Peace on Earth and Goodwill towards all?

peace-on-earth

By Joe LaGuardia

In a recent article for USA Today, Robert Parham noted the oddity and the timeliness of God’s message of “peace on earth” to Mary and Joseph during the Christmas season.

He stated that peace was a ridiculous notion back then as it is now, a notion hard-pressed in human community filled with violence and vitriol, domination and oppression.

That first-century world was one of utter darkness: Rome was in charge, applying financial pressure through high taxes and a military economy.  Not many politicians were friends to families in Nazareth.  As one observer of Jesus noted, “What good can come out of Nazareth anyway?” (John 1:46).

And shortly after Jesus was born, during Epiphany, an infuriated Herod commanded the genocide of children throughout Bethlehem (Matt. 2:16-16).

Peace is certainly ridiculous because it assumes that we aspire to be better than this, to lift ourselves above the fray of retaliation and revenge, and seek avenues of justice and forgiveness instead.  After all, we know more than people did back then.  Ours is the age of Enlightenment, science, and technology.

But it is also ridiculous because it assumes we can follow in the footsteps of Jesus: When tortured and sentenced for crimes he did not commit, he forgave his oppressors, forever breaking the Cycle of revenge and showing us what true reconciliation looks like. No amount of science and social media can inspire that kind of peacemaking.

It is, however, that type of peace we Christians are to proclaim on Christmas, or whenever we are together, really.  In worship, we model what it means to look to God rather than ourselves.  Our praise and proclamation of Gospel is the alternative to a world that is “me first.”  In ministry, we surrender ourselves to learn and walk with that Galilean peasant rather than give in to princes who wield power.

In our missions, we practice restorative justice when we declare that all we own is to be shared with the “least of these,” bringing healing to those places still under the thumb of empire and hardship.

God’s peace in Christ was– and is–radically different than the militaristic values that set the tone of violence in Rome.  God’s peace in Christ sets a new tone for today too.

Yet, peace has been hard to find this season.  Leading up to the Christmas weekend, there was talk among politicians on Twitter concerning, of all things, nuclear escalation.  When we sang, “Peace on earth, goodwill to men,” in our hymnody this past weekend, there were over 50 shootings with at least a dozen fatalities in the city of Chicago alone.

Across the nation, there were multiple reports of violence and fighting–and at least one mass shooting threat–in malls, the very places where we purchase gifts for our children to remind them of the gift of Jesus.  Violence erupted in a Aurora, Colorado, mall of all places, a town victimized by a mass shooting some years back.  People should know better.

I am not sure how people who celebrate or observe Christmas can become violent, but this seems to play into the narrative that anger in America (or at least the perception of anger, as reflected in the nightly news and in our political rhetoric) is becoming a new norm this year.

Anger can only be tempered with intentional acts of love and kindness, and in the actual testifying to and spreading of the Gospel –the Good News– of Christ in our midst.  It was Jesus who walked among angry Roman soldiers who derided, dehumanized, and tortured him.  It was in the middle of that kind of storm that Jesus ushered in a silent witness of Good News of peace and calm, perhaps the loudest plea for non-violence anytime in history (Mark 15:16-20).

Civil Rights activist Ruby Sales learned long ago that tempering violence may be resolved with asking different questions of those who are angry and to do so right in the midst of violent communities.  She learned to ask, “Where does it hurt?”

We too–the church as a whole–must learn how to ask this question and listen to the answers.  Then we must, in turn, go into the public square and ask that question of neighbors and communities alike.

God came to us as Emmanuel not in places where we ought to be, but where we are: right in the middle of our hurt.  Jesus was born there not to leave us where we are, but to mature us to be vessels of peace who have experienced forgiveness and healing once and for all.  Remember that is was in the Gospel of Mark where a Roman soldier–once angry, but healed at the cross of Christ, who was the first human on record to declare, “This Jesus is indeed the Son of God!”

God’s peace in Jesus was a bold scheme, and I agree with Robert Parham that it does sound ridiculous, especially when we see a different picture painted across our nation on the nightly news.  But if we Christians can’t be the ones to be intentional in sharing God’s love and peace–to ask the hard questions of where it hurts–then who will?

Learn from the Italians: talk over one another!

telephone

By Joe LaGuardia

In the South, it is considered rude to speak over another person.  It is polite to listen and yield to your conversational partner.  After all, Southerners are known to be humble, mannered folk.

Not so for us Italians.  While growing up around a table full of bread, wine, and pasta, I learned that speaking over one another with exuberance was a way of life.

Italians bicker with each other, debate politics, and gossip (just a little) at the dinner table, often, all at the same time.

Our embedded cultures bleed into religious life.  Take funerals for example.  There is nothing like planning a funeral in the South.  Funeral directors around these parts are as close as siblings and as invested in the local church as your favorite deacon.

In the North, planning a funeral is like strong-arming in the Stock Exchange.  When we planned my father’s funeral, I wish I could have transported Scot Ward and company up north just so my mother did not have to fight with the director about whether to make the visitation an sixteen hour or eight hour event.

I was not happy.

Yes, Italians are anything but humble, but when it comes to speaking their mind, they are on to something.

On the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-13), scripture tells us that the Holy Spirit filled the earliest disciples with power and charismatic gifts fit for heaven.

Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them.  All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit gave them ability.”

In other words, a cacophony of voices rose in praise and proclamation to God.  A divine wind blew manners out of the windows, and a chorus of different languages erupted like a fight in an Italian household.

“At this sound,” Scripture tells us, “the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each” (2:6).

Pentecost, like the Italians, teaches us that we have lost the ability to talk to one another.  I don’t mean to say we’ve lost the ability to be rude, but to say exactly what we mean and to mean exactly what we say.

