynote address from Tamika Mallory. She spoke powerfully about the need for communities to rally around the oppressed, and to recognize the structural injustice present in society. Silence and passivity in the face of injustice allow it to continue, and we must be intentional about speaking out against racism. In one of the most memorable moments, she noted that if you are fighting for social justice and your stomach isn’t in knots all the time, you aren’t doing it right.

Saturday’s speaker, Rev. Dr. John C. Dorhauer, explored the often uncomfortable topic of white privilege. There are many implicit benefits to being white in our society, and it is important that we are intentional about recognizing the ways in which we each benefit from unjust societal structures. His advice for white job-seekers truly interested in employment equality was brilliant- before accepting any position, ask the interviewer how many people of color they have interviewed for the post. If the answer is none, decline the position.

On Sunday, a panel of global activists explored the impact of American militarization on people around the world. Panelist Amal Nassar, a farmer and peace advocate from the West Bank, saddened and inspired the crowd with the story of her family’s orchard, which has been destroyed repeatedly by Israeli settlers. Her family has had to fight unending, ridiculous legal battles, and yet her optimism and hope for the future remains strong. No matter what obstacles the farm faces, she said, her plan is always to plant more trees.

The workshops that I attended revolved around the U.S. drone program, the role of the International Criminal Court in Africa, and the work being done in Nigeria to build stability amidst insecurity and violence. It was great to see the presence of the Church of the Brethren’s work in many of these issue areas

On Monday, after an information-packed weekend, we were energized and felt ready to advocate for a moral budget! Conference-goers descended on the Hill for meetings with their legislators. Our PA delegation visited with staff from Senator Toomey’s and Senator Casey’s offices in the morning, and in the afternoon, a group of us from the 8th Congressional District visited with Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick. In these meetings, we told our legislators that our budget should reflect our values. Funding should be given to robust programs to help the poor both domestically and internationally, and should NOT be given to increase the already enormous military budget.

We were all acutely aware, however, that meetings with legislators can only accomplish so much. If we are to truly fight for social justice within our communities, it is essential that we build meaningful relationships, have honest, loving conversations, and commit to standing up for the rights of our neighbor even when it is uncomfortable for us to do so.

These reflections have been brought to you by Tori Bateman. Tori will be serving in Brethren Volunteer Service through the Church of the Brethren, Office of Public Witness beginning June 2017.

 

Better Late than Never

Earth Day Sunday was last week. Though I wasn’t here (I’m going off the word on the street) I heard that while mentioned and in some manner included in the prayer time it was not a main theme. In the end, the point is to focus on caring for creation so timing is really not particularly essential. Better late than never.

At Christian Citizenship Seminars, this past week we focused on Native American rights focusing particularly on food security. This history of displacement and violence and broken treaties and degraded land is significant—and ongoing. Again, better late than never to focus on this and seek to listen and address this. [CCS is a youth program of the Church of the Brethren organized by Youth and Young Adult Ministries and my office—the Office of Public Witness].

The land on which this church is built is the land of the Piscataway people. Though I’ve wanted to look this up for a while. I only now just did after spending a week discussing and hearing about the experience of Indigenous peoples of this continent. I guess, at least, its better late than never.

These are related to the land (and the people of the land). For example, on the edge of the Navajo reservation sits the Lybrook Community Ministries of the Church of the Brethren. Kim and Jim Therrien are the directors and they, along with Kendra Pinto, a young Navajo protector of the land, spoke at the Christian Citizenship Seminars the past week. They told of the devastation to land by the oil and gas companies and the disregard and abandonment of the Diné people in the “checkerboard” eastern side of the reservation in New Mexico. The land and the people who know the land—whose histories and beliefs and stories of creation relate to this land—cannot be separated.

Of course, at some point it might just be too late and then it is never. So, better late than never does not eliminate urgency it simply provides a way forward in the face of much harm. For example, Cherokee attorney Joel West Williams, of the Native American Rights Fund, who also spoke at CCS told me on the taxi ride to the session that there are only around 100 Cherokee individuals who speak the language fluently and around 5 or 6 for whom Cherokee is their first language. At some point, it might be too late but for now there is at least some time. Some time to hear the call to repentance, action, and right believing.

The road to Emmaus is a narrative of an encounter with the risen Jesus. Though word had gotten out, these disciples remained perplexed. The narrative is of an encounter and of the disciples’ inexplicable inability to recognize Jesus. This unrecognition in the narrative highlights the need for God’s revelation (Craddock, Luke, 285). Jesus walks and teaches them and in retrospect they note that their hearts burned. Jesus walks and teaches them, explaining the scripture. It is not until he breaks bread that they recognize him—that he is revealed.

