Today, if you hear his voice

Ben White's Adventures with softened hearts

Category: peacemaking (page 1 of 2)

Playing “You Got Booked” with Mennonite Central Committee and the Brethren in Christ

This post was originally posted at peaceandjusticeproject.org On Saturday, February 15, 2020, a couple dozen people gathered at Mechanicsburg Brethren in Christ Church to learn about the injustice of the criminal justice system in the United States and listen to stories of formerly incarcerated individuals. The event was sponsored by the BIC Peace and Justice Project and Mennonite Central Committee. This is an illustrated recap of what happened from me, Ben White, pastor at Circle of Hope BIC Church in the Philadelphia Region.

Layne Lebo, Pastor of Mechanicsburg BIC Church, welcomes the group.

I came to the event because I care deeply about this issue as a matter of my Christian discipleship. When Jesus said in Matthew 25 that we would see him when we visit people in prison I think it’s pretty straightforward. “The least of these” clearly include everyone in prison. The hopeless situation so many people find themselves in when they, for whatever reason, find themselves involved with the US criminal justice system, is a place that Christians are called to go. I have only been face-to-face with people while they were incarcerated once, but I know many people who have come out of the system and faced innumerable challenges as a result of their incarceration. This event was a golden opportunity to be face-to-face with people who were willing to tell their story and help us to understand the gravity of the problem we face in this country. For an excellent primer on Mass Incarceration and the Christian mandate, watch the video at mcc.org/stories/mass-incarceration-christian-mandate

ChiChi Oguekwe, MCC East Coast Philadelphia Program Coordinator facilitating “You Got Booked”

The event helped the participants learn about and even feel about this injustice by playing a game that MCC developed called “You Got Booked.” It’s an interactive board game, kind of like monopoly, where each player assumes a character who starts the game with various resources. It is true to reality in that the people of color have a disadvantage, both in the rules that apply to them and the resources with which they begin the game.

I played the game as Professor Patrick, a 43 year old black male with a college degree, who started the game with money, a job, no criminal record and a house. By the end of the game I had gone to jail three times which means I lost. The two white characters, as almost always happens in the game according to ChiChi Oguekwe who has facilitated the game many times, made it all the way around the board, one of them getting paid regularly because of his investments in the private prison industry.

When I went to jail after a traffic stop I lost my job and my house. How often does a life fall apart because of incarceration? Pretty often — you can imagine, right? When I got out the first time I had a criminal record, no job and no housing, which made it almost impossible in the game for me to not go back to jail. Restrictive parole regulations, disadvantages in employment opportunity and the color of my character’s skin all made it very difficult to not go back to jail.

Marsha Banks’ insight was powerful. During the game she added to the facts and figures with her own story and the stories of others. We almost couldn’t wait to start talking about it.

It was incredibly frustrating to say the least. The game functions as a parable of the criminal justice system. It does not focus on the crimes that any of the individuals committed, just on how the system works once you’re in it, and the disproportionate likelihood that you will get in it if you are not white. The dominant narrative in our country about this issue mostly focuses on individual responsibility and the rule of law. Mercy is not at play in policy making or many of the perspectives that even Christians hold in evaluating the decisions of those policy makers. As a people called to reconciliation, we who follow Christ must change our perspective and see people as the beloved ones of God they are, no matter what they have done. Wisdom and an enduring desire for public safety lead me to conclude that hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people are incarcerated who should not be. Why is punishment paramount in our perspective if we are Christians?

ChiChi Oguekwe, MCC East Coast Philadelphia Program Coordinator, and John-Michael Cotignola-Pickens, MCC Criminal Justice Education & Advocacy Coordinator

The game is peppered with revealing facts and figures read by the facilitators. ChiChi Oguekwe, MCC East Coast Philadelphia Program Coordinator, and John-Michael Cotignola-Pickens, MCC Criminal Justice Education & Advocacy Coordinator, were our facilitators. The game can be so frustrating that they are trained in not just helping participants play but also process the intense emotions that often come with it.

“What are the odds?” was kind of like “Chance” in Monopoly, but the deck was pretty stacked against people of color.

