A message given Sunday, April 29, 2007
The Rev. Scott Summerville
Shalom: the Hebrew word for peace. In 1992 in the aftermath of the Los Angeles rioting the United Methodist Church initiated a program called Communities of Shalom, also referred to as “shalom zones.”
The original community of shalom was created in Los Angeles, and it has been a model for communities throughout the United States and in parts of Africa. Shalom zones are places where are the church invests people and money in a way that focuses on people’s spiritual needs, the need for economic development, and the healthcare needs of specific communities which have experienced chronic poverty and violence. It is a model that looks holistically at a community and tries to mend the fabric of community.
In 1992 United Methodist Church did another thing – one of the best things we have ever done – something that every United Methodist Church and proud of: we established a university in Africa, in the nation in Zimbabwe. Africa University began with the following vision:
The vision of Africa University is improved quality of life, peace and prosperity for the peoples of Africa through quality higher education that includes teaching, research, community service and leadership development.
It also began with the following mission statement:
The mission of Africa University is to provide quality education within a Pan-African context through which persons can acquire general and professional knowledge and skills, grow in spiritual maturity, develop sound moral values, ethics and leadership qualities.
Africa university has flourished. Each year every United Methodist congregation contributes to Africa University through our annual apportionments. So each of us has played some small part in fulfilling the mission of Africa University. Tragically, in the years since 1992 the nation of Zimbabwe, which gained its independence from Great Britain in 1980, has experienced growing tyranny, massive human rights abuses, and economic deterioration. This is a challenging time for Africa University to be able to maintain its independence and functioning in the midst of the nation in crisis.
For now Africa University is surviving and living out its mission. It is a shalom zone in a divided and troubled nation. As conditions worsen in Zimbabwe, we all need to pray for Africa University as well as support it with our gifts.
We live in a time that is saturated with enmity. We live in a time of intense polarization and violence.
We all need shalom zones – our own personal shalom zones, places where we can find shelter safety, love, support, and peace. As the church, as the Body of Christ, needs to do what we can to contribute to the expansion of shalom in the world.
I had the privilege recently of being in the presence of a man named John Paul Lederack. He is a Mennonite who has spent the last 25 years living out Jesus’ call to be a reconciler and peacemaker. He teaches and practices mediation and peacemaking. He is currently on the faculty of Notre Dame as well as being an active global mediator.
He has mediated in Colombia where in many rural areas the poor, the campesinos, are trapped between violent revolutionaries and violent paramilitary forces. He has mediated in Somalia, in the Basque region of Spain, in Nepal, in Kashmir, in West Africa. His global itinerary parallels the agonies of our age.
There is a chapter in John Paul Lederack’s latest book, The Moral Imagination, the Art and Soul of Building Peace, entitled The War That Did Not Happen. In the 1990s when nations of West Africa, most notably Sierra Leone and Liberia, were experiencing horrific internal warfare and terrorism, Lederack was part of the mediation team that went to Northern Ghana.
Our own congregation has been directly touched by the events of those years in West Africa. Charles and Orita Wilson came to us as refugees from the violence in Liberia. More recently Caroline Ross came to us from Liberia by way of a refugee camp in Ghana for those who manage to escape the carnage in Liberia. Some of her family members were killed; her own life was threatened. Her surviving family members were spread across the world. So these are things that touch us directly. The pattern in Sierra Leone and Liberia could have been repeated in Ghana, but it was not – the war that did not happen.
Lederack describes the scene when violent clashes between two of the dominant tribal groups in northern Ghana were threatening to erupt into full-scale warfare. One group, the Dagombas, is the most powerful tribal group, organized around a paramount tribal chief. The second group, the Konkombas, are much more loosely organized people who have no chief. At the mediation the Dagombas were represented by the paramount chief who entered the room with his entourage, in full chiefly dress, with an air of supreme authority, and with disdain for the Konkombas, who were represented by young men in ordinary dress.
Here is how John Paul Lederack described what happened in this encounter:
Taking the role of the paramount, the chief wasted no time in denigrating and verbally attacking the Konkombas. Given the traditions and rights afforded the highest chiefs, little could be done except to let the chief speak.
“Look at them,” he said, addressing himself more to the mediators than to the Konkombas. “Who are they even that I should be in this room with them? They do not even have a chief. Who am I to talk to? They are a people with nothing who have just come from the fields and now attack us in our own villages. They could have at least brought an old man. But look! They are just boys born yesterday.”
The atmosphere was devastating: making matters worse, the mediators felt in a very difficult bind. Culturally, when facing a chief, there was nothing they could do to control the process. You simply cannot tell a chief to watch his mouth or follow ground rules, particularly in the presence of his entourage and his enemies. It appeared as if the whole endeavor may have been misconceived and was reaching a breaking point.