Now this is a telling of the revelation of the resurrected Christ to Jesus followers—and as such drawing a general lesson is a bit risky. There is significance of the sharing of the bread—as a reminder of the last supper, as the eventual practice of communion, as the simple practical act of hospitality and sharing in the basic needs of life—just the significance of this bread beckons to be extrapolated. I remember breaking bread (in the form of individually wrapped pound cakes dipped in green bean stew) with a Somali refugee in Chicago as he broke Ramadan fast in the middle of our English lesson, or Elmira the grandmother aged homeless women I’d meet in the same city and who would give the college students pizza that people gave her while sitting along the street asking for food, or breaking fry bread with a Navajo man whose ancestors were displaced by my ancestors. Hospitality and breaking bread in the face of displacement is a sign of the presence of God. It can be a revelation.

Now these breakings of bread may be too far a stretch from the Emmaus road but it does catch my imagination. Jesus is brought up out of the grave as a revelation of the power of God which then is gradually revealed to the disciples. While such revelation may be hard to spot, and in some way, is finished (since we aren’t still adding to the scriptural text), God continues to revel Godself. The revelation of the power of God continues through the work of the Spirit and the work of the community in scripture, prayer, and worship while we continue on the road of following Jesus in the work of Jesus and listening to others.

As we all know, the church has not always gotten its teaching or actions right. Because of this, care is needed in teaching, reading scripture, and discerning action. One such troubling teaching that has far reaching consequences is the “Doctrine of Discovery.” Specifically, in America there was an appropriation of the Exodus story by the European settlers. They were the Israelites escaping the slavery of England (Egypt), crossing the Red Sea of the Atlantic Ocean, to the Promised Land of the “New World,” and seizing the land from the people they found there as an act of the will of God. This misreading then continued to animate the imagination of Europeans who pushed further westward and continued to seize land through direct violence, pressure, or through manipulations of the law in their favor.

Such activity found a basis in official church teaching. The World Council of Churches in a 2012 statement notes, “For example, the church documents Dum Diversas (1452) and Romanus Pontifex (1455) called for non-Christian peoples to be invaded, captured, vanquished, subdued, reduced to perpetual slavery and to have their possessions and property seized by Christian monarchs. Collectively, these and other concepts form a paradigm or pattern of domination that is still being used against Indigenous Peoples.” (WCC, Statement on the doctrine of discovery and its enduring impact on Indigenous Peoples, Feb 17, 2012).

Creation Justice Ministries’ Earth Day Resource this year asserts that, “Because the Doctrine of Discovery is based on principles that originated with the church, the church has a special responsibility to dismantle this unjust paradigm.” (http://www.creationjustice.org/uploads/2/5/4/6/25465131/indigenous.pdf?key=63038771, 4). Now while the Church of the Brethren has never officially ascribed to this doctrine we have still benefited from the stolen lands. Most of the early Brethren were farmers and we continue to live on the land. We are not fr.ee from responsibility

While I was in New York with the high schoolers Jenn suggested that the CCS topic of Native American rights and food security and Earth Day might be good topics for the sermon. I had already begun to look that the lectionary passages for the week. Though passages did not seem particularly related to either caring for creation or the rights of Native Americans, I began to see that there were several points of connection. For one, the 1 Peter passage made an intricate argument connecting belief and action. A commentator confirmed this observation writing, “1 Peter is not alone in the NT in accenting the truth that a believer’s ‘whole life’ is a journey to heaven in the footsteps of Jesus. Yet its testimony stands as a serious caution against three popular misconceptions: that salvation is merely something that happened to Christian believers in the past, that their only responsibility now is to wait passively for the second coming and that ‘going to heaven’ is something that begins when they die” (J.R.Michaels, “1 Peter,” in Dictionary of the Later New Testament and its Developments, 922).

1 Peter 1:17-23

17 If you invoke as Father the one who judges all people impartially according to their deeds, live in reverent fear during the time of your exile. “If you invoke” in the NRSV is translated “If you call out for help” in the Message.

In the New International Version, it reads, Since you call on a Father who judges each person’s work impartially, live out your time as foreigners here in reverent fear.”

 [Exile—displacement—references the Israelites displacement from their promised land. There was a covenant by God to Abraham stating that he would be the father of a great nation. This people eventually formed into a nation but were then enslaved but then led to freedom through the power of God. They then wandered for years (40) and then went into the land that was promised. In their entering they displaced peoples and then were themselves displaced by violence and invasion. Though this narrative introduces many questions—such has “who was in the “promised land” before the Israelites?” and “What did the original peoples think about Israel’s conviction that they should enter the land?—it also is part of what “exile” references.