Playing the game with Marsha Banks of amiracle4sure.com and Eddie McCreary of friendsoverfences.org made it an even more enriching experience. At one point during the game, Marsha suggested that a person who had lost the game by being sent to jail three times remain standing in jail instead of sitting down. She said that it would be a symbol of how many people feel stuck and without hope. The game offered that kind of visceral connection to the difficulties people face. It was an opportunity to feel it, even in our bodies.

Curtis Book of BIC Peace and Justice Project and Lancaster BIC, Stephen Sands of Friends Over Fences, Eddie McCreary, and Marsha Banks of amiracle4sure.com

Then we got to learn some first-hand stories from people who lived through it. Marsha Banks and Eddie McCreary told their stories of incarceration and reentry into the community. Holding on to hope was a major struggle. Stephen Sands, the Executive Director of Friends Over Fences, joined them in a panel discussion facilitated by Curtis Book of the BIC Peace and Justice Project, and, until very recently, also of MCC.

Eddie McCreary is an incredible storyteller with an important story to tell.

For both Marsha and Eddie their faith played an important role in their hope conservation as they struggled in prison and when they were released. Marsha gave birth in prison and had to fight to get custody of all of her children, which she did, and she got a masters degree! Eddie was incarcerated for 36 years and experienced several incredible miracles to fuel his faith in Jesus and his hope for his future. One of my favorite things he said had to do with something that happened recently. After losing a job he said “It was God’s math. I put out two resumes and I got four jobs!” The network he was connected to via Friends Over Fences before he was released played an important role in the multiplicative math of the Kingdom community,

amiracle4sure’s motto and logo

Obviously, Marsha’s and Eddie’s experience with God and God’s people helped them, which I think ought to encourage us who follow Jesus to find ways to participate in community with people like Marsha and Eddie. Looking for hope in a hopeless situation is a community project that should not be left to just those afflicted by the injustice of our criminal justice system. This is our issue, too, and these are our people.

If you wish to bring some of your hope to this situation, check out Friends Over Fences. They write letters to people who are incarcerated and have resources for them when they are released; like job leads, furniture and temporary housing (housing is a major impediment to many potential parolees). A Miracle 4 Sure, the organization that Marsha Banks started, provides housing and other resources to people in Dauphin, Lancaster, York, Mifflin, Juniata, Franklin and Lebanon counties in Pennsylvania.

Ben White, Hariet Sider Bicksler and Curtis Book of the BIC Peace and Justice Project outside Mechanicsburg BIC Church

Thanks to Mechanicsburg BIC Church for hosting the event, MCC for sending John-Michael and ChiChi and all of the participants. Curtis Book, Harriet Sider Bicksler and I (Ben White) count it a joy to help instigate this dialogue. Let us know if you would like to bring the “You Got Booked” game to your congregation, youth group, small group or other organization. Email [email protected] or just leave us a comment. You can also join the BIC Peace and Justice Project group on Facebook.

I won’t agree to disagree with you

I won’t agree to disagree with you. I will not codify our division. I am not my thoughts and opinions and neither are you. So though we are currently disagreeing about any number of things, I will not agree to it. I will not content myself with that separation, especially if you are a part of Circle of Hope. Sorry, that’s impossible. I already agreed to agree, so we’re going to have to keep working toward that.

Greg Boyd describes our problem so well

I think we, culturally Americans at least, are much better at disagreeing these days. I don’t think this is a new insight. In fact, Greg Boyd just said it super clearly last week on his blog:

MRI tests have demonstrated that when people confront alleged facts that challenged their deeply held beliefs, their amygdala, which is in charge of their “fight-or-flight” reflex, kicks into gear, and their pre-frontal lobe cortex, which is in charge of reasoning, tends to shut down. On the other hand, when people encounter alleged facts that confirm their deeply held beliefs, the pleasure centers of their brain gets activated, and their pre-frontal lobe cortex again tends to shut down (see: here). This is why it is very difficult to think objectively, or talk rationally, about beliefs we are passionate about.

