ordinary… mostly

"We have nothing to offer each other, except a haven." — K. Nafziger



Enough with the war already!

(Generally, I prefer to avoid political stuff. But it’s time for a rant…)

On February 9th, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano spoke before the House Committee on Homeland Security. NPR reported on her testimony, in which she said:

In some ways, the threat facing us is at its most heightened state since those attacks.

Does this surprise anybody?

It shouldn’t.

On September 11th, 2001, approximately 3000 people died in the terrorist attacks in the United States. Our country received the good will of nations around the globe. What have we done with that good will since that time?

  • An estimated 15,000 to 35,000 civilians dead in Afghanistan as a result of the conflict
  • An estimated 100,000 Iraqi civilians dead as a result of the conflict
  • $1.1 trillion ($1,100,000,000,000) dollars spent in military action

Let me say that another way:

A conservative estimate is that we have killed 40 innocent people in Iraq and Afghanistan for every person that died on September 11th. How could we think that this would not enrage the populations of those two countries? Why is the entire world not screaming?

For every September 11th death, we have spent $400 million tearing down, rather than building up. This is no way to maintain good will. This is the way to create hatred that will last for generations.

And now the federal budget is in the news. We’re cutting expenditures left and right. This is good. I’m all for balanced budgets. But guess what isn’t getting cut?

Defense spending.

Jim Wallis has something to say about this. So does Mike Luckovich.

I say: Enough already! Let the madness end.

Car conversations

(I promised this post a few days ago…)

Ordinary Spouse and I enjoy road trips. Well – maybe “enjoy” is not really correct for Ordinary Spouse. She puts up with travel and is happy to get to the destination. But at least we value those times for the chance to talk (especially those times after dark when the Ordinary Daughters fall asleep).

I was thinking about this after our recent vacation trip to visit my parents in West Virginia. On the trip east, the topic du jour seemed to be theology. (Well – I suppose that I probably drive many of our conversations in that direction, since I seem to find theology interesting right now. So maybe it’s the conversation of the week. Or month. Or year…) And I found our conversations that day fascinating, as well. Check out what we covered:

How do we understand the Bible? If we see differences between the beginning and the end of the Bible, do we (to use mathematical concepts) take an average? Or maybe we think that the changes represent an unfolding understanding by God’s people, so we construct a vector (or trajectory) pointing to an ultimate ending. Or maybe we deny any changes at all.

Should we begin our theological conversations by stating our assumptions? Sometimes, when the Church starts discussing our controversial issues, it feels like we’re talking right past each other. Both sides wonder how the other side could come to its conclusions – they just don’t seem logical. But if, instead of arguing the controversies, we stepped back and discussed the basics (like “how do we understand the Bible?”), we might have a more productive conversation.

Is God non-violent? (You may notice that my questions are building on each other.) If we see Christ as non-violent and if we also view Christ as the fullest revelation of God, do we see God as non-violent? And based on this…

Do we need to rethink our concept of the atonement? I think (from my limited experience) that evangelical Christianity generally embraces a penal substitutionary atonement. Personally, I think that I absorbed this without really questioning it when I was younger. There is something nicely formulaic about this view: an accounting system for the debt of sin. On the other hand, it raises the problem of divine child abuse. Now, I am enjoying the exploration of non-violent theology with the help of writings from Denny Weaver* and Ted Grimsrud. Weaver and Darrin Snyder Belousek also take on the topic in a recent issue of The Mennonite.

Darrin also raises an interesting question about the Trinity…

Is God fully revealed in the story of Jesus Christ? Could we conceive that the first person of God (commonly “God the Father” – sorry for the patriarchal language) might occasionally be violent, while the second person of God (commonly “God the Son”) is non-violent? Or even, is the God the Son fully revealed in Jesus Christ? And what about now – does God the Son still retain aspects of humanity after the ascension?

To what extent is the Trinity “truth”? To be clear, our car conversation wasn’t questioning the existence of the three persons of God. But we wonder if God presents God’s self to humans in this way in order for us to understand something that is essentially unknowable. Sort of like trying to see a 16-dimensional object in a 3-dimensional world – maybe all we get is a projection.

What is non-violence? What is peace? This was Ordinary Spouse’s insightful and original question.** We talk about working for peace, but we really don’t know what that will look like. We can only speak in the negative: peace is the absence of violence and conflict. Unfortunately, we know violence and conflict intimately.

If you embrace a non-violent theology, what do you do with the abundance of worship resources that no longer seem worshipful? And, in addition, how do you raise children who share your values?

Well – that’s how we burned up the miles between Indiana and Pennsylvania during our July vacation. I guess it didn’t hurt that the CD player in the van was broken.

* This is a pretty old link. I should probably look for more recent writings, such as the link to the article in The Mennonite. Certainly, his book (The Nonviolent Atonement) has now been published, and I’m in the middle of reading that. However, I haven’t searched for other resources.

** With an emphasis on the ‘original’ part. I’ve heard our other questions posed in various other places. But I hadn’t considered this before.

What are our priorities?

There are many reasons for opposing the wars that we are now fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.  For me, my commitment to following the Prince of Peace is inconsistent with embracing violence of any kind.  (Which isn’t to say that I’m not ever violent.  Non-violence is a much higher goal than simply rejecting physical aggression.)

However, I know that not everyone shares my commitment to Jesus, and among those that do, not everyone embraces his call to peace.  And that is why I’ve thought it useful to consider other ways of framing my opposition to war – ways that would resonate with the broader population.

Let’s talk about priorities.

