This month during Pastor Jeff Gannon’s sabbatical, St. Arbuck’s Chapel features guest blogger Jacob Cook. Jake lectures in philosophy at Friends University and will soon complete a doctoral degree in Christian ethics from Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. His wife Abigail Cook is director of adult ministry at Chapel Hill. They have three children.
Seek Peace, and Go After It
Reflecting on the sermon series about the role of good relationships in our long-term health and happiness, I’ve been thinking about how some of this wisdom might “scale up.”
In the year 2017, people seem hyper-aware of the many ways they’re different from their neighbors. Political partisanship is preventing Americans (even if not “us,” at least some of “them”) from working together to think more clearly and compassionately about pressing issues. Episodes around the country call into question the progress we’ve made toward racial justice and reconciliation. And even within Wichita’s relatively small metro area, set in the nation’s breadbasket, people commit their lives daily to a wide variety of religious faiths and divergent world-views.
Heightened awareness of these near-at-hand tensions (not to mention 24-hour news coverage of happenings around the globe) feeds a persistent level of anxiety within many of us—sometimes ebbing, sometimes flowing, but often on our minds. As a part of this picture, I wonder whether and to what extent we feel personally responsible for the larger social groups we identify with (political, religious, and so on) and for how the people who share those identities with us seem to be relating to “others.” More to my point, I wonder how all this public tension impacts our personal happiness.
But We’re the “Good Guys”
In times of division, we tend to characterize our own causes as “good and right” and our cherished identity groups as “the good guys.” But if it bothers us that we haven’t been able to make the world around us reflect our dreams and doctrines, then we may seek alternative, symbolic ways of fulfilling those dreams.
For example, we might fixate on our own highest truths and brightest visions, particularly by wearing them loudly and proudly for all to see (and comment on). We may also offer harsh commentaries on the less positive elements in the histories, values, and representatives of competing groups—you know, to drive home the point that our conflict is really a clash of world-views and not so much about whether anyone is really living up to their own highest values.
Social psychologists tell us these are common human responses to real-life conflict (just flip through Christena Cleveland’s book Disunity in Christ or watch one of Jonathan Haidt’s TED talks). But common as they are, such tendencies only deepen and solidify the divides between “us and them.”
Now, I should say that it is perfectly normal to live your life convinced that (a) your most important beliefs are basically good and (b) you have no good reason to doubt them. That’s part of why we call beliefs like these our “basic convictions.” But being right all the time is exhausting, and this attitude estranges us from others. Even when we can’t live up to our high ideals, we can still set them up like fences—not the kind that makes good neighbors, but the kind that insulates us from “bad” ones. What of this contributes to our happiness? We desperately need a guide who can lead us into good relationships beyond these fences.
Blessed Are Those Who Make Peace
I mentioned in my last post that, during the first half of my doctoral studies, I worked for the Just Peacemaking Initiative (JPI) at Fuller Seminary with my late mentor—the great Baptist peacemaker Glen Harold Stassen. (Abigail and I named our newborn son Silas Glen in his honor). And I also mentioned that one of the latest developments in the Just Peacemaking practices comes in the form of Jewish and Muslim scholars supporting the same ten practices within their own religious traditions, based on their own sacred texts in Interfaith Just Peacemaking.
One unique feature of many Just Peacemaking practices as Stassen promoted them is how they “scale up” Jesus’ wisdom about interpersonal relationships to affirm wisdom about what works to resolve international and inter-group conflicts. I would like to bring up just one of those practices for now—the one that’s aimed directly at the tendency (or bundle of tendencies) I’ve been talking about. To put it briefly, the practice is to “acknowledge responsibility for conflict and injustice and seek repentance and forgiveness.” Sounds familiar, right? During the series on the pursuit of happiness, Pastor Jeff talked about forgiveness in light of Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount” (Matthew 5-7).
Now, I know I could be stepping into some delicate territory (talking about politics, race, and religion), so it might be good to use examples that have some contemporary value but that mostly deal with the early histories of two Abrahamic faiths. Think back with me to our Lenten sermon series on Christianity and world religions.