Well, “back in the day” we had three television Networks, and it was in the interest of all of them to report the News with as little bias as possible to attract the widest possible audience. With the advent of Cable News, however, people are able to watch the filtered version of the News that they agree with and that therefore activates the pleasure centers of their brain. And when liberal and conservative minded people no longer have to try to see the world through each other’s eyes, they get hardened in their perspectives. In time, they lose the willingness, and then the ability, to understand the perspectives of those who fundamentally disagree with their deeply held beliefs. Those who oppose them, therefore, can’t possibly be doing so on rational or moral grounds, which means they must either be stupid or immoral. They therefore cannot be reasoned with. They must simply be defeated.

Greg Boyd describes our problem so well. More and more opinions are potentially deeply held beliefs. And deeply held beliefs are becoming more and more atomized identities. We’re pushing the limits of what can be existentialized–that which is essential to our being. More and more our thoughts and opinions are who we are. My identity is that I think this about that. Dialogue cannot happen if we don’t undo this problem.

They sold us our false selves

As far as I can tell, this is mostly a clever trick of people who sell stuff. They have successfully turned niche markets into identities. “Niche” comes form the Latin word for “nest”, after all. Why not have our children born into a nest of security in a completely seamless environment? Maybe there is a future in which no one ever shops, only buys. I can’t imagine Jeff Bezos hasn’t dreamed that. Opinions are just the newest product large corporations have taught us to buy. It was a brilliant move because the alchemy required to transform opinions into identities is even easier.

“I am an android person and not an apple person.” This is how we are taught to talk. This is what our grandchildren might read about the Great Smart Phone War on whichever kind of device wins said war. “I cheer for the red team in the quadrennial sporting event called Presidential Elections.” My personhood is defined by the thoughts and opinions that make me feel comfortable. Light up those pleasure centers, please! Make me feel like who I am!

We agree, that’s who we are

I have been having conversations recently in which there are disagreements. (Note the passive voice). I am taking a wide circle around actively disagreeing with anyone because I’m trying to live into this conviction to agree to agree. Transcending the encampments is a freedom song I sing with Jesus. YES! I can love you. I can love you even as we are disagreeing, but disagreeing is not who we are. We agree, that’s who we are.

I admit this sounds ridiculous. It is. But I need something foolish to counter the wisdom of the world. The world is teaching me that I must succeed in all I do, and make all the right decision or something terrible will happen. Now my consumer choice has the future of humanity riding on it, too. In Circle of Hope, we call this “empire” thinking. “Either we think we have the power to get everything right and deserve it to be that way. Or we think we have to get it right or something terrible will happen or we will be severely punished by ‘the way things are.'” Ok, I’ll disagree with THAT! Jesus saved me from that. I’m not going back.

Love will bind everything together

I’m trying to get creative about doing what Paul says in Colossians 3:14 Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. I believe this. Love WILL bind everything together in perfect harmony… eventually. We have forever to figure this out. This allows me to creatively disagree with you for a really long time but not forever. Because eventually we will get set straight. I’m sure we will both need a course correction when we see Jesus face to face. In the mean time, I feel responsible to you and to the gospel to never end the dialogue with a codification of disagreement–an encampment in our lovely, pleasure-center-sparking nests.

We’ll need love to be real, active, vital. We’ll need Love to live among us, convict us to forgive regularly and push us in new directions. We’ll get to where we need to go more often if we agree to agree. The stories we tell ourselves about who we really are really matter. Because they are telling us something else. If we actually say what they want us to say, like out loud, it doesn’t ring true. If we put that lie in the light as I’ve tried to do in this post, it does look like darkness. Let’s be scouts for reconciliation, together. that’s who we are. We are ministers of reconciliation. We’ll need love to cast out our automatic fear. So let’s put love on every day and trust Jesus to make something better than we think is possible.

What if your opinion doesn’t matter that much?

What if Your Opinion Doesn’t Matter That Much?

The Circle of Hope Pastors were wondering about this question indirectly on the most recent episode of their videocast, “Someone Asked.” What if your opinion doesn’t matter that much? Or, maybe, what if your opinion shouldn’t matter as much as it does. My opinions matter to me a lot, or so it would seem. I have a lot of opinions. Opinions might be my favorite thing. I grew up around a dinner table of intelectual brothers who were well-read and very opinionated. Having urbane conversation might be my love language as a result.

