Monday, August 14, 2017

Reacting to the World (& Seeing God)

The spotlight shined on Charlottesville this weekend. Violence drew the media’s insatiable thirst for sensationalism. A man killed a woman and injured 19 others. Two police officers died when their helicopter crashed. These events are the tip of the iceberg. More people hurt other people. Some people shouted angry and insulting words. In the midst of the chaos, our humanity suffered. It was not a devastating blow. The city will recover. In many ways, it recovered the same day. After the marchers and protesters went home, people returned to normal downtown life.

Social media, digital media, and old media focused on the negative. Friends contacted me to ask about Charlottesville. People rushed to quench the media thirst. And, where was God? People shouted, I was there. Or, they said, I knew someone who was. But, what about God? Was God present during the chaos? Clergy representing the presence of God in the world provided safe space inside a Methodist church. Then, they went home. On Sunday, many churches responded to the events. Ministers spoke of love, unity, and God’s presence in the world. Again, where was God?

When we live in the world, we have the opportunity to see God. We do not need major, catastrophic events to bring us to God. The psalmist writes, “Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there… If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,’ even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you” (139:7-8, 11-12). God was present during the rally/protest. Later, when Emancipation Park grew silent, God was still there. The next day, on the Rivanna Trail, God was present. God is present everywhere.

When we see problems, we can react. False ideologies built on hatred and bigotry erode communities. Addressing hatred requires tact and patience. Addressing hatred with hateful words is unproductive. For example, we prayed for the family and friends of Heather Heyer. She was the woman who died during the protests on Saturday. What would happen if we prayed for the young man accused of killing her? Jesus says to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us (Matthew 5:44). His name is James Alex Fields, Jr. He is from Ohio and his mother said she did not know he was a white supremacist. She must be heartbroken. What if we see a murderer as a child of God who cannot, like the psalmist says, escape from God’s presence? Maybe it would help us more actively see God in the world. 

Saturday, August 12, 2017

What I Learned at the Rally/Protest (First Thoughts)

Today, I was near a protest against the alt-right. My participation was minimal. I sat on my bike and watched from a distance. Or, my plan was to watch from a distance, but they kept moving and changing direction. A new group would show up. Protestors filled in. Several times, I found myself caught between the two sides.

My t-shirt said, “Keep Calm and Study.” I wanted to sing, “All we are saying is give peace a chance…” What does the alt-right really believe? What do the protestors believe? I know some of the clergy. They believe in peace and love. But, other protesters shouted profanities and were clearly looking for a confrontation with the alt-right. In a context like the rally/protest in Charlottesville, there is no space for dialogue. It is tense. People yell. They shout slogans. The other side screams back. People scuffle, bunch up, and punch and push each other.

Some people are organized. A protestor had a microphone and seemed to be in charge. He shouted, “Move in!” Then, when the tension seemed ready to boil over, he said, “De-escalators! Come to the front!” De-escalator? That sounds appealing. Who gets that job? I would like to be a de-escalator. Or, maybe not. I was a short distance away when someone started spraying tear gas. I could not see which side. When it started to burn my eyes, I walked my bike through the crowd and away from the noise. 

At one point, someone set off a purple smoke bomb. Someone else yelled, “Everyone back!” Like lemmings running off a cliff, mob mentality kicked in and we all moved back. A lead protestor encouraged people to move back up and told everyone to hold firm.

Different groups of alt-right people marched around. Each group had flags and matching outfits. Helicopters circled overhead. Drones whizzed around. The press took pictures and video. Extra police formed lines. The Virginia State Police were in riot gear. And, there was another group that looked like military police.

What did I learn?

Nothing. The alt-right has a constitutional right to hold their rally. I might not agree with what they say or what they believe in. But, I hold dear the constitution that gives them a right to rally. The protesters have a right to peacefully oppose the alt-right. Unfortunately, protesting gives legitimacy to the rally. My presence contributed to their legitimacy.

The police try to keep the peace. They do not know what different people intend to do in the rally/protest. They do not know what I plan to do, even though I told each one I saw that I was there to pray for them. If no one showed up, the alt-right would have no one to yell at. No protesters would yell at them. My presence contributed to their uncertainty and probably made their job harder.

I am a proponent of dialogue—having a conversation to discuss differences. I went because I wanted to say something against the alt-right, but my presence accomplished nothing. The hate group still hates.

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Friday, August 11, 2017

Keeping Calm in the Face of Confrontation

How do we respond when someone confronts us? Do we bristle? Do we take a defensive position? Do we go on the offensive? Or, do we remain calm and try to plan a thoughtful response?

Consider the following scenarios. Someone says,
“Your dog defecated in my yard!” 
“You should go back where you came from.”
 “Your belief is not biblical.”

Because the words might be a surprise, the hearer has little time to react. This is common in many confrontations. In Charlottesville, confrontation looms. An alt-right hate group is planning a rally for August 12. Other groups are staging counter-protests. Keeping calm in the face of confrontation is timely. I disagree with the alt-right beliefs and modus operandi. I believe in equality and advocate for justice for all people. How should I respond if confronted?

Years ago, I taught scuba diving. One of my favorite classes to teach was rescue diving. In rescue diving, one lesson is the “self-rescue.” There are many things that can go wrong underwater and there is a very simple technique for responding. The same technique applies whether fishing line snags one’s dive equipment or a white supremacist confronts you.

