Sunday, November 6, 2016

Under Caesar's Sword

This weekend reminded me of why Notre Dame is so special to me.  No, I certainly am not talking about their football team, which lost yet another game as part of one of their worst seasons in football history (probably among the worst 5 ever).  This weekend, I spent some time watching a documentary entitled "Under Caesar's Sword", produced by the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture in partnership with the Religious Freedom Institute and the Religious Freedom Project at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University. 
The "Under Caesar's Sword" is a research project that looks at how Christian communities respond when their religious freedom is violated or threatened.  Fourteen scholars were involved in a study of 100 Christian communities in over 30 countries, Some of the overall facts of our world's religious persecution problem are sobering:  in 2013, Christians were harassed in over 103 countries; in 2012, 76% of the world's population lived in a religiously oppressive country; Christians are not the only religious group facing oppression (in fact, Christians can be said to be responsible for oppression of other religions), but they are the recipients of 80% of all acts of religious discrimination worldwide; before 2003, there were around 1.2 million Christians in Iraq.  By 2013, that number had shrunk to about 500,000.

Some quotes are particularly illuminating and concerning:
·         Are we seeing the end of Christianity [in Iraq]? We are committed come what may, we will keep going to the end, but it looks as though the end could be very near.
– Louis Raphael I Sako, Chaldean Catholic Patriarch of Babylon

·         We are witnessing levels of persecution of ancient Christian communities of the Middle East at levels that are something that we have not seen, one could almost say, in millennia. It’s very disturbing and disheartening...
– Katrina Lantos-Swett, Chairwoman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom

·         [Religious] minorities are threatened with death and executed, they are kidnapped and raped, they are robbed and pillaged. They are denied water and electric service. Women are kidnapped and sold and forced to marry ISIS members. Women are forced to wear veils.
– Pascale Warda, Former Minister of Migration and Displacement in the Iraqi Interim Government

The documentary, and the research that was undertaken on which it relied, was designed to place focus on the kinds of sufferings Christians go through and what they do in response.  It was designed to take an in-depth look at who is persecuting them and why.  It was also designed to look at their responses to persecution and why they chose those alternatives.  Christians have suffered persecution from non-state organizations such as ISIS and Boko Haram, from the actions of individuals such as the Kandhamal riots in India, and some from governments as restrictions enforced in India and Turkey.  Christians have been forced to respond in a variety of ways, generally through courses of action such as fleeing the country (as in Iraq and Syria), trying to protect themselves in their environment and build connections with neighbors such as in Turkey, or by pursuing legal means of protection of human rights such as in India.

The documentary highlighted the basis of religious freedom on a secular, international stage:  "Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance."  (Article 18, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, United Nations, 1948).  Too often, these long held rights, protected in international law, are forgotten.  I am proud to be ND this weekend, as I think through the issues raised in "Under Caesar's Sword".  Today is a special day, The International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church.  Our freedom as individuals, to live and worship as we choose, is a cherished right that is not always honored by all people in all places.  I encourage each of you to do your part, to recognize the issues and concerns before us, and to stay informed.

I encourage each of you to find out more about the efforts of those involved in the research of Christian Persecution and to watch their documentary "Under Caesar's Sword".  Their work can be found at the following link:  Under Caesar's SwordAdditional resources can also be found at Voice of the Martyrs as well as at Open Doors USA.

Religious Persecution is not something that is solely about Christians, nor is countering it something that can be done lightly or with an incorrect attitude.  In this regard, I leave you with the following two quotes:
·         We don’t forgive the act because the act is heinous. But we do forgive the killers from the depths of our hearts. Otherwise, we would become consumed by anger and hatred. It becomes a spiral of violence that has no place in this world.
 – Bishop Angaelos, General Bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the United Kingdom

·         The Bishop of Rome will not rest while there are still men and women of any religion, whose dignity is wounded and who are deprived of their basic needs for survival, robbed of their future, or forced to live as fugitives and refugees. Today, we join the Pastors of the Oriental Churches, in appealing that the right of everyone to a dignified life and to freely profess one’s own faith be respected
– Pope Francis