So I surprised myself when I told my buddy as we were biking today that, at least in the church, unity needs to trump authenticity. Being correct about anything is not as important as being connected to other members of the body. This does not mean we don’t have opinions–remember I love opinions; t means that it’s better to hold your opinions loosely than to commit strongly to your own thoughts and instincts. What do we gain by being right, after all?

Our culture gains a lot of entrenched power systems that change little about the every day lives of regular folks. We get sold binary opinions as commodities. It seems like everything is pepsi vs. coke, red vs blue, left vs. right, black vs. white. The division serves its real purpose, to divide us against each other and ensure the status quo. But if we want to change anything it seems we must choose to throw our lot in with one side or the other. We must choose a side. The opinion that comes most naturally is to be against. Saying no is so easy. And then we are reduced to deconstructionists. We spend much of our energy in what passes as conversation telling the other side how they’re wrong.

Is Conversation War?

And if the supposed conversation gets heated enough, or loud enough or long enough, we become so invested in defending ourselves against the threat of being the wrong one, that our  choice becomes who we are. Our opinion about the available options becomes a central part of our identity. We carry the wounds of previous attacks into new conversations. Our defenses are up before the person we are listening to says anything at all. Opponents seem to pop up everywhere. Once we’ve been in war, our minds have trouble experiencing any safety. Hyper-vigilance exhausts us and we don’t function at our highest level anymore. Are we good for only one thing; for being against?

From a natural perspective, I would say yes. Our ancient ancestors survived out of fear, tribalism and suspicion. Our more recent ancestors have been dominated, duped and discarded enough to know the contemporary stakes. Choosing the better of two evils is as good as it’s going to get. It’s not going to get better but we better fight like hell so that it doesn’t get any worse. And yet it does. The current discourse in the United States seems worse than it has ever been. I believe this is because we have been sold our choice as our salvation. In general, we have been convinced that our opinion, our preference, our desire is who we are. And now being right is a matter of life and death.

What Happens When Jesus Blows It All Up?

Jesus said something that blows all this up. He said it a long time ago and we aren’t very practiced at hearing it or applying it. He said, ” Whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.” (Matthew 6) If most of our opinions are as linked to life and death as I think they are, than we need to lose our opinions to find our lives in Christ. Our opinions do not matter as much as we have been conditioned to think they do. Our safety is not built on our capacity to defend ourselves, or any righteousness we produce. It is built on Jesus Christ, his victory over death and his promise of a future. This applies to everything, not just what happens when we do. It means a lot for how we talk to one another and even how we think.

The benefits of the demotion of our opinions is unity and probably better solutions to the problems of the world, but definitely a better alternative to the problems of the world. As Christians, we break the binaries starting with the ultimate binary between life and death. Let’s break the ones that exist in our minds and conversations as well. Use your intellect, yes. Puzzle through the troubles of this world, yes. Have a debate too, yes. But do it with charity, generosity, deep empathy for your partners. This will build the presence of the future here and now. We will be the best thing the world has going for it, not by getting the right answers, and having the right opinion, but by being a people, united from many perspectives, loving across many boundaries and losing many lives to share a new one in Christ.

The Drums of War Beat Me into the Bible

When I was a freshman in college, terrorists high-jacked planes and flew them into The World Trade Center buildings in New York City. I was newly baptized and thus minted a new man, and newly immersed in the Christian subculture at Eastern University in St. David’s, PA. I was dismayed by my classmates response to what happened that first month of school. The drums of war beat me into the Bible. I poured through the New and Old Testament with a red ball point pen, underlining and exclamation pointing every call to peacemaking and justice I could find (and there are sooo many). Every amateur just war theologian in my Philosophy class inspired me to get the facts. I was building an argument, sharpening my spear, shouting a lot.

Che of Nazareth

Jesus is much more than Che of Nazareth

I don’t hate the zealotry of that young man in the early aughts. I learned the Bible well. I fell in love with it as my guide for life. Though I often painted Jesus as more Che of Nazareth, I was relating to him and wrestling with how to follow him with my whole life. The struggle led me to Mexico for a year of service with the Mennonite Central Committee. The spiritual intensity of that year has not been rivaled in the decade and a half since, but when I read my journals my immaturity makes me squirm. Or it might just be how glaringly naive I was. I am, to this day, a big proponent of my own naivete. I’ve owned my unswerving optimism as a strength even when it requires more resilience when my big hopes are often dashed. The intervening years of struggle and failure (AKA life) give me a much more nuanced perspective on almost everything. But what I learned in a tiny church on the edge of giant Mexico City holds true. Jesus was a revolutionary and his weapon was love. 