Here are the steps:
  1. Stop
  2. Breathe
  3. Think
  4. Act

First, stop what you are doing. If you are swimming near a shipwreck and feel a sudden tug, struggling will make it worse. Stop. If you are walking and a white supremacist says something, ignoring him might embolden him. Stop. By stopping, there is a possibility of shifting the confrontation.

Second, breathe. Our bodies need air to survive. The same principle applies 30m underwater as on the surface. By breathing, we give our bodies a chance to catch up with the circumstances. Breathing provides oxygen to our brains. Our brains need oxygen to function. When they function, they can process information and react.

Third, think. This might seem obvious. But, too often, when a diver feels a tug, before thinking, she struggles to get free. The most common jetsam impeding a diver is monofilament line. It is virtually invisible underwater. Since shipwrecks attract fish, they draw people who like to fish and those who like to dive. Fishing people lose fishing line. It is part of the sport. The lost line ends up wrapped in the rigging of wrecks. Struggling against the line will only make it worse.

Forth, act. If a diver stops, breathes, and then thinks, she might realize the tug was monofilament line. She can carefully feel for the line. Once found, she can assess how much line entrapped her, and she can cut it with her dive knife. Action should follow stopping, breathing, and thinking.

Confrontations can escalate. Following these four steps can help avoid escalation. Deftly handling a confrontation can de-escalate and, possibly, create space for a constructive conversation. With God, all things are possible, even changing a confrontation with a white supremacist into a conversation with a fellow human being.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Protests or Prayer Services? Or, Both?

What is your calling? Some people might feel that God is calling them to protest and get arrested. I do not. Some people feel the divine nudge to civil disobedience. I do not.

I do feel God calling me to proclaim the gospel, stand up for the oppressed, and thoughtfully engage in discourse. Discourse can be about complex theological ideas (e.g. Holy Trinity). Or, it can be about simple notions of right and wrong. For example, there is no biblical basis for a world view based on racism, sexism, or inequality. Verses that appear to support such notions miss what the text is saying about God and humanity.

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, “Unite the Right” is a gathering of extremists on August 12 in Charlottesville, VA. On August 7, the City of Charlottesville moved the rally from Emancipation Park to McIntire Park due to safety concerns. Emancipation Park was formerly Lee Park. The event organizer Jason Kessler stated via a Facebook video that the event will still take place in Emancipation Park. 

What are some Christian responses? A group called Congregate C’ville calls for 1,000 faith leaders to stage an anti-protest. They are providing nonviolent protest training. The Charlottesville Clergy Collective is planning a series of prayer services. One event is University Baptist Church's prayer service on August 8. It is part of a series of events around the city.

These are two different responses. One is the protest. The other is prayer. We could analyze the efficaciousness of each event. Or, we could ask what does God call us to do? Confrontation is biblical (e.g. Jesus cleansing the temple in all four gospels). So is prayer.

Prayer is a conversation with God. Karl Barth calls it “human activity in relation to God” (Dogmatics § 53, p. 87). Paul Tillich says “every serious prayer produces something new in terms of creaturely freedom” (Systematic Theology, vol. 3, p. 191). For Juan Luis Segundo, prayer is “the image of a God who occupies a place in our lives that has not yet been reached by human knowledge and effectiveness” (Teología Abierta, p. 60).

More (most?) theologians have addressed prayer in some form. Prayer is a transcendent encounter. Will it change extremists’ minds by itself? No. But, that is not the purpose of prayer. In prayer, humanity relates to God and experiences something new. Then, we discover creative ways to respond.

Which one, prayer or protest, will change the world? In some ways, they both do. For me, I feel God’s calling to start with prayer. On August 8, I will pray for peace, unity, alt-right extremists, protestors, law enforcement officers, and the future.

Please join me.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Becoming Neighbors

After living in Charlottesville for one week, some places are beginning to become familiar. It is not home quite yet, but I no longer feel like a visitor. Soon, Charlottesville will be ours. We will have our parks, our trails, our shops, our streets, and yes, our home too. Someone will say, “Do you know where this or that is?” I will be delighted to say, “Yes!” As we gather shared experiences, we are becoming neighbors.
Becoming neighbors takes time. It is not as simple as moving into a neighborhood. The Greek plesios means “near or neighboring.” This was the word used in the story of the Good Samaritan in the gospel of Luke. But, a neighbor is more than that, more than being near. Being neighbors means sharing our interests and our lives. It means worshipping together, eating together, playing together, laughing together, and crying together. As we gather shared experiences, my family and I will continue becoming your neighbors.
In his book Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes, “The first service that one owes to others in the fellowship consists of listening to them. Just as love of God begins with listening to the Bible, so the beginning of love for our brothers and sisters is learning to listen to them.” In our church, we are all on a journey together. Bonhoeffer’s idea of “listening” relates to his understanding God’s love. We understand God's love through listening to the Bible. Likewise, we become neighbors through listening and sharing experiences with one another. Listening is a key element in becoming neighbors. Each of us can listen and share experiences as fellow sojourners in Christ.
In Luke, Jesus told the man who asked “Who is my neighbor (plesios)?” about an unlikely person (a Samaritan, for crying out loud!) who qualified as a neighbor (Luke 10:29-37). The Samaritan was not simply nearby. Instead, the Samaritan became a neighbor by listening-to and sharing-in another person’s experience. The neighbor walks along with another.