Imagining the Way of Peace

Our Interfaith Peace Conference on “The Arts of Peace: Imagining the Way” has come to pass, moving from anticipation into memory. Sylvia and I now live “APC” (After the Peace Conference) savoring its many vivid personalities and events as we move into America’s time of Thanksgiving. I cannot recount these many inspiring moments here (you can get DVDs of some of them at www.LakeJunaluska.com/shop), but I do want to track one thread that remains at the core of these memories.

We began with a presentation by Mariela Shaker, who recounted to us her story of exile from her native Syria, her message of peace in music, and, only a week ago, her gaining United States  citizenship. What haunted us all were photos of her native Aleppo, one of the world’s oldest cities, once a showcase of beauty and culture now lying in tortured ruin. These images, reinforced by the piercing anguish of the women in the subsequent drama, Women and War, drove home the horror and senseless brutality of war. The remorseless devastation of war erupts continuously from our fear that we do not have enough, that others are poised to take what is ours, and our egoistic belief that we can overcome death through monuments of our victory over others. The despots driving people to war in Syria are no different from those that threaten peace around the world, including in our own country. The Conference reminded us to cherish and nurture the love that overcomes fear—love of neighbor, of this beautiful earth, and of the Creator of us all.

Mariela’s assumption of American citizenship was not an easy task in this time of enmity toward the new blood that will enrich us all. Her faith in the American project, in spite of our current struggles, evoked in us a renewed commitment to the fundamental values of a republic that embraces all in the arguments about how to pursue our common good. At the core of these common values lie the much-disputed texts of the Constitution and of the documents flowing from it and those that continually lift us to wider visions, whether from Abraham Lincoln or Martin Luther King, Jr.

Texts revitalized by embellishment and illumination lay before us throughout the conference. Texts can kill as well as heal. What they continually require is argument over their meaning. Arguments that appeal to reason, to ever-wider shared meanings, and to the higher purposes that guided their construction can indeed construct the framework of peace. Violence destroys argument, even as it destroys the places in which we might come together for the conversations of common life. This capacity for reasonable persuasion around texts venerated by the wisdom of many generations stands at the heart of peace.

Throughout the conference the texts of our faith traditions lay before us—the magnificently illuminated Saint John’s Bible, a Torah scroll, a gilded copy of the Qur’an. The texts before us were not just the ancient scriptures of our faith traditions. Every participant received a beautifully prepared journal book compiled by our friend Roger Dowdy, each page with a work of visual art next to which they could write their own reflections, making these images their own. We also had the brand new text that we sang throughout the conference, one that I wrote for that purpose and which was set to music by Scott Taylor, Director of Music and the Worship Arts at our church. Here are the words:

Imagine the Way

Antiphon:

  1. Peace, Peace, Peace, Peace. Peace, Peace, Peace, Peace.
  2. Shalom, Shalom. Shalom, Shalom.
  3. Salaam, Salaam. Salaam, Salaam.

Verses:

  1. Peace in all colors, Peace in all music, Peace in all hearts.

            Peace in all colors, Peace in all music, Peace in all hearts.

  1. Peace in all letters, Peace in all dances, Peace in all hands.

            Peace in all letters, Peace in all dances, Peace in all hands.

  1. Peace in all patterns, Peace in all paintings, Peace in all lands.

           Peace in all patterns, Peace in all paintings, Peace in all lands.

Refrain:

Peace, Peace, Catch the vision. Dance to the rhythm. Imagine the way.

Thanks to Scott’s engaging melody, participants were humming the song and remembering the words as they left the hall to return to their daily lives. (Contact me if you would like a copy.) And that’s the point, isn’t it? The music enables the words to take up lodging in our minds, emotions, and habits. They make the words live in a way they don’t when they are left flat on the page.

While the Peace Conference has now run its envisioned decade, we can only hope that it has planted seeds and songs that others can take up. We cannot have peace without building up the possibility for conversation and argument among citizens longing for an ever- more perfect republic of beauty, of harmony with God’s purposes. Peace is the dynamic confirmation we receive in that courage to participate in wider relations, to listen to others, to seek common ground on this common earth. It resides in the call to live for more than the simply existence of our bodies, to live into the love that drives out all fear. That’s the big story we’ve been trying to tell. Let me know how you might be trying to tell it.

Above all, give thanks. Sing the song. Join in the dance.

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God’s Federal Republic — In Print Again!

I am happy to announce that Wipf and Stock Publishers have brought out a handsome reprint of my 1987 book God’s Federal Republic: Reconstructing our Governing Symbol. It is doubly attractive because they chose, without any suggestion from us(!), to use a detail from Sylvia’s wonderful textile hanging, “Bright Morning Star,” on the cover.

