South Sudan, four years on

It is July 9. Four years ago on this day, I was in Juba, South Sudan as the newest nation in the world was inaugurated. After decades of civil war, South Sudan at last had achieved its independence. It was a day that was palpably full of hope, expectation, and wonder.IMG_3318.JPGIMG_3322.JPG

Now, those memories seem like a terrible joke. In the intervening four years, South Sudan has fought brief battles with the north. Most cataclysmically, since December 2013, parts of the country have been consumed by civil war.

I am in the process of writing finishing a dissertation about South Sudan during its earlier civil war, the one between 1983 and 2005. What has struck me most powerfully in these last 18 months is the sheer number of parallels between the conditions on the ground now and what was reported two or three decades ago. You would have thought we could have moved past this but, no, unfortunately, it seems we cannot.

When this latest round of violence began, I had a lengthy series of posts reporting what I had heard in phone calls and e-mails from friends across South Sudan. In time, I ended that series not because I stopped caring but because it didn’t seem as if many people cared. I have continued to stay in touch with friends and church colleagues in South Sudan and abroad, continued to attend conferences related to the matter, and continued to keep the country and its churches in my prayers. Meanwhile, South Sudan’s spectacularly inadequate leaders participate in periodic “peace negotiations” in some of Africa’s finest hotels, make all the right noises—and then fail to effect any improvement in the suffering of their people.

So where does that leave us now, “us” here meaning people who don’t live in South Sudan but feel a great attachment to its people and its churches and so desperately want to see them succeed? On the fourth anniversary of independence, three thoughts come to mind:

  • First, while it is true that the effects of the violence in South Sudan are horrific, it’s not the case that these effects are equally spread across the entire country. The entire country is not equally consumed by civil war. This is important, if for no other reason than that we should not write off the entire place as beyond our help.
  • Second, the causes of this violence are deeply, profoundly complex. It has to do with the prevalence of small arms in the country, existing patterns of religious leadership, opportunities for young men, the lack of infrastructure in the country, and a whole lot else. One part of this is the division between two major ethnic groups, Dinka and Nuer, a division we should note that is largely due to policies pursued by the British colonial government. It is this division, however, that tends to get all the attention.
  • Finally, at one conference I attended, there was much despair about the present situation. But one person who has been involved in South Sudan for a very long time said at the end of his presentation that his grounds for hope came from the possibilities of working with and through small-scale, local institutions. He had largely given up on the existing national leadership and national institutions, but he did think there was lots of potential for working at a more grassroots level in various places of the country. He didn’t say this at the time but I immediately thought, “Oh, the churches.”

Speaking of the churches, many Christian leaders—under the leadership of the Anglican archbishop, Daniel Deng Bul—have come together to launch a National Platform for Peace and Reconciliation. One focus of this work has been training people for reconciliation work at a grassroots level. There are two short videos about this work.

It is very easy to lose hope when thinking about South Sudan. Christians, however, believe that new life follows moments of death and despair. The reconciling work of the church—however limited, local, and small-scale—remains the grounds of whatever hope I continue to have.

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Railway Man reconciliation

Sometimes—amid posts on this blog about various aspects of church life—you could be forgiven for forgetting that Christians have an actual gospel—good news—to share with the world.

I love finding this gospel message outside the walls of the church, off the pages of the Bible, and presented by people who aren’t professional religious specialists. The recent movie The Railway Man is one example. (MAJOR SPOILER ALERT.)

the-railway-manColin Firth plays a veteran of World War II, who was tortured by the Japanese and forced to build a railway through impossible conditions. He can barely cope with his memories more than four decades after the end of the war. Nicole Kidman is his wife, steadfast in her love for him and longing to see him move past the pain. Firth finds out that one of his torturers, played by Hiroyuki Sanada, is still alive and makes a living offering tours of what was once his prison camp.

This movie is soaked in themes of grace, judgment, redemption, forgiveness, and above all else, reconciliation. There are three moments in particular that vividly brought the gospel message alive for me. I’m not technically capable of putting them online, so my own description will have to suffice.