We need to ensure that all members live up to the standards established in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations in 1948, and we need to ensure that the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom remains ever vigilant, and that our country ensures that great significance is placed on their efforts.  Moreover, we need to ensure that we ourselves show the kind of religious freedom in our own country, and that our attitudes towards people of all faiths matches the reflections of Pope Francis.  We must also have the heart towards others reflected by Bishop Angaelos lest we be consumed by anger and hatred towards others.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Working Together

I have recently been thinking about the image of a community, or organization, in terms of a body.  One teaching on this matter that I have read compares a group of people living and working together as a body, where they are joined and work together to their mutual benefit, where each member does their share.  The imagery of the teaching on this matter also talked about each of us has unique gifts that are to be used as we work together for our mutual health.

I have been thinking, especially this week, about how true this kind of imagery is of our Burlington community as a whole as well as our municipal government in particular.  Each of us has unique gifts, that are of no true value until and unless we put them to the common good of all.  Not only do we have unique gifts, but we each have a unique role to play based off of those gifts.  For us to function effectively as a community (as well as for the City to function effectively as an organization), we need to have a willingness to use our unique gifts, talents, and roles for the benefit of all.  That means we cannot function on our own, or think of one role as more important than another.  It means that each individual’s decision about whether to use their abilities to the full extent possible or not will have a direct impact on the overall organization.  

I have been very impressed by how the employees of the City of Burlington have united to work together over the years that I have been here.  These have been years with many challenges, successes, and learning experiences.  These have been years where, by and large, everyone has chosen to work together for our mutual success.  I am proud of the effort and sacrifice that I have seen people in all departments, across the organization, put forth for the good of our community. 
City Day in the Park (it was hot enough for me to think it was the Fourth of July, for all you Chicago music fans) was a prime example of this.  We had people from across our organization work together to staff an event that was a fun afternoon for all involved.  It took a tremendous amount of work, a lot of which went unseen.  There would not have been anything successful about the day of the event without those hours of work of preparation, of ensuring that all the minor details were taken care of to allow the day to go forward with very few problems.  The result of this effort (including not just City employees, but several organizations and individuals who willingly volunteered their support for our community) was that there were close to a thousand people able to participate in the day’s activities.  They were able to tour the smoke house, a squad car, see all types of city equipment, get temporary tattoos, make bookmarks, tour the history of the park, jump in bounce houses, and have free refreshments, among other things.  A heard a comment from one local service provider about this day that particularly hit home for me.  They mentioned that several of their clients have very few opportunities to have their children participate in activities such as this because they lack the funds to do it; they don’t have the funds to pay for the bounce house, or the food, or whatever other activity they took part in that day.  That ability for everyone to enjoy and participate is what City Day in the Park is about.

There was no one person who was more important to the success of City Day than another.  We were reliant on everyone working together.  City employees were reliant on other groups as well for the event to be successful.  That seems to be the way of anything that happens in our community.  When we work together as a body, we have the chance to succeed and be healthy.  When someone, for whatever reason, chooses not to use their gifts willingly for the benefit of all, we fall apart.  I have been blessed, during my time here in Burlington, to be surrounded by a group of people that recognizes how important it is to work together for our mutual benefit. 

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Loving Your Enemies {A sermon by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.}
I wanted to provide some thoughts in the wake of recent incidents, but first I wanted to provide the majority of a sermon delivered by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. several decades ago.  Some of my thoughts will follow:
A sermon delivered by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama on November 17, 1957.

…So I want to turn your attention to this subject: “Loving Your Enemies.” It’s so basic to me because it is a part of my basic philosophical and theological orientation—the whole idea of love, the whole philosophy of love. In the fifth chapter of the gospel as recorded by Saint Matthew, we read these very arresting words flowing from the lips of our Lord and Master: “Ye have heard that it has been said, ‘Thou shall love thy neighbor, and hate thine enemy.’ But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them that despitefully use you; that ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven.”

