The Fourth of July: Religion and Politics in America

In the autumn of 2004, I answered my office phone and for a few seconds thought someone was playing a joke on me. Until it dawned on me that I really was listening to someone with that unmistakable BBC radio accent. Long story short, a producer from the BBC wanted to know if I would write and present a 30-minute radio program for them that traced religion and politics in America from the nation’s founding fathers and the fourth of July to today.

It’s a strange sensation, I’ll tell you, beavering away on a writing project, hidden out in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains, and suddenly have the BBC World Service offer you a freelance job. “We got your name and number from one of your friends here in England,” the producer said. She laid out the idea, I plied her with many questions, and we reached an agreement. Over the next 2-3 weeks I wrote the script and we communicated frequently to polish a final draft. The program aired successfully on BBC radio, October 31, 2004.

I had occasion recently to read the text of that program, which I haven’t done for years. Today, fourteen years later, most of it strikes me as very relevant still (one bit in particular does not).

Before the program aired, two aspects of the editing process fascinated me. One was to see what bits of text the BBC omitted from my final draft in order to find time to include parts of well-known patriotic songs, readings, and interesting personal anecdotes from others, which I had no control over.

I wish I could reproduce those inclusions for you, here, but the program is no longer on the Web. Instead, I thought you might like to see the entire unedited text. I’ve noted the places the BBC omitted by placing brackets at the start and end of that material, and I added the song titles and other bits. Also, toward the end of the text I included some pretty bold statements, and I was pleasantly surprised that the BBC left those in the program.

START OF BBC RADIO TEXT

“God bless America.”

These three short words bring together religion and a nation – and all the controversy and paradox, and yes blessings, that the invocation reveals about America’s pluralistic experiment.

It’s not unusual to hear these three words on the lips of American politicians, especially during the closing remarks of important Presidential speeches.

Invoking God finds deep historical roots in America dating back to the nation’s Founding Fathers, and even before that to the Pilgrims and to the Puritans, who first settled in close knit Christian colonies along the New England coast in the early seventeenth century.

Even today millions of Americans genuinely believe that the nation should be blessed by God, and we’ll be hearing from some of them later. Many may even sing the famous Irving Berlin song God Bless America, written in 1938, at large sporting events.

Song – God Bless America

I never thought much about that song or its implications while growing up in Michigan in the more liberal North.

It was only after moving to the South, 15 years ago, where I settled into the beautiful rolling foothills of the Smoky Mountains, then I saw just how seriously
many people take the words “God bless America.” I had moved into the heart of what is called the Bible Belt, a large area of the country where Protestant fundamentalism is widely practiced.

Every Fourth of July, for instance–or Independence Day, as people call it–our nation celebrates one of its most cherished documents, the Declaration of Independence, written by Thomas Jefferson in June 1776.

Reading from – The Declaration of Independence

We, the Representatives of the United States of America … appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world … solemnly publish and declare that these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be, Free and Independent States [and] that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British crown …. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our Sacred Honour.

In the church that my wife and I attend, Sunday services every Fourth of July come alive with political fervor.

Inside the packed sanctuary you’ll see a large American flag with its bold red, white, and blue colors prominently displayed.

You’ll hear the pastor preaching a rousing sermon about why America is a Christian nation, a chosen nation.

[And the choir and congregation will ignore religious hymns that morning in order to sing patriotic songs like God Bless America or America the Beautiful.]

Song – America the Beautiful

There’s no doubt that religion and politics are in our bones here in the States.

[When the prominent French social philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville arrived America in the early 19th century to write his classic book, Democracy in America, he wrote that the first thing that struck him in the United States was its religious atmosphere. De Tocqueville marveled not only at the number of religious denominations but also their mutual toleration.]

pause
God permeates much of everyday American life today.

On Sundays we pass the plate and on Mondays we pass the buck. And in both transactions God slips through our fingers – the slogan “In God We Trust” engraved on our money.

[And speaking of money, America’s deep religious beliefs have made it a very giving nation, both philanthropically and charitably, at home and abroad.]

And whenever students stand in their classrooms, hand over heart, to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, God gets a mention even in our secular, state school system.

Reading – Pledge of Allegiance

I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

BBC added a comment from a Southern Baptist pastor from Dallas and a comment from a “humanist.

