Not only did he stay at the table, Jesus kept his followers there too

I came across an article last week during seminary orientation. It is a Palmer tradition to use this piece to orient incoming students. “Staying at the table” was a theme for us. I was glad to read the article and discuss the importance of not quitting and staying connected to community even when things are not going as planned. I presume in this journey and across many other journeys I will fall victim to temptation of dropping out or quitting! Actually, as I was parked on the Schuylkill this morning waiting for traffic to clear up, I might have had that thought.

The author writes about two examples of community in the Bible: the perfect, created one at Creation in the Garden of Eden, and the final restored one in the New Jerusalem. Both the created and restored gardens are not realized in the present, so that author ponders what we should do now, upon realizing that the idealism that any community forms will quickly wear away.

It is a common problem we experience in Circle of Hope. Getting connected, meeting new people, feeling loved, is a beautiful way to include. Back when Broad & Dauphin was 19th & Girard, we were growing at a miraculous rate in part because of how new and idealistic the whole thing was. That idealism fades and people can leave or lose passion. We are always working on rekindling that passion. What does a Christian do when the community wears out? What does someone in a marriage that has fading passion do?

Parkers asks that question and he turns to the Last Supper. In that meal he notes that Jesus may have been tempted to leave his very own table. After being treated to hospitality and a new way of life, Parker writes:

“And what do these people do? First, in response to Jesus’ claim that one of them will betray him, they deny that any such thing is possible: ‘Not us, Lord, not here, not in this nice church!’ Having taken care of that little matter they move right along to an argument about who is the greatest among them! Blind to their own capacity for betrayal, and obsessed with power struggles, the disciples at the table act out two of the issues that make community life so painfully difficult, so unlike the garden or the New Jerusalem. As someone has suggested, they probably went on to quibble over who would pay the bill.”

I actually think this is a slightly cynical reading of the Last Supper, but I understand the point. Jesus stayed at the table. The question posed to us was who are we at the table and how will we stay? The author argues that is it through disillusionment that we will learn to rely on God. And it is through literal disillusionment that we will lose our idealism and truly see the world, the community, God, and ourselves for who we are and who we are meant to be.

I argued in the class that the power of the story wasn’t just that Jesus stayed at the table. In fact, it was his table, so why should he leave? But that he kept others at the table. I suppose that is the burden of leadership. It is one thing to command that our followers, or students as it were, stay at the table. It is quite another thing to compel them to stay there.

More powerful than simply staying at the table, I think, was the fact that Jesus kept such a disparate group of people together, not just at this table, but throughout his ministry, and even after his death and resurrection to spread the Gospel all over the world. Amazingly, he kept Simon the Zealot and Matthew, a tax collector, together. Those two, in their contemporary context, would have been sworn enemies, truly.

Jesus kept them together, and kept the space between them. For Christian leaders, that’s our goal, to keep the group together and following God through our lead. It is tempting to be ideological and pick a side, or to be rebellious and independent. Jesus is asking us to be a community, together, and more importantly, he’s called leaders to maintain the unity, to keep people at the table and expand it. The job of our pastors and cell leaders is exactly that: to grow the church by keeping people at the table and finding the next person who will carry the vision.

Moreover, as followers, I believe our job is to make sure that whoever has been given the task of leading us, is doing it. Our job is to follow with humility, but also with prudence. It’s not easy to do this, insecure leaders can often shame the people that pay attention to them most. But we are accountable for everything we do, including the direction in which we follow. Certainly, there is a time to flip the table, just like Jesus did, and a time to leave the table. Staying might be best. Jesus did it. He compelled his disciples to do it. And I think that’s our work too.

 

Christian rock in the mountains

I was driving in the mountains the other week and I turned on the radio in my car. It was tuned to WHYY, Philly’s NPR station, 90.9. Of course, out in the Poconos 90.9 isn’t public radio, it’s Word FM! I jotted down the name of the artists I was listening to because I was so intrigued by them! They were really catchy, to be honest, hook after hook, just great, candy-coated music. Word’s motto is “Positive & Uplifting.” Good thing, too, since George Costanza agrees.