Certainly these are great words, words lifted to cosmic proportions. And over the centuries, many persons have argued that this is an extremely difficult command. Many would go so far as to say that it just isn’t possible to move out into the actual practice of this glorious command. They would go on to say that this is just additional proof that Jesus was an impractical idealist who never quite came down to earth. So the arguments abound. But far from being an impractical idealist, Jesus has become the practical realist. The words of this text glitter in our eyes with a new urgency. Far from being the pious injunction of a utopian dreamer, this command is an absolute necessity for the survival of our civilization. Yes, it is love that will save our world and our civilization, love even for enemies.

Now let me hasten to say that Jesus was very serious when he gave this command; he wasn’t playing. He realized that it’s hard to love your enemies. He realized that it’s difficult to love those persons who seek to defeat you, those persons who say evil things about you. He realized that it was painfully hard, pressingly hard. But he wasn’t playing. And we cannot dismiss this passage as just another example of Oriental hyperbole, just a sort of exaggeration to get over the point. This is a basic philosophy of all that we hear coming from the lips of our Master. Because Jesus wasn’t playing; because he was serious. We have the Christian and moral responsibility to seek to discover the meaning of these words, and to discover how we can live out this command, and why we should live by this command.

Now first let us deal with this question, which is the practical question: How do you go about loving your enemies? I think the first thing is this: In order to love your enemies, you must begin by analyzing self. And I’m sure that seems strange to you, that I start out telling you this morning that you love your enemies by beginning with a look at self. It seems to me that that is the first and foremost way to come to an adequate discovery to the how of this situation.
Now, I’m aware of the fact that some people will not like you, not because of something you have done to them, but they just won’t like you. I’m quite aware of that. Some people aren’t going to like the way you walk; some people aren’t going to like the way you talk. Some people aren’t going to like you because you can do your job better than they can do theirs. Some people aren’t going to like you because other people like you, and because you’re popular, and because you’re well-liked, they aren’t going to like you. Some people aren’t going to like you because your hair is a little shorter than theirs or your hair is a little longer than theirs. Some people aren’t going to like you because your skin is a little brighter than theirs; and others aren’t going to like you because your skin is a little darker than theirs. So that some people aren’t going to like you. They’re going to dislike you, not because of something that you’ve done to them, but because of various jealous reactions and other reactions that are so prevalent in human nature.

But after looking at these things and admitting these things, we must face the fact that an individual might dislike us because of something that we’ve done deep down in the past, some personality attribute that we possess, something that we’ve done deep down in the past and we’ve forgotten about it; but it was that something that aroused the hate response within the individual. That is why I say, begin with yourself. There might be something within you that arouses the tragic hate response in the other individual.

…And this is what Jesus means when he said: “How is it that you can see the mote in your brother’s eye and not see the beam in your own eye?” Or to put it in Moffatt’s translation: “How is it that you see the splinter in your brother’s eye and fail to see the plank in your own eye?” And this is one of the tragedies of human nature. So we begin to love our enemies and love those persons that hate us whether in collective life or individual life by looking at ourselves.
A second thing that an individual must do in seeking to love his enemy is to discover the element of good in his enemy, and everytime you begin to hate that person and think of hating that person, realize that there is some good there and look at those good points which will over-balance the bad points.

I’ve said to you on many occasions that each of us is something of a schizophrenic personality. We’re split up and divided against ourselves. And there is something of a civil war going on within all of our lives. There is a recalcitrant South of our soul revolting against the North of our soul. And there is this continual struggle within the very structure of every individual life…. There is something within each of us that causes us to cry out with Apostle Paul, “I see and approve the better things of life, but the evil things I do.”

So somehow the “isness” of our present nature is out of harmony with the eternal “oughtness” that forever confronts us. And this simply means this: That within the best of us, there is some evil, and within the worst of us, there is some good. When we come to see this, we take a different attitude toward individuals. The person who hates you most has some good in him… And when you come to the point that you look in the face of every man and see deep down within him what religion calls “the image of God,” you begin to love him in spite of. No matter what he does, you see God’s image there. There is an element of goodness that he can never sluff off. Discover the element of good in your enemy. And as you seek to hate him, find the center of goodness and place your attention there and you will take a new attitude.