More specifically, let’s discuss how we spend our money.   Since 2001, we’ve spent nearly $1 trillion (with a ‘TR’, not a ‘B’ or a ‘M’) on the costs of fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq.  I don’t believe anyone can make an argument that fighting two wars halfway around the world was the best use of that money.

What could your state have done with $20 billion dollars?  Education? Infrastructure?  Renewable energy? Health care, anyone?

You may wish to argue about the security of our country.  Fine.  I happen to believe that we’re less secure now than we were before.  However, even if we are more secure than in August of 2001, I’d like suggest that there were even better ways of improving our security…

Instead of giving $20 billion to each state in our country, we’ll give $10 billion to each state. Then we’ll take the remaining $500 billion and make it available in the form of competitive grants to countries with significant Muslim populations.  Use it for improving the health of your people.  Use it for educating women.  Use it for building roads.  Use it for agriculture. But use it carefully, because continued funding is dependent on wise use of the funds.  And if the funds aren’t used wisely, there are many other countries who would like a share.

Imagine the possibilities. And if you have trouble with this idea because it sounds like a handout, think of it instead as purchasing goodwill in the global marketplace. Think about how the competitive nature of the project would minimize waste. (It’s not as if there isn’t wastefulness already.) I can’t help but think that we’d receive more security in return for our money than we’re getting now.

So let’s reframe this debate as one about priorities. There are better ways to spend money.

For more ideas, visit the National Priorities Project.

What am I focusing on?

Back in January at the Music and Worship Leaders’ Retreat at Laurelville, Brian McLaren shared a wise and cautionary statement with the participants:

What we focus on [in scripture] determines what we miss.

I think that the natural tendency of someone hearing that statement (especially if that someone is me) is to say, “Ah-ha! You see – you are looking at the Bible in a different way, so you don’t understand my point.” And that, of course, would immediately underscore Brian’s warning to be aware of your own blindness. In fact, if I remember correctly, this same warning was given a long time ago with a slightly different phrasing:

Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, “Let me take the speck out of your eye”, while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.

Matthew 7.3-5

I’ve been trying to live with this warning. It’s not that I have concerns with what I’m focusing on, but I do realize that sometimes my thinking drifts away from what might be defined as “orthodoxy”. And since Anabaptists are big on understanding scripture within community, I should at least be honest with my differences and open my thoughts to critique.

In that light, this is how I find my focus directed these days:

I understand God’s word in the light of God’s Word – In other words, I interpret scripture through the primary lens of the ministry of Jesus. How did Jesus live? How can I emulate that?

What are our lenses? – I mentioned the lens of Christ’s ministry, but I think that there are others – our cultural perspective, the writer’s context, and so on.

New Testament vs. Old Testament – I focus on the New Testament. I think that I understand the Old Testament in a more contextual, as opposed to authoritative, sense. (I keep turning that over in my brain, but I’m influenced by the instructions to the new Gentile believers that Paul talks about in Galatians. They weren’t asked to submit to the requirements of the old covenant. They were simply asked to act with compassion toward the needs in the community.)

Scripture as narration vs. dictation – Is the Bible a set of words transmitted from God to paper, or is it the unfolding story of God’s people and their understanding of God? I lean toward the latter.

Grace vs. holiness – Or, what do we do with gray areas of life? Are we so afraid of getting our hands dirty that we isolate ourselves from the world? Jesus hung out with everyone. As Martin Luther said, “Sin boldly.” Allow grace to be amazing.

A God of peace – I’m thinking quite a bit about a God who isn’t violent. And in turn, I’m thinking about a non-violent atonement vs. the popular penal substitutionary theory.

Well – that’s at least an initial list of how my focus may differ from that of other Christians.  Have at it, folks.  Am I a heretic yet?

A letter to the President

I’ve decided to make a brief departure from my policy of not commenting on politics…

Dear Mr. President:

In the Mennonite Church, political participation is a much-debated topic. In general, the question is how much should one be involved with earthly government, when one’s ultimate allegiance is to God. Because of this, I have been reegistered as an independent for quite a while.

In the election of 2000, I was persuaded by the vision of compassionate conservatism to vote for George Bush. I was sorely disappointed. Chastened at the role my vote played in bringing about eight years of military expansion (which seemed to me to be in direct opposition to the Prince of Peace), I seriously considered not voting for a president in the 2008 election. However, captured by the historic nature of your candidacy and its vision of hope, I marked your name on my ballot.

When you were chosen as the winner of the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize, I was surprised. I guess it seemed somewhat premature, but hey – the past year had been rather historic. But then you used your acceptance speech to defend the idea of just war and the concept of redemptive violence.

I was unsettled. Redemptive violence is a lie. No war has ever been just.

Now, Mr. President, you have recently proposed a federal budget for the next fiscal year with a freeze on “non-security discretionary spending”. I am not opposed to this spending freeze – the government debt is out of control. It is the “non-security” qualifier that I could do without. It is as if there is now not even a pretense of peace. The war spending of the previous administration will continue unchecked.

Mr. President, hope is powerful and I am hopeful that this country can embrace a new direction in foreign policy – a direction of respect, dialogue, and development, rather than fear and violence. But my hope for your presidency is fading just as my hope for compassionate conservatism did.

I cannot grasp the challenges that you face. I know they are many. My prayers are with you.

ordinary (mostly)

The Prayer of St. Francis


Make me an instrument of your peace.

Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is discord, union;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
Where there is sadness, joy.

Grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console,
To be understood as to understand,
To be loved as to love.

For it is in giving that we receive,
In pardoning that we are pardoned,
And in dying that we are born to eternal life.


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