I was amazed at how the music really did lift me up. The radio DJ was telling me that my life had a purpose, and that the radio station had the plan of making our lives better. Even though it is named “Word” (presumably after John 1, when the disciple that Jesus loved called him the Word), I didn’t hear about Jesus. But I think they were getting there, and I was only listening for ten minutes. I think they were more interested in making the audience feel good than talking about Jesus, which I think is the purpose of radio music anyway, and they’ve managed to market it to the right audience. Here are my reactions to the first three songs I heard.

“Hello My Name Is” by Matthew West

Matthew West is from Nashville. That’s where all the great Christian rock stars are born. And his new country rock song “Hello My Name Is” is really encouraging. I didn’t mind how laminated it was. And even though it’s about ten years past its prime, in terms of style, I still got a kick out of listening to it. West talks about the old names that he pasted on himself (“regret,” “defeat”), but now that’s he’s a Christian, his name is the “child of the one true King.” That King goes nameless (and ironically, he also goes nameless in “Amazing Grace” the song West says he is singing in his hit). Even though this declarative song is personal and not worshipful or meant for someone who doesn’t know the King, I still like the story and I can get behind it.

The chorus is contagious. I might be singing it for the rest of the week! I love how appreciative West is of the love of God. “What love the Father has lavished upon us that we should be called His children.” It’s a great message of forgiveness, transformation, and being made new.

That newness was a theme in the songs to which I was listening. The best thing Christians can share with the world is how they’ve been changed. And though this song seems to be for the audience that’s already been transformed, it’s still good that they are talking about it.

“Write Your Story” by Francesca Battistelli

Francesca Battistelli is a pop artist, who is copying Katy Perry (formerly Christian, mind you), and I love her voice. That’s my favorite part of the song. Unlike West, who is declaring his new identity in Jesus, Battistelli is asking God to rewrite her and make her something new.

I’m not sure I got the song. The refrain declares that she is an “empty page,” an “open book.” Well, God has already made us new, and he’s already written himself on us. That happened in Creation, and Jesus completed that work. I think being a Christian is about realizing that, not just asking God to do it again. “Let me be Your work of art,” she sings. I love the submission she is engaging in, but again God has already made us a work of art.

I don’t think she is trying to be grandiose, but I really had a hard time when she sang, “I want my history / to be Your Legacy.” I’m not really sure what that means, but I think she is trying to say that the Church, the Body of Christ, should be his ambassador on earth. She, only 29, is already grappling with her mortality (or at the least the end of her career): “When the music faces, I want my life to say…” She is concerned with leaving behind a Christian legacy. In some sense, it seems like she’s never going to get there because she keeps asking God to complete her, and when she does, it’s really only for what she leaves behind. When does the Christian life get going? I think the Sidewalk Prophets answer that question.

“Live Like That” by the Sidewalk Prophets

Even though the Sidewalk Prophets, another Nashville act, begin their song by contemplating their own mortality and their concern with what people will think of them. I’m discouraged because I don’t just want to be a memory. I want to be a world changer! I want to be less concerned with how people will remember me, and how I can be a Jesus follower now.

But as the rock band continues, I really like where they go. They asked, “Was I love? / Was I Jesus to the least of us? / Was my worship more than just a song?” Great questions to live our life by, really. We are to be Love, like Jesus is.

They betray the relational and incarnational power of Jesus when they write “People pass / And even if they don’t know my name / Is there evidence that I’ve been changed?” I think it’s important to be an example, but the best way for someone to really see Jesus in you is through a relationship, not just a reputation. But I can go with them because don’t we all want to show the world the love Jesus gave for us?

It’s probably too easy to deconstruct these artists. They are less than perfect. I think, generally speaking, the content of their music is good. But the radio station and the subculture that it is perpetuating may not be. It seems like many things Christians are creating “rock” for their own people, as opposed to entering the rock world and helping people follow Jesus. I think we should be evangelizing and deepening our faith. The lack of accessibility of these songs (I had no idea they existed until I bumped into them in the mountains) and the lack of direct worship makes them a bit too consumable for my taste. But at the very least, I was uplifted for a moment!

