This morning my wise grandpa offered a phrase about pacifism that evoked several chuckles and is just too good to forget. He said,

Becoming a pacifist is like becoming a vegetarian. You know it’s good for you, but it’s too hard to give up the baloney.

People often dismiss pacifists as idealistic radicals who are out of touch with reality. But the fact is that we (pacifists) recognize the failure of redemptive violence to create peace, and we see that violent methods only instill hatred and beget more violence. It takes frustrating patience and effort to discover creative peaceful methods, but this is necessary to practice the Christian ethic of peace.

The pacifist goes further than believing in imaginative, peaceful responses to violence. The path toward war is often one that nations take in order to build and secure their empires. As a pacifist, I not only reject the use of violence, but I reject the empire mentality and instead choose to follow the peaceful kingdom of the sacrificial lamb. In this alternative kingdom, worldly power and security are meaningless in comparison to humility, love, and eternal life.

My favorite national holiday might be Martin Luther King Jr. Day (partly because it’s usually the same day as my birthday and mostly because of the pertinent wisdom of MLK’s words), and I find it somewhat ironic that the U.S. can recognize the good he contributed to society and yet fail to heed the majority of his messages that condemn war and encourage people toward efforts that will end poverty. He has some really good stuff to say about pacifism:

True pacifism is not unrealistic submission to an evil power… It is rather a courageous confrontation with evil by the power of love, in the faith that it is better to be the recipient of violence than the inflicter of it, since the latter only multiplies the existence of violence and bitterness in the universe, while the former may develop a sense of shame in the opponent, and thereby bring about a transformation and change of heart.

The word “pacifism” immediately turns some people off, and thus we might do better to create new ways of referring to our hunger for peace. Instead of calling himself a pacifist, my uncle refers to himself as a peacemaker. I also noticed that in the entire book Jesus for President, there is a clear call to promote peace and refuse to participate in violent actions (supported with careful Biblical study), and yet the word “pacifist” is not used once. Dorothy Day might refer to pacifists as willing cross-carriers:

You just have to look at what the gospel asks, and what war does. The gospel asks that we feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, welcome the homeless, visit the prisoner, and perform works of mercy. War does all the opposite. It makes my neighbor hungry, thirsty, homeless, a prisoner and sick. The gospel asks us to take up our cross. War asks us to lay the cross of suffering on others.

An organization that I have the utmost respect for is Christian Peacemaker Teams. Their mission is based on the foundational question, What would happen if Christians devoted the same discipline and self-sacrifice to nonviolent peacemaking that armies devote to war?

It’s quite the question to consider. Especially if you’re sick of baloney.

[T-shirts with this logo are sold by Irregular Apparel at SKREENED: Ethical Custom Apparel. All their stuff is made in the U.S with no sweatshop labor. They also have a commitment to environmental sustainability, and they donate a percentage of their income to charity. Sounds great to me. They have a bunch of other cool logos to choose from or you can create your own.]

the kingdom question

June 28, 2008

I read and enjoyed Jesus for President (by Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw) over the past week. Its stories and theological thoughts encourage ideas about Christianity that seem more in line with what I see in Christ than what I see in much of the church today. It is a book that encourages us to fully follow Jesus in a radical way (as the subtitle “Politics for Ordinary Radicals” declares). And it has pretty pictures.

The book ends by discussing the issue of the American presidential election—after having thoroughly established the idea that Jesus would never run for president. This idea was stirring in my mind as I was invited by my cousin to attend an “Obama for change” meeting. Although I’ve been all-but-brainwashed to support the democrats, and I’ve been quite the democratic party supporter, I’ve recently begun feeling somewhat uncomfortable about endorsing a presidential candidate at all.

I have discussed the election with Christians who strongly support the democratic party, and those who are devoted to the republican party, and both have come across as if their political affiliation is an aspect of their Christianity. I, most likely, have been one of those people.

But I have recently decided that as a peace-lover, I must not commit too much support to anyone willing to waste millions of dollars on election campaigns so they can then assume the role of Commander in Chief of the armed forces in a country that wastes an astronomical amount of money on the military and seems to constantly involve itself in wars.

