Life Spun Out of Control

refugee tent city [Klaus Reisinger]It’s invigorating, at least it is to me, when different things unexpectedly hit you inspirationally in a short space of time. But it can also be sobering. Recently Chris Seiple tweeted that Oskar Schindler spent all his money saving people of a faith not his own. Are we still capable, Chris mused, of such sacrificial love?

As I was challenging myself with that, aware that Chris was alluding to the severe need faced by countless refugee families in the Middle East, I happened to read a clever take on a summer blockbuster film, Fantastic Four. Written for Sojourners by Lindsay Kuntz, the article turns on the question of leadership. Here is my takeaway: we Americans can end our wistful hunger for Fantastic Four leadership against evil by becoming leaders fighting evil ourselves.

“Many American Christians say they are hungry for leadership,” Lindsay writes, “but what are we actually doing beyond indulging in fictional stories of Mr. Fantastic, Invisible Woman, Human Torch, and The Thing battling evil, or the barely less fictional ‘leadership’ on display in contemporary politics?

“We need to do more than complain from the comfort of our air-conditioned family rooms. The stakes could hardly be higher for Christians and other religious minorities in the greater Middle East – they are at risk of extinction or permanent exile. The international community has essentially given up, as it has little funding and even less vision and resolve. Hence there is a vacuum of leadership that needs to be filled. We need to identify practical ways of bringing people and resources together to combat evil – indeed to transform it with good. For American Christians one of the best places to start is with proactive engagement of the refugee crisis.”

refugee men and boys shelteed in a community centerI also happened to read Carmen Andres, who was blogging about news stories in the Telegraph and the Guardian, which reported on how 10,000 Icelanders responded to a Facebook campaign by author Bryndis Bjorgvinsdottir to urge the government to take in more Syrian refugees. “The striking aspect of this story,” Carmen wrote, “is not only the number of Icelanders expressing their support but that they are also volunteering to personally help the refugees by donating services, time, clothes, money, furniture, children’s toys and even their homes.

“It makes me wonder what it might look like if churches, communities and cities around the U.S. started to talk about pooling our resources and offering to support groups of refugees in our own country. Perhaps some members could offer one of their rental homes for free for a year. Maybe others could offer jobs. Doctor offices could offer a list of pro-bono services. Churches and mosques could offer furniture, clothing and food. Teachers could offer language training. Local social agencies and organizations could link together and coordinate to provide services. The possibilities of ways we could come together to embrace refugees into our communities is endless.”

Chris, Lindsay, and Carmen are all friends of mine, but that’s not why I’m blogging about them here. They are engaged in remarkably worthy initiatives that bring urgent aid and relief to the increasing number of families in the Middle East who have fled from the murderous paths of ISIS and the vicious war in Syria. Their heartfelt cries, challenging to many of us, came together in my mind the other day.

They reminded me of just how crucial and vital “outside intervention” is toward people whose lives are suddenly out of control; people whose lives, even when they begin to get back under control, are best described as “life on hold.” There’s little, if anything, they can do end the chaos or get life moving again. As another friend aptly put it: “There is a sense of being frozen in time.” You’re wishing, praying, someone would intervene to make it all go away, or at least make marking time a little easier for you and your family.

3 refugee boys in Lebanon [Carmen Andres] It is difficult for many people to image what life is like for these families. But if your own life has ever suddenly spun out of control (I mean really out of control), or if it has ever shuddered trembling to a halt and got stuck on hold (you didn’t know for how long), then you may have a share in what it is like for these Middle East families (numbering in the millions), who wish for, long for, pray for intervention. And when that leadership arrives, no words can express one’s gratitude. Chris and Lindsay serve the Cradle of Christianity Fund, which I have previously blogged about. Carmen has been engaged in advocacy work for many years and raises awareness for Heart for Lebanon. Both are remarkable initiatives. Exercise some leadership. The Fantastic Four are never going to arrive. The possibilities for reaching out to the families is increasingly clear, limited only by the imagination of individuals, churches, and communities.

To find out more about the Cradle Fund, go here. To support it, go here. To read some short but informative articles of mine about the CF, go here. To read about the Cradle Fund’s three-fold strategy (rescue, restore, return), see this article in CT by Chris Seiple, President of the Institute for Global Engagement:

To find out more about Heart for Lebanon or support it, go here. To read Carmen’s moving blog posts, see For Such a Time Is Now.

