Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Where have all the flowers gone?

Over the past number of years I have been collecting re-mastered CDs of the albums that I liked from the 60s. As I listen to the lyrics, I am impressed over and over again how many of them have to do with issues of justice; the trilogy of societal evils identified by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as “racism, militarism and materialism.” I have wondered about how my generation, which was so passionate about these issues, acquiesced to the pressures of conformity to the prevailing culture.

The death of Pete Seeger, one of the most powerful voices in our culture against these evils, made me think once again about how things have changed in my lifetime. One of his songs, made popular by Peter, Paul and Mary, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”, speaks about the cycle of the life from flowers to girls to soldiers to graveyards. “When will they ever learn?”, implores Seeger.

Perhaps I am too cynical, but I don’t think that much has changed in any of these areas; we haven’t learned. True, progress has been made in the realm of Civil Rights and racism; after all, we do have an African-American as president. But there is still too much racial profiling, disproportionate jailing of African-Americans while white privilege abounds in all levels of society. Added to this older racism is now the prejudice against another group; “illegal” immigrants. When will they ever learn?

Militarism is still the backbone of our empire. The “military-industrial complex” which Dwight D. Eisenhower warned against has totally taken over our culture. Our economy couldn’t survive without continually feeding the insatiable military pig. Since the embarrassment of Vietnam, we have entered quagmires in Latin America, Afghanistan, Iraq, and meddled in the affairs of a myriad of other countries trying to make the world safe for democracy (read: safe for big banks and business to operate in an unbridled fashion). When will they ever learn?

Materialism is as prevalent as ever, if not more so. One of the rallying cries of my generation was to get off the treadmill and live a simpler life. I see little of that influence, at least among my peers. Dual careers, ever bigger homes and cars define who we are. We have sold out en masse to the call of our culture to climb the ladder of success and material gain. When will they ever learn?

What happened to the idealism of our youth? What happened to all the songs of protesting racism, militarism and materialism? Where have all the flowers gone? There seems to be one factor that changed everything: the draft. Until 1972, every young man over 18 was subject to the draft. Many of them came back in body bags, including some of my classmates. The Vietnam war made little sense to us. When we examined our hearts we saw the relationship between that militarism, racism and our materialism. So we tried to change the system to counter these evils. We did, at least partially. The draft went away. First there was a lottery system, and then the draft was abolished altogether. 

The current wars in which our country is embroiled do not make any more sense today than they did during Vietnam. The difference is that those who fight these wars are there voluntarily. The rest of us hardly notice. The press during the Iraqi war was not allowed to show the atrocities or the body bags that were paraded before our eyes nightly during the Vietnam war. Another war? We yawn and go about our business of acquiring more and caring less. When will we ever learn?

I am convinced that if every politician had to send his/her son or daughter, or grandchild to the front lines of the war zone before they could vote yes to the next US military interference, whether overt or covert, there might be more thought given before sending troops. 

Where have all the flowers gone? Gone to graveyards every one. When will they ever learn?

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Mennonite Meets Effects of War

On July 14, 1969, El Salvador invaded the department of Ocotepeque, Honduras, capturing the capital city of Nueva Ocotepeque. Many Hondurans fled into the nearby hills to escape the fighting. By July 20, through a peace treaty brokered by the OAS, the war was over. The retreating Salvadoran soldiers took everything they could find, and what they couldn’t carry, they destroyed. The already poor citizens returned to find their homes ransacked with little food or clothing left.

I was serving in Honduras with Mennonite Voluntary Service (VS) at the time along with some 15 other young men who had been drafted and chosen conscientious objection to war over participation in the military. 

During the week-long war, the whole country was under a “toque de queda” (state of siege) and there were “apagones” (blackouts). There was a ban on any fire crackers, probably the worst of all the strictures for the Hondurans who loved to celebrate holidays, birthdays, Saints days, and any excuse to set off a firecracker or ten. Rumors flew around everywhere, and whenever we were told to seek shelter because the Salvadoran planes were coming to attack, several of my expatriate colleagues ran out to the front porch to be sure to record the event on film. Nothing noteworthy happened on the north coast where we were safely located. 

Because of the desperate situation in the war zone that many Hondurans found themselves in, Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), the relief agency of the Mennonite Church, was asked to mount a relief effort in the region. I was part of the first team of VSers to respond to the need. After flying from La Ceiba to San Pedro Sula, it took us another two days by bus to reach our destination. While I was walking down the street in San Pedro, a Honduran man who passed me, spat at me and cursed. Many Hondurans felt that they were winning the war because their air force had destroyed the air force of the Salvadorans, and it was only a matter of time until the Salvadoran soldiers would leave Honduran territory. They blamed the USA for its interference in the region through the OAS. They thought that they had lost face in a chance to show their superior strength. This is the only time I felt any direct hostility as a US American in Honduras.

