Living and Ministering Among the Powers
Living and Ministering among the Powers – an indirect reflection on the values of being Reformed — a report to Grace Presbytery 9/30/17
by Rev. Janet DeVries, General Presbyter
Readings: The Confession of 1967 — 9.31 and Romans 8: 22-39
The Cuban Missile Crisis happened when I was 12. I remember with the imagination of a 12-year old what I thought might happen if Russia and Cuba started to bomb the US. And it was not far off from some of the public discussion of what would happen if the Cold War escalated and the US was involved in a war. The year I graduated from high school, Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were shot. And this adolescent girl, well-read and politicked as she might be, was stunned.
However, it was not long before my college years were pre-occupied with the Vietnam War. I had friends who went to Canada and remain there. Others enlisted, and others were drafted. Some came home and some not. In the past two weeks, I’ve done my best to follow the Ken Burns’ 18-hour saga about Vietnam.
Why do I share this with you? Because, first of all, for those of you who never lived through it, you may learn something about how public life shaped my values and those of many Baby Boomers, but also because it’s given me deep pause in this year to reflect on institutional powers – powers of governments and self-appointed groups in community life. So now I’m asking questions we may all be asking:
· What happens if North Korea directs a bomb at the US?
· What would it look like to have the US in a full-scale war, possibly with nuclear weapons?
· Why are we allowing white supremacy groups to have a voice in this country at this time?
· What happens when the presidential campaign devolves into how I as a citizen can get my own needs met but don’t have to worry about a civil society?
· Is there rhetoric which is appropriate in public life from the president to congress to pastors to general presbyters?
· Is the only issue about a national health care plan or tax reform how my life feels improved?
· What does it mean to lock arms or kneel during the national anthem?
· What does it mean to raise children, particularly young adults, in a culture which has shifted?
In other words, what does it mean to live and minister among powers and principalities?
I grew up believing that the church as an institution was a mainstay of American life. By that I don’t mean that we all went to church on Sundays, but that the institution of religion –
particularly Protestant – was somehow the vehicle which would help bring all of life into balance with my theological beliefs and confessions at the core. In part I chose ministry as a profession as God called me, believing in my heart that there was no other institution in which my participation was more important than the church, than religious life.
Imagine my surprise now in my 60s, to discover that growing up in the Protestant world was not all it was cracked up to be – that congregations I thought would go on forever are closing or can’t afford a pastor, that confessions of faith which to me said what I believed were instead perceived by others to be unnecessary or irrelevant, that congregational life would be considered an option instead of the routine Sunday morning by many people, or that ministry as a vocation would become less highly regarded in American life.
The world has sobered me and has hopefully, through God’s grace, refined my sense of self and the world along the way. So it is with great dismay that I wake up these days to a TV screen framing polarized life with political commentators on both sides, or the pictures of President Trump’s tweets and Kim Jong Un in North Korea, or the impasse of yet the latest legislative inaction in Washington, or the United Nations becoming a place where diatribes are too common. In most public places I live – and you too – the world is at an impasse with a war on words, a quest for who has the most power (or bombs), the righteousness of one country over another, and the millions of homeless displaced people throughout our world — no less the displaced from multiple hurricanes and earthquakes in the last month. I see it in the threats to build a wall on the Mexican border, regardless of whether or not one will be able to see through it. I see it in the protests on both sides of the issue of Confederate statues. I hear it in the reactions to police reactions to black men and women. What is a Christian to do about the state of the world? Which is to say, “how can a Christian understand and participate in a world which seems fragile, polarized, and unable to move from serious adversarial positions with one another?”
In a recent column by David Brooks (9/1/17), the author talks about the many ways we are often reduced by others to a single identity among our multi-faceted selves. For instance, there are people here who might reduce me to “that feminist woman minister” or “she’s a Democrat so she wouldn’t understand Texas Republicans” or “she’s over 60 so what can she know about ministry to and with 30-year-olds?” or “she’s a Yankee and doesn’t speak our language and can’t say ‘y’all’.” Brooks’ point is when we’re criticized for one facet of who we are rather than looking at our totality, it tends to make us double-down on that part of who we are to defend ourselves. And the ultimate goal is often to keep from being powerless in relationship to each other – or between one nation and another. Brooks adds that this is a form of self-righteous victimization. He quotes from a new book by Mark Lilla in “The Once and Future Liberal” that “many identity communities are not even real communities. They’re just a loose group of individuals narcissistically exploring some trait in themselves that others around them happen to share. Many identity-based communities are not defined by internal compassion but by external rage.” I read that quote and I thought “Bingo, Charlottesville. Bingo Congress. Bingo Alt-right or Bernie Sanders.” The point being that sometimes I feel that despite being engaged in conversation with people with whom I have a common interest, I occasionally wonder if I will hit the raw nerve of the issue about which we disagree rather than keep building on the agreements.