My sojourn in Mexico resulted in, among many other things, my sense of calling to lead the Church. I went knowing that I was a leader, but I was leaning toward leading the nonviolent political revolution that would bring about a new age of peace and justice. I came back from Mexico knowing that the transformation of the world would come person by person, heart by heart. I saw the violence of my own political zealotry as a supposed peacemaker and wanted more for myself. I wanted more for the world. I still do.

The drums of war keep beating. The news from Syria this week is deadening. We need more for ourselves. The “red line” of chemical weapons is such a low bar. I feel beaten back and discouraged. Those underlined red verses are coming back to me. The Bible that made me a Jesus follower is still a real comfort to me. The promises of peace, of life beyond death, of grace are new again. They are new every time I need them; and I need them every time I read the news. THIS is the world we live in. It hasn’t changed much in my entire adult life (which I know is relatively short). Anything better than this will only be slightly better in the hands of those in power.

So I invest in a kingdom that is not of this world. I show the powers that there is a greater power. Some are beating their chests to police the world. Jesus was beaten and killed to save the world. And then God beat back death! The American state won’t save me, only Jesus will. May the drums of war keep beating back to this peace. May you find refuge in THIS promise.

On Palm Sunday, I’m going to Washington DC at midnight to stand on the Capitol steps if the authorities will let me, to be at the source of those war drums and deliver Christ’s message of peace again. I’ve been there before to say no to war, but this time I’ll be saying “yes” to Jesus. I’m going to pray on behalf of Circle of Hope but it’s personal for me as well. I’ll say “This is who I am now, American Power. I’ve changed, but God hasn’t. Jesus’ peace can be yours too. Join us!”

Would you like to join us? I have a few spots in my car. Email me, comment, or sign up here, to be sent to the powers to show them who we are in Christ and that his kingdom is not of this world.

I Got Kicked off of Camden County College’s Campus Today

Yep, you heard that right. I got kicked off of Camden County College’s Blackwood Campus today for hanging out with students who I met while holding a sign that said “Tell Me your Story.” The head of security asked me to leave because I was not an authorized guest. I asked him how I could be authorized and he basically said I couldn’t… We’ll see.

tell-me-your-storyI went to Camden County College (CCC) with my sign because I wanted to meet young people who might be interested in making a movement that broke down the barriers isolating so many of them. The campus in Blackwood, NJ, is pretty set apart, geographically, from anything else, so everyone is commuting. Everyone is rushing by each other, getting to class, feeling alone a lot of the time. The college is a kind of paragon of the epidemic of isolation that comes sweeping behind our technological integration of pocket computers. It was a great place to randomly ask for connection to strangers and it was very well received. I probably talked to a hundred people.

Army Recruiters get a pass but I don’t

A couple of weeks ago I met some army recruiters there. They were friendly people and interested in my sign like so many others so we talked. In our conversation I kept saying the word “killing” as a major downside of joining the military. Finally one of them tried to correct me, “We don’t really use the word ‘killing’, we say ‘we’re defending the guy next to us.”

Yep, you do. You do say that, new army recruiter friend, because if you don’t, you would have to admit that no matter the reasons, in the end, war comes down to killing. Human beings are not designed to kill. Something inside of us rejects it and it takes some serious reprogramming (like avoiding the word “killing”) to sign up to be a part of it. (Have you seen the Netflix show, Black Mirror’s episode, “Men Against Fire”?)

I asked, and none of the three recruiters had discharged their weapon in combat. One was a mechanic; another was a chemical weapons specialist, and the third was a data analyst. I doubt there are many infantrymen who have been through the reality of war and not just it’s periphery that are recruiting the next generation of killers. There is an epidemic of suicide and addiction among veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan (and don’t forget Vietnam). War has the nasty habit of breaking people.