Italians can get overwhelming at times, but they value communication, which generally leads to intimacy, growth, and honesty.  You may fight, but you’re still family at the end of the day.

We have removed the power of Pentecost not by only silencing voices in our midst, but by congregating (no pun intended!) around people with whom we agree and share a common language.  We forgot how to welcome diversity and talk robustly about things that matter and about which we may disagree.

There is no shortage of topics worth debating at church.  Race relations and violence come to mind.  We need to be frank about how violence has made its way into faith as if violence is a part of faith.

There is the subject of ecology and policies related to global warming.  Did you know that Christians feel differently about these topics, and our theology shapes where we are on matters related to our earth’s future?

How about gun control?  Just because some people want to regulate gun control to curb violence does not mean that people want to curb gun ownership, no more than people who value gun ownership want to shoot everyone who gives them a dirty look.

The sanctity of life demands that we assess honestly the protection of all lives that are made in God’s image, whether guilty of heinous crimes or as innocent as doves.  Talking out our differences is a start.

On that Pentecost day so long ago, the result of disciples talking together — talking over one another even — resulted in a revival that inspired 3,000 people to accept Christ as Savior.  The church has lost something along the way.  We, like the Italians, need to engage in conversations that matter.

“I Got Nothing”: Narrative Wreckage and Charleston

CHARLESTON, SC - JUNE 21:  Parishioners embrace as they attend the first church service four days after a mass shooting that claimed the lives of nine people at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Church June 21, 2015 in Charleston, South Carolina. Chruch elders decided to hold the regularly scheduled Sunday school and worship service as they continue to grieve the shooting death of nine of its members including its pastor earlier this week.  (Photo by David Goldman-Pool/Getty Images)

Photo courtesy of CBS New York. (Photo by David Goldman-Pool/Getty Images)

By Joe LaGuardia

In the wake of last week’s domestic terrorist attack against Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, Jon Stewart of The Daily Show delivered an extemporaneous monologue.

Stewart said that he was unable to focus on prepping for his show all day, and he did not have any jokes to tell.

“I got nothing,” Stewart repeated, alluding to his speechlessness over the loss of nine lives in one of Charleston’s oldest black churches.

As I combed through social media thereafter, I noticed other people echoing Stewart’s mantra.  One person on Facebook said the event rendered her speechless.  Another person quipped that no words could communicate his grief.

I only posted a news article and a prayer released by the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship because I know speechlessness well: In the aftermath of my own father’s death, the result of a mass shooting in a Pennsylvania town hall meeting, I too plummeted into what Elisabeth Gold calls “narrative wreckage.”

“Narrative wreckage” happens when a person’s or a community’s grief is so unbearable and helpless that no speech, utterance, or proclamation fits the situation.  Nothing makes sense, and the logic we apply to life no longer holds water.

The stories that make meaning in the world come to a screeching halt and are dismantled.  As Stewart said, “I got nothing.”

Certainly, initial reactions to tragedy, mostly resulting in yelling across political aisles pertaining to racism, gun control, or other cultural factors, arise but are far from helpful.  In fact, they are so distracting, the long road of reconciliation gets ignored entirely–and our conversation only hobbles from one tragedy to the next with no real solutions in sight.

But if we take our time, words will eventually start to reform in our mouths.  Yes, there will always be words of protest, anger, cliche, acceptance, among others.  For victims of the Charleston shootings, words of forgiveness were the only ones that erupted on the scene.

Some people simply expressed prayers of lament, supplying clergy with the appropriate verbiage used to describe their own feelings the best they knew how.

But lament does not find a comfortable home in a prose world.  It is the language of poetry and prophetic preaching, the theme of biblical books such as Lamentations, Isaiah, and post-traumatic stress-laden Ezekiel.  It is the narrow road less traveled because it doesn’t place blame–it rips us from the very disillusionment in which blame enshrouds us.

Musical verse (sometimes in the form of dirges), metrical units, and oddly paired phrases that do not fit any narrative framework are the only ones available for those prophets who lived in war-torn, exiled Israel under Babylonian, terrorist rule.

Truth is, I–and folks at Trinity–did not do much of anything in the wake of the shootings at Emanuel.  A few leaders from our worship team decided against a formal moment of silence during Sunday service.  I did not attend any  prayer vigils held in our county.

This is not because we don’t care.  Quite the opposite:  Trinity did not lament like other churches because lament has become a part of our community for the past few years.

The loss of my father was not only my loss, but the entire church’s loss.  And we have faced loss of various kinds.

Frankly, we are sick of the violence that has erupted since a semi-automatic wielding terrorist took my father’s life on 5 August 2013.

And we are sick of death wrought by war, cancer, accidents, domestic abuse, stillbirth, and addiction.  We are sick of death despite the geography: be it in beautiful Charleston, across amber waves of grain in our nation, or not five minutes from us at a local liquor store.

We only stand as a silent witness that enough is enough.

Yet, we are humble enough to admit that we don’t have all of the answers.  When we are in pain, we pray honest prayers to God.  When we discuss politics, sometimes we leave the table without any compromises.  When we cry together, our eyes fill with resignation more than they ought.

And although lament is our second language, it is hope that is our native tongue: We know that the Christ story doesn’t end at the cross, but at the victory of an empty tomb.

We know that Jesus’ resurrection is a foretaste of our resurrection to come.  But until then, its narrative wreckage for us once again.  We still feel the warm blood stains on the cross more than the soft, white linens Jesus left behind on Easter morning.

Like Stewart, our hurt runs deep.  So, sorry folks, for now, “We got nothing.”