18 You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your ancestors, not with perishable things like silver or gold, 19 but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without defect or blemish. Being brought from “futile ways.” The assumption of superiority and dehumanization, exploitation, and genocide of peoples surely must count as futile. Jesus saves us from these. Though one might object and say that Peter is talking for religious practices. Because of the blood of Christ, which is pictured here as in the role of the sacrificial lamb which is part of the religious practices of the Hebrew people. Elsewhere Jesus is pictured as a priest as well as the lamb. Jesus saves us from futile ways. Jesus can yet save us from practices that continue the legacy continues environmental racism (such as in Standing Rock which protests by a white community moved construction to sacred lands and near the water of the original peoples or in New Mexico where safety measures on oil and gas companies are enforced in white communities but not on the Diné (Navajo) reservation) and the inability to acknowledge whose land this was.

22 Now that you have purified your souls by your obedience to the truth so that you have genuine mutual love, love one another deeply from the heart. 23 You have been born anew, not of perishable but of imperishable seed, through the living and enduring word of God.

Obedience to the truth results souls that have been made pure. When we realize that the Church has not only been complicit in injustice, but as with the Doctrine of Discovery, has generated teaching that spurred on the conquest and dehumanization of peoples, we should seek to repent and change our ways. The Church, thank God, has also be part of the creation of beauty, the abolition of slavery, the expansion of civil rights. So, my urging us to mine our theological and biblical resources while also interrogating them and the church’s practice is not a self-loathing or a nagging self-righteousness but a continued seeking to live in the love and will of God.

Mark Charles, a Navajo theologian and activist, argues that both the oppressed and the oppressor communities suffer from historical trauma of genocide, forced displacement, policies and practices (such as board schools) which tried to destroy culture, and dehumanization. http://wirelesshogan.blogspot.com/ .Willie James Jennings, an African American theologian and professor, asserts that the Christian imagination has been distorted. Jennings writes,

Christian social imagination is diseased and disfigured. In making this claim I am not saying that the church is lost, moribund, or impotent. Rather, I want my readers to capture sight of a loss, almost imperceptible, yet articulated powerfully in the remaining slender testimonies of Native American peoples and other aboriginal peoples. This loss points out not only to deep psychic cuts and gashes in the social imaginary of western peoples, but also to an abiding mutilation of a Christian vision of creation and our own creatureliness. I want Christians to recognize the grotesque nature of a social performance of Christianity that imagines Christian identity floating above land, landscape, animals, place, and space, leaving such realities to the machinations of capitalistic calculations and the commodity chains of private property. Such Christian identity can only inevitably lodge itself in the materiality of racial existence (Jennings, The Christian Imagination, 293).

As we seek to follow the risen Christ as a community, we as the disciples along the Emmaus road, will experience the revelation of our Lord in what are at times unexpected ways and places. As we open ourselves to hear histories and stories of the indigenous communities of this land we must both mourn the past and our complicity but more importantly we must listen and seek to end this mistreatment and injustice in the present.

 

-Nathan Hosler, pastor at Washington City Church of the Brethren

Trip to Nigeria connects with peacebuilding efforts, food crisis needs

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Meeting with the EYN President, Vice President, and General Secretary

Jennifer Hosler and I recently traveled to Nigeria to consult, connect with, and support the development and peacebuilding work of Ekklesiyar Yan’uwa a Nigeria (EYN, the Church of the Brethren in Nigeria). Jennifer traveled to Nigeria in her role as a member of the advisory committee of the Church of the Brethren’s Global Food Initiative. In this role, she met with EYN leaders and members who had traveled to Ghana in September 2016, together with Jeff Boshart (Global Food Initiative director) to learn about soybean projects.

Most EYN members and other residents in northeast Nigeria are farmers (often small-scale) who grow food for family use and to supplement income. Due to the extensive displacement by Boko Haram over the past several years, the ability to plant and harvest has been severely disrupted. Displacement from land, return after planting season, and fear of ongoing and sporadic Boko Haram attacks in some areas have led to reduced harvests and food shortages. Some communities face crop theft and terrorism from Boko Haram. During our visit, we heard that Kauthama, a village not far from EYN headquarters, had been attacked and 80 percent of its homes and crops were destroyed or taken.

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I traveled as part of my work with the Office of Public Witness. Much focus was on the growing food crisis and famine in the northeast as well as on peacebuilding. The Office of Public Witness has been raising concerns about Nigeria’s food crisis in Washington, D.C. The office collaborated to organize a briefing for US Congressional staff in November and sent out an action alert asking Brethren to contact their elected officials to adequately address this emerging famine.