[It was in 1954 that Congress passed a law inserting the two words “under God” into the Pledge, and reasonable people have disagreed about that clause ever since.Two years ago, for instance, a self-professed California atheist got a Federal court to have the words “under God” removed from the Pledge. But just recently the U.S. Supreme Court overturned that verdict.]

pause
The religious conviction that America is “a chosen nation” dates back to the Pilgrims and the Puritans, who were fleeing religious and political persecution in England and Europe.

Many of their early documents reveal their deep faith in God, such as the 1620 Mayflower Compact, named after a ship in which many Pilgrims had sailed from Plymouth England to the New World.

Reading from – The Mayflower Compact

Having undertaken for the Glory of God, and Advancement of the Christian Faith, and the Honour of our King and Country, a voyage to plant the first colony in the northern parts of Virginia; do by these presents, solemnly and mutually in the presence of God and one another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil Body Politic.

Winthrop ship The ArabellaIn a famous 1630 speech, Massachusetts governor John Winthrop stood on the deck of the gun-ship, the Arabella, in which he had sailed from England, and invoked blessings on the new colonies that were straight from chapter 30 of the book of Deuteronomy.

As Winthrop articulated his Christian vision for the New World, he declared that the colonies should be “a city upon a hill” — a direct reference to Jesus’ statement in St. Matthew’s Gospel that you are the light of the world, and that a city set upon a hill cannot be hid.

Reading from – John Winthrop’s 1630 speech

The Lord will be our God and delight to dwell among us as his own people and will command a blessing upon us in all our ways, [so that we shall see much more of his wisdom, power, goodness, and truth then formerly we have been acquainted with]…. The God of Israel … shall make us a praise and a glory, that men shall say of succeeding plantations: the Lord make it like that of New England: for we must Consider that we shall be as a City upon a Hill, the eyes of all people are upon us.

Many of our politicians today, such as the late President Ronald Reagan, have appealed to Winthrop’s ideas.

At least twice in his speeches, Reagan included Winthrop’s phrase about “a city set on a hill” – once during his campaign for a second term; and later during his farewell address to the nation.

Did this mean that every early Christian leader believed that they were founding God’s chosen nation? Not at all.

Puritan leaders like Roger Williams warned that no nation since the coming of Christ has been uniquely God’s chosen nation. And this is a position that continues to be held by many prominent Christians today.

Nevertheless, not long after the nation had formed, the religious conviction that America was divinely chosen gave rise to Manifest Destiny, the powerful 19th century political doctrine that the United States had the right and the duty to explore and to expand itself throughout North America.

And in those more militant times, as today, Americans could be inspired by the song The Battle Hymn of the Republic, a rather frightening song about God wielding his swift sword against his enemies.

Song – The Battle Hymn of the Republic

In quite a different spirit today, the U.S. Congress acknowledged God’s special relationship with America shortly after the attacks on 9/11. On October 23, 2001, Congress passed a Resolution that permits a national day of reconciliation to occur every year.

The Resolution states that “the two Houses of Congress shall assemble [once a year] . . . to humbly seek the blessing of Providence for forgiveness, reconciliation, and charity for all people of the United States.”

This tradition dates far back in U.S. history, such as to President Abraham Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Day address in 1863. In a very moving appeal during the nation’s tragic Civil War, which was being fought between the North and the South, Lincoln declared bluntly that the nation had “forgotten God.”

The nation, said Lincoln, who had been made gaunt by the War, had become “intoxicated with unbroken success.” It had “become too self-sufficient.” And therefore we ought to “humble ourselves,” and “confess our national sins,” and “pray for clemency and forgiveness.”

Times haven’t always been pretty when it comes to religion in America. The Civil War was being fought chiefly over the slavery issue, and religious faith dictated two opposing views. Christians in the industrial North opposed slavery. In the agricultural South, with its huge plantations, Christians wanted to see slavery extended.

The suffering slaves themselves drew from powerful redemptive Christian imagery forged upon the sorrow of their chains.

Dozens of so-called Negro spirituals arose out of the slave’s pain and oppression, including songs like There Is a Balm in Gilead, and the soulful Swing Low Sweet Chariot, which was taken from Psalm 68:17: “The Chariots of God are tens of thousands.”

Song – Swing Low Sweet Chariot

BBC added a “testimony” from an Assembly of God church member and from a Catholic woman.

The relationship of religion to government in America has sustained one of the nation’s longest-standing and most heated controversies: the meaning of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Ratified in 1791, the First Amendment states that “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion or the free exercise thereof.”