And now, after being booted from campus as an unauthorized guest, my encounter with these recruiters is starting to sting a little more. These peddlers of death (giving and receiving it) were there as authorized guests, talking to students, but I can’t be there as a peddler of love and connection!? I am decidedly not super religious when I talk to people, because I want to provide a space for them to be heard and cared for, not pump my own agenda. I give them my card or a flyer about Circle of Hope’s Sunday meeting if they seem interested in what I am doing, but not everyone gets one. I am not a gimmick, I am a human being with skills in being a non-anxious presence (I was a hospital chaplain) who follows Jesus too. I am eager to find people who want to build Circle of Hope with me, but I am glad to just be a compassionate ear as well.

Opposition is Par for the Course

tell-me-your-storyIt took security about two months to notice my weekly Wednesday presence. I made some friends and maybe some future partners before I got caught so not all is lost, but I hated the feeling of being caught. They asked me to leave and requested I not come back unless I enrolled as a student (Digital Photography might be a fun class though).  I don’t want to sound too weird, but it seems like I’m encountering some serious resistance, like from cosmic powers of darkness or something. The Spirit of the Age protects students at a public institution form my influence. Ugh!

As demoralizing as my ousting was, I take some comfort in this opposition. It sounds just a little like Jesus in the Garden, “Am I some dangerous revolutionary, that you come with swords and clubs to arrest me?”, or Paul in 1 Thesalonians “You know how badly we had been treated at Philippi just before we came to you and how much we suffered there. Yet our God gave us the courage to declare his Good News to you boldly, in spite of great opposition.” Opposition is par for the course in this Good News spreading business.

But… Peacemaking

I am a peacemaker. I call war what it is and I make space for some peace of mind through storytelling. I am not welcome. They are war makers. The “opportunity” of military recruitment in our “volunteer” armed forces is a lie. They convince people that killing is protecting. They are welcome. This is the world we live in! We’ve been saying it all week in the wake of the elections, but I need to hear it again, “Take heart, Jesus has overcome the world.” And when I do take heart, I feel a something burgeoning against this resistance. If we are opposed, we must be on the right track. The Spirit is on the move like in Gethsemene and Philippi–hopefully in Camden County too.

Love them? I don’t even have to acknowledge the existence of my enemies

I’m a pastor in South Jersey so, naturally, I go to Taco Bell a lot. It’s an “all things to all people sort of thing”…and a serious love of cheesy bean and rice burritos. Not long ago I was hanging out a Taco Bell in Mt. Ephraim, NJ, and I had my missionary thinking cap on. I was observing an incredibly diverse group of people. I sat with my back to the window with a full view of everyone who was there. The staff was mostly young and black. There was a Spanish speaking family in the corner with a bunch of kids too close in age to all be siblings. There was a young white couple with two young kids who looked like they might be “down and out.” There were some preppy white teenagers at the high top tables, a black woman sitting alone near the soda machine and a clean cut white guy with slicked back hair and sharp creased khakis across from her.

I wondered how God might help me and my church, Circle of Hope, include all these people in our community. How could I bridge the divide between me and my fellow Taco Bell customers? What would it take to bring us together in one body?

There was the universal divide: we were strangers. And there were many more superficial modes of separation.  These ones speak Spanish as their mother tongue, mine is English; these ones are black, I am white; this person is much older than me; these ones might have trouble making ends meet, I can pay my bills comfortably, that guy probably works at some business park, I work at Taco Bell sometimes dreaming about the Kingdom of God.

Of course this was all speculation—an exercise in missionary imagination.  I don’t actually know about these people and their experiences, but the wonderment was helpful for me. I used it to pray, “God, how will you bring us together?”

I finished my meal and my prayers and opened up a book. As I read a couple of guys sat near me. They were both young white guys. I had kind of turned off my missionary observations to focus on my book, but I did wonder what sort of people they were if they were both wearing straw cowboy hats. They interrupted me as they left.

“Hey man, you want these bean burritos? I’m just gonna throw them out if you don’t want them.” One said,

Well that was nice. I mean I had already eaten two burritos but I really love Taco Bell.

“Wow, thanks! Yes!”

Then the other guy said. “Cuz we got to stick together with all this Baltimore stuff going down, you know.”  He gestured toward a group of black teens who had just walked in.