History Lesson, Part 1
Thinking of Islam, as Muhammad migrated from Mecca to Medina, he was able to lead the people of Medina into a life unified by an all-encompassing world-view, with politics, culture, and religion emanating from the same source. His success in Medina provided a solid base for expanding his influence to ultimately include all the tribes of the Arabian Peninsula. Since the political-military expansion seems to be “of a piece” with the religion’s growth, some of us may be tempted to associate this history with the goals and strategies of Muslims today. Yet, when we do make and preserve this connection, we may overlook similar aspects of Christian history.
Thinking now of Christianity, the Roman Emperor Constantine’s conversion is often pointed to as a turning point in the life of the church. For some three centuries following Jesus’s death and resurrection, the church was relatively weak politically and grew slowly. On the eve of an important battle in the early-300s CE, Constantine had a vision of his army coming out on top while fighting under a particular symbol: the first two letters of “Christ” in Greek (chi and rho). So, Constantine’s affinity for Christianity seems to begin in its political-military usefulness. And before the end of the 4th century, another Roman emperor declared Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. Many new, nominal “converts” followed throughout the empire.
Is this how we think of Christianity’s significance? When we hear of Muhammad’s military exploits or his coming into Medina as a political-religious-cultural leader, we should have a reference point for those episodes within our own history. Acknowledging these elements (whether distant or closer to home) is an important way to accept responsibility for our own mess and start living the repentance-and-forgiveness-seeking lives that contribute to our long-term happiness and health.
History Lesson, Part 2
As Susan Thistlethwaite continues the Christian (hi)story after Constantine in her contribution to the interfaith Just Peacemaking project mentioned above:
The nature of forgiveness and the role of forgiveness as the cornerstone of faith practice became subordinated to the power of the church and the state as they worked together. The institutionalized Christian Church in Europe, through the doctrine of penance, took control of forgiveness and used it to shore up the power of the Church to control not only a believer’s ecclesial and social status in this life, but also in the next. Even worse, violent expansions of European power in the Crusades of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries carried the Pope’s promise of forgiveness of sins for participating in these wars. (p. 81)
Isn’t it strange to see someone making this connection? The very practice of seeking repentance and forgiveness has been coopted and abused for the service of political control and imperial violence in our own, Christian history.
A similar power dynamic was behind the church’s practice of selling “indulgences” that, in part, prompted Martin Luther’s protests and attempt to reform the church almost exactly 500 years ago. But the movements that followed did not miraculously solve the churches problems with living properly into the vision of a community sustained by continuously seeking repentance and forgiveness and expanded by way of compelling lives and personal stories. In fact, the Reformation nearly coincided with the dawn of the so-called Age of Discovery, missionary-aided colonization, and the transatlantic slave trade.
The Call to Practice Peace
If we scrub our minds and hearts of stories like these (not to mention their modern-day parallels), we unjustly separate ourselves and our highest values from the dirt we’re made from and living in. Feeling the need and desire to be perfect, but knowing deep down we haven’t arrived, we will search out alternative, symbolic ways to feel (or at least appear) complete. And we will invest in relationships that reinforce this symbolism. All the while, we may think we’re pursuing happiness. But walking this path inevitably feeds our anxiety about our diverse neighbors and sabotages our possible relationships with “others.”
In 1 Peter 2, the apostle calls early Christians dispersed around the empire and exiled from their homes to “honor everyone” (even the emperor who was clearly not friendly to Christians) and to endure hard things while living into Jesus’ peacemaking example. And Peter prefaced this call by referring to the church with the old imagery for Israel as “a royal priesthood, a holy nation,” meaning the whole group serves as ministers to all other peoples.
No idealized community, fenced in by lofty and unattainable visions of the world and insulated from those who do not share those visions, can nurture the variety of relationships we need to be truly happy and fulfilled in this life. Part of our calling, as Christians, is to honor, to learn about, and to minister to those who are quite different from us. Without diverse relationships, we will go unfulfilled in some way, though we may live and move and have our being in echo chambers that nurture quasi-blissful ignorance. As Chapel Hills’ kids learned from Psalm 34:14 in VBS this summer, we are called to “seek peace, and go after it!”