[The great controversy has always been about how to interpret that. Since 1802, it has been known as the “separation of church and state,” a principle that has been derived from a letter written to the Danbury Baptist Association by Thomas Jefferson, our third President. In that letter, President Jefferson — a religious man who was not a Christian but a Deist — wrote that the First Amendment built “a wall of separation between church and state.”]

To many Americans today, this means that religion and politics should have absolutely nothing to do with each other. But to many other Americans, that is going way too far.

Battles over the meaning are played out regularly in our courts, where, for instance, rulings have been handed down to remove Christmas nativity scenes from government buildings.

[One of the most far-reaching decisions occurred in 1962, when the U.S. Supreme Court prohibited the saying of prayers in our state schools.]

But the battles are also played out between friends and neighbors. I used to have quite animated conversations about religion and politics across the fence line with my neighbor, Don, a silver-haired, straight-talking man who had retired to the Smoky Mountains from Florida.

Whenever I happened catch him cutting his lawn, Don would stop and wave me over to the fence line, where, as neighbors do, we would catch up on things.

Knowing I was a public Christian, within minutes Don would be baiting me about America’s religious right and its national political arms, the Moral Majority, and later, the Christian Coalition.

“What business do they have, always sticking their nose into politics?” Don would say.

Well, I took his point. But it must be said that government needs some sort of moral base, otherwise there’s going to be chaos or anarchy. The Pilgrims and Puritans understood this, but I don’t think that many non-religious Americans today think much about it.

But both liberal and conservative Christians today think about it. Big time. Both sides of the religious divide spend huge amounts of time, money, and effort trying to implement their version of Puritan moralism in American public life. [They also believe that it’s essential to elect Christian politicians to key offices, whether locally, regionally, or nationally.] Their efforts, however, may not be producing the intended moral effect on the nation.

After all, we’ve had almost 30 straight years of Presidents claiming to be “born again” Christians, ever since Jimmy Carter, a Democrat, popularized that phrase in 1976.

And polling research indicates that close to fifty percent of the population now attend church on Sundays.

The great irony is that after three decades of Christian Presidents and widespread church attendance, America still continues its slow general trend into materialism and moral decline.

I think there are many reasons for this.

Many churchgoers still cling to a 19th century pietism – a private faith that has little public relevance. [And many Christian politicians often fail to put forward viable policies that make sense to the nonbelievers in their constituencies.] Also, Christian activism often finds itself opposed by parts of society, whether rightly or wrongly.

[In their book The Search for Christian America, scholars Mark Noll, Nathan Hatch, and George Marsden write that when Christianity is closely linked to a society, it can transform aspects of that society; but “on any large scale or in the long run such a transformation will be severely limited by other forces at the base of a society…, [especially] anti-Christian forces.”]

Clearly not everyone would “Amen” the sentiments of Walt Whitman, one of American’s great 19th century poets, when he wrote a poem called “Prayer of Columbus.”

Reading from – Walt Whitman’s Prayer of Columbus

All my emprises have been filled with Thee,
My speculations, plans, begun and carried on in thoughts of Thee,
Sailing the deep or journeying the land for Thee;
Intentions, purports, aspirations mine, leaving results to Thee.

O I am sure they really came from Thee,
The urge, the ardor, the unconquerable will,
The potent, felt, interior command, stronger than words,
A message from the Heavens whispering to me even in sleep,
These sped me on.

Song – America, America

BBC added a Catholic man’s “testimony,” a doctor from Dallas who was a former rock musician.

Many Americans like religion as a touchstone, but they resist having it enforced politically.

Nowhere has public resistance to religious activism been more successful than in the case of abortion, which was legalized by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1973. Even after more than 30 years of tireless widespread religious activism, the abortion decision has never been overturned.

[Christians have had much better success when working one-on-one with Americans on this emotional issue.]

pause
With all the Christian influence in the nation, however, do people of other faiths, such as Jews and Muslims, and even those who claim not to be religious, get a fair shake?

I think that most of the time they do.

A very tangible blessing of America’s pluralistic experiment lies not only in the U.S.
Constitution but also in the Declaration of Independence, which states clearly that “all men are created equal,” and “that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.”

This means that “equal rights” for all takes precedent over any one faith. Rights, therefore, come first. And every American citizen has them. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from. Should people’s rights be violated, as U.S. history reveals, the courts are brought in to settle the abuses.

pause
I’m sure that to people looking in from the outside, it must seem like the whole nation is one big religious hothouse, a society where religion is continually shoved in your face.

I think that would be an inaccurate picture of America.

