Radical Solidarity

Matthew 19:16-30

16 Then someone came to him and said, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” 17 And he said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.” 18 He said to him, “Which ones?” And Jesus said, “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; 19 Honor your father and mother; also, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 20 The young man said to him, “I have kept all these; what do I still lack?” 21 Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” 22 When the young man heard this word, he went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

23 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly I tell you, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. 24 Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” 25 When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astounded and said, “Then who can be saved?” 26 But Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible.”

27 Then Peter said in reply, “Look, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” 28 Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man is seated on the throne of his glory, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. 29 And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold, and will inherit eternal life. 30 But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.

My wife came home from work one day and shared a story with me about a coworker. She works with a wonderful woman named Martha who is sweet, caring, and giving by all accounts. She and her husband Tom were born and raised in Wisconsin and moved to the Shenandoah Valley for work when they were in their early twenties. Like so many of us, though we have not lived in our birth state for years, it is still home in some way.

Because of their strong affinity for Wisconsin and because some family still lives in that state, Martha and Tom’s daughter decided to go to college at the University of Wisconsin. She has been living up there for a couple of years, and this gives the family an additional reason to go to Wisconsin every now and then.

Recently the family dog began to show his age. Tom is a teacher and he had previously made the decision that he would travel to Wisconsin over his spring break to visit their daughter. And since the family dog was looking like he wasn’t going to be around for many more months, he decided to take the dog along so their daughter could say goodbye to her childhood pet.

So Tom started the 14-15 hour trip with the dog to Madison. Soon the dog started to look bad, perhaps he was getting a bit car sick. Then he got a little bit better. Then, at about the half-way point in Ohio, the dog died. This raises an important question. What do you do when you are seven hours into a fourteen-hour trip and you have a dead golden retriever in your car? Do you go home? Do you burry it in Ohio? Or do you keep going to Wisconsin? He decided to keep going to Wisconsin. But then you have an additional concern. Do you then burry the dog in Wisconsin, which means that your wife and son back home don’t get to say goodbye? Or do you drive back from Wisconsin with a dog who has now been dead for a week, for a total of 21 hours and 1200 miles driven with a deceased pet in your car.

That story will seem to have absolutely nothing to do with our sermon today until the last few minutes. So stick with me! Today I am presenting some of my work that went into my Th.M. thesis, which was passed this week by both my primary and secondary readers. My thesis was on the effects of social location on the Mennonite peace witness. Let’s unpack that a bit by working backwards.

Traditionally Mennonites have refused to participate in any act of violence because we have felt that violence goes against Jesus’ teaching to love our enemies and to not resist an evil doer. Jesus didn’t just say this, he literally practiced what he preached, allowing the Roman soldiers to capture him and execute him on the cross. Jesus even said that he could call down legions of angels to defend himself, but instead he submitted to those whose goal it was to overtake him.

So Mennonites have historically chosen to not fight in wars, and to not even use violence to defend themselves from an attacker. This doesn’t mean that non-lethal methods of evasion are not allowed. But if someone tries to take my car I’m not going to pull out my 9mm handgun and dare them to try it (I don’t have a gun, it’s an illustration). Obviously there are a lot of disagreements in our church and all of the historical peace churches about just what is justifiable and what is not. By no means are we now nor have we ever been all of one mind. But our Confession of Faith, which is the teaching position of the church, speaks against violence in absolute terms.

When we think about the most significant times in our Anabaptist/Mennonite history, many of us will think of the fifteenth and sixteenth-century persecutions. Between 1527 and 1660 an estimated 2,000 Anabaptists were put to death by other Christians because of the religious practices of these Mennonite forebears. Because it is only natural as followers of the Prince of Peace that when we find someone that thinks we should be baptizing adults rather than babies the only thing we can do is to put them to death. That’s just what you do.

Many Mennonites today will recall hearing their parents read stories from The Martyrs Mirror, a huge book that tells the stories of many of these executions. There are also some very graphic pictures, including the iconic Dirk Willems returning to save his pursuer as well as people hanging from shackles, locked in headstocks, and even burning at the stake.