I spent one week in what was the war zone, hearing stories of the atrocities committed by the Salvadoran army. Not all people were able to flee, and those who remained were subjected to some horrible treatment. The one the sticks in my memory most is the story of a young school teacher who was repeatedly raped for nearly a 12-hour period as soldiers lined up outside the school house to wait their turn. 

My job was to help distribute food and clothing to the returning villagers. Our base was at the local “Amigos” church; the Quakers. First we had to sort the huge bundles of clothing and then distribute them at the local school. People lined up for blocks to receive whatever they could.  

One day it was raining and we couldn’t make our scheduled distribution point, so I stayed back and helped a photographer from some other protestant missionary agency develop some pictures in a make-shift photo lab he had set up. His pictures were from what we saw during the weeks following the war. I no longer remember the man’s name nor the agency for which he worked. However, after I returned to the US, I discovered that he had been expelled from Honduras for a book of pictures he had published exposing the poverty in Honduras. They claimed he unfairly depicted life in Honduras. I am sure I had helped him develop some of those salacious pictures. 

More than anything I remember the destruction I witnessed as well as the horrible stories; I could not imagine that anyone could commit such horror. Little did I know that in a few short years nearly all of Hispanic America would be involved in insurgency and counter-insurgency movements committing atrocities that made what I witnessed pale in comparison.

At home, this was during the height of the Vietnam war to which many of my schoolmates had been sent. What I witnessed totally reaffirmed my stance of nonresistance, and to be able to tell people in the region that I was a conscientious objector to war, and that I was serving to build up rather than to tear down, was very meaningful to most of them.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Essence Precedes Existence

Jean Paul Sartre (1905 – 1980), French philosopher, attempting to define existentialism said that all existentialists believed that “existence precedes essence.” We are all born (existence) into a meaningless and absurd world and it is necessary for us to create our own meaning (essence) out of this reality.

Sartre lived during the Enlightenment-influenced Modern Era where belief in science trumped belief in religion. Science could explain everything. What we experience with the senses is what is real, everything else is fiction. We live and we die, there is nothing eternal. All we have is our life, and that life is meaningless unless we create our own meaning. Nietzsche, another existentialist philosopher, spoke of our “will to power.” Ambition and achievement,  striving to reach the highest possible position in life, drive us to create our own meaning. We climb over everyone in our way to reach the top, fulfilling Darwin’s theory of the survival of the fittest.

Unfortunately, this world view has left many people in our day with an existential loneliness and a deep longing for something beyond ourselves and our “absurd” world. There is something within us, an internal compass, that continually points to something beyond ourselves. To ignore it, as the Enlightenment taught us to do, causes this loneliness. In our culture, too often this loneliness, or this holy longing, is filled with obsessive behaviors; addictions to shopping, sex, alcohol and drugs, food.

A way to quell this loneliness is to turn Sartre’s statement around and to understand that essence precedes existence. We are created in God’s image and likeness (Gen. 1:27). This is the internal compass that points us to something beyond ourselves. This God-stamp within us is eternal. According to Andrew Scott, “. . . the image of God [is] woven into the fabric of our being. If it were taken out of us, we would unravel. We would cease to be.” This is our essence, and it belonged to us before we were born. Essence precedes existence.

Henri Nouwen in his video series “The Vulnerable Journey,” speaks about all of us existing in the “heart of God” before we were born, and that our life (existence) is only an “interruption of eternity.” Being in the heart of God assures us of God’s eternal love for us. Being in God’s heart is our essence.

In order to deal with our existential loneliness and our holy longings, we need to get in touch with this eternal essence. This essence trumps the socialization of culture and family. This essence trumps the “will to power.” This essence makes us more than animals responding to external stimuli. This essence is our compass and hope.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

How Mennonites Have Changed in My Lifetime

I have been in conversation with an number of Neo-Anabaptists who are trying to make sense of who the Mennonites are; one of the groups originating in the Anabaptist movement from the 16th Century. One of the questions was about how leadership is/was chosen for local congregations. Since I grew up in the Mennonite Church, it got me to thinking how much the Mennonite church has changed since my childhood.

I decided to make a list of the all the changes I have noticed. I divided them into three sections, 1) Related to church life, 2) Related to public life and 3) Related to personal morality. If the item begins with a "no," it means that many Mennonites now do these things. Just a few caveats. I avoid listing the changes in traditional dress codes and use of modern technology. I am listing these changes without commentary. I think some are good and some not so good. The changes probably all come from greater assimilation into the larger US American culture. Many who grew up in the Mennonite Church will have had different experiences from mine, depending on their conference and region. Some Mennonite groups still adhere to many of these principles.