For me, even as a Christian, I think that one of the great things about the American experiment is you can live here quite happily without being accosted by religion.

Many people live here for a long time and are not fussed about religion at all, even as I lived during one 10-year stretch of my life, when I was a New Age neopagan. Then in July, 1976, coincidentally during the month that America was wildly celebrating its two-hundredth anniversary, I was living alone like a hermit in California. That month I had a dramatic and unexpected encounter with the risen Jesus, which has always reminded me of Paul the apostle’s startling experience when he was knocked off his horse on the road to Damascus.

The experience immediately changed the direction of my life completely. I suppose you could say that I now find what C. S. Lewis called “mere Christianity” to be both personally essential and a public good.

Of course, nonbelievers won’t see it like that, but neither will they feel awkward seeing so many of their neighbors driving off to church on Sundays, although they might joke about seeing religious stickers on their neighbors cars, stickers that may say “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven,” or, “I’m too blessed to be depressed.”

I think that Americans of any faith, and people of no faith, have all learned to live here with grace toward each other – as we spend everyday in each other’s company, whether at work, at play, or across the fence line.

It’s certainly not perfect. We’ve got a long ways to go. But for the most part, we get along — even during a heated political season like the current campaign for President.

And that, it seems to me, is part of God’s grace blessing America.

Song – Amazing Grace
END

©2018 by Charles Strohmer

Images courtesy Creative Commons.

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The Refugee Crisis: Make It Personal

refugee men and boys shelteed in a community centerRegular readers of this blog will know that I post periodically to raise awareness of a truly remarkable initiative called the Cradle of Christianity Fund, which focuses on bringing short, midrange, and long term aid and support to the neediest Middle East refugees (chiefly those who have not benefited from UN relief). I hope, then, that you will be as moved to action as I was with the following article by Phil Reinders. His wisdom and pastor’s heart have combined here to address what the UN has called the “mega-crisis” of our time, straining the world’s relief efforts. C.S.

The Refugee Crisis: Make It Personal
by Phil Reinders

I’m a follower of one who began his life as an asylum seeker. I’m a member of a family of faith whose history stretches back to Abraham, and is summarized in refugee terms: “my father was a wandering Aramean.” The God who has called me has this penchant of binding up his life with those who are on the margins, with the vulnerable and the weak. To take on the name of Christ, then, is to bind your life with the plight of those very same people.

So it is no surprise that Jesus calls people to a care and compassion for others, regardless of the differences and circumstances. Every person who takes on the name of Jesus isn’t afforded the option of turning away from outsiders. In fact, our very reputation and the name of Jesus is wrapped up in that sort of generous care. “Listen also to the immigrant who isn’t from your people Israel but who comes from a distant country because of your reputation … do everything that the immigrant asks.” (I Kings 8:41ff)

The plight of refugees has never been more stark, obvious and in your face. And, no doubt, the complexity of the situation is vexing: the instability of Eastern European and Middle-Eastern political climates, the risks and dangers of radicalized jihadists, the sheer scale of the need.

So what do we do? Listen to the refugee-Jesus, where we find the simplest, clearest of wisdom. “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 7:12)

But that sounds too basic for this crisis, too simplistic for global geopolitical problems, right?

I’m convinced that the Jewish carpenter is actually the wisest, smartest being to live, and so I’m persuaded that his deceptively simple words are actually the wisdom of the ages, something that is meant to play out in personal relationships and between global neighbors.

It’s often called the Golden Rule, and thought to be another version of something repeated within different religious streams. And while a semblance of it is seen in other religious contexts, what Jesus says is unique and transformative. We see forms of this Golden Rule in eastern Confucianism, where Confucius urges, “do not do to others what you would not wish done to yourself.” Among Greek philosophers, the Stoic Epictetus said, “What you avoid suffering for yourself, seek not to inflict on others.” Socrates wrote: “What stirs your anger when done to you by others, that do not do to others.” And in rabbinic Judaism, Rabbi Hillel said, “What is hateful to you, do not do to anyone else.” These versions are both negative and passive. Avoiding or refraining from something I would not want done to me is a different standard of action than actively pursuing the thing I wish for myself for the sake of the other, which is the life Jesus invites into.

The brilliance of Jesus’ wisdom for how to respond pretty much to any situation is this: make it personal. The gold standard for moral action is to remove it from abstraction, from the pointed-finger deflection of “what others should do,” and from the resigned shrug of “it’s too complex so let’s leave it to the experts.” Instead, Jesus makes us the authority on how to respond to our friends, neighbors, and global, geopolitical issues: do to others what you would have them do to you.

