Friday, August 29, 2014


'Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace.

As the recent conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Territories fades from the news (thanks to the ADHD of U.S. media that moves onto another topic for superficial coverage), a group of conservative evangelicals took a trip to Israel to show their "solidarity" with Israel. Called "Christians in Solidarity with Israel," it was organized by the National Religious Broadcasters (NRB). Those traveling included Richard Land (who used to serve as the top politico for the Southern Baptist Convention), Christian radio businessman Richard Bott, author Kay Arthur, and NRB CEO Jerry Johnson.

Solidarity! But with what?
... killing around 1,500 innocent civilians?
... killing several hundred children?

... wounding several thousand innocent civilians?

... displacing more than 500,000 people from their homes?

... violating international human rights laws?
Over the past two months, Hamas militants in Gaza and political and military leaders in Israel have committed horrible and misguided acts of violence. The violence on both sides must be condemned. But to travel to show "solidarity" with one side is to show acceptance of that side's violence. In this case, the U.S. evangelical leaders chose to support the side responsible for the most violence. While more than 2,000 people in Gaza were killed - most of them innocent civilians - only 65 Israeli soldiers and 5 Israeli civilians were killed. Even if one believes an Israeli military action was necessary, the effort was excessive and indiscriminate. The attacks by Israel violated United Nations principles and may have included war crimes.

But, hey, let's join hands and sing "solidarity forever." And let's pretend the wet feeling is just sweat on our hands. If we close our eyes long enough maybe the so-called "holy land" will be nothing but rubble so we don't have to be bothered by the sight of those killed.

Traveling to the region to learn firsthand remains important and needed. However, to go to only hear one side and to root for that side during a conflict is to join the violence. Why not an a study trip - instead of "solidarity" trip - to meet with Israelis and Palestinians. The group went to meet with Israeli political leaders but should have also heard the other side. They especially should have crossed over to visit with Palestinian Christians, who have encouraged Christians to come on pilgrimages.

Tony Perkins, a partisan Republican activist who leads the Family Research Council, afterward mentioned meeting with the major of Jerusalem during the trip and thinking about the biblical verse to "pray for the peace of Jerusalem."

"During our meeting with the mayor of Jerusalem, we read Psalms 122:6," Perkins said in a press release. "This Scripture took on a deeper meaning sitting with the mayor of Jerusalem knowing that he was leading the city we have been instructed by God to pray for. We prayed for him and then walked outside on the terrace overlooking the entire city. Psalm 122 does not have an expiration date."

While Perkins condemned the "[e]vil that "[t]housands of missiles are raining down on Israel," he offered no criticism of the evil of Israel targeting and killing children and other civilians. The "pray for the peace of Jerusalem" rhetoric is often used by conservative evangelicals to justify their unquestioning support of the modern state of Israel. Yet, they apparently fail to recognize that Israel's political and military leaders are often some of the forces preventing the peace of Jerusalem.

Even if one assumes the modern, secular state of Israel is actually a reincarnation of the biblical nation of Israel, that does not mean we must blindly support Israel. After all, much of the rhetoric of the Old Testament prophets is condemnation of Israel for its sins. Israel was even invaded and defeated by foreign nations because of the country's disobedience. So, Israel can be wrong and in such times must be condemned. To do otherwise is to act like the false prophets that Jeremiah criticized.

‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace.

Even if the modern, secular state of Israel is God's chosen nation, that does not mean the attacks on children in Gaza were morally right. Even if the current ceasefire holds, we cannot declare Israel's oppression of the occupied territories to be "peace." We must not stand in solidarity with evil and call it "peace."

Azar Ajaj, an Israeli Baptist, also pointed to the Psalm 122 passage in comments to me last month in Turkey. However, he focused his thoughts on the verse by noting the responsibility of churches to be instruments of peace. Thus, he urged Christians to pray for churches in the Middle East - as opposed to the political and military focus of Perkins.

Azar Ajaj Emphasizes the Church's Role in Promoting Peace in Israel from EthicsDaily on Vimeo.

Anne Graham Lotz said she went on the NRB trip to show the importance of the nation of Israel.

"I came at a time like this because it is a time like this to show that I stand by Israel," she said. "I believe that she is God's special place, God's special people. He put his name on this city. And I feel in the world there's a different perspective."

God's special people also live on the other side of the border, which is also God's special place. We must not allow our political alliances to trump our biblical mandates.