Jesus for President offers this insightful passage:

The distinctly kingdom question is not about how we should vote but about how we should live . . . We vote every day with our feet, our hands, our lips, and our wallets. We are to vote for the poor. We are to vote for the peacemakers. We are to vote for the marginalized, the oppressed, the more vulnerable of our society. These are the ones Jesus voted for, those whom every empire had left behind, those whom no millionaire politician will represent. (pg. 334)

So while I have an educated and instinctive urge to promote Obama in the upcoming election, I will continue to place my hope elsewhere, realizing that even Obama, with his slogan for “Change,” is willing to wage war on other people if he thinks it’s in the best interest of the United States. The inherent difficulty is that whoever fills the role of president is willing to elevate the maintenance of this country’s strength and power (this empire) above all other allegiances.

We never see an empire that makes itself lowly and humble and allows the world to abuse it and put it to death while practicing love and nonviolence all along. But there is a savior who did just that, and his kingdom beckons us away from the power and violence of the empires of this world. It invites us to live in a radically different way.

One of my favorite quotes is from Lee Camp’s book Mere Discipleship:

It is not through the power brokers of human history that God will effect God’s purposes, but through the little minority band of peoples committed to walking in the way of Jesus of Nazareth, bearing witness to the new reality, the new creation, the kingdom of God. And all this, besides, requires great trust: that it is not our task to make things turn out right, but instead to be faithful witnesses. We will have to trust that God will be God, and do what God promised.

make affluence history

June 27, 2008

Today as I folded and set out towels for the club swimmers, a girl about seven years old walked up to the table and confidently informed me that she needed four towels, and she began counting them out. This is nothing out of the ordinary; we always cringe at the high amount of towels people take because that means more work for us.

But looking up at the girl from reading Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw’s book Jesus for President, I couldn’t help but think that there is no need for one to over-use something—even something as small as towels—and create unnecessary laundry that would take more energy to clean. So I explained to the girl that one towel was plenty for one person.

“No,” she corrected me in her all-knowing manner. “I need four. Maggie has four.”

As I watched the small child hurry away with her four towels, more than she could comfortably carry, and join her friend who also had four towels, I was reminded of a poverty illustration that I recently watched on Volume II: Poverty of a DVD series called Another World is Possible. To demonstrate the reality that 20% of the people in the world own 80% of the stuff, Shane Claiborne has two kids stand on one side of a room to represent the wealthy 20%, and he gives them an overwhelming amount of stuff. Meanwhile, the eight kids representing the less fortunate 80% stand on the other side of the room and receive a few small things to share between all of them. This is the reality that exists in a world where there are more empty and abandoned homes than there are homeless people, and there is plenty of food and basic needs for everyone, but it’s distributed in unfair proportions.

I imagine the little girl and her friend sitting together at the pool with their eight towels while eight people who have no towels stand next to them dripping wet. It’s a simple representation of the way the world has come to be. Although, in real life the wet/homeless/hungry people are far removed from the sight of those who abound in comfort, shelter, and food. And the little girl’s justification that Maggie, too, indulges in her wealth provides a faulty sense that it is then okay.

There’s a line in the book Jesus for President that caught my eye (they credit the tagline to the lovely Geez Magazine): “The call to ‘Make poverty history’ needs a partner: ‘Make affluence history.'” As I read this sitting alongside the country club pool, I felt both convicted and powerless. What does this mean for my life? And will an idea like this ever come to fruition in the world?

As for now, I will dwell in the questions and work on praying and hoping for contentment with sufficiency:

“Give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread. Otherwise I may have too much and disown you and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’ Or I may become poor and steal, and so dishonor the name of my God.” (Proverbs 30:8-9)

If we pray these things for ourselves and others, we can hope that it will move our hearts in such a way that we begin to live them.

educating us all

June 25, 2008

I must admit that at first I was slightly impatient with reading Three Cups of Tea—the bestselling true story of a man building schools in Pakistan and Afganistan by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin— because of how heavily bogged down it gets with unnecessary details. However, I recently finished it and decided it was well worth the read for several reasons.

One good aspect was the recounting of Greg Mortenson’s money struggles. While he was doing everything he knew to work toward fulfilling his promise to build a school in the middle-of-nowhere town of Korphe, Pakistan, he slept in and lived out of his car because he couldn’t think of spending more money than necessary on rent or a place to live. He knew his money could provide a greater good than his personal comfort. I find it difficult to ever really know when it’s okay to indulge in my own comfort and satisfaction. Mortenson draws a line that initially leaves out the option of a comfortable place to live, but that line, which everyone must create for themselves, is such a difficult one to draw.