This is when Mennonites began their first migration. For their own safety, many Mennonites moved to Russia, where they were promised the opportunity to worship in freedom, or to the United States, where they were invited by William Penn. Those who moved to the United States started the first Mennonite colony in Germantown, PA in 1683.

Mennonites in the US were generally left alone by others during times of peace. But the Mennonites’ refusal to participate in war sometimes led to persecution. There are stories of Mennonite churches being burned to the ground and some Mennonites being tarred and feathered. Wartime always meant some kind of persecution, but documents and letters surviving from these periods show that they expected this. And often these documents encouraged Mennonites to stay strong in their nonviolent witness even while being persecuted by others.

So what do we do when we are persecuted? We tend to turn inward. We become more and more isolated from the rest of the world. Mennonites were intentionally different from the rest of the world, in part because Paul writes in Romans 12:2 to not be conformed to the patterns of this world. And we assumed that meant that we needed to wear plain coats and bonnets, drive horse and buggies, reject electricity in the homes, and continue to speak a dialect of German known as Pennsylvania Dutch.

Many denominations lived in a similar isolationistic way for a period of time in the United States. The thing that sets us apart is how long we did it. Many churches and denominations felt that it was necessary to assimilate to the broader culture around the 1917, which is the year that the USA entered the First World War. German speaking churches switched over to English and more American practices were adopted. Nobody wanted to be accused of being anti-American out of the fear of persecution. But Mennonites continued their sectarian ways.

Imagine how a German-speaking group of Christians who refused to take up arms would have been viewed during both of the World Wars.

Some have named World War II as one of the major factors that led to the eventual assimilation of Mennonites to the broader culture (see Stutzman, From Nonresistance to Justice). We were forced to interact with others outside of our own church. It’s always good to meet new people, right?! And today the majority of Mennonites are indiscernible from the average American in appearance. Perhaps one of the few things that sets us off from the rest of the world is our emphasis on peacemaking.

Here is the important distinctive that I lift out of all of this. Mennonites have always proclaimed a message of nonviolence, which we call our peace witness. When our ancestors were being burned at the stake, it was powerful that they refused to fight back, even verbally at times. When Mennonites were tarred and feathered and their churches were burned down they loved their enemies. Like Jesus’ death on the cross, our Mennonite and Anabaptist forbears practiced what they preached.

Sociologist Conrad Kanagy wrote a book a few years back called Road signs for the Journey which compared denominational statistics from 1972, 1980, and 2006. What he found was that we have experienced as a denomination “rapidly upward socioeconomic mobility.” In only 30 years we have gone from a largely agricultural-oriented people group to very professional. We have gone from minimal education to by some estimations the highest educated denomination in the world, per capita. And we have moved from the rural parts of the country to the suburbs.

We may still think of ourselves as a persecuted people group, but we are actually quite prosperous. And the problem with that is a lot like that of the Rich Young Ruler. Money and power isn’t a problem in and of itself. The problem is when those things change us, and I fear that happens much more than we would like to admit. I want to ask what it means for a person in a position of privilege to call Christians to live in peace knowing that we will probably never suffer any loss because of it. And how does that differs from our ancestors who preached peace, but also had to live it out, often times paying the ultimate price? Or to quote American journalist Colman McCarthy, “Everyone’s a pacifist between wars. It’s like being a vegetarian between meals.”

One of the greatest social concerns in our country right now has to do with police brutality, particularly toward African American men. If you own a radio, television, or computer, you have likely heard numerous stories of unarmed African American men who have lost their lives at the hands of police officers. I have no interest in arguing for the complete innocence of some of these men. But we all surely recognize that something isn’t right.

These killings have caused a number of protests to arise, particularly in the communities these young men called home. Fergusson, MO is the site of a continuous protest that has been going on for months following the death of Michael Brown, an 18-year-old man who was shot and killed by police.

As a peace-loving Mennonite, I take issue with these deaths. I want to support the policing efforts, but the abundance of killings lately says that something has to change. So I am not only in favor of nonviolent policing, but also for nonviolent actions that hold the potential to change these damaged systems. I would be for people using tactics like those of Martin Luther King, Jr. to expose the evils that are found within these systems.