The Konkomba spokesman asked to respond. Fearing the worst, the mediators provided him space to speak. The young man turned and addressed himself to the chief of the enemy tribe:
“You are perfectly right, Father, we do not have a chief We have not had one for years. You will not even recognize the man we have chosen to be our chief. And this has been our problem. The reason we react, the reason our people go on rampages and fights resulting in all these killings and destruction arises from this fact. We do not have what you have. It really is not about the town, or the land, or that market guinea fowl. I beg you, listen to my words, Father. I am calling you Father because we do not wish to disrespect you. You are a great chief. But what is left to us? Do we have no other means but this violence to receive in return the one thing we seek, to be respected and to establish our own chief who could indeed speak with you, rather than having a young boy do it on our behalf?”
The attitude, tone of voice, and use of the word Father spoken by the young Konkomba man apparently so affected the chief that he sat for a moment without response. When finally he spoke, he did so with a changed voice, addressing himself directly to the young man rather than to the mediators:I had come to put your people in your place. But now I feel only shame.
Though I insulted your people, you still called me Father.
It is you who speaks with wisdom, and me who has not seen the truth.
What you have said is true.
We who are chiefly have always looked down on you because you have no chief,
but we have not understood the denigration you suffered.
I beg you, my son, to forgive me.
At this point the younger Konkomba man stood, walked to the chief, then knelt and gripped his lower leg, a sign of deep respect. He vocalized a single and audible “Na-a,” a word of affirmation and acceptance. Those attending the session reported that the room was electrified, charged with high feeling and emotion.
It was by no means the end of the problems or disagreements, but something happened in that moment that created an impact on everything that followed. The possibility of change away from century-long cycles of violence began and perhaps the seeds that avoided what could have been a full-blown Ghanaian civil war were planted in that moment.
How can we be people who create and foster zones of shalom, zones of reconciliation in the midst of tension, conflict and violence?
Some people are saying these days that religion is actually part of the problem – that religion is fostering violence and division in the world. Is that true? Or is religion one of the keys to the creation of true shalom?
There is no simple answer to that question. Whether religion will be a source of healing and salvation for the world or a continuing source of division and violence depends upon how people of faith understand and live out their faith.
Jesus said to love your enemies. Not only is that an extremely difficult thing to do; the teaching of Jesus that have survived, the teachings of Jesus that we have in our Gospels, do not give us very specific guidance for how we are supposed to do this impossible thing. How are to love our enemies?
I was told as a child by my parents that we were Christians and that we turn the other cheek. I tried that in my neighborhood. It didn’t work. I got tired of being beaten up. It’s not enough to turn the other cheek; we need to develop strategies and methods of nonviolent resolution of conflict.
There are certainly many passages in the Bible both the Old Testament and the New Testament that are violent and divisive. You can use the Bible to justify just about anything if you have a mind to, including violence. There are numerous passages in the Scriptures in which the ancient Hebrews were urged to seek out their enemies and destroy them. Just as the Koran is being used to justify violence; the Bible can be used in the same way.
While the early Christians were in no position to be making war with anyone, there are passages in the New Testament where those who are not Christian believers are described as enemies who will experience eternal punishment. Once Christians were in power, they had no difficulty justifying warfare in the name of God.
But then there is that startling, strange, profoundly difficult message of Jesus: to love our enemies.
And there is that fascinating passage in the 23rd Psalm, for many people the most familiar words of the Bible:
23:1 The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.
23:2 He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters;
23:3 he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.
23:4 Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod
and your staff– they comfort me.
23:5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
….. The Lord brings me to a table with my enemies.
We need a profound shift in consciousness in every dimension of our relationships and our politics, a shift from the language of war and the imagery of violence to the language of the table where enemies sit together, and we need a profound shift in consciousness in which violence is recognized as a horrible act of last resort, the tragic failure of the human spirit, and never the preferred choice for the resolution of human problems.
And we need to commit ourselves to creating shalom zones, especially in those places where we have some direct and immediate power to change things. It is stressful and vexing to live in this world. For most people these days the workplace is stressful and demanding, sometimes outright dehumanizing. Every one of us needs a home that is a shalom zone. You can’t walk in from the world as it is day by day and enter a home that is not safe. If there is trouble in your primary relationships such that your house – your home –
your apartment – is not a zone of shalom, then you need to have as your most immediate and highest priority
the creation of shalom in your home.
We together need to see that the church is a shalom zone. A very high percentage of religious congregations are places of intense conflict. A religious community can be a place where people come, and bring their wounds, and help to heal each other. Or a religious community can be a place where people replicate the conflictual spirit of the world at large, and end up wounding each other.
I would impress upon you today that phrase, shalom zone. Let that notion of a zone of safety, a zone of calm, acceptance and peace, rattle around inside you. To put it differently – using a phrase of the apostle Paul – Let the peace of Christ dwell in you richly.
Let there be within you a zone of shalom, and let there be around you a zone of shalom.
Have the courage and the imagination to let your life be a place where peace dwells, and be a maker of peace wherever you can.
And may God sustain you and bless you in all the hard places in your life, where peace is a long way off.
Grace and peace to each of you.