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Keeping Our Ears to the Ground

November 30, 2011

Posted by Inagrace Dietterich

(This is fourth and last in a series of talks given by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove at the Convocation in Chicago earlier this year).

Central to any community’s decision making process is the practice of discernment. We know the life we’re made for and see the road ahead as we listen to the Spirit. But how do we learn to hear God in community? Who tells our story? Whose needs are heard? God’s quiet revolution calls for the posture of obedience that gets people and congregations in touch with those things that touch the heart of God.

Jonathan Wilson-Hargrove

Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove at the 2011 Convocation

Another Way is Possible. I am sitting in the lobby of a small hotel in Baghdad, listening to an American grandmother who has spent her last six months in Iraq. She is a member of the Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT), a literal reserves for foot soldiers in the army of the Lord. Since 1986, CPT has made it their mission to “get in the way” of violence by practicing direct action nonviolence in conflict zones. I grew up singing camp songs about being in “the Lord’s army,” but never imagined the call of duty would lead me here.  Read More…

Divine Obedience. The witness of Christian Peacemaking Teams, strange as it may seem, has a long precedent among God’s people. When Moses declared to Pharaoh, “Let my people go!” he had no power to liberate the Hebrew children from slavery. But Moses had met the living God in a burning bush and was filled with holy boldness to declare that God could make a way out of no way.  Read More…

God’s Peaceable Kingdom. Though the new era of God’s peaceable kingdom was real in the community of the Messiah, the early church knew from experience that the kingdoms of this world were also still present and very real. The advent of Messiah’s reign had not immediately ended the kingdoms of this world, though their ultimate defeat was assured at the cross.  Read More…

Communities of Peace. In the desert tradition there is a story about two monks who lived side by side for years without ever having any disagreement. “We should have an argument like other people,” one brother said to the other. “I will take this brick and place it between us. I will say: ‘it is mine,’ and you can say: ‘no, it’s mine.’ This is what leads to a dispute and a fight.” Through years of prayer and life together, these brothers had learned about the source of human conflict. What is more, they knew they were not immune from it. So the one brother said to the other, “The brick is mine,” and the other replied, “No, it’s mine.” They went back and forth like this until the second brother finally said, “Well, if it’s yours, then take it.”  Read More…

Choosing Life. How we live in relationship to other people and the world around us is often called “ethics” in Christian teaching. Because all of us have to make decisions every day about what we are or are not going to do, ethics is often portrayed as decision making, especially in extreme situations. We often think ethics is about whether Christians should fight in war, have sex outside of marriage, practice invitro-fertilization, or “pull the plug” when a loved one is at the end of life. These are, indeed, ethical considerations. But if we are to make these kinds of decisions “in Christ,” it is more important for us to know the peculiar way of Christ in a community of peace than it is to think hard about what we would do in an extreme case.  Read More…


Questions for Reflection and Discussion



Another Way is Possible. I am sitting in the lobby of a small hotel in Baghdad, listening to an American grandmother who has spent her last six months in Iraq. She is a member of the Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT), a literal reserves for foot soldiers in the army of the Lord. Since 1986, CPT has made it their mission to “get in the way” of violence by practicing direct action nonviolence in conflict zones. I grew up singing camp songs about being in “the Lord’s army,” but never imagined the call of duty would lead me here. I am in a war zone, my head foggy from several nights of interrupted sleep, looking to a wiser soul for direction. Many of CPT’s Iraqi friends are suggesting that we leave. Saddam Hussein’s regime is crumbling, the city is under siege, and every night brings another series of bombs that shake the earth beneath us. We have been eager to know what we can do, but the locals know too well how little can be done when every night is spent hunkered down with the kids, listening to air raid sirens and waiting to see if the roof comes crashing in on you. Why be here if you don’t have to be—if it’s not your home, your kids, your city that you’re praying will be spared from this madness?

In the distance, somewhere out on the city’s edge, we hear bombing begin again. This brings a pause to the morning report, and I look around this circle of twenty peacemakers to gauge the general level of anxiety. An older gentleman across from me, his hands crossed on his lap, has his face turned up to the sky from which the bombs are falling. He begins to sing:

Over my head, I hear music in the air.
Over my head, I hear music in the air.
Over my head, I hear music in the air.
There must be a God somewhere.

I remember a few days ago hearing a reporter ask this man if he was afraid. “Oh, yes, I’m afraid,” he said calmly. Then, with a slight smile, he added, “but maybe not for the reason you think. I’m not afraid of dying. My life belongs to God. But I am afraid of the belief that war brings freedom. I am afraid to sit at home while this kind of violence is carried out by my government. I am afraid that what Martin Luther King said is true: our only choice now is between nonviolence and nonexistence.”