You matter enough to move God’s heart

I start seminary today. I’m looking forward to thinking together with a group of people about God, Jesus, faith, the Scriptures, and even myself. I wonder about these things a lot. And I wonder what the value is in thinking about them, and what the value is in focusing on more practical items. Some might say it’s more prudent to help people follow Jesus than to discuss the nature of humanity. Others may give you the Judas answer, “Shouldn’t we be feeding the poor instead of having this arcane discussion?” But I really do wonder how our thoughts about God and Jesus and our faith affect those very things. Don’t our thoughts about humanity and poverty affect how we serve the least of these? Or how we minister the Gospel, so to speak? That’s my thought. However, there is a time and a place for these discussions, and they can get quite pedantic and not helpful. So we need to exercise discretion when we are having a boundaried discussion.

The theology we make, I think, is best if it’s in line with where God has directed us so far and, moreover, it has to be applicable. It can’t be 30,000 feet in the air. It needs to be on the ground with the incarnated God, Jesus Christ! I am interested in developing a “community hermeneutic.” We need to think together. Not just to understand God, but also to understand ourselves. I think God is involved in that communal hermeneutic too. I think God is moved by our community and by you!

We are working out our theology in a relationship with Him. We aren’t just trying to “figure him out.” As we learn more about ourselves, we might actually want to pray for something or act for something that moves God’s heart. Or does it?

Artistotle came up with the dominant idea that God might be immovable. He called him the Unmoved Mover. Basically, he said there is a “prime mover” that puts all things in the world in motion, but that power does not move. St. Thomas Aquinas elaborated on this in his five proofs for God’s existence. One of them was that there are things in the world that move that cannot cause their own motion. A great use of it, if you ask me.

This theory basically gave birth to two large ways of thinking about how God works: he is rather an Unmoved Mover who controls all other movement. Or he gives birth to being who can move on their own, though he himself remains the all-knowing Unmoved Mover. This division in how we think has caused a lot of divisions among us. Some argue that everything is pre-ordained, and others say that humans have free will. Both camps agree that God still knows what is going to happen.

If God knew exactly what was going to happen, how much control do we really have in it? Does it really matter? Can God really be all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good if he doesn’t stop bad things from happening that he knows will happen? Those are good questions, I think. And I suppose we should be thinking about these things, but how grandiose can we be? We might be doing it because we’ve experienced trauma and we need to figure out a way out–I’m not sure our mind is the way out of our trauma.

But, I don’t want to leave the discussion there, because I think we do matter. And at the heart of the issue at hand, we really face these poles. But I’m not sure figuring how important our thoughts are versus God’s unmovable nature is. I’d rather really just try to have a relationship. I’m going back to a familiar passage to some of us. Check out Mark 7:24-30.

It’s weird a scene because it seems like Jesus is moved. Like he changes his mind.

First of all, he’s way out of his zone. He’s in Tyre, which is North of Israel, in modern-day Lebanon. He’s out of his zone, he’s experiencing new things. He is purposely hiding, and he wants his presence to be secret, but he can’t. People are moved by him.

And all of a sudden, he sees this unusual woman who is asking him for something. He’s a Jewish Rabbi and he responds as such: “First let the children eat all they want, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”

What, Jesus? What’s he even saying? He seems like he is being prejudicial. And really, Jesus did have a specific mission in Israel to Jews and not Greeks, but even his understanding of his mission is moving. Moving north in this case and encountering people who are demonstrating faith that is even impressing him!

She gives him a response that is relatively brilliant: “Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Before we keep going, I want to note that what we might consider prejudicial today may have been more figurative then. In fact, some would find this statement offensive today because she is using submissive language—she’s using “Lord.” And “Lord” implies a greater-than hierarchy, which is offensive by itself. She’s not owning her dignity and denying the person who just insulted her, in fact, she is using language, in this case “Lord,” that maintains the status quotient. I’m not sure I agree with that line of thinking, but everything can be deconstructed. Everything can be moved into oblivion.

Nevertheless, Jesus is impressed by her reply, probably because she is being so obedient and so submissive, and he heals her possessed daughter.

So what does this mean? I suppose it can mean anything. God could have determined all of this from the get-go. On the other hand, maybe it was incumbent upon this Syrophoenician woman to say what she said so that she might pass Jesus’ test. But another view would say that Jesus actually changed his mind in this moment. He came in with a prejudice and he got convinced of something else and he moved.