At one point, Firth ends up on a beach on the English seashore, alone in his pain and hurt, no doubt hoping the world will just stay away. But Kidman comes running after him, begging him, imploring him to share his pain with her, to receive her love, to be open to the idea that the world can do something besides harm us. One of my favourite themes in the Bible is of a God who pursues us in love, coming after us even when we are far away. Jesus tells us about that when the father of the prodigal son abandons all dignity appropriate to his position in life and goes running out to his son while the son “was still far off.” (Luke 15.20). It is a message that is echoed in Ephesians, which teaches how Jesus came to us “who once were far off” but have now “been brought near.” (2.13) And it is picked up in one of the post-communion prayers in Common Worship: “we give you thanks and praise, that when we were still far off…” Kidman embodies the pursuing love of God. And it is that love that begins to show Firth new possibilities.

It is Firth’s old war-time friend, Stellan Skarsgård, who finds out that Sanada is still alive. He shares this news with Kidman and then gives her a knife. Sanada, Skarsgård says, can at last “be brought to justice.” The knife, of course, makes clear that this is not the justice of a courtroom. Firth is to take matters into his own hands and at last give to Sanada what is his due.

THE-RAILWAY-MAN-Image-07Firth carries the knife with him to Malaysia and at times it seems as if he is going to use it in the way that Skarsgaard intends. Instead, however, in a deeply symbolic move, he uses it to cut Sanada free from the cage in which Firth was once imprisoned and in which Firth has temporarily imprisoned Sanada. This is grace, not justice. Sanada, by the standards of the world, does not deserve to be set free. But he is because Firth comes to understand that justice will serve no one. Christians do not “deserve” the love of God, but God sends that love in the form of Jesus regardless. God uses a weapon—the cross—to set us free. God’s love is not justand we thank God for that.

The final scene of the movie is a moment of reconciliation. That r-word is thrown around a lot in the church. Good—it is the concept that is central to the gospel. But sometimes it’s hard to know precisely what is meant by it. This final scene give us some idea. Under the loving gaze of Kidman, Sanada and Firth meet, weep, and embrace at the site of the particularly gruelling pass the Japanese had forced the prisoners to build.

railwayWhat does this teach about reconciliation? First, reconciliation happens within the love of God. It is God’s love that is constantly impelling us towards one another in that same spirit of love. Second, reconciliation is about meeting together. Sanada and Firth actually had to come to the same place. Third, reconciliation is about honestly acknowledging pain, both in oneself and in the other. Earlier, one moment of breakthrough for Firth had been when he realizes that Sanada is broken and hurt by the war as well. Fourth, reconciliation honestly reckons with the past. Sanada and Firth meet at the very site—the train pass—that had caused them each, in different ways, such pain and trauma. Reconciliation doesn’t happen by disregarding the past but by coming to see it in a new way—transformed by the love of God.

If you ask me why I’m a Christian, the answer is provided by this movie: the pursuing grace of God that is constantly moving us towards reconciliation. This is truly good news.

Stuck in the middle in South Sudan: on reconciliation and peace

IMG_3295Daniel Deng Bul, the Archbishop of the Episcopal Church of South Sudan and Sudan, and leader of South Sudan’s National Platform for Peace and Reconciliation, has written an important letter outlining the efforts of so many to bring about peace in South Sudan.

I have uploaded the letter here so that you can read it in its full, but here are a few excerpts that struck me.

Why is it so important at this point to raise an independent voice for peace and reconciliation? The war is dividing and polarising the people and communities of our country. The middle ground is eroded. When you listen to one side you are criticized as biased towards one or the other. Each side wants you to be with them. And if you are not with them you are against them. Tribal allegiance is expected and people labeled accordingly. This makes it very difficult for people and leaders to stand in the middle and reach out to both sides equally. Motives are questioned, actions are doubted and words are twisted. Reaching out to both sides requires courage and commitment to the ideal of a healed nation. This is why being independent and united is so important. Standing in the middle is necessary to reach both sides and to bridge the divide between people and political leaders, between divided communities. We serve the people and we serve our leaders. We are inspired by the courage of our people and guided by our belief in the Word of God. Independence does not mean you are against the government or the Opposition, against one or the other community. Independence for the [Reconciliation] Platform means we can listen to everyone equally, openly and inclusively to bring the voices of all the people together to advance peace and reconciliation.