The cover description states: “Biblical religion is driven by a longing for God’s ultimate order of justice and peace. Most of this longing is steeped in the patriarchal symbols of kingship, monarchs, lords, fathers, and princes. This symbolism came to bind European churches to the legitimation of monarchies and empires for over a millennium. The American and now global experiment separated the churches, with their kingdom language, from government dedicated to democratic, republican, and federal constitutional order. Religious efforts to guide and critique government have subsequently suffered from political irrelevance or theocratic nationalism. Everett lifts up the biblical and classical origins of our present republican experiment to construct a theological position and religious symbolism that can imaginatively engage our present public life with a contemporary language permeated with a transcendent vision.”

The gist of the matter is that Christian worship and ethical practice need to speak in the language of democratic, federal, republican governance in order to be faithful to the ancient struggle for justice and planetary well-being. This book was my effort to enunciate a theological project that has permeated my work ever since. I am grateful to Wipf and Stock for bringing it before the public once again.

A reprint, however, is not merely a work of memory and nostalgia. It needs to speak to a continuing question. Amidst the ongoing questions of how American “Evangelical” Christians could support a US President who thinks and acts like a despot or unhinged monarch, I think this book offers some guidance. The support of so many Bible-based Christians for a despot is mirrored every Sunday in the worship language of monarchical and often arbitrary rule rooted in most of our traditional images of God. While we profess to be committed to democracy and republican governance, we are, as I said in a Christian Century article in 1990, “Sunday Monarchists.” The problem we face is theological at its core and requires the long, slow cultural change in worship that underlies lasting social change.

I will not live to see how this long effort unfolds, but I hope that this question and this preliminary argument will remain in the public conversation a little longer, inviting others to take up the work. You can find it at Wipf and Stock’s website or your other usual sources.

 

 

 

 

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Our Upcoming Interfaith Peace Conference

As some of you know, Sylvia and I have been working for the past eighteen months as co-chairs of the Tenth Lake Junaluska Interfaith Peace Conference, which will take place at Lake Junaluska, NC, November 21-24. The theme of this year’s Conference is “The Arts of Peace: Imagining the Way.” For the past ten years this Interfaith Peace Conference has explored many aspects of the work of peace-building at the intersection of the great Abrahamic religious traditions. In all of them the arts have played a crucial role in focusing our understanding, inspiring our imaginations, and moving our hearts. These conferences were originally intended as a ten-year effort to lift up the work of peace. In this capstone conference we will celebrate the role of the arts in peace-building as an inspiration to each of us to continue the work of peace in many other ways.

We are deeply moved by the depth and breadth of the offerings being brought by our presenters. You can see more about the Conference at www.LakeJunaluska.com/peace, but here I just want to lift up some of the highlights and why I think they are significant.

The first involves the art of calligraphy and the illumination of texts. At the heart of our ancient religious family of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam lie sacred texts. As mere words they have sometimes been twisted and used to support terrible destruction and enmity. But they also can inspire us to the depths of God’s grace and the heights of God’s peace. In all these traditions these sacred words have been artfully re-presented, illuminated and embellished to bring out the deeper meanings that may be hidden from the casual eye. Two full-size “Heritage” volumes of The Saint John’s Bible will be on loan to us from Carson-Newman University, with interpretations by their university care-takers as well as by Jonathan Homrighausen, author of Illuminating Justice: The Ethical Imagination of the Saint John’s Bible. The astonishing beauty and complexity of this extraordinary Bible, the first handwritten Bible since the Middle Ages, will be present throughout the conference.

To complement this Bible, Bahman Panahi, foremost present-day calligrapher in the Islamic tradition, will exhibit and interpret samples of his artistry and open up the importance of calligraphy and illumination in Islamic tradition. A nearby Jewish temple has graciously agreed to loan us a Torah scroll to complete our calligraphy explorations.

Our ancient texts are the ground not only for these marvelous flights of vision, but for the sounds of speech, chant, and song. Ilyas Kashani, a practitioner of Chinese and traditional Islamic healing, will open us up to the way the sounding of words shapes our inner dispositions and our relationships with the world, forming yet another possible pathway to peace.

And we will hear music that lifts us beyond the written word to the sounds beneath and around them. Mariela Shaker, a young classical violinist in exile from her native Syria, will perform and speak about the call to bind up the wounds of our fellow human beings torn apart by the conflicts of our day. The voices of African-American Gospel tradition as well as a song especially composed for the conference by Scott Taylor will stir our deepest yearnings for peace. We will also have the opportunity to feel the pace and dance of a meditative labyrinth. Gloria Hage, the North American Director of the Institute for the Healing of Memories, will lead us into the way artistic expression can help us deal with the traumas that keep us from a more peaceful life. Fiber artist Laurie Wohl will exhibit and reflect on her work as it weaves new connections in a post 9/11 era among our traditions as well as our aspirations. And, with a performance of Women and War, we will enter the dramatic world of women struggling with the ravages of war and the haunting hope for peace. Through the power of dance, we will be drawn into the meditative circling of God’s peace in the ancient Sufi practice of the Sema, led and interpreted by Kabir and Camille Helminski, foremost interpreters of Rumi’s poetry.