Mortenson’s story goes on to show the good that radiated out of his efforts to provide people with access to education as a way to create peace. About 250 pages into the book, 9/11 takes place while Greg Mortenson is in Pakistan having already spent years building positive relationships with a large network of people there, and from that point on, I found the book so interesting that I was a little sad when it ended.

A Pakistani man named Bashir offers a comment to Mortenson that comprises a pertinent passage of the book:

The enemy is ignorance. The only way to defeat it is to build relationships with these people . . . Otherwise the fight will go on forever” (310).

Ignorance is what creates the mentality of viewing others as enemies in the first place. It’s a force that is and has been all too present in our lives. As Americans, we have a high standard of living, and to allow large portions of the rest of the world to go on struggling through lives that lack sufficient access to education and basic needs is to turn our backs in the face of the poor. If we keep our vision glued to a safe frame that fails to include images of people in third world countries or disadvantaged people in our very own country, then we allow ourselves to wallow in ignorance. We would do well to spend our lives working against this type of ignorance

I found it interesting in the “Acknowledgments” section at the end of the book that Mortenson thanks his editor for giving in after multiple requests to change the subtitle of the book from “One Man’s Mission to Fight Terrorism and Build Nations … One School at a Time” to the subtitle that’s printed on the front of my book: “One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace … One School at a Time.” This book has been passed all around my peace-loving family, and I’m willing to bet it never would have appealed to any of us with the earlier subtitle. After all the talk of terror and war that has been floating in the air of our country, it’s a relief to hear the whisper of peace drift into our ears.

In summary, Three Cups of Tea is a great story in a decent book and we can never talk too much about peace.

recycling words

June 24, 2008

I tend to make myself steer clear of giant used-book sales. Due to my avid library usage, there are very few books that I actually have any desire to own. However, I am highly attracted to the sight and feel of old books, especially those that have names and dates scribbled inside the front cover. There’s a mysterious intrigue in flipping through old pages as I imagine the time when they stared back at someone else long ago.

My last visit to a book sale was during one of those last day sales when you only have to pay a fixed price for an entire bag of books. It was a disaster because although I found no pages that I felt compelled to read, I walked away with an entire bag of old, fraying hardcover books, fully equipped with browning pages and signatures etched inside the cover.

I chose my favorite book from that bag to become my new sketch book. I dreamed of drawing on the pages in a way that would make the beauty of the printed words apparent. My pictures never quite turned out as I hoped, but this made it all the more exciting when I saw the Recycled Words artwork of Will Ashford. He finds pages in old books that he can alter to create a different kind of art with the words, claiming, “I rescue, salvage, and recycle other people’s words.” It’s recycling at its best.

And there’s more here.

 

Thank you Cleveland Plain Dealer for putting that all-influential power of the media to good use.

As I picked up yesterday’s newspaper in search of something good to read as I munched on my honey nut cheerios, I couldn’t resist my habitual tendency of flipping directly to the Arts & Life section. Despite its obnoxious reviews of the latest celebrity goings-on, this section pretty consistently offers what I consider to be the most interesting articles of the newspaper. And if not, then there’s always the comics printed on the last two pages.

Anyways, today’s main article of this section was entitled “The wheels on the bus go round and round.”Although this phrase may immediately bring to mind days of big yellow buses, angry bus drivers, and that one kid who always seemed to throw up on the school bus to make for a smelly ride to school, this article by John Campanelli tells of the bus for adults. He endorses the use of the RTA bus system to get around Cleveland. Despite the negative regard and paranoia about safety that often revolves around the idea of riding the bus, this article embarks on the commendable journey of altering public regard of the public transportation system. Campenelli writes,

“For those of us who haven’t been on a bus that wasn’t yellow, riding RTA can be intimidating. Some might view it as a loss of freedom or a sign of defeat.

They’re wrong.

Riding the bus is a victory, for you, for the community and for the environment. And with the cash and aggravation you save, you’ll feel liberated.”

He goes on to describe the nuances involved with riding the Cleveland RTA that one may be unfamiliar with and therefore hesitant about.