To be a reconciler is to be stuck in the middle of deeply conflicted situations. I am reminded of the Latin word for priest, “pontifex,” which means bridge-builder. The trouble with being a bridge, however, is that you get walked all over. It is that holy work of bridge-building to which Archbishop Daniel and others are dedicated.

Reconciliation is not just about a cessation of hostilities between warring parties but involves actors from across society.

To start the journey for our healing, we have to come together and speak with one voice against this war that is tearing our nation and our people apart. The Platform is reaching out to all constituencies and groups. The role of women, youth, religious communities, traditional leaders, government and opposition and many more are recognized as equally essential if we want to build a broad coalition of people to stand up against the war and urge our leaders to find and implement solutions that stop the war and begin the healing and development we all need. The Scriptures have countless calls for us to be of the same mind and consider others better than ourselves.

Be of the same mind toward one another… And let us consider one another to provoke to love and to good works (Romans 12.16; Hebrews 10.24, NKJV)

In all that is happening in the world—you can read about the work of an Anglican priest in Iraq here—it is easy to lose sight of South Sudan, particularly as the onset of the wet season leads to a necessary diminution of violence (though not of suffering). But the need for reconciliation remains acute and we can continue to pray and support the work of Christians there.

A time for talking and a time for not talking—or do we all just need more time?

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In February of my final year of university, the faculty went on strike. The dispute had been brewing for the entire academic year and provoked plenty of fodder for debate. I have always remembered how discussions seemed to continually circle back to one question: when do you decided that dialogue has failed and opt for other strategies? In other words, when do you walk away from the negotiating table?

I can remember rehearsing the various answers. On the one hand, how can anyone be opposed to something as reasonable as dialogue and negotiation? On the other hand, it is clear that there are ways in which dialogue can be used to perpetuate an unjust status quo and in which at some point one party is justified in declaring that it no longer makes sense to continue in the conversation.

In one way or another, I have had these debates in my head ever since that strike. These issues about the importance of dialogue, conversation, and negotiation have deeply influenced me. Indeed, my reflection on them is a critical part of my new book, Backpacking through the Anglican Communion.

I thought of all these issues again recently when I read two competing essays on the topic. On the one hand, there is Phil Groves, of the Anglican Communion Office, who reflects on the case of Euodia and Syntyche to conclude that

We also need to remember that when disunity appears facilitated conversations are the Biblical way forwards.

For someone who leads the Continuing Indaba project, this is perhaps, not a surprising conclusion.

In response, comes a much lengthier article from Phil Ashey of the American Anglican Council who—never one to shy away from hyperbole—says Ashey “misses the mark by a longshot.” He then proceeds to call reconciliation—a central Biblical concept—some kind of “new religion.” You can read these articles and make up your own mind.

But what neither of these articles addresses is the question of time. “Time all heals all wounds,” it is often (wrongly) said. How does the question of time influence our understanding of conflict transformation?

We might first note that Jesus was not afraid of taking time—it took him thirty years on earth before he began his ministry. So when people start making claims about how much time has elapsed as a reason for determining that dialogue no longer is an option, we can all stop, take a deep breath, and remember that God’s time is not our time.

The other thing is that Jesus invested a lot of his time in people that others thought were hopeless or lost causes. My favourite example of this is Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4. Jesus takes a break at a well in the middle of the day, meets a woman who has been pretty comprehensively cast out of her society (that’s why she was getting her water in the heat of the day when no one else would be there), and engages her in conversation, even though, as John tells us, “Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.” (4:9)

I’m not sure if this qualifies as a “facilitated conversation”—there doesn’t seem to be a facilitator at the well—but it does seem to me to be a pretty dramatic example of the fruits of patient engagement with difference. The woman’s life in transformed and she becomes one of the first evangelists, running into town to tell everyone about what she has learned.