As former peace and reconciliation staff with EYN from September 2009 to December 2011, we were also able to use this visit to support EYN and other groups’ peacemaking efforts. We taught a three-hour peacebuilding workshop at Kulp Bible College, met with the EYN Peace Program staff in Kwarhi, and visited one of its new initiatives in Yola.

CAMPI (Christians and Muslims for Peacebuilding Initiatives) was founded in Mubi in 2010 and has recently established a chapter in Yola, the state capital of Adamawa State. We were involved with the starting of CAMPI in Mubi in 2010 and 2011. Since their work ended in December 2011, EYN’s Peace Program CAMPI in Mubi has started nine peace clubs in secondary schools.

We were hosted for a meal by the Adamawa Peacemakers Initiative (API) at American University in Nigeria (AUN), also based in Yola. API is bringing together Christians and Muslims to meet human need and to build bridges between communities often wracked by distrust. During the massive influx of internally displaced persons (IDPs) into Yola in 2014 and 2015, API worked with AUN to provide emergency food relief to thousands of people in need. Additionally, they are working at reconciliation in communities through women’s empowerment programs, informal education, and sports. Though no formal agreements were made, API responded enthusiastically to the efforts of EYN for peace, meeting food needs, and trauma healing.

We also had extensive conversations with staff of the US embassy to Nigeria, highlighting the effects of displacement, the causes of violence, the food crisis, the Nigerian government’s response, and needed work for peacebuilding.

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Nathan Hosler is director of the Church of the Brethren’s Office of Public Witness in Washington, D.C.

Seeking Sanctuary in the Church

October means colorful fall leaves, chilly winter nights, and costumed children haunting their neighborhoods in hopes of collecting buckets of candy. The month of October, however, is also tied to a darker issue that affects people of all genders, ages, races, and socioeconomic classes; October is National Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Although October heightens the awareness of the topic,we should be aware of the terrifying truths year-round. The month may have passed, but our thoughts, prayers, and support never should. Based on statistics from the National Coalition Against Violence website, this issue has probably impacted you personally or someone you know. 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men have been victims of some sort of physical violence by an intimate partner in their lifetime. These numbers are startling, especially when we consider the impact on the children in the home. Nationwide, 1 in 15 children are involved in intimate partner violence incidents, with 90% being eyewitnesses to the abuse. Although we’d like to think that intimate partner violence isn’t an issue in our communities, in our neighborhoods, in our churches, the statistics disagree.

The issue of intimate partner violence is not isolated to the physical abuse itself. The NCAV reports that domestic violence costs the U.S. over $8.3 billion per year. Between 21-60% of victims lose their jobs due to issues stemming from the abuse. In addition, studies show that victims are more likely to become addicted to drugs and alcohol as well as suffer from depression and suicidal tendencies. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Children’s Bureau reports that youth exposed to domestic violence can experience a wide variety of both short-term and long-term consequences, ranging from mental disorders such as anxiety, depression and PTSD to cognitive delays and social issues.

In reflecting on this epidemic, I thought of 1 Corinthians 12:25-26: “so that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it.” While it’s easier to share with each other in times of celebration, it’s important to walk with our brothers and sisters in times of crisis, as well. However, even in a church setting, most people, especially those experiencing intimate partner violence, will be hesitant to share their darkest pains. As the body of Christ, we must nurture and develop our relationships with fellow church members so that we may support them in both the suffering and the rejoicing. This type of commitment to our brothers and sisters is not always easy, or neat, or convenient, but it is what needs to be done in this time of frequent disconnection and isolation for those experiencing this violence.

In addition, we need to make our churches, our schools, and our workplaces safe. As a peace church, we should explore ways to support positive and peaceful relationships. And have addressed this as an issue prior in a 1997 statement.  If everyone were to speak out against violence and let it be known that it will not be tolerated, we could make a difference. Too often, victims of domestic abuse are afraid to speak up for fear that they will make the situation worse. Creating safe spaces for victims to seek help without shame or blame is a small yet important part of our role as the church. Even though October is over, our concern with the issue of intimate partner violence should not end. The holidays are often a stressful time, and the occurrence of abuse often spikes. Let’s be vigilant in our concern for our brothers and sisters, and let’s seek out ways to spread the peace of Jesus Christ with hearts free of judgement and arms open wide for those who need us.