This is a nice philosophy. But at this point you might be wondering, who cares?

I want to tell you that God is moved by you. That he created you to be so significant and substantial on this earth that you could think and act in a way that moves all of Creation. That moves God too. That your prayers might move God’s heart to act in a way that He may not have previously. You matter.

God is moved by our community and the work we are doing together. And God moves among us and in us too. I don’t to just have a philosophical issue here, but I want you to leave with the hope that you matter—just like that Syrophoenician woman did. We have a real, body-to-body relationship with God. We can touch each other and affect each other. How rigid do you think Jesus was?

God loves us. I’m not saying this so that you understand how any of these “works.” We aren’t thinking together so that we figure it out. We are thinking together so that we might be impacted and the world might be changed. Your thought matters. Your action matters, who you talk to, how you relate, how you commit, and share, and give of yourself. Your prayer, your spiritual disciplines—these things move God and also move the whole world. You are a significant person, created by the prime mover—created by God to be a vessel that holds him and changes everything.

Maybe you missed these posts over the summer

On my social-media-less summer, you may have missed some posts. Check ‘em out!

The inevitability of influence; my thoughts on our Doing Theology about influence. Is it really possible to avoid being a leader?

Clinging to Jesus when the U.S. bombs Iraq; I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw the headline for airstrikes in Iraq. I thought I was reading a ten-year-old paper.

Connected without community, alone without solitude; my review of Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together. Is it really possible that smart phones could seriously damage our faith tradition?

Does going to church undo the Gospel?; I wonder about the power of language and how it could undo the work of Jesus on the cross.

Wes Anderson and the power of aesthetic; Wes Anderson’s film’s seem to be more sizzle than steak, but they are beautiful.

The Brethren in Christ’s greatest strength is also their greatest shortcoming; why the BIC’s ability to adapt is diluting it.

Why I don’t want to lead like Ruben Amaro, Jr.; after the trade deadline, I couldn’t believe how irresponsible RAJ was.

Why we could all be a little more like “Weird Al”; the man’s new record was inspiring to me, surprisingly.

Israel and Hamas are both wrong, but not all violence is equal; title says it all.

What do I do when my faith doesn’t make sense?; how important is rationalism when it comes to our faith?

The problem with essentializing the Brethren in Christ’s core values; are any of our core values more important than the others?

Why I liked Justin Lee’s Torn; Justin Lee’s story mattered most in this book–no real agenda but who he is.

Should I vote?; another FAQ that I tried to answer.

Louie and reconciliation as entertainment; Louie is surprisingly authentic as he makes up with Dane Cook and Marc Maron.

Six thoughts on the Brethren in Christ after our General Conference; I had fun at the GC this year! There was a lot of good and some not-so-good things about it.

What if I’m too depressed or anxious to be in a cell?; good question, if you ask me.

Frank Viola’s Pagan Christianity and the obsession with perfection; the author actually commented on this one!

Orange Is The New Black’s myth of redemptive violence; love the show and particularly this season, but it had a violent end that put a bitter taste in my mouth.

How important is village parenting?

What I love about the United States; my Independence Day post.

Worship as transcendence; my best reason for worshiping? Overcoming the world.

Why make a speech?; someone asked me this question, actually, so I figured I’d try at an answer.

Church planting lessons from planting a lawn; I had a fun time gardening this summer, here’s what I learned.

Fargo and why we like anti-heroes; FX’s latest show may have put me over the edge regarding our love of anti-heroes.

Am I racist if I don’t like living in my neighborhood?; the transplant’s dilemma.

You’ll need more than a superstar to win a championship; my reaction to the NBA finals.

What worries American Christians and what should worry them; Christians in the U.S. were more concerned with health care laws than perpetual war–what else is new?

Why you should steer the conversation toward the Lord; why David Bazan makes me a little sick.

Freedom from addiction and the law; everything is permissible, but not everything is beneficial. Coffee may not be a sin, but why get addicted?

Even Robin Williams needed more than love

I couldn’t believe it when I heard that Robin Williams died. I was shocked, and still that shock remains with me. I wasn’t sure why Williams’ death affected me so much—in fact, just earlier this year, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death, another actor that I adore, died (under very similar circumstances, both surrounding their addictions), and though it was sad, it didn’t feel personal.