Another way that you love your enemy is this: When the opportunity presents itself for you to defeat your enemy, that is the time which you must not do it…. Love is creative, understanding goodwill for all men. It is the refusal to defeat any individual. When you rise to the level of love, of its great beauty and power, you seek only to defeat evil systems. Individuals who happen to be caught up in that system, you love, but you seek to defeat the system.

The Greek language, as I’ve said so often before, is very powerful at this point…. It talks about love as eros. That’s one word for love. Eros is a sort of, aesthetic love…. And it’s come to us to be a sort of romantic love, though it’s a beautiful love….
Then the Greek language talks about philia, and that’s another type of love that’s also beautiful. It is a sort of intimate affection between personal friends. And this is the type of love that you have for those persons that you’re friendly with, your intimate friends, or people that you call on the telephone and you go by to have dinner with, and your roommate in college and that type of thing. It’s a sort of reciprocal love. On this level, you like a person because that person likes you. You love on this level, because you are loved….

The Greek language comes out with another word for love. It is the word agape. And agape is more than eros; agape is more than philia; agape is something of the understanding, creative, redemptive goodwill for all men. It is a love that seeks nothing in return. It is an overflowing love; it’s what theologians would call the love of God working in the lives of men. And when you rise to love on this level, you begin to love men, not because they are likeable, but because God loves them. You look at every man, and you love him because you know God loves him. And he might be the worst person you’ve ever seen.

And this is what Jesus means, I think, in this very passage when he says, “Love your enemy.” And it’s significant that he does not say, “Like your enemy.” Like is a sentimental something, an affectionate something. There are a lot of people that I find it difficult to like. I don’t like what they do to me. I don’t like what they say about me and other people. I don’t like their attitudes. I don’t like some of the things they’re doing. I don’t like them. But Jesus says love them. And love is greater than like. Love is understanding, redemptive goodwill for all men, so that you love everybody, because God loves them. You refuse to do anything that will defeat an individual, because you have agape in your soul. And here you come to the point that you love the individual who does the evil deed, while hating the deed that the person does. This is what Jesus means when he says, “Love your enemy.” This is the way to do it. When the opportunity presents itself when you can defeat your enemy, you must not do it.
Now for the few moments left, let us move from the practical how to the theoretical why. It’s not only necessary to know how to go about loving your enemies, but also to go down into the question of why we should love our enemies. I think the first reason that we should love our enemies, and I think this was at the very center of Jesus’ thinking, is this: that hate for hate only intensifies the existence of hate and evil in the universe. If I hit you and you hit me and I hit you back and you hit me back and go on, you see, that goes on ad infinitum. [tapping on pulpit] It just never ends. Somewhere somebody must have a little sense, and that’s the strong person. The strong person is the person who can cut off the chain of hate, the chain of evil. And that is the tragedy of hate, that it doesn’t cut it off. It only intensifies the existence of hate and evil in the universe. Somebody must have religion enough and morality enough to cut it off and inject within the very structure of the universe that strong and powerful element of love.

…And if somebody doesn’t have sense enough to turn on the dim and beautiful and powerful lights of love in this world, the whole of our civilization will be plunged into the abyss of destruction. And we will all end up destroyed because nobody had any sense on the highway of history. Somewhere somebody must have some sense. Men must see that force begets force, hate begets hate, toughness begets toughness. And it is all a descending spiral, ultimately ending in destruction for all and everybody. Somebody must have sense enough and morality enough to cut off the chain of hate and the chain of evil in the universe. And you do that by love.

There’s another reason why you should love your enemies, and that is because hate distorts the personality of the hater…. You just begin hating somebody, and you will begin to do irrational things. You can’t see straight when you hate. You can’t walk straight when you hate. You can’t stand upright. Your vision is distorted. There is nothing more tragic than to see an individual whose heart is filled with hate…. For the person who hates, the beautiful becomes ugly and the ugly becomes beautiful. For the person who hates, the good becomes bad and the bad becomes good. For the person who hates, the true becomes false and the false becomes true. That’s what hate does. You can’t see right. The symbol of objectivity is lost. Hate destroys the very structure of the personality of the hater. And this is why Jesus says hate [recording interrupted]

…meet every situation of life with an abounding love. Never hate, because it ends up in tragic, neurotic responses…. Hate at any point is a cancer that gnaws away at the very vital center of your life and your existence. It is like eroding acid that eats away the best and the objective center of your life. So Jesus says love, because hate destroys the hater as well as the hated.