During the years of King’s work, many white Americans rallied around his methods and showed support for his nonviolent approach. A few years later, African American theologian James Cone would critique white people for flocking to King. From a theological perspective, Cone criticizes the dominant voices of white theologians and “their insistence on telling blacks how to respond ‘as Christians’ to racism, insisting that nonviolence is the only appropriate response.” He goes on to state why he believes that so many white Christians hold firmly to the conviction that nonviolence is the best response to racism, and why he believes white people are drawn to the approach of King rather than Malcom X. It was “not because of [King’s] attempt to free his people, but because his approach was the least threatening to the white power structure.”

What does it mean for me today as a rich, powerful, privileged man living in Staunton, VA to tell the protesters in Ferguson, MO that they must be nonviolent like King? More specifically, how will my peace witness be heard? I think it will be heard as a comfortable white person saying that it is okay for those who are protesting to do so, as long as I can remain comfortable. As long as my wealth and status are not challenged, they can protest all night long.

But that isn’t why I think change should be brought about through nonviolent means. Sure, I don’t want to be hurt in any way. But I am especially drawn to the methods of King because his methods were like the methods of Jesus. Nonviolence for me isn’t about me staying safe, but about the lordship of Jesus Christ.

This is why I claim that it was different for our ancestors to say that they needed to be peaceful when they were the ones being persecuted than it is when we as rich and comfortable people are telling others that they must be nonviolent. I have not changed my convictions. I think nonviolence is always God’s will. My concern is how our witness to the nonviolent ways of Jesus will be heard by those in harm’s way. Because we are asking other people to suffer knowing that we will not have to suffer ourselves.

So I come back to the story about our friends with their dead dog, driving too Wisconsin and back. Sonya shared this story with me one day, and it is always interesting to find out what our children pick up on. Our three-year-old daughter, like many children her age, has some imaginary friends. The one we hear about the most is her “granddaughter” Conc. Conc is short for Concentrate. Conc drives a pink car and lives in a pink house. We are always hearing stories that start off with, “My granddaughter has a…” or “My granddaughter can do…” I’ll just be honest with you all, Conc is an amazing [imaginary] human being.

Conc’s family is growing. Conc is now married to Scotty, who lives with her in the pink house along with their twins. But she doesn’t come up with this stuff out of nowhere. There is actually a pink house a few blocks away from our own house, and every time we drive by, Hadley tells us that it is her granddaughter’s house. I figure that Conc got married because one of Sonya’s cousins got married last month, and they have twins because my brother and his wife had twins about six weeks ago. Conc’s life experiences seem to mimic our lives pretty closely.

About a week ago as we were driving down the familiar road, approaching the pink house, Hadley shares in her sad little voice, “My granddaughter’s dog died.” On one hand, it was so extremely sad because of her sad face and her sad face. On the other hand it was extremely funny, because her imaginary granddaughter’s imaginary dog died. Where does she come up with this stuff?! She picks it up from our real-life experiences.

Conc’s dog died because Mary’s dog died.

What Hadley doesn’t realize in her three-year-old mind is that she was able to articulate the solution to the problem that I spoke of earlier. Those of us who enjoy all of the privileges of our western society find it difficult to offer the kinds of social critiques that we once could when we were a marginalized group. The death of Conc’s dog was Hadley’s attempt to find solidarity with our friend Mary. Hadley couldn’t know what it would be like to lose a dog, she’s never had a pet. But she tried to enter Mary’s world, to enter her suffering, to better understand and express her own feelings. And this is exactly what Jesus did when he became human.

Philippians 2:5-8 says, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.”

Jesus our Lord humbled himself to become one of us. He entered into our world in solidarity with humanity. And because we know that he was fully human we also know that he experience all that we have experiences, all the temptations and excitement, the frustrations and the celebrations.

As Mennonites living in the 21st century, we must find ways to be in solidarity with our fellow brothers and sisters, across the socioeconomic and racial divide. We must listen to their struggles and enter into their lives. Then and only then can we be a true witness to the nonviolent and world-changing power of Jesus Christ.

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About Kevin Gasser

I envision this site to be a place where I can post my weekly sermon text and invite feedback from anyone who is interested in the church, theology, or life in general. Please note that these sermons are rough drafts of what I plan to say from the pulpit, so typos are common.
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