“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

 

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