Read More:

Brethren Statement on Domestic Violence

The Conversation around Domestic Violence

Unlocking the Silence

The White House Curriculum 


 

http://ncadv.org/learn-more/statistics

http://www.clicktoempower.org/domestic-violence-facts

https://www.dccadv.org/img/fck/file/DCCADV%20Testimony%20-%20FY17%20Budget%20Local%20Portion%20Adoption%20Act%20B21-0668%20&%20Budget%20Support%20Act%20B21-0669%20(4-29-2016).pdf

 

 

 

 

Reflection on Conflict in South Sudan

Jillian Foerster served her Brethren Volunteer Service term in South Sudan in 2011-2013, only months after it gained independence from Sudan and became its own country.  Jillian has since completed her masters degree in international relations with a focus on Africa and is now working on U.S.- Africa policy and economic development in the region.  She shares from her extensive personal experience and research to help us better understand the struggles facing this young country.

In November 2011, I boarded a plane headed towards East Africa to serve as a BVSer in South Sudan. I was headed to work with a small, church-led peace building organization called RECONCILE, based in a town called Yei, located in the southern part of the country, near Uganda.

After decades of civil war with Sudan, South Sudan was struggling to overcome generations of widespread poverty and underdevelopment along with the deep trauma brought on by a legacy of violent conflict.  Nonetheless, after two years of working in Yei and forming new friendships in my community, I learned that South Sudanese men and women are fiercely resilient and were excited to start rebuilding their new nation for themselves and their children.

I left my BVS placement in December 2013. A week and a half after my departure, the President of South Sudan, Salva Kiir, announced a coup in the capital of Juba by the former Vice President, Riek Machar. This signaled the launch of a new civil war.

While the situation is complex, there are essentially three different crises occurring in South Sudan: a security crisis, an economic crisis, and a crisis of leadership.

Security Crisis: Hundreds of thousands have already died in conflict or as a result of displacement since 2013. South Sudan has now unfortunately joined an unhappy club along with Afghanistan, Somalia, and Syria, all of which have conflicts that have generated more than 1 million refugees. Counting the internally displaced (the legal designation given to people who still remain inside the country, whereas refugees are those that are outside of their home country), approximately one-third of South Sudan’s population have been forced to flee their homes due to violence.  Ethnicity plays a big role in the perpetration of violence, pitting neighbors against each other and carving deeper scars into an already fractured country.

While these numbers appear daunting, I used to rest assured that at least the people I knew remained safe in Yei, a town with a reputation of remaining peaceful even as much of the rest of the country is plunged into violence. However, there are now reports that indiscriminate killings have started taking place in the town. As of last week, the UN has warned that 100,000 people are now trapped in Yei, surrounded by armed actors.

Economic crisis: Even during my BVS term, a time of relative stability, , most of the population struggled to pay school fees for their children or get access to basic health care. Indeed, South Sudan has long been one of the most underdeveloped countries in the world with only one paved highway outside of the capital city.  Despite this low baseline, the security situation and other economic factors have contributed to plunging the country even further into a catastrophe.  A bar of soap that cost me 5 South Sudanese Pounds in 2013 now costs 200 pounds and food is scarce in the once-thriving local market in Yei.

Earlier this summer, I struggled to listen to my colleague describe how one of our neighbors in Yei slowly lost weight – He and his young children are slowly starving as they struggle to make ends meet.

Crisis of leadership: Despite the signing of a peace deal and international efforts to forge a Government of National Unity, South Sudan’s leaders have continued to perpetuate conflict as their citizens suffer. Furthermore, South Sudan’s leaders are reportedly stealing billions of dollars from state coffers and directing customs officials to prevent fleeing populations from leaving the country. It’s hard to even know the severity of the crisis because the government frequently blocks humanitarian actors from accessing crisis areas, preventing them from gathering information and providing much-needed assistance.

U.S. policy makers and other global leaders are shocked at the behavior of South Sudanese leaders and often express their disdain and condemnation in hearings and official statements. However, the crisis in South Sudan isn’t simply a matter of a few bad apples or “greedy leaders” misbehaving but a complex conflict with a complex history, taking place in a chaotic environment. The only thing that is obvious is that there is no simple solution to bringing about a lasting peace.

I find it hard to remain optimistic considering the deeps wounds inflicted by the recent and ongoing violence, a heart breaking admission given the hope that I witnessed after independence in 2011.

However, there remain a few good stories.  The Church of the Brethren has long partnered with churches in South Sudan who represent important community leaders and peacemakers at local and national levels. Churches have even stepped up to provide services, protection and to help South Sudanese families in need.  I recently saw a Facebook post from a friend that noted that over 50,000 people were being harbored in churches in Yei.  Overall, as one of my colleagues tells me, “the church has continued to be a prophetic voice in the midst of this conflict, speaking out against the atrocities and abuse of power… at great personal danger too.”