©2015 by Charles Strohmer

Top image, Klaus Reisinger, via Creative Commons. Middle Image, courtesy of the Institute for Global Engagement. Bottom image, courtesy of Carmen Andres.

A personal note from Charles Strohmer: If you want more of the perspectives that wagingwisdom.com seeks to present, I want to invite you to follow the blog. Simply click here wagingwisdom.com, find the “Follow” button in the right margin, enter your email address just above that button, and then click “Follow.” You will then receive a very short email notice whenever I publish a new article. And, hey, if you really like it, tell some friends! Thank you.

THE OPPOSITE OF 9/11

Twin Towers laser memorialEvery week of September 11 since 2001, I remember where I was on that fateful day. Even today, fourteen years later, I still find it eerie to have been one of the last persons on the planet to hear the news. More importantly, however, I think about how opposite of the terrorist attackers was the spirit of thousands of stranded passengers and their unexpecting hosts across Canada and the U.S., who chose to build community together during those unpredictable days instead of being at each other’s throats – despite their many and varied personal, ideological, and religious differences.

“Selfish interest and alienation were transformed into opportunities for self-denial, cooperation among the different, and unity in diversity,” I wrote in an essay that was published for the one-year anniversary of 9/11. “A depth of compassion and caring had been awakened in us that I don’t think we knew we carried within, amid our wood, hay, and stubble. Heaven broke in and walls broke down between races, professions, classes, nationalities. Human suffering tasted something sweet of the saving grace of God as strangers became neighbors.”

I called that spirit “the kindness of strangers,” which arose within these completely impromptu and highly diverse communities across the U.S. and Canada. If you would like to read the full essay about this “opposite spirit” and the amazing fruit it produced, and why I was one of the last persons on the planet to hear the news, here it is.

©2015 by Charles Strohmer

Image: laser memorial of the Twin Towers (credit lost).

A personal note from Charles Strohmer: If you want more of the perspectives that wagingwisdom.com seeks to present, I want to invite you to follow the blog. Simply click here wagingwisdom.com, find the “Follow” button in the right margin, enter your email address just above that button, and then click “Follow.” You will then receive a very short email notice whenever I publish a new article. And, hey, if you really like it, tell some friends! Thank you.

The Last Person to Hear about 9/11

Twin Towers smoking2.30 p.m. GMT.  Three hours out of London, the passengers aboard Delta Flight 59 were digesting their lunches, quietly absorbed in their laptops or reading novels. Others fell drowsily captive to that vespertine atmosphere created on planes when the movies are running. Other than departing Gatwick 30 minutes late, at Noon (7 a.m. EDT), so far the only bother was that all of the video screens had suddenly gone dark.

“The movies should be back on in a few minutes,” an air hostess replied over the intercom to the hushed buzz of passengers. “A computer needs re-booting. It happens. We apologize for the inconvenience.”

Yawn. Passengers stretched, ordered drinks, queued for toilets. Someone across the aisle from me lifted his porthole shade and broke the spell of counterfeit evening. I was overwhelmed. The bright blue evanescence, which I once heard a pilot call “severe clear,” stretched out into forever. It hurt your eyes to gaze at the boundless brightness. I turned away. Twenty more minutes passed. Still no movies. People fidgeted. The Boeing 777 droned on. Five hours to go before touchdown in Atlanta.

3.15 p.m. GMT. Suddenly everyone’s attention locked on to the Texas drawl coming from the intercom. “Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. May I have your attention. Your serious attention.” The dreaded words. Worst nightmares sprung from the fuselage, the overhead compartment, the unconscious — wherever you had stowed them before boarding. A kind of holy moment spread through cabin. No one spoke. No one dared. We’re going down.

It seemed much longer than the millisecond it took before Captain William’s steady but troubled Texas drawl continued: “There’s been a major incident in the United States and all air space throughout the nation has been closed. All planes in the air in the United States are being directed to land at the nearest airports, and all international flights into the U.S. are being diverted. We are okay. I repeat. We are okay. But we cannot land in the U.S. We will be landing in Halifax, Nova Scotia in about two hours. We can’t give you any more information at this time. Please be patient and bear with us. We will have more details for you when we get on the ground in Halifax. Thank you for your cooperation.”

Like synchronized swimmers on cue, passengers turned to face their seat-neighbors. Whispers arose. What do you think it is? Who knows? Maybe that announcement was just a ploy and we’re going down? Must have been a huge earthquake? What would they close all the airports for that? A nuclear bomb, then? Maybe the air traffic control system has failed? Does the captain even know what’s going on?

