Sharing the suffering on the way to resurrection

Some months ago, the radio show This American Life profiled Meron Estefanos, a journalist who gets drawn into a web of Eritrean hostages in the Sinai peninsula. Beginning with one call, Estefanos eventually ends up devoting a huge portion of her days to talking to hostages who have been captured by people-smugglers and are given mobile phones to call their families and ask them to pay ransom. Along the way, these hostages are left in horrific conditions.

When I heard the program, it was for me an example of Christlike action in the world. One lesson of the Incarnation is that Jesus comes to share our lives with—Emmanuel means “God with us” after all. In the crucifixion, Jesus shares the ultimate moment of suffering and agony—death—with humans. When people are suffering, we can be confident that God in Christ is in their midst because God in Christ has experienced the worst the world has to offer. When Estefanos calls these hostages, she is, in a sense, incarnating herself among them and sharing in their crucifixion.

Christians, therefore, are people who are called to share in the suffering that is present in this world. In the last few weeks, I have been acutely aware of the suffering in South Sudan in part because I’ve been calling various friends there to ask how they are. I want to emphasize that my few phone calls and blog posts are not even close to the total devotion shown by someone like Estefanos, not to mention Christ. But I’ve continued to call and to post out of the conviction that it is important both that we have some clear idea of what is going on in South Sudan—in all its difficulty—and also that people in South Sudan know that we are aware of their challenges. When St. Paul writes, “If one member [of the body] suffers, all suffer together with it,” (I Cor. 12:26), he is not speaking metaphorically. He really means it.

(I am also acutely aware of my own shortcomings in this regard. I know next-to-nothing about the suffering in Syria, for instance, or in the Central African Republic. But I hope that the full body of Christ around the world may hold the full weight of suffering in the world and that I have one small part to play in that.)

I have been reflecting on all this because I am aware that my phone calls will be on hiatus for the next little while. I have a long-planned trip coming up, which will occupy all my time and render the relatively inexpensive way I’ve worked out to call South Sudan inoperable. Does that mean I can just flip off this sharing of suffering? I think not. There are ways in prayer and action and advocacy to continue to share the suffering of our sisters and brothers.

We should finally note that sharing suffering is not the only thing Jesus did. His crucifixion ended in his resurrection. Following Christ, Christians are truly incarnate in the world, sharing the suffering of those who suffer, but all so that we may push and poke and prod and work towards the resurrected life to which Christ is calling us. Glory awaits—in this Christians can trust, even and especially when it seems almost entirely obscured.

In coming days, the Episcopal Church of Sudan and South Sudan will be releasing a proposal for relief, action, and advocacy in response to the violence. I encourage you to keep an eye out for out asa we listen to our sisters and brothers and move towards resurrection.

What we talk about when we talk about “Africa”

About a year ago, there was this excellent satirical video that encouraged Africans to send heaters to Norway to help address the cold.

If all you knew about Norway was what you saw in those clips, you would think it was pretty awful, right?

I have been thinking about that video as I read coverage of the unfolding disasters in South Sudan and the Central African Republic. The conflicts exemplify the two ways that international media have to report on conflict in sub-Saharan Africa.

First, there’s the Christian-Muslim frame. The violence is seen as the result of hostility between followers of two great faiths. We have seen this in the last month in reporting on the Central African Republic. The archetype for this reporting is the ongoing violence in Nigeria.

Second, there’s the “ancient tribal hatreds” frame. This is the theme that has dominated coverage of the violence in South Sudan. (This Guardian story, for instance.) The Dinka and the Nuer are said to be at each other’s throats as they always have been. There is little analysis of just how “ancient” these “hatreds” are and how real a construct the “tribes” are. The archetype for this reporting is the Rwandan genocide, which usually, before long, gets invoked in this kind of reporting.