When I think about conflicts in the world, whether in the Anglican Communion or beyond, I often think about this story about Jesus and the Samaritan woman. I find myself asking a question. What would happen if we did what Jesus did? Show up where no one expects us to be and taking the time to talk to people who are different than us?

UPDATE: Corrected mistaken reference to Phil Ashey which came out as Phil Groves. A case of too many Phils!

South Sudan church leaders respond to recent violence

Readers of this blog will know I have more than a passing interest in the goings-on in South Sudan. So it is with some alarm that I have been hearing of the violence in Juba and elsewhere this week.

Church leaders in South Sudan have issued two statements recently in response to the violence—both models of Christ-like reconciliation at a deeply uncertain and precarious time.

The first is from several senior clerics:

MESSAGE OF PEACE AND RECONCILIATION

FROM CHURCH LEADERS IN JUBA, 17th DECEMBER 2013

So the king said, ‘Bring me a sword’, and they brought a sword before the king. The king said, ‘Divide the living boy in two; then give half to one, and half to the other.’ But the woman whose son was alive said to the king—because compassion for her son burned within her—‘Please, my lord, give her the living boy; certainly do not kill him!’ The other said, ‘It shall be neither mine nor yours; divide it.’Then the king responded: ‘Give the first woman the living boy; do not kill him. She is his mother.’All Israel heard of the judgement that the king had rendered; and they stood in awe of the king, because they perceived that the wisdom of God was in him, to execute justice. (1 Kings 3:24-28)

Whatever has happened in Juba over the last few days, we are concerned about the consequences.

There is a political problem between leaders within the SPLM. This should not be turned into an ethnic problem. Sadly, on the ground it is developing into tribalism. This must be defused urgently before it spreads.

Reconciliation is needed between the political leaders. Violence is not an acceptable way of resolving disputes. This must be done in a peaceful and civilised manner. Reconciliation is at the heart of the Church’s ministry, a key Gospel value, and so we offer ourselves as mediators.

The way this incident is handled will have an effect on the future of our nation, whether positive or negative, both internally and in terms of international relations.

We are concerned about ongoing insecurity. Today was supposed to be a normal business day, but that was not the case. Fighting, killing and looting continued. The army must be controlled. We appeal to the security forces, who are our brothers, our sons and our parishioners, to exercise restraint and responsibility and to respect civilians.

We urge the civilians to remain calm and to stay somewhere safe. The government should give information to civilians when there are security operations and direct them where to go for safety.

We wish to see assurances for the safety of our international friends, including those from neighbouring countries, who are here to help us.

We urge the government, UN and NGOs to provide humanitarian assistance to the displaced civilians in Juba, and to ensure that water and food are available for the population.

We are in the season leading up to Christmas. This year’s Christmas may not be what we expected, but it is what we have been given and we must accept it as it is. As we celebrate the birth of the Christ-child, let us remember that God is with us, and pray for the strength and courage to bring peace, reconciliation and healing to our new nation.

Text of message given to TV and radio media on 17th December 2013 by Archbishop Paulino Lukudu Loro on behalf of the following Church leaders:

Archbishop Paulino Lukudu Loro, Catholic Church
Archbishop Daniel Deng Bul, ECSSS
Bishop Arkangelo Wani Lemi, AIC
Moderator Rev Tut Kony Nyang, SSPEC
Rev John Yor Nyiker, Secretary General PCOSS
Bishop Emeritus Paride Taban, Catholic Church
Bishop Michael Taban Toro, Chair SSCC
Rev Mark Akec Cien, Acting Secretary General SSCC

As these leaders make clear, the violence is first and foremost the result of a political conflict—though media representations tend to highlight the ethnic elements.

In response to that, Dinka and Nuer church leaders have issued this statement, showing that reconciliation is not only possible, but happening even now.