Engaging Christian leaders and other members of civil society will be key as South Sudan embarks on the difficult work of ending the conflict and repairing the wounds of war.

 

There’s a lot more to know about the recent events in South Sudan.  For more information, there are a number of sources for better understanding the context and possible international responses:

Deeper Dives:

 

 

International Day of Peace- Showing Christ’s Love to Refugees

14358849_1357697974259959_1193283755563389818_nOn September 21st, brothers and sisters gathered all around the world for International Peace Day. At  the Washington City Church of the Brethren, a small community gathered around the peace pole in prayer. Josh Ammons delivered this reflection.

 

I was asked to speak on the refugee crisis on the International Day of Prayer for Peace. “A refugee is someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war, or violence. A refugee has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. Most likely, they cannot return home or are afraid to do so. War and ethnic, tribal and religious violence are leading causes of refugees fleeing their countries.” Europe is facing the largest numbers of refugees since WWII. Most American refugees come from Africa and the Middle east. There is likely no group of people who need peace greater than refugees. Humanitarians of all types have great concern for the refugee crisis, but as Christians our concern for refugees is a part of our anthropology.

 

Many scholars argue that Jesus himself was born as a refugee. As Thomas Merton so eloquently writes:

“Into this world, this demented inn, in which there is absolutely no room for him at all, Christ has come uninvited. But because he cannot be at home in it, because he is out of place in it, and yet he must be in it, his place is with those others who do not belong, who are rejected by power, because they are regarded as weak, those who are discredited, who are denied the status of persons, tortured, exterminated. With those for whom there is no room, Christ is present in this world.”

 

Jesus instructed us to care for the refugees both by his words and deeds. In Matthew Jesus says:

“Then the King will say to those on His right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave Me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave Me something to drink, I was a stranger and you took Me in, I was naked and you clothed Me, I was sick and you looked after Me, I was in prison and you visited Me.’

Then the righteous will answer Him, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give You something to drink? When did we see You a stranger and take You in, or naked and clothe You? When did we see You sick or in prison and visit You?’

And the King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of Mine, you did for Me.’”

 

Jesus spent much of his time on this earth healing the sick, feeding the hungry, and spending time with the downtrodden of society. But many claim that the refugees are not just poor, sick, and hungry, but also a threat to our society. Jesus’ life shows examples of how we should treat those who threaten to upend our way of life in his final miracle. Jesus had just been betrayed by Judas, and the high priests were taking Jesus away to what would later be a death sentence. Simon Peter was likely overcome with fear that the life he had known as a disciple would be forever changed. He probably felt the need to defend the Jesus that he loved by any means necessary. In the heat of the moment, he struck the high priest’s servant’s ear with a sword in defense of Jesus. This man’s name was Malchus and we would become the last man to experience the healing grace of Christ before his crucifixion. Jesus healed his ear, and in this moment he showed us how we should treat those who we are afraid of. Historians say that Simon Peter died as a martyr for a faith that instructed us to love even those who we are most afraid of. As it states in Matthew:

 

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye and tooth for tooth. But I tell you not to resist an evil person. If someone slaps you on your right cheek, turn to him the other also; if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well; and if someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.

You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Do not even tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even Gentiles do the same?

Be perfect, therefore, as your Heavenly Father is perfect.”

 

Much debate can be had over issues of national security, but as Christians we are called to walk through our fears with faith in God’s teachings. Whether or not refugees are viewed by us as friends or foes, the Gospel commands us to treat them as brothers and sisters. The love Christ calls us to is not easy, even for great Christians like Simon Peter, but we serve a Powerful God who restores us when we repent and turn toward the love of Christ.

 

Prayer for refugees and victims of war

Lord God,

no one is a stranger to you

and no one is ever far from your loving care.

In your kindness, watch over refugees and victims of war,

those separated from their loved ones,

young people who are lost,

and those who have left home or who have run away from

home.

Bring them back safely to the place where they long to be

and help us always to show your kindness

to strangers and to all in need

Grant this through Christ our Lord.


 

1.http://www.plough.com/en/subscriptions/daily-dig/odd/november/daily-dig-for-november-29

2.http://www.catholic.org/prayers/prayer.php?p=1514

 

Loving our Syrian Neighbors

Loving your neighbor is a lot easier to do when you actually know your neighbor. We’re more likely to love those who are close to us and who we have regular contact with, but our global neighbors are in need of our love and compassion, too. While browsing the happenings of today, I couldn’t help but be drawn to the tragedies in Aleppo, Syria. Innocent Syrians are being injured and killed, chlorine gas attacks are swamping the city, and hospitals are being targeted. I was moved after hearing appalling stories, as told by a surgeon in the midst of all the destruction.