I had to do some personal exploration. As I watched videos of Robin Williams’ comedy, famous scenes in movies, interviews, and even Ocarina of Time commercials (which warmed my heart the most, since that particular Zelda game means a lot to me), I was struck by how meaningful this man’s life was to me and many others. The community of comedians and actors surrounded him with tribute on Twitter, and even as I observed it, their compassion and love was so palpable. I’m not always so sure how honest the celebrities are being, but in their isolated positions it isn’t surprising that they long to connect with others, just like the Body of Christ fosters for me. Even surrounded by such love and connection, that was not enough to sustain him.

For me, Robin Williams literally grew me up. I didn’t grow up with him like Letterman did, of course (he aired a pretty great tribute). Of course, he was the Genie in Aladdin. I still love that movie even if it did stereotype Arabs like me. Great soundtrack, and a great song by Robin Williams. What a fun moment in my childhood.

When I was nine, on vacation in Williamsburg, Virginia, I had a really bad bout of the flu. My parents’ in their Middle Eastern conservatism had previously forbid us from going to movie theaters. All of the stereotypes of theaters being bastions for making out were reinforced by my parents, so going to the movies was a no-go. As my dad would do often, he merely changed his mind, so we all went to see Jumanji together. I was sick-to-my-stomach before and after the movie, but during the movie I was mesmerized. I haven’t seen the movie in a long time, but again, in a sense, he introduced me to movies and showed me something really special.

I remember watching Mrs. Doubtfire with my Canadian cousins and parents. It’s funny, because it was also a first of mine, the first PG-13 movie I watched. I’m not sure I totally understood it, but I laughed and cried even, as we watched that infamous court room scene and the disaster in the restaurant. Robin Williams really struck me in this movie as a great comedian and actor. He is always so heart-breaking in his roles—and even in this one, we might be able to gaze more deeply into his soul. One scene in particular showed him frustrated at the simple cartoon roles he was getting and the messages they were sending kids.

Robin Williams blessed more than one generation and offered them his great gifts and talent. The nation, and the world in part, was beside itself when it found out the news. But even in that storm of success, lied a man with deep sins that enslaved him. He was open about them, too. Addiction ransacked his life more than one time. Stuck between the prison of addiction and the prison of a career that never seemed to be good enough, Williams took his own life. It really is unbelievable. That even in this world, after even our great empty basins are filled with material and career success, there is still despair that can haunt us to the point of taking it all away. Williams wasn’t just interested in his own success either, he raised money for homeless people with Billy Crystal, he was known for visiting soldiers in Afghanistan too.

Robin Williams, who was often vulnerable in front of the screen, was caught in his own storm.  This was no more clear than in a movie that, to this day, impacts me greatly: Good Will Hunting. A great collage of the trouble of youth in poverty and their lack of poverty; the importance of talking about how you feel and who you are in order to heal; the power of friendship and connection; and even the significance of love and doing something greater than yourself. The movie touched me in college, and after we just viewed it again the other night in honor Robin Williams it touched me again in all sorts of new ways.

Even as Sean Maguire in Good Will Hunting, we get a glimpse of the inner-turmoil that Williams must have felt as an addict. Look at how Will Hunting tears him apart in this scene, where he calls him out on the false ways he has tried to solve the trauma of the death of his cancer-stricken wife. Sean tries to get out of his storm through his career, or at least Will makes that argument. He leads a meaningful life, but he needs more. So does Will. Sean offers Will a listening ear and a path to a greater life, away from Southie and the pain of his childhood, but even then Sean needs more than a career to fill him up—he needs love. But not just the fleeting love of a romance, or the trying love of marriage.

How much deeper does our hope need to be than that? Can any of us expect to influence as many people as Robin Williams did? Is success the stick by which we measure who we are?

But I am comforted by the trouble I feel in my daily life because I know Jesus felt it too. Jesus gives me hope in the middle of my storm. It is hard to believe that when you’ve been told that your faith might just take away all of the negative feelings you have. It takes more than just a cerebral acknowledgement of the facts of the Gospel to find the true hope of Jesus. Partnering with Jesus to explore your inner self is a crucial step to overcoming the trouble the world will offer us. It’s a journey and a process.