Lotz noted before she left that her daughter had an app on her phone that beeped whenever Hamas fired a rocket into Israel. But Lotz made her daughter turn it off because it beeped too much while they were at the beach. Why such a one-sided app? Why not an app that noted each time either side struck the other? If we only hear about the Hamas rockets we may make faulty judgments based on incomplete information.

Sadly, one conservative group took the argument even further. The so-called "Christian Coalition" put out a statement earlier this month declaring, "A Note to the Media - Count Bombs Rather than Bodies." It is true that Hamas has fired many rockets into Israel and that should be condemned. But people - or what the "Christian" Coalition dismissed as "bodies" - must always count for more! By the "Christian" Coalition's "logic," dropping 100 small bombs that do not even destroy a house would be worse than dropping one atomic bomb that wipes out a whole city.

If an atheist group put out such a statement, I would be repulsed enough. But the dehumanizing of Palestinians came from a group that claims to follow the gospel that clearly says God loves all people. What in God's name have we become?

Treating war like a game - like the insensitive creators of a pro-Israel game app did recently - is not a true Christian response. Our calling is to cross borders to be in solidarity with those on both sides of the conflict, to be in solidarity with the people (especially those suffering) and not the political and military leaders causing the violence. And our calling is to add our voices to those of Jeremiah in condemning the false prophets.

‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace. Are they ashamed of their detestable conduct?

Monday, August 25, 2014

Fare Thee Well (Again)

As of today I am no longer employed by James Madison University (JMU). My Facebook feed fills up today with former colleagues and students noting the first day of classes on the beautiful JMU campus. My feelings are mixed. Saying "farewell" seems to be a continuous affair, rather than one clean break.

In April, I announced my resignation shortly after receiving tenure and a promotion to associate professor (yeah, apparently I don't understand the concept of tenure). In May, we moved five states away to be closer to family and pursue some new opportunities. However, my last day at JMU was not actually until yesterday. Even though I was gone, it was not official until now.

Summer always brought freedom from classes and the absence of friends who also teach there. The end of summer and the start of school also served as an important marker as the yearly cycle repeated. Now I have jumped off the academic calender for the first year since I started kindergarten, and this will be only the second semester since kindergarten that I have not taken or taught a class (the other being my semester of paternity leave a couple years ago). As my grandfather, who taught school for over four decades joked when he retired, "I am now a teacher without any class."

It feels weird not to be heading across campus to my office to make my usual first-day-of-class jokes (trust me, I made reviewing the syllabus fun).

If I close my eyes, I can see myself walking the hallways outside my old office, happily greeting colleagues, and catching up on our summer adventures. If I open my eyes, I just need to wander over to Facebook to see those same faces.

I remain convinced that we made the right choice in moving. But after spending six years in a city, it is hard to leave friends (even harder than it was for those friends to cram all our stuff into a truck). Hopefully this season of life will provide new opportunities that would have been missed had we not made a big leap of faith. Although I enjoyed my colleagues, some administrative changes and decisions stole much of the joy of working at JMU. By leaving, perhaps I can hold JMU in greater regard with the happy memories remaining a greater percentage of the experience. 

Just as moving to Harrisonburg was the right decision at that time, I feel leaving was as well. Yet, even as I sought out a chance to move, I find it still hard to leave friends and mentors who helped make me a better writer, teacher, and person. My thoughts remain with them today, leaving me feeling distant. My eyes well up even though I don't want to return (why can't all the good ones just move to Missouri with me?). Checking Facebook and Twitter, I say "farewell" again but will see those faces and new updates tomorrow. A part of me will never move away from the Shenandoah Valley, and I find that heartening. "Someday," I tell my friends and myself, "I will go back to visit, to relive."

John Steinbeck, one of my favorite authors, wrote in The Winter of Our Discontent:
Farewell has a sweet sound of reluctance. Good-by is short and final, a word with teeth sharp to bite through the string that ties past to the future.
So I bid "farewell" to JMU and my friends in Harrisonburg. I do not say "goodbye" - especially thanks to social media that keeps us connected. I truly hope they fare well. Saying "farewell" may sound sweeter than "goodbye," but it's also harder. I can offer a short, sharp break as I depart from those for whom I don't care. But saying "farewell" is different. It's not easy, it's not final. Perhaps feeling the need to say "farewell" again is what keeps it from changing to a "goodbye." My future is tied to them and others with whom I have journeyed.

