FOURTH SUNDAY IN LENT
Prayer of the Day: God of compassion, you welcome the wayward, and you embrace us all with your mercy. By our baptism clothe us with garments of your grace, and feed us at the table of your love, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
“From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation…” II Corinthians 5:16-18.
From a human point of view, I am a spouse, parent and grandparent. My identity is grounded in two families, one rooted in Montana and the other in Minnesota. Prior to that, my roots extend across the Atlantic to southern Germany and Norway, though that part of the story is all but lost to memory. From a human point of view, I am the product of a blue collar family and my home town of Bremerton’s public education system. Beyond that, I am, from a human point of view, a United States citizen formed by a national mythology defining who I am and what my duties are. Who I am is the sum total of these and other formative associations, social contracts and blood relations.
But no more, says Saint Paul. When anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation in light of which we regard no one any longer from a human point of view. This has radical implications as it relativizes all other defining claims and loyalties. “Who are my mother and my brothers?” asked Jesus rhetorically. “Whoever does the will of God is my brother, and sister and mother.” Mark 3:34-35. Our commonwealth is in heaven, Paul reminds us. Philippians 3:20. We have no lasting city to which we owe ultimate allegiance. Our loyalty is to the “city which is to come.” Hebrews 13:14. No loyalty or moral claim comes before allegiance to the gentle reign of God. Not family values; not civic duty; not duty to one’s country. In Christ, my primary identity is determined by my membership in the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church that transcends and supersedes all family, tribal, cultural, national and organizational boundaries.
This new reality that comes about through being in Christ necessarily changes the way I view all others. No longer is it possible for me to create an “us” and “them” dichotomy. “The love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one man died for all; therefore all have died.” II Corinthians 5:14. It is no longer possible for me to see another person as anything other than one for whom Christ died, as one of the many persons created in God’s image and destined to be joined to that “multitude which no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the Lamb…” Revelation 7:9. To be in Christ is to be an ambassador for God’s reign entrusted with the ministry of reconciliation, the task of building bridges across hostile borders, entering upon private property, violating the etiquette of class distinction, disregarding the racial stratification of white supremacy and all other humanly devised lines of demarcation between “us” and “them.”
That brings me to the heartbreaking plight of Ukraine. Let me begin by acknowledging that, no matter what argument might be made for any possible legitimate Russian national interest vis a vis Ukraine, nothing can or ever will justify the savage invasion and ruthless carnage unleashed by Vladimir Putin against the Ukrainian people. When one sees the baby strollers lined up in Lviv’s Rynok Square, row after row, one each for the 109 children across Ukraine known to have died under the brutal Russian siege, it is impossible for anyone with an ounce of feeling not to be outraged. That outrage and sympathy for the Ukrainian people has led to so many of us wearing the national Ukrainian colors and even flying the Ukrainian flag. An otherwise hopelessly divided congress has come together in a rare showing of bipartisan support for the Ukrainian military and NATO. While it is tempting to applaud such unity and solidarity, I am not convinced that disciples of Jesus should. The stark reality is that the crisis in Ukraine has evolved into a global “us” against “them” show down that cannot be resolved militarily. Here the idiocy of the NRA mantra that “the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun” is clearly exposed. Where the “good guy” and the “bad guy” are both armed with weapons of mass destruction, victory is meaningless.
At this point, more than ever, we need Paul’s reminder that “our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” Ephesians 6:12. The devil, of course, would like nothing more than for us to believe the contrary, namely, that our struggle is against enemies of flesh and blood; that there is a flesh and blood “them” that “we” need to defeat. The devil wins evey war, no matter who prevails on the battlefield. The devil’s logic always seems to dominate in circumstances like these, convincing “us” that peace can only be achieved by defeating and, if necessary, destroying “them.” As one political pundit put it this morning on ABC’s This Week, “this [war between Russia and Ukraine] is a contest between good and evil. Everybody is going to have to decide on which side they stand.”