December 18, 2013

We, the Archbishop, Moderators, Overseer, and clergy from various denominations of the churches in South Sudan, and native members from the Dinka and Nuer Communities:

Identify ourselves not as representatives of tribes or denominations but as leaders and representatives of one church and one body of Christ.

We are gathered, united and speaking in one voice that peace and reconciliation must prevail in our country.

We are saddened of the conflict which has happened in Juba and ongoing in other areas like Bor in Jonglei State. We are concerned about the consequences. It is unfortunate many lives have been lost, many more wounded while many others displaced in their own country. We condole with the families who have lost their loved ones and those separated from their families by the conflict in Juba, Bor and other areas

We condemn the clash and acts of violence which have happened within the barracks of the Republic of South Sudan.

We condemn and correct the media statements and reports that refer to the violence as conflict between the Dinka and Nuer tribes. Whatever has happened should not be referred to as ethnic conflict and not between the Dinka and Nuer communities. These are political differences among the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) Party, political leaders of the Republic of South Sudan.

Therefore, we appeal to the two communities of Dinka and Nuer not to accept that the conflict is between the two tribes.

We appeal to the army and security organs of our Government of South Sudan to take control of the situation and protect its citizens. Our citizens are running for refuge in UN Compounds because they do not feel safe from their own security forces.

We are concerned about the reports of abuse, harassment and killing of individual citizens based on their ethnic affiliation. These are happening and witnessed for the last three days. Soldiers are asking civilians to identify themselves by tribes and we cannot accept to be identified by our tribes as we are all South Sudanese. We condemn such acts of abuse and hope that no more human lives should be lost.

We appeal to our Government to ensure safety of leaders under arrest and ensure speedy justice for any criminal act but most importantly reconciliation for political differences.

We appeal to our political leaders to refrain from hate speeches that may incite and escalate the violence. We urge to initiate dialogues and resolve issues amicably.

We appeal to the international community to respond fast and positively to the humanitarian crisis which has developed in the last three days particularly in Juba and Bor.

We appeal to our President of the Republic of South Sudan, His Excellency Salva Kiir Mayardit to continue to calm and ensure safety for our nation.

Most Reverend Daniel Deng Bul, Archbishop of Episcopal Church of South
Sudan and Sudan (ECSS)
Rev. Tut Kony Nyang, Moderator of the South Sudan Presbyterian
Evangelical Church
Bishop Dr. Isaiah Majok Dau, Overseer, Sudan Pentecostal Church
Rt. Rev. David Akau Kuol, Bishop of Diocese of Awerial, ECSS
Bishop Michael Taban, Chairperson of South Sudan Council of Churches
Rev. Mark Akech Cien, Acting General Secretary of South Sudan Council
of Churches
Rev. James Yout Chuol, ECSS, Diocese of Akobo
Rev. Daniel Deng Anhiany, ECSS, Diocese of Malakal
Rev. Samuel Galuak Marial, ECSS Diocese of Twich East
Rev. Peter Adum Deng, ECSS, Diocese of Twich East
Rev. William Mou Deng, ECSS, Diocese of Wau and Aweil
Rev. Philip Aduong Thiong, ECSS Diocese of Juba
Rev. John Chol Daau, ECSS Diocese of Bor
Rev. Yat Michael Ruot, South Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church
Rev. Gatkuoth Chuol Bul, South Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church

The list of signers includes Samuel Marial, principal of Bishop Gwynne College.

For me, the key unknown at this point is the situation in Jonglei, one of South Sudan’s states and a key site of inter-ethnic violence during the civil war. I hope to hear more from there soon.

With prayers for peace in South Sudan!

Is the ground shifting under ACNA?

Change is afoot in the Anglican world—and already its effects are beginning to be felt.

There’s a new archbishop of Canterbury, of course, who will be formally seated in his new cathedral on Thursday. Rowan Williams was a convenient whipping boy for breakaway American Anglicans. (This is the group that has left the Episcopal Church and affiliated with various overseas provinces. Many are now grouped under the Anglican Church in North America [ACNA].) They bemoaned his alleged liberalism and chastised him for not going after “apostate” liberals more forcefully and chucking them out of the Communion.