What then is the role of the church and religious life in such a time? How does the church be prophetic and pastoral, conscious of institutional realities, government polarities, and personal attitudes and convictions – all this in the context of faith?
In reflecting on these questions, I’ve turned to a series of books by the late New Testament scholar, Walter Wink, who was teaching at Union Seminary in New York when I was a student. Forty years ago he began raising the questions of what is the relationship of the Christian to institutional powers. Particularly he advocated non-violence, but his last book, The Powers that Be: Theology for a New Millennium addresses some of these questions and therefore, I wish to share some of its ideas with you. I invite you to consider it not only if you are a pastor, or honorably retired, but if you sit in any pew on a Sunday morning, or do as Karl Barth who prayed with the Bible in one hand and the New York Times (or a news channel of your choice) in the other.
Wink begins with an assertion about the Gospel – that it “is not a message about the salvation of individuals from the world, but news about a world transfigured, right down to its basic structures.” For me, this is a reminder that the life and death of Jesus Christ was not merely about suggesting a new way for individuals to live, but much more broadly a way of ordering human life and its institutions which change the way we think and act. It was not a violent overthrow of Roman authority, but a deliberate way of changing human interactions among people.
Wink cannot talk about power without commenting on the power of violence and non-violence. For me, that is the precipice which I see and feel. He says, “The myth of redemptive violence is in short, nationalism become absolute. This myth speaks for God; it does not listen for God to speak. It invokes the sovereignty of God as its own; it does not entertain the prophetic possibility of radical judgment by God. It misappropriates the language, symbols and scriptures of Christianity. It does not seek God in order to change; it embraces God in order to prevent change. Its God is not the impartial ruler of all nations but a tribal god worshiped as an idol. Its metaphor is not the journey but the fortress. Its symbol is not the cross but the crosshairs of a gun. Its offer is not forgiveness but victory. Its good is final elimination. Its salvation is not a new human heart but a successful foreign policy. It usurps the revelation of God’s purposes for humanity in Jesus. It is blasphemous. It is idolatrous.”
He does not presuppose that we are not oppressed in some ways nor does Wink let us off the hook as oppressors. But he speaks directly about enemies, framing the Gospel lessons of Jesus: “The command to love our enemies reminds us that our first tasks toward oppressors are pastoral; to help them recover their humanity. Quite possibly the struggle, and the oppression that gave it rise, have dehumanized the oppressed as well, causing them to demonize their enemies. It is not enough to become politically free; we must also become human.” I re-read that section through the filter of the Vietnam picture from Ken Burns. I thought of people from north and south Vietnam whose stories were of being coerced into a war that was not winnable for anyone and the horrendous loss of human life. Yesterday morning, I sat with a Vietnamese friend who father was about 16 as the war ended, living in a rural setting. Within 10 years in order to have a life he took his wife and 4 children and found a boat, sailed off for Malaysia without knowing where they were headed and lived 7 years in a refugee camp there before being able to move to the US. His daughter, my friend, has vowed that her children will never live through what she lived did. But in Ken Burns’s depiction, I saw the power of institutions to continue an unwinnable war, the risks of starting peace talks being more so than the risk of continuing the war, the dehumanization of people both north and south and the politics and economy of war.
Wink’s book includes a chapter titled “Prayer and the Powers.” He assumes a basic posture of prayer – that is, that prayer is active, not passive. It is not handing over to God what we cannot solve but putting ourselves in God’s hands to become God’s agents of reconciliation, voices in a stubborn and entrenched culture of pre-occupation with our own needs, God’s voice in this age which needs peace not for its own sake but for a transformation of institutions and leaders which seek anything but. I confess that I had thought about praying about North Korea, but honesty I had not thought of praying for Kim Jung Un. Mostly my prayer was to make people rise up and dis-empower him, but I had thought of what it might mean to pray for his transformation. And I thought how often in worship we pray for our political leaders as if, by implication, we are praying for their success rather than for their wisdom and courage to lead through deep waters.