These awful accounts of children struggling for their lives, wanting an end to the violence, plagued my mind. Violence shows no mercy. Violence isn’t limited to “over there.” Jesus’ love knows no boundaries. His love shines to all with no limits. As Brethren, we are quite familiar with the actions of peace. The Brethren Resolution of 1991, recount “during the early 1940s, in the midst of wartime hysteria, Brethren pioneered in the resettlement of Americans of Japanese ancestry who were interned in U.S. evacuation camps during World War II[28]“ Throughout history Brethren have proved their radical actions of peacemaking.
Some fear that ISIS will infiltrate through the refugee program so our borders should remain closed to refugees. Yet our Brethren values, founded in Christ’s teachings, compel us to help those in need and welcome them with open arms.The current vetting process for a refugee isn’t easy. This lengthy process can take years and many refugees are declined throughout the process. The United State is accepting a very small number of refugees compared to some other countries. More refugees were taken in by Germany in 2015 than were taken in the US in 10 years. Peacemaking isn’t always an easy task. One of the Brethren Peace statements says, “Jesus’ way of life leaves no doubt that peacemaking is rigorous and costly.” We, as followers of Christ, we must show love to all, unconditionally. I’m proud to say that I have witnessed churches trying to do just that. Jesus calls us out to radically love one another. Psalm 82:4 says, “Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.” Doesn’t that describe plight of the Syrian refugees? May we show radical love to everyone, no matter where they may stand in the world. Our love should have no limits based on geography. Our love should have no limits based on gender, age, social class, or anything in between.

Recent actions by our government don’t live up to this ideal, however. Thirty governors have asked that Syrian resettlement in the United States be stopped. There are bills being proposed that would limit the amount of refugees that could come to the US annually, some blocking Syrians and Nigerians specifically. As followers of Christ, we need to speak out in support of the most vulnerable. The fight for shelter, food, and even water is a common struggle under the rubble of areas knocked down by the hatred of others. Refugees aren’t seeking shelter for a better life, they are just searching for life. May we give them the hospitality so they may not only survive, but thrive. Their struggling has gone on for too long. It seems that our compassion has been limited to geography.

As followers of Christ, we need to be aware of the harsh realities facing many Syrians and others struggling in the midst of violence. As these attacks continue in Syria, and elsewhere, we offer prayers and hope for a swift and lasting resolution to these conflicts. September 21st, the International Day of Peace, we will come together in prayer for those in Syria and other areas of conflict. Will you join us to pray and work beyond these barriers?

Learn more at- http://www.refugeesarewelcome.org/
Tell congress and your governor- http://support.brethren.org/site/MessageViewer?em_id=35018.0
“Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.” –Psalm 82:4

Peace to all,

Emerson Goering

Peacebuilding and Policy Associate

Office of Public Witness

A New “Peace” to the Puzzle

 

Hello! My name is Emmy Goering and I will be taking the place of Jesse Winter as the Peacebuilding and Policy Associate at the Church of the Brethren Office of Public Witness. I graduated high school in May and I am taking this year to volunteer for the Brethren Volunteer Service. Growing up in the Church of the Brethren, the importance of peace and social justice was always stressed.  Through the church, my passion for peace and social justice grew and continues to bloom.

While serving as the Peacebuilding and Policy Associate, I will be spreading awareness and advocating for those who need it. I’m looking forward to advocating for social justice while upholding Brethren values on Capitol Hill.

During my time in BVS, I hope to learn new ways to take action for those in need and teach peace through the ways of Jesus.

Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.  –Proverbs 31:8-9

Blessings to all,

Emerson Goering

 

Report On Crisis in Puerto Rico

It may be surprising to some Church of the Brethren members that Puerto Rico, an Island and United Sates’ territory, is a complete church district. The island became a district in 2014, separating from the Atlantic Southeast District. The current District Executive is Jose Calleja Otero. Paul Parker, a member of the Washington City Church of the Brethren, has family in Puerto Rico and visits the country often. In the following paragraphs, he provides information to help us better understand the situation of our Puerto Rican Brethren:

Puerto Rico has been a colony of the United States since 1898. It is an unincorporated territory; its people are U.S. citizens. Colonization has distorted the economic and political life of the country.

Politically: The “status question” has distorted politics. The three main parties are all defined by their position on status for the island: statehood, continuation of the Commonwealth, or independence. The status question of the island has been used by the political parties to mobilize voters and, effectively, to mask the parties’ failures to address the underlying economic problems of the island. Government has been plagued by cronyism, incompetence and corruption.