What!? I was flabbergasted. This was new territory for me. I live in Philadelphia in a predominantly black neighborhood and my assignment in predominately white, working-class suburbia is new. It had been a while since I had encountered such blatant racism.

There I was dreaming about how God could bring us together and wham! I get lumped into active consolidation of white privilege and power. Wow!

I wish I was able to respond more prophetically but in my shock I squeaked, “I don’t know about that.”

After they left I was thinking, “Should I eat these burritos? Shouldn’t I have unwrapped them to throw them at their hats in a messy retribution against racism? I wished I had said, “I’m sticking with Freddy Gray’s family and all the victims of police brutality. I’m sticking with Jesus.”

Reflecting on this encounter, more than the witty retort or even the inspired prophetic word, I am longing for the inspiration to love these men. How can I make a relationship with these people? How can I not hate them? How can I love these enemies? How can I speak the truth in love?

It seems that the cultural battles that may have begun as lines in the sand are now canyons with us on one side and them on the other. Us with our shaming shout-downs and them with theirs. Us with this hashtag and them with another. Is it ok with God that we live in such different worlds? That we segregate ourselves with like-minded people? That we consolidate power based on our various ideological affinities? You know that Facebook’s algorithm does this for us, right? The program gages what we like by our own posts and likes and feeds us back similar stories. If you like babies, you’ll get more babies. If you like #blacklivesmatter, you’ll get more of it. If you like Taco Bell, you’ll get more burritos. We are driven apart by more than our own prejudice. The media, especially social media, galvanizes us against each other for corporate profit. Fox, CNN, MSNBC and the rest play their roles too. Loving our enemies is harder than ever because every day we are further and further apart, on the issues and in the spaces we inhabit. We may be tempted to believe that coexistence isn’t even necessary.

But it is! If only for Jesus’ sake. We are called to make disciples of all nations. Currently our nations may be reorganizing around brands and ideologies. I wouldn’t be shocked if the corporations formed standing armies in my life time. The generation is crooked still, but the Kingdom of God already crosses so many boundaries, why not these? Loving the folks like these guys at Taco Bell is going to take some serious work. How do I even inhabit the same space? I don’t have an answer yet, but I’m praying. In my experience, the answer to prayer will come in a personal relationship. That relationship has so much riding against it, when it happens I know it will be a miracle. And that’s another reason beyond obedience to love our enemies—it readies us for miracle every day—it grows our faith.

It’s Dr. King’s Birthday- Man, do I wish they hadn’t murdered him

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My old pal, John Francis, got it so right when he wrote this song “Kill the Dreamer” back in 2007.

“Oh, say can you see

things are not as they seem

from sea to shining sea

Dr. King, Dr. King I know you’re listening.

they can kill the dreamer but they cannot kill the dream

there was a great proud nations

there was a great proud nations

100 years from now they’ll be thumbing through the page

the history books will tell of our mistakes

She fell asleep and watched the people bleed

She fell asleep and watched the people bleed

And on that day on her headstone the epitaph will read

She died of lust and greed.”

I’m not sure if there ever was a great proud nation called the states but I think Dr. King thought so.  He often revered the constitution as a great document which ought to live up to its true potential.  I’ll go with him on that, as Wendell Berry said “Denounce the government and embrace the flag.  Hope to live in that free republic for which it stands.”  But at the rate we’ve been going for the past 47 years since they killed him, I’m not sure our history books will be as insightful as John Francis believed they would be by 2107.

We’ve domesticated Dr. King. In death he has not been able to defend his legacy. I was reminded by the Circle of Hope pastors today in there “Someone Asked” vlog Continue reading

What sort of self do you have?