Now if only the RTA would expand its routes to make its benefits plausible for more people to use. But it seems there’s no hope for that. Turning the page of the paper, I discover another article: “RTA use grows; service wont.” Although RTA use has grown more than 10% this year, the increased usage fails to keep up with the increasing price of the diesel fuel that buses use. Letting down my hopes that the increased price of gas would lead to widespread use of public transportation, it seems that the costs are weighing too heavily on the bus companies to carry more routes and more people. “We’re not going to add more service. We may have to cut more service because we have to pay for the diesel fuel,” says the general manager of Cleveland’s RTA system Joe Calabrese. RTA is already estimating losing $18 million dollars due to gas prices in the upcoming year if they don’t make any changes. Ouch. Looks like the Plain Dealer offered their endorsement for the RTA a little too late.

This summer I somehow stumbled into a job working at a country club–not only a country club, but THE Country Club–and it has been quite the experience. Seeing that my life thus far has been firmly rooted in middle class America, and my attention has largely been turned toward issues that concern the poor and disadvantaged in society and attempts to volunteer in ways that help provide them with things such as food, education, homes, and opportunities, it has been something of a shock to encounter the wealthy people of society. I find myself feeling trapped in this alternate realm of wealth, learning for the first time that kids who stem from money go to their own schools and swim on their own swim teams in their own pools and eat food in their own private restaurants.

I freshly fall under the category of country club staff and have been firmly instructed to greet every member with a large smile and complacently allow them to do mostly whatever they want because they have the money. Although the words of Jesus ring all too loudly in my ears that explain “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 19:24), it becomes all too easy to regard people who are richer than me as examples of why I’m not the rich man to whom Jesus is referring. I’ve been too guilty of feeling better about myself by pointing fingers at the people who have more money than me.

A couple weeks ago I found this Global Rich List website, which is definitely worth a visit. It asks you to enter your yearly income, and then it highlights where you fall on a scale of wealth that takes the entire population of the world into account. I went ahead and approximated my yearly income. Even though I have yet to attain one of those “real” jobs and my yearly income could best be considered didly (by American standards), I ranked in the top 15% of the richest people in the world.

As I have daily come to contemplate how much a country club membership costs and how much the members spend on food and drinks once they’re at the club, I’ve begun to dream about hoards of homeless people swarming into the country club pool so I could witness a forced clash of two split worlds: startling poverty and deprivation meets shocking affluence and abundance. If each side could only glimpse the face of the other enough to make a drastic difference… perhaps that’s what some of us will spend our lives working toward…

There’s an interesting photography collection that juxtaposes photos of wealth with those of poverty posted on Flickr called “Think Twice.”

“Rich and poor have this in common: the Lord is the Maker of them all”

(Proverbs 22:2)

I recall doing an activity in one of my Uganda Studies Program classes where the prof had us move to different areas of a small hut (labeled “yes,” “no,” and “i just don’t know”) based on our responses to certain issues and questions. One question of debate sticks in my head rather clearly: “If you could raise the cost of gasoline to $7.00 per gallon, would you do it?” I cringed at the thought of such a high gas price and waltzed over to the “no” section, wondering how anyone could answer with a different response. As I glanced over to discover a sizable handful of students in my class who had situated themselves in the “yes” section, I wondered what on earth they were thinking. $7 per gallon would rule out traveling and transportation for a whole lot of people.

While my closed-minded response was focused on the immediate detrimental effects such a change would have, the “yes”ers had their eyes glued to the long-term benefits of such an event: $7 would force our country to improve and widen the use of public transportation; $7 would speed up technology development for more sustainable and environmentally-friendly fuels; $7 would increase the need for simplicity and community within people’s lives. As I listened to the argument of the pro-price-hikers and realized that my inclination against the gas price raise was based mostly on my selfish motives of maintaining the lifestyle I have without increased expenses, I begin to slide hesitantly toward the “I just don’t know” section.

Now that gas prices have received half of the price jump that we once only discussed, I find myself wondering if my same classmates who once enthusiastically supported the hypothetical price increase are as supportive of it as they once were. Because although I now have less of a desire to drive places because of the sound of depleting dollars that increases with the pressure my foot places on the gas pedal, the RTA busride that would take me at least three times as long to get to my job (with much backtracking) seems unrealistic compared to the 15-minute drive-myself-to-work over the extremely hilly route that would make for an absolutely excruciating bike ride.