9/11: 42 commercial passenger jets parked on Halifax International runwayNothing made any sense to me. Why had the FAA closed all the airports? I had to know. Knowing would help me beat back worst-case-scenario self-talk. I quickly calculated to Eastern Time and realized that my wife would be in class with her first-graders. But how could I even be sure of that? Was she safe? What had happened? And where? Who had been effected? Was I even going to get home?

Someone must know. Ahh. Coming down the aisle toward me was a hostess whom I had spoken with earlier and had made a connection. I was traveling alone and there were no passengers near me. I decided to take advantage of that privacy. Our eyes met but I deliberately remained seated, hoping she would stop when I sought inconspicuously to flag her down. She stopped and crouched to listen. “I know you can’t tell me what happened, even if you know,” I whispered, “and I’m not asking you to. But can you at least tell me, does the crew know what’s happened?” She nodded discreetly, stood, and then continued on her errand. Well, it was something. A kindness. The first of many to come during the next four days.

5.45 p.m. GMT/12.45 p.m. EDT. Delta Flight 59 became the penultimate of 42 planeloads of international air travelers permitted safe harbor at Halifax International before the tarmac ran out of wing space. As we circled before landing, I was surprised to see the asphalt service road filled with on-lookers in cars, vans, and pickups; like bystanders congregating to stare at a blazing house fire, they had queued to watch the emergency landings. Well, more than that. It wasn’t just the striking sight of landing these huge commercial jets that had brought them out of their homes and businesses that sunny day. They knew what had happened. Who did not? We still did not.

1 p.m. EDT. Taxiing to our place at the end of the long queue of planes, far from the terminal, we eased past the staring congregation of on-lookers until Captain Williams brought the 777 to a gentle halt. We heard the mic cue. Williams immediately thanked us for our patient cooperation and then provided what details he had of the attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. “Hopefully,” he concluded, “they’ll re-open U.S. airspace to get these international flights to their destinations. So maybe we’ll get out of here in a few hours.”

We now asked a thousand questions of the crew, but they only knew Captain Williams knew. Cell phone service had been turned off as we flew to Halifax, and there were no televisions. The details available to us upon landing were still very sketchy and rumors still ran wild in the media about “more possible attacks.” There was a rumor about “a plane crashing in Pennsylvania.”

It would be nearly 24 hours after the attack before our imaginations would be seared by television images of flying machines, twisted I-beams, and charred bodies crashing, falling, and billowing in the explosive chemistry of terror, dust, and loss.

©2015 by Charles Strohmer

Note from Charles: Every week of September 11 since 2001, I remember where I was on that fateful day. I still find it eerie – given the immediate, ubiquitous, and lengthy worldwide media coverage of the attack – to have been one of the last persons on the planet to hear the news. More importantly, I think about how opposite of the terrorist attackers was the spirit of thousands of stranded passengers and our Canadian hosts as we built community in and around Halifax those days. I called that spirit “the kindness of strangers,” and it was duplicated for many thousands of stranded others across the U.S. and Canada. If you would like to read the full essay of my account, first published for the one-year anniversary of 9/11, here it is.

Top image: smoldering ruins of the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001, taken from the international space station (image by NASA/Bryan Allen/Corbis). Bottom: the 42 huge international passenger jets parked wingtip to wingtip on a runway of Halifax International (image by CBS News).

A personal note from Charles Strohmer: If you want more of the perspectives that wagingwisdom.com seeks to present, I want to invite you to follow the blog. Simply click here wagingwisdom.com, find the “Follow” button in the right margin, enter your email address just above that button, and then click “Follow.” You will then receive a very short email notice whenever I publish a new article. And, hey, if you really like it, tell some friends! Thank you.

God, the Bible, and American Politics

Donald Trump & White HouseFor some of us poor souls, the current season of America’s presidential primaries makes it hard to guard against becoming even more cynical about politics. One of those clever, anonymous writers in The Economist calls it “the primary effect,” aptly noting that candidates “must tack to the extremes in order to win the support of the committed enthusiasts who vote in primaries, only to shift back to the centre in the Presidential election.”

A net effect is that voter cynicism increases because, on the one hand, constituencies supporting the extremes don’t see their candidates elected, while, on the other hand, voters who thank God for that result are nevertheless dismayed at seeing the entire show now endlessly well-oiled by money (thanks to two recent US Supreme Court decisions). But let’s be honest. We all like a good show. And we’re getting one just now. The problem is that the US presidential primaries have become mainly a show.