Now there is a final reason I think that Jesus says, “Love your enemies.” It is this: that love has within it a redemptive power. And there is a power there that eventually transforms individuals. That’s why Jesus says, “Love your enemies.” Because if you hate your enemies, you have no way to redeem and to transform your enemies. But if you love your enemies, you will discover that at the very root of love is the power of redemption. You just keep loving people and keep loving them, even though they’re mistreating you. Here’s the person who is a neighbor, and this person is doing something wrong to you and all of that. Just keep being friendly to that person. Keep loving them. Don’t do anything to embarrass them. Just keep loving them, and they can’t stand it too long. Oh, they react in many ways in the beginning. They react with bitterness because they’re mad because you love them like that. They react with guilt feelings, and sometimes they’ll hate you a little more at that transition period, but just keep loving them. And by the power of your love they will break down under the load. That’s love, you see. It is redemptive, and this is why Jesus says love. There’s something about love that builds up and is creative. There is something about hate that tears down and is destructive. So love your enemies.

I think of one of the best examples of this. We all remember the great president of this United States, Abraham Lincoln—these United States rather. You remember when Abraham Lincoln was running for president of the United States, there was a man who ran all around the country talking about Lincoln. He said a lot of bad things about Lincoln, a lot of unkind things. And sometimes he would get to the point that he would even talk about his looks, saying, “You don’t want a tall, lanky, ignorant man like this as the president of the United States.” He went on and on and on and went around with that type of attitude and wrote about it. Finally, one day Abraham Lincoln was elected president of the United States. And if you read the great biography of Lincoln, if you read the great works about him, you will discover that as every president comes to the point, he came to the point of having to choose a Cabinet. And then came the time for him to choose a Secretary of War. He looked across the nation, and decided to choose a man by the name of Mr. Stanton. And when Abraham Lincoln stood around his advisors and mentioned this fact, they said to him: “Mr. Lincoln, are you a fool? Do you know what Mr. Stanton has been saying about you? Do you know what he has done, tried to do to you? Do you know that he has tried to defeat you on every hand? Do you know that, Mr. Lincoln? Did you read all of those derogatory statements that he made about you?” Abraham Lincoln stood before the advisors around him and said: “Oh yes, I know about it; I read about it; I’ve heard him myself. But after looking over the country, I find that he is the best man for the job.”

Mr. Stanton did become Secretary of War, and a few months later, Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. And if you go to Washington, you will discover that one of the greatest words or statements ever made by, about Abraham Lincoln was made about this man Stanton. And as Abraham Lincoln came to the end of his life, Stanton stood up and said: “Now he belongs to the ages.” And he made a beautiful statement concerning the character and the stature of this man. If Abraham Lincoln had hated Stanton, if Abraham Lincoln had answered everything Stanton said, Abraham Lincoln would have not transformed and redeemed Stanton. Stanton would have gone to his grave hating Lincoln, and Lincoln would have gone to his grave hating Stanton. But through the power of love Abraham Lincoln was able to redeem Stanton.

That’s it. There is a power in love that our world has not discovered yet…. For they believe in hitting for hitting; they believe in an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth; they believe in hating for hating; but Jesus comes to us and says, “This isn’t the way.”

…Because of the power and influence of the personality of this Christ, he was able to split history into a.d. and b.c. Because of his power, he was able to shake the hinges from the gates of the Roman Empire. And all around the world this morning, we can hear the glad echo of heaven ring:

Jesus shall reign wherever sun,
Does his successive journeys run;
His kingdom spreads from shore to shore,
Till moon shall wane and wax no more.
We can hear another chorus singing: “All hail the power of Jesus name!”
We can hear another chorus singing: “Hallelujah, hallelujah! He’s King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Hallelujah, hallelujah!”
We can hear another choir singing:
In Christ there is no East or West.
In Him no North or South,
But one great Fellowship of Love
Throughout the whole wide world.
This is the only way.