But Justin Welby is not so easy to pigeonhole. For one thing, he’s no liberal. His public statements on sexuality-related issues, for instance, have been entirely in keeping with what ACNA Anglicans say they’ve wanted to hear from Lambeth. He comes from the centre of contemporary Anglican evangelicalism, Holy Trinity Brompton.

Yet already he’s causing ACNA Anglicans to have fits. Welby’s early statements have been all about reconciliation, a profoundly Biblical concept—and ACNA Anglicans have busily set about redefining reconciliation and downplaying its significance. A less Biblical move I cannot think of. Welby gave a major stage to the deeply holy relationship between Tory Baucum and Shannon Johnston—and GAFCON Anglicans apparently put tremendous pressure on Baucum that he had to contort his own rhetoric to end the relationship. No matter the surface justifications, this is not the move of a strong organization.

But the potentially more significant change is taking place in Rome. Anglicans don’t always like to admit it but Rome has always had huge influence on Anglicanism—things we adopt usually start there first. The stature of the pope is such that we can’t avoid the effects of what he does. ACNA Anglicans relied on Pope Benedict as a handy backstop. In his opposition to same-sex marriage, say, and his theological acumen, these Anglicans could—and did—say, “See, there’s the kind of leader we need to have—bold and orthodox.” They trumpeted their meetings with him.

Francis has only been pope for a few days but already things seem different. He talks about the poor, for one thing—a lot. There’s a hint that he was once open to blessing same sex relationships. Most significantly—and the thing I have found most appealing about him—he takes himself with a kind of holy lightness, one thing that has been in short supply in the church (of any communion) in recent years. He looks like he’s having fun.

It is way too early to say anything with any certainty but two of the verities that ACNA Anglicans have relied on in recent years—a “weak”, “liberal” leader at Lambeth and a backstop in Rome—are quickly changing. These breakaway Anglican groups have lots of money and lots of time to come up with new ways to make their case and I have no doubt they will. But the fact that they are scrambling is significant.

I don’t wish ACNA ill and I make these comments with no value judgment. But I do wish for a new narrative in Anglican relations, one that is a little more accurate, interesting, and fruitful. Change is coming. Let us hope it move us closer to reality.

“Ambassadors for Christ”

Reconciliation is at the core of the good news of Jesus Christ:

“So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.” (2 Cor. 5:17-19)

The Old Testament tells the story, in part, of the estrangement of God’s people from God. Instead of dusting his hands of them, God instead commits to God’s people in a whole new way in the Incarnation of Christ. The life, death, and resurrection of Christ reconciles the divide between God and God’s people and entrusts that message to the community of the baptized, to share it as widely as we can.

To that end, it’s encouraging to see that the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, has appointed David Porter as his Director of Reconciliation. David Porter comes from Coventry Cathedral, a place that has made itself a centre for the ministry of reconciliation.

Coventry Cathedral was destroyed by an air raid during World War II.IMG_5208

On the morning after the bombing, the then-dean had a cross made out of the burned timbers and inscribed “Father Forgive” on the altar.IMG_5202

This, in turn, led to the creation of the Community of the Cross of Nails and the cathedral’s reconciliation work. Justin Welby knows about this, because he used to work there.

I had a chance to meet David Porter on my visit to Coventry and he is an inspiring person: direct, funny, honest, forthright, holy, and deeply committed to spanning seemingly unbridgeable gulfs. His background is in the peace process in Northern Ireland but since going to work at Coventry he’s been involved in a number of places around the world.

Creating this position is a no-brainer, really, and David Porter is an excellent person to fill the role.

UPDATE: David Porter has written a reflection on his new position on his personal blog.

A “turn out the base” church?