We decide to stay, at least for the time being, and we survive the bombing. A couple of days later, I go home as siege turns to occupation and terrorist cells spring up with the single mission of driving out US troops by any means necessary. CPT stays to accompany Iraqis through check-points manned by teenagers from the Midwest, to inquire about accusations of abuse at prisons, to train a Muslim Peacemaker Team, to say over and again, “Another way is possible.”

Divine Obedience. The witness of Christian Peacemaking Teams, strange as it may seem, has a long precedent among God’s people. When Moses declared to Pharaoh, “Let my people go!” he had no power to liberate the Hebrew children from slavery. But Moses had met the living God in a burning bush and was filled with holy boldness to declare that God could make a way out of no way. In a different context, when Babylon was the world power to deal with, three Israelites refused to bow down to a statue of the king and were thrown into a furnace of fire as punishment. The way the book of Daniel remembers it, they came out of the fire without so much as a hint of smoke on their clothes. Someone said they’d seen a fourth person walking with them in the flames.

Stories like this remind God’s people that the rulers and authorities of the world as we know it don’t have the last word. Kings and Presidents are used to people heeding their commands. If we do not, they have whole armies to encourage compliance. Violence is their trump card. But God’s people remember that no king is higher than the King of the Universe and that the Creator of life is stronger than death. If the law of the land contradicts the word of our Lord, we know whose command we must follow.

Jesus inhabits this tradition of divine obedience (and civil disobedience) when he is called before King Herod and Pilate in Jerusalem. From his triumphal entry to his cleansing of the temple to his death as a political criminal, Jesus challenges worldly authority by submitting to his Father. “Not my will, but yours be done,” he prays. Standing before earthly authorities, Jesus fulfills a long tradition of divine obedience over and against the powers that be in this world.

But Jesus is also doing a new thing. Through his death and resurrection in the face of the powers that be, Jesus is inaugurating a new era in human history. If he really is the hope of Israel, then Jesus is not only the epitome of its best ideals, not just the incarnation of its deepest logic. Jesus is more than that. If Jesus is Messiah—if Israel’s story advances to its conclusion in him—then something genuinely new has been actualized in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. What the church finds “in Christ” is not one more goal to strive for, but a new way of being human. Or, in the memorable summary of John’s first epistle: “as he is, so are we in the world.”

God’s Peaceable Kingdom. Though the new era of God’s peaceable kingdom was real in the community of the Messiah, the early church knew from experience that the kingdoms of this world were also still present and very real. The advent of Messiah’s reign had not immediately ended the kingdoms of this world, though their ultimate defeat was assured at the cross. Christians understood themselves to be living the way of the peaceable kingdom right alongside the violence of an order that was passing away. The challenge was not to overcome the world. Jesus had already done that. The challenge was to faithfully inhabit Jesus’ way of engaging the powers. The “new thing” they found in Jesus was a new way of being in the world.

When Christians gained considerable worldly power, first in the Roman Empire and subsequently in other kingdoms and nation-states, Jesus’ peculiar way of nonviolent love seemed less realistic and, to a growing number of believers, irresponsible. How can any authority both establish the rule of law and turn the other cheek? What decent person who had the power to stop a Hitler would not kill a tyrant to save a whole people? Still, as necessary as violence seemed to many Christians, the conviction that Jesus inaugurated a new era in human history has always meant that Christians have a problem with war. In order to name when war is unjust, and thus not permissible for any Christian, the church developed criteria for a “just war.”

In considerations of the Christian tradition on war and peace, “just war” is often presented as the majority position over and against the minority stance of pacifism or Christian nonviolence. Such a presentation of church history, however, does not recognize the fact that just war teaching always limited violence to adult men in police or military units. This actually excluded the vast majority of Christians from the use of violence, simply by virtue of their being women, children, clergy, monastics, or everyday citizens not engaged in a just war or police action. What is more, it was assumed for most of the church’s history that participation in acts of violence—even acts deemed “just”—was a concession to the ways of the world that no doubt led Christians to sin. The church made provision for repentance and reconciliation—not celebration—when soldiers came home from battle. Even when war seems inevitable, our hope is not in military victory but in the reconciliation of all things through Jesus Christ.

When God’s people hold onto the hope of reconciliation through the peculiar way of the cross, we interrupt the assumptions of a culture of violence. But the truth is that all of us—not just soldiers and police officers—are well practiced in the use of worldly power. Those of us who come from positions of privilege in society lean on the silent power of money and social norms, trusting in systems of control that have favored people who speak our language or share our skin color. At the same time, people who live with their backs against the wall resort to subversive acts of violence, carving out a space for survival by manipulating the fears those who seem to be “in control.” We can see these dynamics at work in local and international political negotiations. And, if we pay attention, we can see the same habits worked out between husbands and wives, parents and children, bosses and co-workers, pastors and congregations. In the world that is passing away, violence rules. But in the new world that has already begun, Jesus shows us a better way.