So today I say to all my former colleagues at JMU and friends in Harrisonburg, "fare thee well." And I'll say it again tomorrow. And the day after that...

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Some Baptists in St. Louis Respond to Ferguson Crisis

Ethics Daily ran my latest article on Friday. The piece, "Some Baptists in St. Louis Respond to Ferguson Crisis," looks at how various Baptist churches in the St. Louis area are working to help build peace and reconciliation in their community in the midst of peaceful protests, violent looters, and overly-militarized police officers. Looking at various Baptists - including Southern Baptists, National Baptists, American Baptists, and Cooperative Baptists - I found that most churches in the area remained publicly silent even as the local turmoil sparked international headlines. Some churches, however, are attempting to advance the common good with cleanups, prayer gatherings, and public statements.

As the Ferguson crisis shows, the most important times for churches to minister in their communities often cannot be pre-planned. Although I focused the article on words and actions of key churches, I remain bothered by the large number of churches who missed the opportunity to speak out. Churches should not join in pre-judging the situation (we can leave that job to TV and radio pundits who - apparently lacking teargas - instead poison the air with outrageous rhetoric), but neither should churches just hope it all goes away. As I ended my piece on Friday:
As the streets of Ferguson fill with teargas, protest signs and SWAT teams, perhaps more Baptists in the area will leave the quiet sanctuaries and address the community's crisis.
Silence in the midst of the crisis in Ferguson suggests we have too few prophets today.

Thankfully, many churches in the St. Louis area are trying to shine a light into their community. In addition to the ones I wrote about, several other news stories have brought good news by highlighting the work of churches in Ferguson and other St. Louis suburbs. These stories include ones by Time magazine, the Washington Post, and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Ethics Daily also ran a piece by Terrell Carter, an African-American Baptist minister in St. Louis who used to be a police officer in the city. His balanced piece offers suggestions on how to respond to the tragedy. With these news accounts, churches offer a strong witness to those seeking hope and love in the midst of turmoil. 

The leadership of church leaders has not gone unnoticed by civic authorities. In comments about the crisis, Missouri Governor Jay Nixon noted the positive efforts of "faith leaders" in Ferguson. Some pundits across the country have tried to politicize the crisis by attacking Nixon, but they have demonstrated their inattention to facts. Many criticized Nixon for not coming to St. Louis sooner even though he spoke at a gathering at an African-American church on the Tuesday before the worst of the street violence even occurred. Over the next two days, some people - who may have just then tuned into the crisis - erroneously claimed Nixon had yet to come to the area (apparently the armchair pundits find it easier to tweet than research).

Some critics of Nixon have claimed he looked uncomfortable as he spoke, suggesting he must be feeling guilty for not doing more. One reporter for a large, East Coast paper even claimed Nixon seemed especially uncomfortable speaking at a African-American church as if he hadn't been to one before. Those pundits apparently have never heard him speak before, because he sounded like he always had. Nixon has not won elections based on his charisma but on his ideas and actions (as attorney general he came up with the "no-call" list that stops telemarketer calls, so he really didn't need to be charismatic to win elections after that!).

Nixon has held statewide office for more than half my life and I grew up in the state capital so I have heard him speak on many occasions. Most recently, I heard him speak in January at the founding meeting of Faith Voices for Jefferson City, which was held at an African-American church.

Although I do not agree with Nixon on all issues - in the Ferguson case or overall - I appreciate his willing to engage with the faith community on key moral issues. I am also glad he has challenged the over-militarization of police officers - an issue that will hopefully be considered nationally now as police receive weapons from the military, including teargas that is banned in international warfare as a chemical weapon (yes, that means our military can't use it in war but our police can use it on peaceful protesters and journalists). State Highway Patrol Captain Ronald Johnson, who Nixon put in charge, has helped show better ways of policing than the Ferguson approach of creating a war zone. But the treatment of Nixon and Ferguson by national press confirms that many pundits seem more interested in ratings than truth as they throw rhetorical fuel on the fire.