…So this morning, as I look into your eyes, and into the eyes of all of my brothers in Alabama and all over America and over the world, I say to you, “I love you. I would rather die than hate you.” And I’m foolish enough to believe that through the power of this love somewhere, men of the most recalcitrant bent will be transformed. And then we will be in God’s kingdom. We will be able to matriculate into the university of eternal life because we had the power to love our enemies, to bless those persons that cursed us, to even decide to be good to those persons who hated us, and we even prayed for those persons who despitefully used us.

Oh God, help us in our lives and in all of our attitudes, to work out this controlling force of love, this controlling power that can solve every problem that we confront in all areas. Oh, we talk about politics; we talk about the problems facing our atomic civilization. Grant that all men will come together and discover that as we solve the crisis and solve these problems—the international problems, the problems of atomic energy, the problems of nuclear energy, and yes, even the race problem—let us join together in a great fellowship of love and bow down at the feet of Jesus. Give us this strong determination. In the name and spirit of this Christ, we pray. Amen.

– Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Source: Martin Luther King Jr., “Loving Your Enemies” (speech, Montgomery, AL, November 1957), The Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute,

My heart aches over the tragedies of the past few days, and the recognition that these are part of larger contextual issues that span generations.  It is too easy to look at each incident that occurs, and feel our own fear and anger increase.  Yet this is not the path that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. followed; he confronted evil and anger in a way that is not easy to do.  He dared us to love all those we came into contact with, with an agape love.  This is a love that seeks the best for those we come in contact with, with no expectation of anything in return.  This was a love that he tried to demonstrate to all, including those who could be called his enemies.  He has given us that dare, and I feel that today is a day that we must take up that challenge; I must take up that challenge.  I must ensure that I make decisions that meet hate with love, that meet animosity with care.  This is not a call to meet someone else's demands, but a willingness to love them from the place that they come from.

There are some comments that I have been pondering over the weekend from John Stonestreet, with the Colson Center for Christian Worldview, in a Breakpoint radio broadcast that will be delivered tomorrow, July 11, 2016 entitled "The Gospel in the Aftermath of Dallas, Baton Rouge, and Falcon Heights.  Where To from Here?"  (Where To from Here?)The transcript has several poignant points, but what stood out to me is its statement that we are not okay; the events we have recently seen are a revelation of the unrest that is present in society.  They comment that our society is weak in its middle - the social glue that holds us together.  What is that social glue?  Human relationships.  These can't be mandated from on high; the federal government cannot create a new program to develop them.  We must live in community.  

I was also intrigued by their reference to a speech by Alexander Solzhenitsyn entitled "A World Split Apart" where he stated that the smooth surface film of our society is thin, with only illusions of stability and health.  I have only briefly read the speech, but I know the man.  Solzhenitsyn lived through the Gulags of Russia as a political prisoner, treated as less than human.  He saw a society where individuals were turned against each other by their government, and the social fabric that bound people to each other was torn apart.  He saw how easy it is for any society to do so.  This reinforces the problem with national solutions, which coldly turn people against each other in an effort to force us to get along and treat each other better.  Somehow, we must learn to do this at an individual level. Within his 1978 speech, living in exile here in the west, is the following quote:  "there is an atmosphere of moral mediocrity, paralyzing man's noblest impulses. And it will be simply impossible to stand through the trials of this threatening century with only the support of a legalistic structure."  Again, we have lost our social glue, we have lost our morals.  I have gone on extensively, hence I need to finish.  Yet, I encourage all of you to give Solzhenitsyn's speech a careful read, and considerable thought.  It was a critique from 40 years ago of our western society, but is still relevant today, and to this past week's incidents.  I may return to it with further thoughts at a later time.  For now, will sum this post up with an encouragement for all of us to demonstrate the "agape" love mentioned by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in his 1957 speech.