The commonwealth government was created in 1952, by act of U.S. Congress granting limited local control. Some believed it granted “limited sovereignty” to the island. However, ultimate authority and sovereignty always rested with the U.S. Congress. A U.S. Supreme Court ruling this spring affirmed that ultimate sovereignty abides with the Congress.

Economically: Agriculture has been greatly diminished. The sugar, coffee and tobacco industries have almost disappeared. The island imports about 75% of its food, at significant cost and outflow of wealth. All goods must be imported in expensive, U.S. flag vessels, raising the cost of living. Local industry and commerce have suffered from competition with domestic U.S. producers.

The economy of the island was supported by a Federal law that allowed companies that invested in the island to retain profits tax free, resulting in industrial investment. This law lapsed in 1998, and manufacturing began to close. After the Cold War ended, U.S. military bases closed. Tourism remains the mainstay of the economy. Many people are working hard to preserve the distinctive natural environment and cultural heritage of the island. However, with the 2008 recession, tourism, as well as other economic activity, suffered a major decline. Migration off the island, particularly of people of working ages and their children, soared due to lack of economic opportunity. Population sank from about 4.4 million to 3.4 million, and continues declining. For example, the number of doctors on the island has dropped from about 14,000 to 9,000. This reduced the tax base and left an aging population in need of greater social services. Sixty percent of the island’s children and forty percent of the total population live in poverty. Infrastructure is crumbling.

Faced with the “perfect storm” of dire economics, the Commonwealth, all of its independent agencies, and many institutions and businesses faced massive deficits and bankruptcies. Rather than raise taxes or cut services, political leaders of both of the major ruling parties resorted to deficit funding to pay operating expenses with debt. By 2015, the Commonwealth and its agencies had accumulated $68 billion in debt. Given the declining economy, the debt had become unpayable. The Commonwealth and its agencies were facing default in 2016. While some of this public debt is still held by local pension funds and retirees, a large amount has been bought up by speculators at great discount.

The Commonwealth was due to default on all debt payments on July 1, 2016. This would have allowed the speculators to sue in Federal court. The island faced possible court orders to pay the debt in preference to pension funds and social services. This would have created a massive social crisis.

The U.S. Congress acted in June to pass the “PROMESA” Act in order to prevent a social crisis. The Act was strongly supported by Jubilee, a multi-church organization devoted to debt relief for poor countries. The Church of the Brethren is a member of the coalition, and our Office of Public Witness, and its Latin American committee members, also independently supported the Act.

While a compromise between many parties, the Act has several main provisions: the Act bars any lawsuits by creditors for up to 20 months; it creates a Financial Control Board (called the “Junta” in Puerto Rico); it authorizes the Board to investigate and oversee the finances of the island; and authorizes the Board to negotiate debt reduction with the creditors. It aims to create breathing room to deal with the problem, to reestablish the credibility of the government’s financial management, and to renegotiate the debt in a manner that recognizes the social and economic needs of the populace.

While the “Junta” is resented by many, there seems to be a loss of faith in local officials and a reluctant acceptance of the necessity of the Board if it gives priority to the wellbeing of the populace over the creditors.

What are we to do as Christians and a church? First we must pray, and lobby Congress, that the Board acts to preserve the social wellbeing of the people of Puerto Rico. This is, however, only the immediate need.

A recent certified audit of the Commonwealth finances by the accounting firm of KPMA clearly stated that the island’s governmental and financial structure is simply unsustainable. Beyond debt payment, there is not enough revenue to maintain services, rebuild infrastructure, refund depleted pensions and promote economic development.

Many on the island feel that the current crisis has forcefully demonstrated the need to resolve, once and for all, the status question. There is a growing consensus that the Commonwealth, as a colonial structure, is not working. As one sign read in a recent demonstration, “The problem is not the Junta, it’s the colony.” Resolution, many believe, will require statehood or independence, both of which will require action by the US government.

Again, what are we to do as Christian’s and a church? To improve economic conditions, we must pray for and lobby Congress for the following: an end to the law requiring imports in U.S. shipping; payments for Medicare/Medicaid that equal those in the states; greater aid to education; laws to promote outside investment in the island; oversight of the Financial Control Board. Ultimately, if the island seeks statehood or Independence, we must support that decision and lobby Congress to grant statehood, or financial aid to ease a transition to independence.

In the meanwhile, come on down! The island and its people are as lovely as ever.

In Christ’s Peace,
Paul Parker and Stephanie Robinson

Stephanie works with the Office of Public Witness covering Latin America and is from the Oak Grove Church of the Brethren. Paul is part of the Washington City Church of the Brethren who has family in Puerto Rico and travels there extensively.