In the Cleveland Plain Dealer‘s most recent Friday! Magazine issue, “Minister of Culture” Michael Heaton offers the all-too-obvious headline “Gas price crisis hits close to home,” a short piece in which he absolves himself of his past sins of dismissing high gas prices as no big deal. Although he once wrote of how the gas craze was way overblown and would probably return to lower prices soon anyways, he received a large amount of critical responses from people who need to drive vehicles for a living and even from people covcerned with its negative effect within the entertainment industry (i.e. concert tour cutbacks for the struggling artist). Heaton goes on to promote the “staycation” where one can dream of distant locations but must find ways to remain content spending days off from work relaxing at local hangouts.

Perhaps there is something to this staycation idea that involves encountering contentment without the overbearing need to travel to far distances filled with strangers in exotic locations to find enjoyment. In the most recent issue of the Mennonite Weekly Review, there’s a short editorial entitled “Reducing oil use, building community.” It discusses the sad truth that we have been unable to see the conservation of gas as something valuable until it began to feast on our funds. It acknowledges that we must make commitments to live in more fuel-conscious ways based on the way that scrimmages for cheap fuel have caused fighting in foreign countries and the negative effects the high price of oil has on the poor of society. Endorsing a turn to local efforts to combat the need to use so much gasoline, Celeste Kennel-Shank writes, “What we sacrifice in convenience, we gain in community.”

But how does this work? I’m doing my best right now to get by as long as possible without owning a car. This has resulted in my need to depend on others for transportation, something that our society often (even if subconsciously) looks down on because it displays a lack of independence and self-sufficiency. But I have recently become comfortable with my choice to get a job near where both of my parents work so that we can carpool to work. It often takes frustrating amounts of flexibility to depend on others for rides or to borrow the cars of incredibly generous friends and family members, but I’m coming around to like the attitude it creates in me when I have to work around other people’s schedules so I can ride places on their time rather than mine. It acts as my feeble attempt to create a spirit of community within myself.

Although, like my initial response to the gas price issue, our inclination is to think of ways that we can use less gas in order to best benefit ourselves, it seems that we would do better to turn our attention to focus on the positive environmental and communal effects of limiting gas usage rather than think of our own bank accounts.

This telling secret was posted on the Postsecret blog a while ago:

Someone\'s secret from the Postsecret blog

gulping down the sun

June 11, 2008

I recently got a craving for ice-cold water–fully accompanied by the desire to hear the soft tapping sound of ice cubes hitting one another as the liquid sloshes into my mouth–right before I went to bed. Although my parents’ ages are reaching the height that indicates they must awake several times during the night to relieve themselves if they take even a sip of liquid hours before their ever-earlier bedtimes, I figured that I still have half a lifetime before I encounter such problems. I poured my cup of water and grabbed a handful of ice cubes from the freezer to splash my craving to completion.

I can’t say that I recall enjoying ice water with such unprecedented fervor before spending four months living in Uganda where I had no access to ice or refrigeration, and ice water was nothing but a distant memory. While there, I found myself feverishly purchasing orange fantas to make my way through the scorching hot Ugandan afternoons (although I never drink soda in the states) solely because most places sold it cold. As I now sit in my double bed, coating my lips cold with water in the dim illumination of a lamp with a fan creating a makeshift breeze across my face, I couldn’t help but notice how removed I feel from the once real presence of the Ugandan night in a cramped dorm room with my two roommates tucked sloppily into their mosquito nets and me scribbling words frantically across a page with the aid of a book-light.

I left for Uganda at the very beginning of 2007 and was greeted by that country with its constant summer. Having altered my life back from Kampala to Cleveland through the past autumn, winter, and spring, the present returns me to summer. As I feel the warm arms of summer holding me, embracing me, once more, thoughts of Uganda permeate my skin with the rays of the sun.

I see Uganda as I turn off the air conditioning in the car because I would rather open the windows and feel the fresh (although red dust-free) air on me. I feel Uganda in the way I move when I clothe myself with my collection of skirts, having packed away all pants for the summer. I sense Uganda in my anticipation for the vegetables that will soon stand on the dirt I’ve carefully prepared in my first garden, which I decided to grow while there. I may never return to that place, but as I experience the warmth I felt there in many different ways, I learn to appreciate my close proximity to ice water and my constant assurance that Uganda will never leave me.