Related to church life and organization
1.  Paid leadership instead of volunteer
a.     4-year contracts instead of lifelong commitment
b.     Chosen by search committee rather than by lot
c.     Leadership from outside the congregation instead of from within
2.  Footwashing at every communion service
3.     A preparatory service before communion
4.     Change from teaching on non-resistance to nonviolent resistance
5.     No following of the lectionary for worship, no Advent or Lent emphases
Related to public life
1.     No holding of a political office
2.     No serving on a jury
3.     No study of law
4.     No voting
5.     No joining of service clubs like Rotary, Kiwanis, Lions, Elks, etc.
Relating to personal morality
1.     No purchasing of life insurance
2.     No alcohol consumption
3.     No wedding bands
4.     No dancing
5.     No participating in organized sports (unless church-related)

If you grew up Mennonite, you might have other non-dress and non-technology-related changes. What is missing on my list? 

If you are a Neo-Anabaptist, you may be wondering about the rationale for some of these principles. What are your questions?

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Rhythm and Rule

I grew up in an iconoclastic Mennonite culture. We had few religious symbols or rites in our home or in our church. No Christmas tree, wreaths or a crèche; only a singular electric candle in each window. I didn’t know what Advent or Lent were until well into young adulthood. 

This lack of symbols or rituals stems from the iconoclastic fervor in 16th Century Zurich headed by Simon Stumpf, a colleague of Conrad Grebel as students under Ulrich Zwingli. Stumpf wanted to abolish anything that was considered idolatrous—any symbol or image that was worshiped instead of directly worshiping God. Zwingli went so far as to abolish singing as idolatrous. Thankfully Mennonites didn’t go quite that far.

Increasingly the Mennonite church is taking on more and more symbols and ritual celebrations. I been both drawn and chagrined by this tendency. For example, when I see all the postings on Facebook wishing everyone a “Happy New Year,” I shrug and think, “It’s just another day.” Anabaptists, the forerunners of the Mennonites, were very clear on this. We do not have special emphases on different days or seasons of the year because we are to be disciples every single day. “Take up [your] cross daily and follow me,” said Jesus (Lk. 9:23).  No one day is more significant than another. 

Having said that, my concentration in seminary was on spiritual formation. We were each challenged to develop a “rhythm and rule,” for our lives. This phrase comes from monastic life where each day was governed by specific prayers or spiritual practices called “the hours.” Each year was governed by specific seasons according to the church calendar—a calendar that was probably developed by monks ordering their lives. In spite of my upbringing which still at times gives me pause, I have developed such a “rhythm and rule” for my daily “hours.” I find them meaningful and life-giving. 

Ronald Rolheiser in his weekly reflection from July 2010 points out that, “couples who make it a habit to give each other a ritual embrace or kiss before leaving the house in the morning and another ritual embrace or kiss before retiring at night fare better than those who let this gesture be determined by simple spontaneity or mood.” This is so because, “[the ritual kiss or embrace] speaks of fidelity and commitment beyond the ups and downs of our emotions, distractions, and tiredness on a given day.” 

A ritualistic kiss can be compared to ritualistic prayers, daily hours, and seasons of the year; our ritualistic “rhythm and rule.” “It is a ritual,” wrote Rolheiser, “an act that is done regularly to precisely say what our hearts and heads cannot always say, namely, that the deepest part of us remains committed even during those times when we are too tired, too distracted, too angry, too bored, too anxious, too self-preoccupied, or too emotionally or intellectually unfaithful to be as attentive and present as we should be.” 

So, I have found that adding ritual, symbol and icons to my “rhythm and rule” has added mystery and devotion to the daily “taking up of my cross.” Unfortunately, as humans, when left up to “spirit-led spontaneity,” we usually are too distracted, bored, etc., to do anything. That is why it is so important to have such a ritualistic, iconic practice. My iconoclastic upbringing was necessary for a time when there indeed was an overemphasis on images, saints and holy relics. 

Ritual, or establishing a rhythm and rule in our devotional practices, seems to have become an important part of the life of the Post-modern church. I raised the question on a Neo-Anabaptist discussion board about how important Advent is considering the iconoclastic history of the Anabaptist movement. It really touched off a firestorm of opinion. However, the overwhelming majority affirmed the need for seasons and the following of the church year. Does this affirmation of churchly rhythm and rule provide an anchor for these post-modern, post-Christendom times?

“It’s fidelity to the routine of everyday life, not a honeymoon, that ultimately sustains a marriage,” Rolheiser concludes his thoughts on ritual. Likewise, “It’s fidelity to simply being at the weekday meal, simple fare eaten quickly and distractedly, not the huge celebration or banquet, that sustains family life.” 

We need to sustain our spiritual lives with a daily practice of prayer, scripture reading and contemplation. Through this seemingly daily drudgery, from time to time we may enter into a period of honeymoon or a banquet feast. But such heights can only be attained if we develop a daily, ritualistic rhythm and rule.