For all the billions of dollars and all of the negative TV advertisements that dominated the conduct of the recent American election, it’s not clear that any of it made much difference. TV advertisements are supposed to change people’s minds. But it’s becoming clear that the election just past was not about changing people’s minds: it was about getting people who already agree with you to vote.

That, at least, seems to be the most common explanation for Obama’s victory. His campaign “micro-targeted” people they thought would be sympathetic to them, worked aggressively to ensure they were registered, and then watched as the votes rolled in.

For anyone who has ever been part of an organization in the midst of disagreement and argument, this is a seductive prospect: I don’t need to win this argument because people already really agree with me; I just need to get them to stand up and be counted. The focus shifts from changing people’s minds to drumming up support among those who already agree. Changing minds and winning the argument is challenging work. Believing that everyone already agrees with you and all you have to do is turn them out is not.

The results of this line of thinking are clear for all to see: for instance, the half-serious calls for some states in the U.S. to secede. To which some Obama voters have responded, “Go ahead!” There is little thought that perhaps this is an opportunity here to engage in conversation, change minds, and move forward together.

What’s worrisome is when this same dynamic creeps into the church. People on all sides of theological arguments appear to believe that engaging in conversation with folks on other sides of the argument isn’t really necessary anymore. Instead, we focus on creating churches full of people who already agree with us and who can be reliably counted on to support us in our side of the argument.

The thing is, when we do this, we’re not really being the church. Just this evening at evening prayer, the New Testament reading (in the Church of England Common Worship lectionary) was from Matthew 5: “So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.” (vv. 23-24) That is, find the person you disagree with and work on reconciliation.

The church is the community of the baptized. The trouble is, there are no political prerequisites for baptism. (Grace doesn’t work well with prerequisites.) That means that by its very nature belonging to the church is going to bring us into contact with people who are different than us and whom we need to engage in conversation because we believe that we have something to learn from them and that our individual knowledge of God is insufficient.

I am sure that political strategists are already at work building a computer program that is even better than the Obama campaign’s was and that future elections will revolve more and more around turning out the base and less and less around engaging in conversation about the future.

I just hope the church doesn’t end up like that too.

Tick Tock in South Carolina

After a big news event, reporters will sometimes reconstruct the timeline of events that led up to it. This is called the “tick tock.” (You can see an example of it in this reporting on the announcement of the Paul Ryan selection in August.) Sometimes, the tick tock is only to satisfy the truly voracious news hounds. Other times, it can be revealing.

As I’ve been sitting with the news of the inhibition of Mark Lawrence, the bishop of South Carolina, I’ve been puzzled by the timeline of events that led up to it. So I thought I’d try to reconstruct it and see if we can learn anything from it. Here’s what I’ve come up with, based on publicly-available documents.

September 18: The Disciplinary Board of Bishops writes a letter saying they’ve concluded Bishop Lawrence has abandoned the Episcopal Church.

September 18: The Standing Committee of the Diocese of South Carolina meets. The bishop is apparently asked a series of questions by the standing committee.

October 2: The Standing Committee of the Diocese of South Carolina passes a motion that they will disassociate with the Episcopal Church if anything happens to their bishop. This, apparently, is based on answers to their questions they received from the bishop.

October 3: The Presiding Bishop, Bishop Lawrence, and Bishop Andrew Waldo of the Diocese of Upper South Carolina meet to discuss their differences and seek some sort of workable plan for the future.

October 10: The Presiding Bishop is notified—via a letter in the mail—of the Disciplinary Board of Bishops’ decision.

October 15: The Presiding Bishop calls Bishop Lawrence and tells him he’s being inhibited.

October 17: Everything becomes public. The rest of us find out.

(The Diocese of South Carolina has also issued its own timeline.)

What is unclear to me is the meeting on October 3. Did Bishop Lawrence know that his Standing Committee had passed the automatic withdrawal motion? (Presumably he was at the meeting: there’s been nothing to indicate otherwise.) Did the Presiding Bishop know of the Disciplinary Board of Bishops’ decision in that meeting? (For that matter, when the Standing Committee passed the motion did they know of the Disciplinary Board of Bishops’ decision?)

