Tuesday, April 15, 2008
We all know how it goes: we attend an informational meeting about Darfur, or Invisible Children, or some other cause and we get inspired... for 4 days. Then we slip back into are textbooks, exams, Facebooking, socializing, Gmaling, etc. and forget all about it. Although our sympathy remains, we are busy-bodies and simply don't know what we can do to help.
To start seeing with the same kind of vision as the remarkable people who form the WFDA, I would encourage you to become more informed about what the WFDA is doing as well as other organizations worldwide. Any website you visit is going to have ample info on how to get involved. (see the bottom for links)
A few weeks ago marked the 40th anniversary of the loss of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. While we mourn his death and celebrate his life we are reminded that there is still much work to be done in our world. One of my favorite quotes from Dr. King is:
I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality.
I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.
To refuse to accept the starless midnight, as Dr. King proclaims, does not simply mean that you condemn it, it means that you change it. Until the daybreak of peace and justice becomes the reality for the 2.5 billion people in this world who live in poverty we must be, as King encouraged, be agents of change, not merely critics.
Micah 6:8 - He has shown you O man what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To do justice, love kindness and to walk humbly with your God.
The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time by Jeffrey D. Sachs
Everything Must Change by Brian D. Mclaren
Women, Faith and Development Alliance
World Hope International
Islamic Relief USA
Whole Planet Foundation
The ONE Campaign
One of the hardest realities to confront is that of inhumanity. We members of the Twenty-First Century have a hard time admitting our failures, especially when it comes to basic human rights. As the numbers of the Holocaust do not lie, neither do the current numbers reporting the world's poorest citizens. Among the 2.5 billion people who fall into the categories of either poverty or extreme poverty, roughly 70% are female. Two-thirds of the world's illiterate are female. For every ten men who have HIV-AIDS, fourteen women are afflicted. 500,000 women die each year from preventable complications of pregnancy. The numbers go on and on to illustrate the disadvantages that women face in the developing world.
On Sunday I attended the Breakthrough Summit for Women, Faith, and Development Alliance (WFDA). It was held at Washington National Cathedral and I must thank T.C. Benson for the spectacular 7th-row seats amidst the Leadership Council and various speakers and representatives. The program, which lasted from 1:30p.m. until 6:00p.m., was an inaugural ceremony for the WFDA, a conglomerate of international organizations committed to fighting global poverty.
Men and women from numerous foundations, NGOs, and Faith-Based Organizations were present to commit their support to the WFDA. In addition to these men and women were leaders from a number of nations such as United States, Canada, Ireland, Liberia, India, Republic of Congo, Kenya, Sierra Leone, and many more.
Former Secretary of State Madeline K. Albright gave the keynote address which was nothing short of brilliant. Standing no more than five feet tall, this delicate woman gave a fiery cry to put an end to the preventable causes of extreme poverty and death in our world. She confronted the many persons to whom this fight is a lost cause; those who would give a roll of the eyes and claim "there's nothing we can do." To them she stated simply and firmly: "Poverty is not a force of nature. What we have the power to choose we have the power to change."
Following the keynote address were many short orations sharing concern and commitment. One of these speakers, a Muslim woman from Northern Africa (I have forgotten her name and which country since there were so many present!) shared a wonderful Muslim Proverb:
When I saw the terror in the world I asked God if He too saw these things. He did. So I then asked Him if He was going to do something about it and He said, "Yes I am." I asked Him what He was going to do and He replied, "I made you."
This short thought is not only moving by its message, but also because it is so corresponding with the teachings of Christianity. To see the parallels between the American Christians and the North-African Muslims and the Tibetan Buddhists and the Irish Catholics - all represented at the alliance - was a promising hope for a reality in which our world can unite upon common ground.
This, to me, was one of the most inspiring facets of the Summit: the unification of a body of people with one common hope. At the end of the ceremony there stood on stage more than fifty people - men, women, and children - who have lived in different countries and cultures, who share difference and similarities, all coming together on the stage of the Washington National Cathedral.
And what did we do then? We affirmed our commitment in the best way possible: through song. A special song was commissioned by the Breakthrough Summit and was led by the St. Thomas Gospel Choir of Philadelphia. The lyrics are:
We'll gather our courage, gather our voices
Breakthrough the doubt, breakthrough the walls
Each one is blessed when everyone shares
Gather our voices, raising a song
Gather our voices together and sing!