Forget the professors, pundits and policy wonks; check your own heart.

Escher StairsFor a moment, as best as you’re able, enter into the story of a refugee. If it was your home that was riddled with bullets and bomb fragments, your neighborhood a rubble, with neighbors and extended family killed; if you had no money because the local economy was devastated due to the instability; if your children went to bed hungry; and if you made the sane but crazy decision to get out of Dodge and walk to wherever was safe, how would you want to be treated?

If you were stuck for years in the purgatory of a refugee camp, watching your children sink into the despair of a hopeless future, facing some Escher-like bureaucratic government approval process, how would you want to be treated? If you lacked all access to a flourishing life, far from any semblance of home, dependent upon the goodwill of others, how would you want to be treated? Think of the hopes refugees have for their lives and for their families. Imagine the fears that dominate their lives? Then think, “if I was in that person’s shoes, what would I want?” What would you hope for from foreign countries and governments when yours was corrupt or impotent to do anything to help you?

See what Jesus is doing? He taps into our own natural, God-given instinct to care for ourselves but then pulls the most liberating, redemptive move. He takes that inward-looking instinct but pivots us outward, redirecting all those good instincts for care and protection towards the other. Whatever we hoped and wanted others would do for us, he now commands us to go and do that for others.

And did you notice the first words: “in everything.” That’s a pretty comprehensive scope. Don’t try to limit this wisdom for small-scale issues. “In everything.” This is not a kindergarten lesson in niceness. It is the wisdom of the ages, saving us from inward-focused fear and self-absorption, aligning ourselves with the grain of the universe, which is God’s self-giving love, his fondness for the least, the last, and the lost.

A refugee is not a problem but God in disguise. They are a gift for anyone who carries the name of Jesus, helping us to know the meaning of that name and calling.

Phil Reinders, who pastors a church near Toronto, blogs here.

To support The Cradle Fund.

©2016 by Charles Strohmer

Top image courtesy of the Institute for Global Enagement.

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 Cradle Fund: A Bridge for Shalom in the Middle East

Stirling bridgeA few months ago in Capital Commentary, I shared some ideas from the biblical wisdom tradition about shalom and the vital work of repairing damaged and broken lives and relationships, socially, economically, and politically, whether domestically or internationally. I want to extend that thinking here. (The following was published in a recent issue of Capital Commentary.)

Many Christian and Jewish circles today talk about shalom as God’s vision for a future of peace and harmony for all of creation, including, of course, collective human life. And to give that vision legs in the here and now, shalom is also advanced as social, economic, and political “flourishing” or “well-being” in this world.

Those of us in the West already blessed with goodly degrees of well-being typically maintain the latter idea . But there seems to be a kind of relativity to shalom. We would see that the near-future goals of a Chinese peasant farmer, for instance, or an Indian woman seeking a micro-loan would most likely entail visions of flourishing that are much more modest than our own. And there are countless others whose lives can only be described as precariously lived – consider the refugee families who have fled ISIL for whom shalom in this world would be different still.

Beyond that, however, lies a blind spot. After a decade or more of Christians like me giving airplay to shalom in America, we haven’t been able to prevent the word from becoming equivalent to “getting ahead,” “succeeding,” or “moving up in the world.”

It seems that shalom is becoming synonymous with pulling oneself up by one’s own bootstraps. If so, the biblical sense of shalom as “gift” has been lost.

The contradiction between shalom as “gift” and “trying to improve one’s lot in life” hit me hard last autumn as I learned about the Cradle of Christianity Fund,  which has been implemented by the Institute for Global Engagement (IGE) to supply immediate- and long-term aid and support to thousands of displaced and refugee families who have fled ISIL/ISIS. At the time, I had been talking with friends about the staggering changes of life that have been forced on these families. We wanted to help alleviate their misery, but were got stuck. We were here. They were there. And we knew of no bridge. But with the Cradle Fund we had not only a bridge but an inspiring this-world reminder of biblical shalom.