There are many problems with these frames. “Tribes,” as is now widely recognized by scholars, were frequently a creation of colonial governments. Prior to the arrival of the British in southern Sudan, for instance, the lines between Dinka and Nuer were permeable and fluid. The British wanted to firm up these boundaries to facilitate their policy of indirect rule. This is not to say that people do not now identify as Dinka or Nuer, but it is to say that the reason for the violence is not lost in some pre-historic “mists of time” but is the result of actual decisions made by outsiders.

The other major problem with both frames is that it encourages the reader to throw up their hands and walk away. If you read the comments after some of these articles, count how many times people say something like, “Well, if they’ve just been killing each other for so long, why should we intervene and risk our own lives in a never-ending conflict?” That would be a good question—if it were based in reality.

Moreover, these frames neglect the actual voices of people on the ground. No reporters that I have seen appear at all interested in interviewing people who do not fit into their “tribal” schema. Yet if you listen to church leaders in South Sudan speaking across the Dinka-Nuer divide or follow the Twitter hashtag #MyTribeIsSouthSudan, you can see that there is a lot more complexity here than gets reported.

What none of this reporting seems to acknowledge is the real reason for these conflicts: leadership. What is happening in South Sudan right now, is in large measure, the result of the inability of the country’s leaders to address their differences without resorting to violence. Time and again in these last days, I have thought back to Chinua Achebe’s famous opening to his book The Trouble with Nigeria: “The trouble with Nigeria is simply and squarely a failure of leadership.”

Another way of saying this is that the conflict in South Sudan is a political conflict. And political conflicts between leaders have solutions: create institutions that can credibly address conflict; educate and raise up other leaders; reduce the huge number of weapons that are present in situations like this so that if violence happens it is less destructive; create opportunities for people from different backgrounds to come together in peace. None of these are easy tasks. All of them take huge amounts of energy and time. None are guaranteed to succeed. But that doesn’t mean we should not continue to try them.

The one thing, above all, that would change how we think about “Africa” is if we would simply listen to the voices of Africans. This would challenge our listening abilities in many ways. But there is simply no substitute for listening to how people experience, perceive, and understand what is happening to them.

Christians around the world are preparing to celebrate the Feast of the Incarnation, in which God came to share human existence in a deep, intimate, and loving way. How can we begin to learn about, understand, and share the experiences of our sisters and brothers around the world?

(And, of course, if you haven’t, you should read, “How to Write about Africa” by Binyavanga Wainaina.)

Remembering St. Peter’s, Ellicott City

For the last few days, I have been processing the news of the shooting at St. Peter’s, Ellicott City, a church I have visited and preached at on more than one occasion. The shooting resulted in the death of Mary-Marguerite Kohn, a priest I remember well. The church’s administrative assistant Brenda Brewington was also killed.

I was invited to St. Peter’s because the congregation has long supported African Medical Mission, the organization I worked for when I lived in South Africa. In fact, AMM’s Jenny McConnachie was at St. Peter’s just a few weeks back. As the stories about the shooting have made clear, St. Peter’s is a congregation that was committed to ministry with all kinds of people from all walks of life. (It seems the shooter was a homeless man who had been served by the St. Peter’s food pantry.) It’s in the nature of a church that was founded to minister to mill workers in Ellicott City.

Over the weekend, I had a look back at one of the sermons I’ve preached at St. Peter’s. The text was the rich man and the eye of the needle. I noted this paragraph:

We’ve seen how wealth can help us build walls around ourselves. We’ve seen that Jesus is calling us to make ourselves a little more open and a little more vulnerable to the world around us. The phrase I want to use to describe this is the same phrase that we use to describe what Jesus did – incarnation. Reconciliation begins when we choose to go to a new place in the world and simply exist. God used God’s immense power to choose to exist in an entirely new way, among humans. We have wealth and power and we must use it to exist in a new space. Sometimes that new space means getting up and moving from North America to a shantytown in South Africa. But sometimes going to that new space means simply exploring a different part of the town you’ve lived in your entire life. Sometimes going to that new space simply means going down to the end of the pew after the service and talking to the person you’ve never met before. God’s mission of reconciliation requires of us an incarnational ministry. That means we have to simply be in a new and different way and in a new and different place. It is both a reassuringly simple and monumentally difficult task but it is at the centre of our Christian calling.