After singing this through a number of times the postlude began as the thumping of African drums shook the cavernous walls of the cathedral. I stood watching the many faces of men and women passing me by as they marched out through the center aisle. I saw light faces and dark faces, white faces and black faces, red faces, brown faces, yellow faces, and more. And yet as all of these different faces passed, I saw the same eyes: the kind of eyes that hold vision. These are the kind of eyes that know Hope. The kind of eyes that can see the invisible. The kind of eyes that can see things that aren't there yet.
This past weekend I enjoyed the first chapter of my April vacation: Washington DC. It was only my second time to my nation's capitol, my first being in February of this year. I had another wonderful time visiting the extensive network of museums and beautiful parks. On Friday I visited the National Holocaust Museum. Unable to fit this famous site into my last trip I made a point to see it first thing this time around.
I arrived over an hour early Friday morning only to find an already long line extending around the side of the building toward the basin full of cherry trees. I was, however, still part of the first group to enter the exhibit. Upon entering we were herded in a large crowd into an elevator heading to the fourth floor - the museum is set up for viewers to work their way down from the fourth floor. After a short video clip in the elevator the door slid open and we found ourselves confronted with an enormous black and white photograph of one of the many inhumane horrors of the Holocaust.
Two and a half hours later I exited the museum. During those two and a half hours I am not quite sure what happened. It is as if time stopped and then fast-forwarded ahead. I cannot exactly explain the images I saw or the maps I examined or the words I read or the numbers I tallied. To be honest I am not exactly sure if I can grasp the enormity or the absurdity of it all. I am still digesting the entire thing. Still, at this point, the best word I can use to describe my state is "numb."
The one question that remained with me the whole day was "How? How could this happen?" On top of this question was "How could people be so stupid?" and "How could people be so blind?"
What stood out to me the most was the number of people in every photograph. Whether it was an image of Nazis, Jews, victims or perpetrators, there always seemed to be a large number of people. I was taken aback by this. This surely gives support to the claim that human beings will carry out in large groups behavior that they would not individually.
Part of the answer to my question of "How?" is another significant aspect of the exhibit that impacted me. The Holocaust developed so slowly and in such a multifaceted way. What astonished me were the roles that doctors, lawyers, businessmen and many other people played in the Holocaust. The slow and steady discrimination of the Jews was carried out by so many more people than just the Nazis who we typically assume were completely and independently responsible.
At the end of the exhibit is a quote from Martin Niemoller that illustrates the role that neglect played in the Holocaust. The quote states:
First they came for the communists but I did not speak out because I was not a communist.
Then they came for the socialists but I did not speak out because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists but I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews but I did not speak out because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak out for me.
This quote left me pondering the question: If I am not a part of the solution, am I a part of the problem?
I could write pages concerning what I saw, but I would much rather you visit the museum for yourself and let it move you in a personal way. As for me, I am still attempting to make sense of the insensible, trying to mentally digest the mentally indigestible. My only wish is to understand the complexities of these events enough to disallow anything comparable to occur again.
Have you ever noticed the anticipatory behavior of people who are about to go on vacation? Here at school I am currently one day away from a 10-day break and the all-too-common signs of impending sabbatical are all around me. While some teachers complain aloud, "Get me the hell out of here!" others let their apathy do the talking. Instead of educating, teachers merely baby sit. And students are no exception; they too arrive to school in the morning with little to no expectation to learn - the most that can be said of the ones that do attend school is that they are physically present.
I noticed this behavior back in college as well. When an upcoming break was around the corner, everyone's mind was to be found someplace other than their schoolwork. Assignments that once seemed urgent became "I'll do it after break" assignments. Study habits declined, socializing increased, and class attendance plummeted (especially since most students skipped the last day of classes altogether).
This anticipatory apathy also occurs in athletic events. Consider a basketball game in which one team is easily defeating another, say 34-10, at half-time. Then in the second half the team who is ahead plays poorly and the team that was behind stages a dramatic come back to win 58-57! Have you ever seen the dominant team begin to play poorly or lazily due to their overconfidence? As a sports coach I have seen what happens when human beings are overly focused on the future in place of the present.