Policies by Western governments to address the crisis have been slow in developing, and in November, 2014 the UN reported that a huge shortfall in funding meant that winter aid from the UNHCR would reach only 240,000 of the 600,000 displaced Iraqis and Syrians. The Cradle Fund and other NGOs, such as World Vision, Samaritan’s Purse, and Heart for Lebanon, have stepped into the gap with manna: food and water, insulation kits and boards, heaters and kerosene, and other essentials needed by families to survive the winter while holed up in small tents, abandoned buildings, and other makeshift shelters

In the Exodus narrative, the people of Israel “groaned” under punishing abuse and “cried out” for help. God “heard” their cry, “saw their misery,” and told Moses, I’ve “come down to rescue them.” That rescue was a poignant example of the gift of shalom.

“For the precarious,” writes Walter Brueggemann, “shalom can be understood as the assurance that there is a hearer for our cries, an intervener who comes to transform our lives.”

Today, the cry of despair and the hope of an intervener coming from persecuted Christian, Yazidi, and even Muslim families in Iraq and Syria is analogous to the Exodus narrative, when the only thing that matters is survival and the form that faith takes is one that cries out for deliverance. Brueggemann notes that because the Exodus generation lived their lives amid the acute precariousness of their situation, they “were interested in the question of survival – either actual physical, historical survival or at least the survival of faith and meaning.” Similarly, the crisis among Christians in Iraq evoked this cry last year from Patriarch Louis Sako of Iraq’s Chaldean Catholic Church: “We feel forgotten and isolated” and wonder about the reaction of the world.

Neither the giving of shalom nor its receipt must wait for the bullets to stop flying.

For me, the Cradle of Christianity initiative has brought a necessary corrective in my thinking, bringing me back to the biblical meaning of shalom as gift to the most helpless. This fund enables churches and people of faith here in the United States to join with the indigenous efforts already underway by local churches and organizations in the countries of conflict and the countries that have received the overwhelming numbers of refugees.

The current exodus may not be over. But the vital work of rescuing and repairing damaged and broken lives has begun, but only just.

©2015 by Charles Strohmer

Images by Neil Howard (permission via Creative Commons)

For more information. Like a growing number of people who are now following and supporting the Cradle Fund, here you can find many more moving stories and pictures about how the people are living in these stopgap conditions (from Chris’s blogs among the displaced families). Also check out IGE’s Facebook page and the above links as well.

Here are some FAQs about the Cradle Fund. Also Chris is providing personal updates from the region, including photos, on the IGE website and Twitter. Coverage of the Fund is also found at Christianity Today, CBN, and MPAC and Fox News.

Other posts and updates on this blog about the Cradle Fund: The Cradle Fund: Helpless No More /// Snapshots: A Day-in-the-Life of Iraq’s Religious Refugees /// This Bad Weather Is No Joke /// The Cradle Fund: Getting Thousands Safely Through a Middle East Winter.

Charles Strohmer is the author of several books, founding director of The Wisdom Project, and a visiting research fellow of the Center for Public Justice.

This Bad Weather Is No Joke

woman refugee caught in snowA personal note from Charles Strohmer:

Severe winter weather has now blown in, adding misery to the already desperate struggle to survive that is being faced by displaced Iraqi and Syrian families who have fled ISIS and are holed up in makeshift refugee camps, small tents, abandoned buildings, and other shelters. Please check out this brilliant piece of photo journalism put together by Alice Speri.

I began blogging about this crisis, here and here, before the winter set in, to help raise awareness and support for the Cradle of Christianity Project, which is providing immediate aid to relieve the misery. Please think about doing more than just looking at these images. Check out the story of how this this remarkable Project arose and see if it’s one you can get behind with a gift, prayers, forwards, shares, tweets, or more.

refugee baby caught in snow stormIt’s been very moving to hear from people who have said they wanted to help these families but did not know how to do that. We are here. They are there. There was no bridge. Now with the Cradle Fund there is. If you want to jump right to ways to support, here’s the page.

Thank you,

Charles

For more information. Like a growing number of people who are now following and supporting the Cradle Fund, here you can find many more moving stories and pictures about how the people are living in these stopgap conditions (from Chris’s blogs among the displaced families). Also check out IGE’s Facebook page and the above links as well.

Here are some FAQs about the Cradle Fund. Also Chris is providing personal updates from the region, including photos, on the IGE website and Twitter. Coverage of the Fund is also found at Christianity Today, CBN, and MPAC and Fox News.

Other posts and updates on this blog about the Cradle Fund: The Cradle Fund: Helpless No More /// The Cradle Fund: A Bridge for Shalom in the Middle East  /// The Cradle Fund: Getting Thousands Safely Through a Middle East Winter.

©2015 by Charles Strohmer

Images courtesy of Alice Speri and VICE NEWS.