This does not even exhaust the opportunities at the conference. It has been a great privilege to be in contact with these creative people and to explore the ways the arts can inform our efforts at peace-building in a time of great ugliness, distorted vision, and tragic deceptions. We wish everyone could be there at this marvelous feast. I can’t end without a pitch for anyone who might still be able to free up time and resources to be with us.

Yes, you are invited here to a feast of artistry that we hope will illuminate our understanding, excite our imaginations, and inspire us to the ongoing work of peace in a world torn by conflict and burdened with environmental destruction. I hope the conference will lift up our hearts, our voices, our eyes, and our hands. Maybe it will help us live more deeply into the beauty of our Creator’s call to peace.

 

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Dorian and Greta

From the Atlantic Ocean has recently come the devastating power of hurricane Dorian as well as the quiet voyage, by solar sailboat, of 16-year old Greta Thunberg from England to New York. Dorian destroyed huge swaths of the Bahamas and brought extensive damage once again to our east coast. We still don’t know how many people lost their lives and loved ones. The roar of the storm and the quiet voice of this Swedish girl carry the same message. The global climate change predicted for decades by scientists is now upon us. We can no longer afford, if we ever could, the lies or silence of leaders in government, business, or cultural institutions. Even if we wake up now, we are walking into a radically altered world in the near future.

This awareness comes with personal demands. How and how much should we travel? Travel and transportation account for about 14% of current greenhouse emissions. Air travel has doubled since 2003, yet airplanes remain dependent on fossil fuel combustion as far into the future as we can see. In a single trip across the Atlantic I create emissions equal to an entire year of driving. Yet we and our friends travel constantly by air and auto, extolling the benefits of international tourism. We depend at every moment on goods brought to us over many miles by ship, plane, and truck. We continue to eat meats and dairy products from animals generating enormous amounts of methane. Those and other agricultural processes contribute another 14% to current emissions. We turn to the internet for incorporeal contact with the wider world, only to generate in turn enormous amounts of emissions for electrical production to drive and cool the internet. We respond by traveling, often by air, to yet more conferences on climate change or to visit places that may disappear before our children die.

All of which is to say that we are caught like fish in the whale. We are part of a system of earthly destruction. As with the venerable words of confession, “there is no health in us.” It is here that we enter into a fresh appreciation of what theologians might call “original sin,” but not what you might have learned at church.  In western Christianity this notion, born out of St. Augustine’s life and thought in the fourth century, located some original aberration in our history in the sexual act. Though with little or no Scriptural basis, it became the main lens through which western Christian understood the story of creation. I cannot rehearse here the spiritual dead end into which this preoccupation led us.

But “original sin” can also find other meanings as we think about what has gone fundamentally wrong in our world. The ecological crisis that is upon us awakens other interpretations. From this vantage point, we might say that somewhere, back in the beginnings of the industrial revolution, something happened that drove us into this ecological dead-end. Certainly, one part of it was seizing the knowledge of how nature works. This is, in a sense, the “wisdom” of the tree that stood in Eden’s garden. Yet this knowledge became the basis for exploiting the earth for our own narrow purposes. The knowledge itself, then, was not evil. It was used to dominate the natural world rather than find how to live within it. The evil lay within the fearful anxiety in which we try to avoid our earthly finitude by grabbing more and more from the life around us. We clutch, we consume inordinately, we covet, steal, and murder in order to be secure and survive. And, as in the Garden story in Genesis, when we come to the contradiction between the wisdom of the tree and our own fear, we hide and lie. Hiding and lying invade our public and private life. making it even more difficult to confront the truth of our situation.

Now we can no longer hide and lie. The little child has ripped off our pretentious façade. This little whisper of history drives me back to a constant theme in Jesus’s preaching, first in his attack on hypocrisy, lying, and self-deception; second, in his invocation of God’s constant care for the birds and flowers of the field. He attacked fear and lying with the courage of one who lives beyond the curtain of death and with the quiet peace of recognizing his origin in the God of Life. I still haven’t fully absorbed what this means, but I am, perhaps, crawling the way there.

I’m thinking more about how much I will travel and how. How much I will rely on purchased goods from afar. How much I will string out my life on the digital highway. It’s personal. It’s political. It’s economic. It’s religious. It’s upon us. I’m feeling these questions acutely; how much more are my grandchildren, who will be living in  it. And I’m thinking about Greta, the little child who is striking out to lead us.

 

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