The inevitability of influence

I was thinking about the theology of influence last week. Our third Doing Theology time was all about influence. We actually sought to answer the question “Am I worthy of influence?” Furthermore, the question the pastors tried to answer in their weekly podcast last week: “Why are we so Jesus-y?” Both questions are linked, so I’m going to talk about them together.

For me the question of influence was born again when one person told me that they were unfit to lead—they actually thought that we shouldn’t be leading each other because leadership itself involved a power difference that undermined equity. I can understand the argument, since so many leaders are narcissistic and grandiose. Leaders can be holier than thou and pompous in their piety. But I know so many who are not! Leadership is not just about power and hierarchy. In fact, Jesus said that the last would be first and the first last. He came to serve and not to be served. He really does flip everything upside-down.

But Jesus wasn’t afraid of leadership. In fact he came to reveal the Father and to influence the whole world. For Jesus, his “backward” leadership may have flipped the world’s structures upside-down, but he was still a leader. Leadership is just the reality of the world. Inevitably, we influence people and we are influenced.

In her great book, Real Power, Janet Hagberg writes about leading and leadership as she outlines stages of power. We move from powerless people, to people who are powerful because of our associates, then achievements. Power by achievements is Hagberg’s third stage and it is where most men end up getting stuck (women get stuck at power by association—but once they pass that stage they excel past power by achievement and onto the other stages). That third stage of power is all about our accomplishments, our acquisitions, our titles. Jesus is leading beyond that level, and according to Hagberg, power by reflection, purpose, and wisdom are all higher levels of leadership that involve leading from the middle and behind. They in fact aren’t upside-down at all. Humble, servant leadership is simply better, more advanced leadership. If we’re stuck on our ego and power, we might think we are influential but our bloated sense of self (and our damaged self-image) may cause us to be less effective ultimately. You might not think it’s important to consider how effective of a leader you are, but as you explore yourself and become a more whole person, your leadership will be affected too. We lead and influence no matter what.

When we are confronted with an untruth—like we were discussing last Monday—how do we influence people who may be preaching a message contrary to ours? How do we influence people who think that influence, by definition, is coercive and imperialistic? What would Jesus do? What would Paul say?

The book end to the idea that we are all going to be leaders and we are all going to be influential is that we are all purposely influenced, too. Watch an episode of Mad Men to see how the advertisers are doing it, watch Obama sell his war to you, read a syndicated columnist. The world is filled with people who want to change our minds, sell us something, and convince us to follow them and their way. I don’t want to be just another voice in a loud room, but I have a way I want to influence people too. Though I am not always accused of being “Jesus-y,” for me the center of how I want to influence people starts and ends with Jesus. I think the Christian subculture sometimes wants to influence people in “Jesus-y” ways, as if Jesus is just someone you occasionally follow, or a costume you can sometimes where. That’s trouble because life in Christ is one whole cloth, not just a part of our culture or part of our personality.

When people simply want to make people “like the cultural Christians,” as opposed to real followers of Jesus, our influence is undercut. Josh Crain, of Carlisle BIC, was telling us the other day (start at 41:43) that Christian doesn’t make a very good adjective. Who would want to just decorate someone with Jesus? Jesus transforms us so significantly, that we can’t help but exude him. But I channel Paul when he is “all things to all people” to win them for Christ. Or Jesus, when he gently relates to the women at the well, when he tells her he’s the God for which she has been looking. What Paul and Jesus do is find common ground to relate and know a person, but they aren’t afraid to lead them to follow.

I suppose that’s the whole point of the incarnation of Jesus: Jesus entered the world to relate to us. That’s the ultimate common ground: he became a person, just like us, to show us that he loves us and to help us follow Him. Today, when we influence people, we do it best incarnationally. We do it in relationships, face-to-face. It isn’t just a cerebral issue nor is it just emotional, it’s a body-to-body, spirit-to-spirit too. We influence people, inevitably, by what we are doing, how we are acting, what we are saying, and what we are teaching. I hope that we can own that, instead of avoiding it, because if we are not intentional, who knows what we will unconsciously lead people to do?