What is it about anticipating vacation or victory or some sort of pie-in-the-sky future that causes us to behave irresponsibly in the present? It seems that the human mind is easily manipulated by its perspective of the future. Not only this, but it also seems that the particular way in which a person views the future, a world view for example, will have inevitable effects on the present.
So, if this is true in academia and athletics, could it be true in Christianity as well? Could a determined belief in life after death affect the way one lives in the present? Not only do I think this is the case, but I think that it is justly warranted - what you believe about life beyond death should affect your present behavior. However, I strongly believe that christians have gotten it wrong for many years. For too long the traditional views on eternal life, heaven and hell, and salvation have distracted Christians from furthering God's Kingdom in the present.
Brian McLaren warns about fatalistic eschatalogies (eschatology meaning the study of "last things" or "future/end" things) in his books Everything Must Change (chap. 19) and The Secret Message of Jesus (chapters 18/19). McLaren points out that evangelical christians have long held a view that sees the future as predetermined and incurable. For example, he cites a famous evangelist who once said "If the Titanic is destined to sink, why rearrange the deck chairs on it?" It is this kind of eschatology that gives Christians every reason to separate themselves from the world and simply wait for their retirement or their "going home."
But what if we are not called to "go home?" What if we're called to share in "Thy Kingdom come, on Earth as it is in Heaven?" Bishop N.T. Wright writes about this in his book, Surprised by Hope. He correctly argues that as long as we see salvation as "going to heaven," as away from this world, there is no hope for change and transformation in the world in the present. Wright also states that an individual who sees death as a "going home" has no quarrels with the injustices s/he leaves behind in this world.
These kinds of world views are strongly influenced by Platonic philosophy in which the soul is separate from the body and must escape the mortal world. It is important for Christians to step back and consider the many lenses through which we interpret the message of Jesus. For most, a Western, Platonic, Modern, Post-Enlightenment lens has significantly blurred the visions of the Church. But this topic is very immense and deserves more than a small paragraph of thought. Unfortunately it will not happen here in this post.
Back to fatal eschatology or what I like to call anticipatory apathy. In the same way that my fellow teachers are anticipating their vacation I believe that too many Christians are anticipating eternal life in an other-worldly, heaven. To even begin discussing this, however, it is important to challenge the foundational idea of what Jesus may have meant by "eternal life." The Greek translation of this literally means "life of the ages." It does not mean a spiritual body that floats up into the clouds. In John 17:3 Jesus says, "And this is eternal life, that they know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou has sent." Christ Himself was the first example of this eternal life. Remember that He proclaimed "the Kingdom of God is at hand." For more on this see McLaren's The Secret Message of Jesus.
What happens to all of our favorite verses about receiving eternal life, especially John 3:16? Would this new (not really new, more like ancient and contextually sound) view be even better news than we had hoped? Wouldn't it mean that, instead of waiting for some spiritual reward after we die, we're invited to share in life the way God intended here and now in the present? Surely this sounds like Good News to me!
Therefore, eternal life or "life of the ages" is a way of living that embodies the Goodness of God. Luckily we have many examples of what eternal life should look like. Aside from the definition John 17:3 we have Micah 6:8, 1 Corinthians 13, 1 John 4:19, and many more. There is, in fact, one more significant example: the life of Jesus Himself. The fact that Christians have a specific example of how to live life is scandalous. I have often heard this called "the scandal of particularirty" because Jesus is the foundational example for us and to lower our standards is a blatant disregard to His call. Unfortunately for many Christians the example lived by Jesus is seen not as an opportunity to live the life of the ages but rather a standard for comparison by which we are graded.
If followers of Christ Jesus were to accept His invitation to experience eternal life or "life of the ages" here and now in the present by doing justice, loving kindness, making peace, being patient, loving enemies, etc., would we be as susceptible to neglecting our suffering brothers and sisters? Would we be as vulnerable to the influence of greed, power, and other temptations that injure others?
I believe that how we view the future affects the present. Not only is this true for teachers awaiting vacation and athletes approaching victory, it is true for Christians who anxiously anticipate the Kingdom of God in Its fullness on this Earth. However, as we anticipate we also accept the coupled challenge/reward of living the life of the ages here and now, knowing that this is eternal life: to know Thee the only True God and Jesus Christ Whom Though has sent.