The pundit is partially correct. This is a struggle between good and evil. But the line between the two does not run neatly between Russia on the one side with Ukraine and NATO on the other. We ought to know by now that the line between good and evil runs right through the middle of every human heart. Lest we forget, the NATO countries that are now welcoming Ukrainian refugees were just a few years ago meeting Syrian refugees from Russia’s ruthless bombings of Aleppo with barbed wire and bayonets. Before we become too critical of Russia’s crack down on dissent within its borders, we ought to recall the spectacle of federal officers teargassing and bludgeoning peaceful protesters in front of the White House to make way for the former president’s photo op. And before we condemn President Putin for his autocratic ways, we should reflect on how close our country came to similar tyranny when the former president incited a violent mob to attack the Capital in order to prevent his duly elected successor from taking office. I am not suggesting a moral equivalency here. As I said before, the Russian government’s invasion of Ukraine is an inexcusable act of savagery about which the rest of the world ought to be concerned. But we need to recognize that the ugly and demonic engines of white supremacy, nationalism, populism, authoritarianism and anti-intellectualism driving Russian aggression are also very much a part of our own national politics and that of our NATO allies. Americans are as much in bondage to these “principalities and powers” as is Russia-and all the other flesh and blood peoples we like to demonize. For more on that, see Resisting Exclusion: Global Theological Responses to Populism, published by the Lutheran World Federation. If we think by defeating Russia we will overcome the evil inhabiting both our cultures, we are deceiving ourselves.
If being alive to a new creation means anything, it means thinking about and addressing age old problems in new ways. It means thinking less like Americans (and Ukrainians, Russians, NATO members) and more like people whose loyalties have been reoriented by incorporation into God’s gentle, just and inclusive reign of peace. There is no better time than the season of Lent to think about what it means to be an ambassador for God’s inbreaking reign. What does it mean to be conducting a ministry of reconciliation in a world on the brink of war? Are we, as disciples of Jesus, just as prepared to put our lives on the line for reconciliation as soldiers are prepared to put their lives on the line to fight wars? What would it look like for disciples of Jesus to enter into the midst of the conflict “presenting [their] bodies as a living sacrifice”? Romans 12:1. Have we become so thoroughly indoctrinated into national militaristic mythologies and so servile to the interests of the state that we have lost the capacity to imagine, much less believe in the reality of a new creation?
Perhaps, as the poet suggests, new creation, like peace “can’t be imagined before it is made.” Maybe the seeds of new creation are buried in small groups like Russians for Peace, a community of Russian speaking people living internationally who do not support militaristic and destructive actions of the government of the Russian Federation. Maybe a new creation begins with the church looking first at its own complicity with nationalism and calling out this sin as, for example, the recent statement by the Orthodox Christian Studies Center. Maybe new creation begins with more and more parents and grandparents like me in all nations speaking to our leaders in language even warmongers can understand: You can have our children to fight your wars when you pry them from our cold, dead fingers. Maybe the new creation is right in front of us and the only thing keeping us from seeing it is our own paralyzing fear that keeps us hanging on for dear life to the false assumptions upon which the current world order is based and ossified beliefs in the old idols of nation, tribe, blood and soil.
Here is the poem by Denise Levertov to which I alluded above.
A voice from the dark called out,
‘The poets must give us
imagination of peace, to oust the intense, familiar
imagination of disaster. Peace, not only
the absence of war.’
But peace, like a poem,
is not there ahead of itself,
can’t be imagined before it is made,
can’t be known except
in the words of its making,
grammar of justice,
syntax of mutual aid.
A feeling towards it,
dimly sensing a rhythm, is all we have
until we begin to utter its metaphors,
learning them as we speak.
A line of peace might appear
if we restructured the sentence our lives are making,
revoked its reaffirmation of profit and power,
questioned our needs, allowed
long pauses . . .
A cadence of peace might balance its weight
on that different fulcrum; peace, a presence,
an energy field more intense than war,
might pulse then,
stanza by stanza into the world,
each act of living
one of its words, each word
a vibration of light—facets
of the forming crystal.
Source: Breathing the Water (New Directions Publishing Corporation, 1987) Denise Levertov (1923–1997) never received a formal education. Nevertheless, she created a highly regarded body of poetry that earned her recognition as one of America’s most respected poets. Her father, Paul Philip Levertov, was a Russian Jew who converted to Christianity and subsequently moved to England where he became an Anglican minister. Levertov grew up in a household surrounded by books and people talking about them in many languages. During World War II, Levertov pursued nurse’s training and spent three years as a civilian nurse at several hospitals in London. Levertov came to the United States in 1948, after marrying American writer Mitchell Goodman. During the 1960s Levertov became a staunch critic of the Vietnam war, a topic addressed in many of her poems of that era. Levertov died of lymphoma at the age of seventy-four. You can read more about Denise Levertov and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation Website.