Clinging to Jesus when the U.S. bombs Iraq

My heart sank the other day when I read the headline that the U.S. had authorized airstrikes in Iraq. It was a personal blow. I was in the mountains all week, fairly unplugged from everything, and I couldn’t believe my eyes! It was like I was reading a ten-year-old paper. How could this be happening? I’ve written about Obama’s interest in Iraq before, but this really was a surprise. The Nobel Peace Prize president bombing Iraq. And he can justify because he isn’t using ground troops. I’m so frustrated that that makes sense to anyone. You can’t risk American lives to kill Iraqis? That’s so backward. And for me, who pretty much looks just like an Iraqi, the message is clear.

Why Iraq again? What’s so special about it? Why not Syria? Why not Israel? The Congo? Why is the humanitarian crisis always so important where the U.S. has the most oil interest? According to Forbes, “Exxon, Chevron, Total and many others have invested billions there to explore and drill virgin fields in concessions doled out by the Kurdish Regional Government.” It’s the same argument: genocide, atrocities, civil war, incompetent local leadership (like the U.S. has competent leadership?). We need to strike the country.

But what do you do? ISIS (or is it IS or ISIL?) is killing Kurds and killing Christians. The President calls it genocide. And that justifies more military action. I met a Kurd the other day who said peace just wasn’t an option! People are dying and God’s shalom seems so impractical. I really am dumbfounded sometimes and I have to turn to God, whose peace surpasses understanding.

I’m thankful that Christians can show another way. Donald Kraybill in his excellent 1978 book The Upside-Down Kingdom are thinking of new ways to apply the Gospel and actually have a real response to the war machine. Kraybill’s book is all about Jesus changing the whole world. Jesus came to level the playing field, to include new people into his Kingdom, to spread the nonviolent agape love, to redistribute wealth. For Kraybill, ISIS’ disdain for Kurds and Christians in the area is evil. The U.S.’s oil interest? A product of material worship. But peace is possible. Here’s what I wrote about Kraybill’s chapter on agape love in an essay I penned recently:

In his chapter devoted to nonviolence, Kraybill surrounds his ideas with the notion of agape love, a radical love that comes from God. His example of it is in the Good Samaritan story. The division between the Samaritans and the Jews was so significant that the Good Samaritan’s action of charity was revolutionary. Loving one’s neighbor as oneself is a crucial Christian principle rooted in agape love. Christians do not love for a transaction, it is not merely reciprocity; it is in fact generosity. It is excessive. It is so radical that it transforms people into followers of Jesus, it does not fulfill the sense of entitlement that they might feel if love was merely transactional. Similarly, it does not return violence with violence. Jesus’ famous dictum of “turning the other cheek,” profoundly and succinctly illustrates this concept of nonviolence. In Luke’s Gospel in particular, Jesus lists seven different ways the Kingdom response to an offender is the opposite of the world’s response. Forgiveness is at the heart of this love. Jesus demonstrates this on the cross. The ultimate action of nonviolent resistance, Jesus asks God from the cross to forgive his murderers. The U.S. is among the most violent empires in history, so it is not surprising that Kraybill notes detours and the myth of redemptive violence as he defends Jesus’ nonviolence. But more than just being a peacekeeper, Jesus is a peacemaker, shalom is an active and holistic peace. It is more about presence, than absence.

Kraybill’s idea are practical and helpful. For a radical Christian, his book is definitely recommended reading. But what does a Christian do in a time of war like this? I’m always encouraged by the work of the Mennonite Central Committee in times like this. I work with them and so does our whole Network and our two successful thrift stores. My partnership with them helps me feel active in the work that they are doing in the Middle East and the advocacy in Washington for peacemaking policy. They are not isolationists, but are deeply engaged in the work. Here’s one article about U.S. militarism in the Middle East, for example. Want to write your legislators about the egregious action in Iraq? The Washington office always has opportunities for such action.

I am thankful for how Jesus made me and the sensitivity I have toward the Middle East because of my heritage. Kraybill and the Anabaptist tradition is beautiful to me and has formed the way I’ve thought. And in moments where I need peace that surpasses understanding, I’m glad I have MCC and the church on the side of peace.