Wink says that history belongs to the intercessors, who believe the future into being – who call out of the future the longed for reign of God. (paraphrase) “When we pray, we are not sending a letter to a celestial White House where it is sorted among piles of others. We are engaged in an act of co-creation, in which one little sector of the universe rises up and becomes translucent, incandescent, a vibratory center of power that radiates the power of the universe. Intercession, far from being an escape from action, is a means of focusing for action and of creating action. It is God rather than ourselves who initiated prayer, and it is God’s power not ours, that answers to the world’s needs. We are always preceded in intercession. God is always praying with us – we join with God in a prayer already going on in us and in the world. Our task in praying is precisely that of giving speech to the Spirit’s groans within us. But we must not try to ear the sufferings of the creation ourselves. We are to articulate those agonizing longings and let them pass through us to God.
“Prayer is not magic; it does not always ‘work.’ It is not something we do, but a response to what God is already doing within us and the world. Our prayers are the necessary opening that allows God to act without violating our freedom. Prayer is the ultimate act of partnership with God…..Prayer that ignores the Powers ends up blaming God for the evils committed by the Powers…Prayer in the face of the Powers is a spiritual war of attrition. God’s hands are effectively tied when we fail to pray. That is the dignity and the urgency of our praying.”
So as I read, I thought of the power of prayer differently – not the prayers I pray for friends who are facing particular difficulties, but the need to pray differently about powers and principalities. What would it mean if I prayed that the outcome of the tax reform plan began with a change in attitude rather than a shift in legislation? What would it mean if I prayed for black families who had lost children to mis-perceived threats by police? What would it mean if I prayed for the whole people of Korea and the proxies of both the north and south, namely China and the US? In other words, what if I let God transform my prayers into the determination of hope and possibility rather than ones of victory or survival?
Most of you know that I love being a world traveler. There is no more precious gift to me than an air ticket to somewhere that either has captured my heart or is about to do so. And much of my travel has been in the Middle East during the years I’ve been with you. Last spring, I met a young man by the name of Ivan, a Palestinian working in the West Bank in the town of Bethany – the town of Mary and Martha and Lazarus (and the place where he was raised by Jesus). Our group walked up the street in front of his shop. Last year, I stopped and greeted him and he invited me to share Arabic coffee with him. I was delighted and did so. This year, I began by saying, “Do you remember when we shared coffee last year, and could we do it today too?” He was amazed and so we did, and we talked about his family, his life, his hopes for an end to the two worlds of Jews and Palestinians on shared land. We took a picture; we exchanged emails; we became Facebook friends. So when the hurricane hit Houston, all Ivan knew was that it was in Texas and that I lived there. So one morning I woke up to a worried note from Ivan about whether or not I was safe, was my home OK and to send him word about our group. That is a form of prayer, friends. And those of you who know me well know that I have many more personal stories like that of people who have widened my world and taught me the power of God’s presence in their world and mine.
On the trip I took this month to Jordan, I traveled one day to the town of Jerash, north west of Amman. I drove through land which was occupied by the Moabites and the Ammonites. I arrived ahead of tourist buses. The trip was in order to see Mt. Nebo and the mosaic floors of the church, constructed in the 2nd century. But what was most amazing to me was not the church or the mosaics – it was instead Mt. Nebo. You will remember that this is the place Moses stood and God told him he could look at the promised land but he could not go into it. I asked the guide what the land was that I was seeing. He told me it was the Biblical land of Canaan but that what I was seeing was the West Bank of Israel, the occupied territory on which Palestinians have lived for literally hundreds of years. I stood there and kept looking, kept thinking about this holy land – contiguous land and Palestinian people in Jordan, and in what was once Palestine, now the West Bank. If I had had binoculars I would have seen the Jordan River and the baptismal site of Jesus. What I saw was possibility, was promise, was land without borders. It reminded me of one of Wink’s lines in his book: “Faith requires at times marching into the waters before they part.” I have come back to that phrase multiple times during this week. How have I been waiting for God to part the waters to make it easier for me to do the work of the church, the work that is mine because I am a Christian? What is on the other side of those waters and how will I survive it? “The gospel, then, is not a message about the salvation of individuals from the world, but news about a world transfigured, right down to its basic structures.”
That is the message to you and me – to engage the powers surrounding us, figuratively and metaphorically, and to individually and together be transformed by the power of God’s love in Jesus Christ. We are to be church together.