So how does one guard against becoming an unhealthy cynic? – not a good platform for a Christian who wants to be a politically responsible citizen.  Many years ago I found some help when I asked a question of Scripture: What does God think about politics and government? I asked with an open mind and without any preconceived conclusions in mind. Honestly, I had no idea what I might find. Here, in five maxims, is a brief summary of some surprising answers that emerged back then and more recently.

Maxim 1: God works through whatever political structures we devise.
When reading the Old Testament we see God politically active in nations. According to Genesis 20, for instance, when the land of southern Canaan was ruled by King Abimelech in the time of Abraham, God works through that Canaanite government to ensure implementation of a state policy to protect Abraham and his family when they settle there for a time. This policy gets  hammered out at the high level what today we would call a cabinet meeting.

Another case in point is God’s political involvement in the Egyptian government. This is especially evident in Genesis 39-45, a long narrative describing an economic policy dreamed up, implemented, and administrated by the Hebrew slave Joseph, who has been installed by Pharaoh as a kind of prime minister. The policy has significant domestic and international applications.

Biblical narratives surrounding Persian and Babylonian kings, such as Ahasuerus, Cyrus, and Nebuchadnezzar, similarly illustrate God working his purposes out through the political actors of those pagan governments. Of course the same is true for ancient Israel, whether that people are a community of delivered slaves wandering the wild, or settling into Canaan under the rule of judges, or living under a fully systematized monarchy.

the better angels of our natureMaxim 2: There is no ideal form of government.
This follows from Maxim 1. In other words, the question “What is God’s ideal form of government?” never comes up in Scripture. When the idolatry of a nation reaches such a crisis that a prophet arrives with a word of judgment, the prophet never says: “If you guys would just get with it and set up God’s ideal for government, all would be well.”

You laugh. But, apparently, God is not fussed about some ideal form of government – at least not in this world. That question does not concern the Old Testament person. It first arose with ancient Greek philosophers. And today it plagues US politicians, to note but one example, who see America as an ideal democracy that ought to be exported around the world.

Maxim 3: God is concerned with the normative purpose of government: justice.
The normative purpose of a state is justice; or, more fully: a just exercise of power. So, just as one would want to ask: what are the norms of love for a family; what are the norms of education for a school; what are the norms of economics for my business; politicians must ask what are the norms of justice for the state?

Thinking this way is especially vital during times of crises. If the employees of a business are out on strike, the temptation may simply be to fire them and hire replacements. If a school is failing to educate, then let’s hire more teachers and get more technology into the classrooms. But such solutions will miss the mark if either crisis has arisen due to violating normative purpose and neither the school board nor the business owner is analyzing the crisis in those terms.

Likewise, if a nation is in crisis because the state has violated its normative purpose, and if the government is not advancing solutions in those terms, then throwing more money at the Eurozone debts, or adding more policies designed to keep the Arabs (or the Jews) out, or increasing the size of the US military, or exercising imperial designs meant to force former Soviet states into an Eurasian Union is not solution at all.

For this reason the prophets to Israel and Judah, speaking for what God considers to be the normative purpose of government – a just exercise of power by the state – kept condemning injustice. As a friend of mine likes to say, the prophets acted as kind of independent judges who pointed out injustices and called king and people to repentance. What a contrast to our American presidential candidates, whose answers for America’s deep problems include running the state as a business corporation and walling off the southern border.

Maxim 4: God cares about political actors themselves, not just their policies.
Another surprising discovery during my inductive study was to find God’s caring interest toward rulers who were Israel’s declared enemies. Note, for instance, the first half of the book of Daniel. In this long narrative, among other curiosities, Daniel the diplomat skillfully reaches out to the Babylonian kings he served (who ruled the Judean exiles) and there’s not a peep of protest from God about that. Also, God himself grants repentance to King Nebuchadnezzar, who then “glorifies the King of heaven because . . . all his ways are just” (Daniel 4:37).