A Balkan born theologian and philosopher, Miroslav Volf, knows how to write a cogent argument!  I’ve copied a rather lengthy quote because it just had to be shared and I think it speaks to our work of inclusion as a community on mission.exlcusion and embrace

“Through faith and baptism the self has been re-made in the image of “the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me,” Paul writes.  At the center of the self lies self-giving love.  No “hegemonic centrality” closes the self off, guarding its self-same identity and driving out and away whatever threatens its purity.  To the contrary, the new center opens the self up, makes it capable and willing to give itself for others and to receive others in itself.  In the previous chapter I argued that Paul locates the unity of the church not in the disincarnate transcendence of a pure and universal spirit, but in the scandalous particularity of the suffering body of God’s Messiah.  Correspondingly, Paul locates the center of the self not in some single and unchangeable–because self enclosed–“essence,” but in self-giving love made possible by and patterned on the suffering Messiah.  For Christians, this “de-centered center” of self giving love–most firmly centered and most radically open–is the doorkeeper deciding about the fate of otherness at the doorstep of the self.  From this center judgments about exclusion must be made and battles against exclusion fought.  And with this kind of self, the opposition to exclusion is nothing  but the flip side of the practice of embrace.” -Miroslav Volf p.71 Exclusion and Embrace

We are prone to exclusion as a way to preserve our identities.  Some post modern people might claim that the self doesn’t have a center.  Volf argues that it most certainly does but that the center of the self is not as important as what sort of self we ought to have.  His argument is that our selves need to be de-centered by the presence of Christ inside us.  The point from this hefty paragraph that most struck me was that pursuit of self enclosed identities “drive[s] out and away whatever threatens its purity.”  Especially in the church, we are with purity.  We want to maintain the good that we have and–mostly unconsciously– exclude those trying to get in.  Much of our identity formation as individuals, and as groups, is in some way violent.  This is as true in Volf’s Balkans as it is in any high school, and even within our church.  We can’t help but keep people out.  Including people then is an expression of Christ inside us and a way to keep the binary star system of our interior universes properly balanced.Binary-stars

Only a de-centered-by-Jesus self can open and include as naturally as we need to in order to grow into the next generation of Circle of Hope.  I am thankful for how God has achieved this in us to a degree and hopeful for how God will proceed.

How do you guard your identity?  How does your self’s center respond to threats against its primacy?  How might we act to be more de-centered?  How will this effect us as a people?  These aren’t rhetorical–let me know what you think!

April 4 – Martin Luther King, Jr

Dr. King is my personal hero. I long for a new leader to come up and take up his mantel.

Intimacy on screen fuels compassionate hearts

“I always tell them ‘when you hear shots don’t look around to see where it’s coming from- just get down… I never thought I’d be coming out here for my child.”  These are Chris “Quest” Rainey’s words from a short film by Jonathan Olshefski that was screened on Saturday night at Circle of Hope Broad and Washington.

Quest-PJs Story About 20 people gathered to watch the premier/rough draft screening of “Quest: PJ’s Story”  PJ is Quest’s daughter who was shot in the eye by a stray bullet in June, 2013.  The story itself is enough to make you cry, but especially so because Jonathan told it in a quiet, unadorned way that brought each person’s humanity and dignity to the forefront and held it there gently with honor.  Tiny details in focus as the bigger story unfolded.  His filmmaking freed the audience to connect with the characters on a deeper level than the sensational surface- a beautiful girl caught in the cross fire in “mean North Philly.”

Those gathered learned afterward in a Q&A session with the Rainey family that this intimacy on screen has its source in the intimacy off screen.  Quest was telling stories of Jon and his friendship over the past 8 years.  Quest welcomed Jon into his world, an underground hip-hop recording studio, and Jon invited Quest into his world, including a wild time at warped tour a few years back when Jon left Quest stranded in New Jersey because Jon left the show in an ambulance to go and get some stitches for his mosh pit injuries.  I was moved by their friendship and hopeful about what God will do in our future.

gun violence prevention sabbath

I put together this film screening with Jon because I had to do something personally to respond to gun violence in our city.  I am torn up about the prevalence of our gun culture and the casual violence it precipitates.  It was a good timing too because Mennonite Central Committee, our international advocacy and development organization, was getting us involved with the Gun Violence Prevention Sabbath Weekend– a time to focus communities of faith across the country on our increasing culture of violence.

The forming Circle of Hope Gun Violence Prevention Compassion Team hosted the event and I am hopeful that as this group takes shape we will find more ways to share the human stories that stem from easily accessible guns and our country’s idolatrous fascination with firearms.  In the process Circle of Hope will be known for the people of compassion who follow the source of Compassion, Jesus the Christ.  And that is what I am all about.

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