Christian leaders must strike a better tone and offer a more helpful path. Nixon has rightly praised church leaders in the St. Louis area who are part of the solution. Hopefully Baptists and other Christians in St. Louis will continue to set a positive example with their words and deeds.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Baptists Without Borders

My latest column ran in the Churchnet newsletter page in this week's issue of the Word&Way. The piece, titled "Baptists Without Borders," reflects on the annual gathering of the Baptist World Alliance last month in Izmir, Turkey.
The church I gather with on Sunday is not the Church. Rather the full body of Christ crosses national boundaries and dividing walls. 
... My faith was enriched during the BWA gathering in Turkey as I heard from Baptists from Brazil, Iraq, Israel, Moldova, Poland, South Africa, Sweden, Syria, Turkey, Ukraine, and many other nations. We are better together because we are meant to be together. 
Read the rest of the piece here.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Hot Balloon!

A few weeks ago a hot air balloon flew quite low right over our house. I first saw it over our deck just after it passed our house. I'm not sure how close it flew to our rooftop, but based on how close it seemed to our deck it passed over our house much closer than I expect them to fly. I rushed my son out onto the deck to see the balloon, expecting him to be impressed with his first hot air balloon sighting.

At first the balloon frightened my son - and our dog barking at it probably added to his concern. He begged me to take him inside, but I kept holding him in hopes he would understand and like it. As I talked to him about what was happening - and as it moved away - he began to enjoy it. He complained as it disappeared behind houses and trees. We had to wait quite awhile to convince him it wouldn't return.

Clearly over his initial fear, my son became obsessed with the hot air balloon. For days he kept talking about the "hot balloon" and the "guys" in the basket that I had pointed out to him. He also noted that "Pete bark at hot balloon." For some reason he calls our dog "Pete" (a horrible name for a dog) instead of our dog's actual name Paprike (a great name, of course, for a male Red Tri Australian Shepherd). This name change has lasted for months and I'm afraid we're going to have to get a new name tag for the poor dog (for awhile it was even "Peter" but we've apparently moved to the nickname level).

When my son saw his grandparents a couple of days later, he responded to their "hi" with "hot balloon!" Then he mentioned the "guys" and "Pete bark at hot balloon." I heard this piecemeal story several times each day. He never mentioned the part about how he was frightened at first, nor would anyone guess that he had been based on his excitement. The old book Tubby and the Lantern quickly became a favorite as the illustrations provoke numerous shouts of "hot balloon."

I assumed the "hot balloon" had sailed as part of the nearby county fair so I kept looking for another one all week for my son to watch. Five days later - with his story of the first encounter still going strong - we finally had another sighting. I saw the balloon first and told my son to look into the sky. His shriek and giggles confirmed the sighting.

"Hot balloon!"

This one went over a different part of our neighborhood quite high, so I put my son on his tricycle and started pushing it as I ran toward the balloon. My wife and her parents followed behind with the dog, who started barking at first because he thought he would be left behind. This prompted my son to shout with excitement.

"No, Pete, bark at hot balloon!"

He chanted the command in a loud, high pitch for almost a block (sorry, neighbors!) even after "Pete" had stopped barking and joined the race toward the "hot balloon."

We chased the "hot balloon" for several blocks before it disappeared behind a hill. We didn't get close, but it only magnified my son's obsession with hot air balloons. Already knowing what it was - and hoping for it to come back - he skipped the fear step this time.

Over the past couple of weeks, he has remained on an evangelistic mission to tell everyone he meets about the "hot balloon." I fortunately overheard a conversation at the public library between him and another boy.
Other boy: "What's your name?"
My son: "Hot balloon!"
Other boy: "What did you say?
My son: "Pete bark at hot balloon!"
Other boy: "I don't understand what you're saying."
My son: "No, Pete, bark at hot balloon!"
Other boy (to his brother): "I don't understand what he's saying."
Out of context, my son's story made no sense. Silence followed the brief encounter, though my son didn't seem to have the awkward feeling adults would have in such a social setting.

The stories of the two hot air balloons melt seamless for my son, as if one event. I wonder how long my son will continue to daily speak of a "hot balloon," how it went over his house, the "guys" in it, how "Pete" barked at it, and how he told him "no bark." The fair ended so it could be months before another "hot balloon" sighting. At this rate, he might still be talking about it by then.

His dramatic shift from fear to excitement seems to echo what John wrote in his first letter: "perfect love casts out fear." I thought I loved hot air balloons, which is part of why I refused to take my son back inside when he was scared of the first one since I wanted to watch it (it's not bad parenting since he ended up loving it). But his childlike love for a "hot balloon" far surpasses mine. How can we also find ways to move from ignorance-driven fear to loving excitement?