Although I want to take everyone at their word, it strains credulity to think given this age of instant, always-on communication, not to mention the magnitude of the charges the Disciplinary Board of Bishops was preparing to make public, that at the October 3 meeting, neither the Presiding Bishop nor Bishop Lawrence had a hint of what was coming.

The resulting picture of that meeting is not that pretty. The Presiding Bishop and Bishop Lawrence get together to seek reconciliation. At least one—Bishop Lawrence—if not both have in their back pocket an “out” card. If this doesn’t go my way, each could say, I have the means to end this conversation, either by quitting the church or inhibiting. It’s like two gunfighters circling each other, each saying to the other, “Go ahead: make my day.”

And that, needless to say, is not how reconciliation works.

Religious discourse in an age of “I have no need of you.”

I came across this Facebook spoof the other day:

(And that’s only part of it: you can see the rest of it here.)

This spoof is funny—and depressing—because it is true. Particularly as the American election enters its final weeks, it seems my Facebook feed has become dominated by such threads. And it’s not only on Facebook. More and more, people in this country seem to believe that things would be best if the other party just disappeared. Everyone is saying—effectively—”I have no need of you.”

The trouble is that sometimes discourse in the church mirrors a little too closely discourse in society. In this regard, I am reminded of San Diego Bishop James Mathes’ article in the Daily Episcopalian a few days ago. In it, he reflects on what a Christian commitment to discourse—especially at such a polarizing time, politically—might mean:

It begins with a commitment to discourse, especially with those with whom we differ. It continues with great care with the words that we use and the judgments that we make about others. Our common conversation about things of importance should be imbued with prayer. It requires more questions of inquiry than assertions of our own position—positions we should hold gently.

In all of this, the blogosphere is presently problematic. Read, react, respond is the norm. I wonder what would happen if we read, meditated and pondered, asked only questions of inquiry for a few days, and only then positively expressed our place in the conversation. Blogging could quickly take on the character of discourse and transformation.

And here is my dream: that our larger society would take note of how Episcopalians discuss the hard questions—how we speak with care and listen in deep, searching ways. As they observe us, they would see who we are as the body of Christ and how we treat each one another. As they see us, they will want to know more about the one whom we follow. I yearn for that kind of church: quintessentially Anglican and truly inclusive.

Although Bishop Mathes’ article drew quite a lot of critical reaction, I think he’s on to something. The way Christians talk to one another—and to others—can be part of the church’s counter-cultural witness. Rather than taking a posture of hostility to those who espouse different views, I think Christians are called to take a posture of relatedness.

Two reasons immediately spring to mind:

  • The other person in the conversation is made in the image of God. Surely, this is worth something. Rather than looking to tear that person down, perhaps we might concentrate on looking for the image of God in them. This can be awfully hard to do.
  • It is basic New Testament theology that we need one another to be whole. “I have no need of you” is precisely the thing we cannot say to one another, as Paul teaches in I Cor. 12. It is relatively easy to say this to people who have traditionally been excluded or whom we agree with. It is quite another thing—though no less important—to say that to those we cannot seem to find any common ground with. But that exactly the challenge the Gospel lays before us.

These can be challenging tasks. For instance, a posture of hostility towards Adolf Hitler seems quite justified. There has to be a genuineness from all involved in the conversation for this to work.

Still, I don’t think I’m the only person who is tired with the state of political discourse in this country. If it is not depressingly predictable, it is utterly vapid. I share Bishop Mathes’ hope that people could look to the church—Episcopal or otherwise—and say, “Look at them. They disagree on some issues but that does not take way from their commitment to discourse with one another and a sharing of a common life.”

I hope for a church where issues matter and are openly debated but not at the expense of the relationships we share by virtue of our one baptism in the one body of Christ. In this context, it’s worth remembering that Jesus’ prayer in John 17 is a missional prayer: “that they all may be one…so that the world may believe.”

It may be a lot to hope for. But I think there’s deep evangelical potential in it.