We also have the astonishing healing of Naaman the leper, a strange incident described in 2 Kings 5, which Jesus himself affirms to make a point (Luke 4:27). Naaman is a decorated Aramean (Syrian) general, a man of war and of blood, and highly regarded by the King of Aram. So he is not merely appearing as a foreigner when he arrives with his retinue before the king of Israel and, soon afterward, the prophet Elisha. Namaan represents a menacing political power that was hostile to ancient Israel, and he may have participated in a recent war against Israel. Yet this “is the man,” writes Jacques Ellul, “to whom God will manifest his love” (The Politics of God and the Politics of Man). And what love! Naaman, a sworn enemy, gets a miracle from God. He is healed of his leprosy.

the earth from spaceMaxim 5: God will bring about the political future he desires.
When all has been said and done, after God has put everything in its proper place and in its proper non-place, the future is God’s. Including the political future. Now we can read long passages, such as Isaiah 54 and 60 and the end of the book of Revelation, and think that we have been given many details about that future. But no. God holds his future close to his chest. Scripture gives us enough glittering generalities to tease us, not enough to draw detailed conclusions. “It is not for you to know,” Jesus told his disciples before his ascension. “But you will be my witnesses . . . to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:7-8). The task our Lord sets before us, then, is not to become all-knowing, end-time prophets. The task, which is the path, is one of witness. But witness to what?

There are, of course, many and diverse paths on which to be responsible witnesses for Christ, as the wide variety of Christian callings makes clear. At the heart of them all, I believe, must be our Christian witness as epistles of God’s shalom. For shalom is at the heart of the gospel and therefore central to whatever future we anticipate from our Lord and Redeemer. When it comes to our political witness, then, certainly as Christians our paths must follow that of Sar Shalom, the Prince of Peace. Notice that the context here, in Isaiah 9:6-7, is that of “government,” of which it is said there will be no end to Sar Shalom’s “government and peace (shalom).” We, then, are to be epistles of that anticipated future of shalom in the here and now.

The problem, whether we are politicians or mere voters seeking to be responsible citizens, is that we sinful creatures too easily fall prey to analyzing a national crisis and offering a fix from a political wisdom that depends on the “basic principles of this world rather than on Christ” (Colossian 2:8). So it makes sense occasionally to hit pause and ask ourselves: what kind of future are we the witnesses of, politically?

Is it the political agenda of right wing or left wing ideologues? Do those outside the faith see us as patriots of an eschatology principled by national exceptionalism rather than by the kingdom of God on earth? Are we so heartily Republican, Democrat, Libertarian, Conservative, Labour, or Liberal Democrat that we have become sectarian? How closely the paths of our political lives – in which we have obediences to God to perform – follow being witnesses to the future of shalom that God has in store, which, if the Book is to be believed, Jesus died to obtain, including for the healing of nations (Revelation 22:2)?

A close reading of the many shalom passages in the Bible will turn up many aspects of meaning. The one I want to note here is that of shalom as economic, social, and political well-being, or flourishing. Whether we are politicians or mere voters, let us as responsible Christians be living epistles of that kind of shalom, one based on Jesus Christ, Sar Shalom.

In his provocative book, A New Heaven and a New Earth, Richard Middleton, commenting on Romans 8:19-22, writes, “The inner logic of this holistic vision is that the creator . . . is working to salvage and restore the world (human and nonhuman) to the fullness of shalom and flourishing intended from the beginning. And redeemed human beings, renewed in God’s image, are to work toward and embody this vision in their daily lives” (p. 27).

The wonder of it all is that, while God gives us glimpses of the anticipated future in glittering generalities, he calls us to work out the details in the here and now, even in political life. It is a hugely challenging responsibility. Surely it must be part of our discipleship in this area to humbly and prayerfully, and with trusted others, steadily identify and exorcise from our witness whatever values, attitudes, influences, and voices conflict with the peaceable way of wisdom that comes from above (James 3:17).

Shalom for all of life is God’s promise for the anticipated at future. Political life does not get a miss. Does this seem strange to us today? If so, we are not alone. Upon hearing it preached by Jesus and seeing it demonstrated by him who is history’s goal, people “were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, and not as their teachers.” Dumbfounded, they asked, “Where did this man get this wisdom?” (Matthew 7:29; 13:54). Yes, where?

It is in finding the where and demonstrating it in political life that we guard against cynicism as witnesses on the path to the anticipated future.

©2015 by Charles Strohmer

Top image, KAZVorpal, permission via Flickr Creative Commons.

A personal note from Charles Strohmer: If you want more of the perspectives that wagingwisdom.com seeks to present, I want to invite you to follow the blog. Simply click here wagingwisdom.com, find the “Follow” button in the right margin, enter your email address just above that button, and then click “Follow.” You will then receive a very short email notice whenever I publish a new article. And, hey, if you really like it, tell some friends! Thank you.