In reading about the shooting, I’ve been struck by just how much emphasis Mary-Marguerite put on exactly this kind of incarnational ministry. St. Peter’s didn’t need me to tell them about this; they just needed to look at their co-rector.

I’ve written and preached about vulnerability frequently. (The Incarnation is the central idea in my new book.) But I never had anything like this in mind, perhaps one reason I’ve found these deaths so shocking. In my Good Friday sermon this year, I preached about daily crucifixions that are all around us. These three deaths are one example of exactly that.

St. Peter’s other co-rector, Kirk Kubicek, preached a beautiful sermon last Sunday that just about sums it up:

It is their commitment to serving their brothers and sisters whoever they might be, and believe me if you spend any time in our office you eventually see every kind of brother and sister there is, that sent them home to the heart of Love. We will never know why, but we do know they and the man they were serving are with the God who says, You are my Beloved – with you I am well pleased….

And I still see two women who were and continue to be exemplars to us of what it means to abide with Christ – what it means to be known by Christ.

In truth, right now they are where they have always been – in the heart of God’s everlasting love.

Mary-Marguerite’s funeral gets underway in just a few minutes in Baltimore.

A Spirituality of Mission

Tell me if this sounds familiar.

You’re off “helping the poor” somewhere—soup kitchen, homeless shelter, outdoor church ministry, wherever. This is great. You’re participating in “mission,” which has become the buzziest buzzword in the church in recent years.

But the focus has become the actual task at hand: making the sandwiches to feed the people at the outdoor church, cutting the carrots to make the soup. Somehow, the focus on the people you were supposed to be working with has been lost, subsumed beneath the never-ending mountain of need you’re encountering.

I know this feeling well—extremely well, as a matter of fact. When I was a missionary in South Africa, it was easy to let the tasks at hand overwhelm the reality that what mattered was building relationships with the people in the community where I worked. Since I’ve been back in the U.S., I’ve seen these same dynamics at play, like the time I helped a group make sandwiches for an outdoor church and then, when we arrived, watched as our group, myself included, handed out the sandwiches with utmost efficiency—and nary a word spoken to any of the people attending the church. Watching the situation I thought to myself, “Hmmm… something’s missing here.”

Mission is not a cost-free enterprise. It’s not something that we can fit into a little box—Sunday afternoon, 2 to 4, mission—and then go on with the rest of our life. It’s about an approach to life, one that demands that we engage with those who are different than us, whether they are just down the street or halfway across the world. It’s what Jesus did when he chatted with the woman at the well. It is, ultimately, what God in Christ did in the moment of the Incarnation, coming to we who were “far off” and engaging with us. Difference exists in this world (and we are ever more aware of it as our world is drawn closer and closer together). Mission is what happens when we encounter it in a Christ-like way.

And it’s all kind of scary and unsettling. It’s much nicer to have all the answers—to know exactly how many sandwiches we need or how many gallons of soup—than to have none but strike up a conversation and see where it leads. But if we want the Gospel to unsettle the world, it must first unsettle us.

One thing that is missing, then, from the church’s conversation about mission is what might be called a “spirituality of mission.” I owe this phrase to the work of Gustavo Gutierrez, who has written of the need for a “spirituality of liberation” to go along with his theology of liberation. His question is how to get people who are poor and oppressed to see that liberation can begin with them, in spite of the years of oppression.

How do we become the people who can overcome our fear and reach out to those who are different than us? We do that by cultivating our relationship with God in Christ, the one whose most frequent teaching was “fear not,” and who modeled exactly what the fearlessness looks like and exactly where it can lead.

What gives you the spiritual resources to continue to engage in God’s mission in the world?