Communities of Peace. In the desert tradition there is a story about two monks who lived side by side for years without ever having any disagreement. “We should have an argument like other people,” one brother said to the other. “I will take this brick and place it between us. I will say: ‘it is mine,’ and you can say: ‘no, it’s mine.’ This is what leads to a dispute and a fight.” Through years of prayer and life together, these brothers had learned about the source of human conflict. What is more, they knew they were not immune from it. So the one brother said to the other, “The brick is mine,” and the other replied, “No, it’s mine.” They went back and forth like this until the second brother finally said, “Well, if it’s yours, then take it.”

Monks who have lived together in community over generations remember this story because they know from experience how hard it is to give our lives over to the way of Jesus when we have to deal with other people. Those of us who have lived with spouses, siblings, or friends can empathize. We all have things we cling to—a favorite possession, our “free time,” a sense of control, the belief that we are right. When other people lay claim to these things, we feel threatened. Our gut reaction is to defend ourselves, and we use the power we have to do it. Maybe it’s a harsh word or maybe it’s a cold shoulder. Maybe it’s the decision to leave. But even conflict avoidance can be an exercise in worldly power. When we trust our own power to overcome the differences between us, we are not trusting the way of Jesus. The two monks in the desert cell knew this. Part of being a community of Christ’s peace, they saw, was learning to fight fair and trust a power greater than the violence of an order that is passing away.

Thinking about the petty differences we have with people close to us can seem like a completely different subject than martyrdom in global conflicts, but the New Testament wants us to see how these two go together in a single way of life. Why Christians would rather die than kill is not only about why we have a problem with war, but also about why we persist in life together with people whom we often don’t even like. “If anyone would be my disciple,” Jesus said, “he must take up his cross and follow me.” This cross that is necessary to discipleship is not the generalized suffering of humanity. As true as it may be that we all have burdens to bear, the particular burden of the cross is the cost of turning away from worldly power and trusting the power of Jesus’ love, both in our most intimate relationships and in our political relationships. In short, to live as communities of peace is to live in the conviction that we know in Christ a new way of engaging the world

Choosing Life. How we live in relationship to other people and the world around us is often called “ethics” in Christian teaching. Because all of us have to make decisions every day about what we are or are not going to do, ethics is often portrayed as decision making, especially in extreme situations. We often think ethics is about whether Christians should fight in war, have sex outside of marriage, practice invitro-fertilization, or “pull the plug” when a loved one is at the end of life. These are, indeed, ethical considerations. But if we are to make these kinds of decisions “in Christ,” it is more important for us to know the peculiar way of Christ in a community of peace than it is to think hard about what we would do in an extreme case.

In this regard, actual extreme cases sometimes make the point best. In the midst of World War II, when Nazi Germany was committed both to the extermination of Jewish people and to expansion in Europe, a village in occupied France quietly harbored hundreds of Jews, sparing their lives. Given the lack of resistance in so many places—and the high cost that so many resisters paid—it was a heroic act. Yet, when asked why they did it, most of the villagers simply said, “We never thought of not doing it.” For years a priest named André Trocmé had patiently Andre Trocmetaught Jesus’ example of forgiveness and nonviolent love at the village church. Over time, these people had become a community of peace. When the extreme case happened, the way of Jesus was an unquestioned habit.

“If anyone is in Christ Jesus,” the apostle Paul wrote to the early church, “there is a new creation.” Yes, the patterns of an old and broken order continue, causing a great deal of suffering and frustration. But the advent of a whole new world is the basis of New Testament ethics. The “old nature” that Paul calls us to battle against is part of the old order that is passing away. It is the set of habits that humans developed in a world where violence had the last word. In Christ, however, we are raised to a new reality. Because this reality of new creation re-defines how we see the world, it re-frames our habits of social engagement. Disciples take up their cross and follow Jesus not because they have learned to make the hard choice in an extreme case, but because they can’t imagine acting differently in light of the good news they have heard and seen. Their habit of choosing life is one they have learned by getting to know the way of Jesus among the people who are Christ’s body. It is, for the most part, slow and undramatic work. It is also how God chooses to engage our world in love.

Questions for Reflection and Discussion

    1. Where do you see evidence of the view that “war brings freedom”?
    2. How does Jesus manifest a new way of divine obedience? How does that relate to issues of conflict and war?
    3. Where do you see evidence of a “culture of violence”? Within the wider society? Within your congregation?
    4. How does Jesus’ peculiar way of nonviolent love interrupt the assumptions of a culture of violence?
    5. What does it mean to say that “Christians would rather die than kill”?
    6. What would it take for your congregation to choose life, to reframe its habits of social engagement, to become “communities of peace”?


Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove is an Associate Minister at St. John’s Baptist Church and directs the School for Conversion in Durham, NC. Jonathan and his family live at The Rutba House, a new monastic community, and is the author of numerous books including New Monasticism: What It Has to Say to Today’s Church.


The Rev. Inagrace Dietterich, Ph.D. is the Director of Theological Research at the Center for Parish Development.

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