A (Near) Month of Thanks: Democracy

God's light.

In the campaign season of the 2008 election, I remember being struck at a soul-deep level for the very first time at the wonder of democracy. 

I realized that it gave me the dignity of my own opinion. I could choose to support a candidate, and my neighbor could choose to support a different one. Neither of our voting preferences negated the value of the other’s.

I could vote for a candidate, and I could retain my preference for them even if they lost. Their loss didn’t mean I was wrong for choosing to support their agenda. It didn’t mean I had to change my view. It meant I got to have an opinion, and I got to participate in civil society by voting my voice, even if the majority decided on a different preference than the one I held.

As someone who is a peacemaker at heart, I am thankful for the way democratic societies give each person the dignity of their personal perspective and the voice of their own vote. I struggle with American patriotism a lot (that’s a different story for a different day), but the accordance of dignity to each person for their voice and perspective and experience is an ideal I will always uphold.

How are you thankful for democracy today?

A (Near) Month of Thanks: Freedom

I love this bench.

It’s voting day in the U.S. today. (It’s surely been a long time coming!)

Kirk and I voted early on Sunday, and as we walked toward our polling place to stand in line, I thought about the gift that it is to have the voice of a vote. I thought about the places in the world where elections are fixed or votes are suppressed — or where there’s no citizen voice involved in governance at all. 

So, for today’s gratitude theme, it seemed only fitting to consider freedom

  • I’m thankful for the freedom to vote.
  • I’m thankful for the freedom to vote differently than my neighbor.
  • I’m thankful for the freedom to think and ask questions.
  • I’m thankful for the freedom to formulate ideals.
  • I’m thankful for the freedom to live a lifestyle based upon my convictions.
  • I’m thankful for the freedom to worship.
  • I’m thankful for the freedom to love.
  • I’m thankful for the freedom from anxiety, fear, and judgment I find in Jesus.

What about freedom makes you thankful?

Prayer Can Be ... Serving Another Person


Earlier this year, I volunteered for an event in downtown Orlando called iDignity, which provides free services once a month to help people get their paperwork so they can apply for ID cards, birth certificates, and social security cards.

You probably already know that without proper identification, it’s impossible to do certain things in society, like get hired for a job, cash a check, rent an apartment, or vote. Identification plays such a critical role in helping people become participating members of society. 

I was privileged to interact with a broad spectrum of humanity that day.

So many stories. 

A number of the people I met had just gotten out of jail, some for the second or third time. They didn’t have places to live. Some had been previously arrested in other states, and their only form of physical identification was a mug shot on file at the out-of-state jail. They were hungry and trying to scrounge money for their next meal.

I remember, still today, some of the individuals I met. A tall, quiet young man with a record. An older black woman with dark eyes and a meek smile. A young pregnant girl so thin her legs looked like they could so easily snap like twigs.

It felt like such a privilege to look into their eyes and smile. 

To accord them dignity. 

To acknowledge their common humanity with me. 

I felt like I was looking into the eyes of Christ each time someone approached me to put their name on the list for a birth certificate application.

In them was the image of God. Just like the image of God is in me. 

And so each smile, each moment of eye contact, each small conversation was an instance of prayer. As I loved them, I was loving Jesus. 

Have you ever experienced prayer as serving another person?

Taking the Suffering Seriously :: How It Exposes Injustice

Moonlight mystique.

I’ve been wondering if all suffering exposes injustice at its root. 

Would it be called suffering if the pain was merited? 

Like, if someone did something deserving of consequence, would the pain of their consequence still be called suffering?

I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on this. 

In any case, a great deal of suffering exposes us to the reality of injustice. 

I think often about the Holocaust these days, as I’ve shared elsewhere — a whole race of people persecuted and herded off to they-knew-not-where to encounter they-knew-not-what, simply because they were Jewish.

What sense is there in that? 

On Tuesday, while driving home from a conference in Nashville, we drove through Alabama — straight through Birmingham and Montgomery, where several pivotal events in the Civil Rights Movement took place. I couldn’t help but hold my breath at the holiness of those places as we drove through them, my heart continuing to be pierced by the suffering of our African-American brothers and sisters, simply for the color of their skin. 

It makes no sense to me.

And then there are the unjust sufferings closer to home.

Kirsten, for instance, shared in a comment last week these words about her response upon learning her son had a heart defect: “I knew people who had smoked and drank throughout their pregnancies and ended up with perfectly healthy babies. And here I was, having taken such good care of myself, and I was the one with a desperately sick child. It’s not fair. I did everything right.”

How has your own suffering exposed injustice?

What About the Violent God of the Old Testament?

In all this thinking I’ve been doing about returning violence with love, one contrary thought continues to nag at me: What about the violence we encounter at the hand of God in the Old Testament?

The way of nonviolence would take the teachings of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount and the example of Jesus in his loving assumption of the cross as its authority for living nonviolently. In the Sermon on the Mount, we see Jesus blessing the peacemakers, saying that they will be the ones who inherit the earth. In this sermon, we also receive Jesus’s teachings to love our enemies, to pray for those who persecute us, to not return an eye for an eye, and to not only give our shirts and cloaks to those who ask for them, but to also walk an extra mile with someone who compels us to walk a mile on their behalf. And on the road to the cross, we see Jesus bearing the load in silence, not arguing with Pilate, and even asking God to forgive those who crucify him because they know not what they are doing.

In all of this, Ronald Rolheiser sees that Jesus teaches us a way to overcome injustice and hatred with love:

“We too often think of God as someone who will use violence to overthrow evil and bring about justice and peace. We conceive of God as a force for redemptive violence … We must be careful, particularly in trying to create justice and peace, not to confuse the Christian story of redemption with the myth of redemptive violence. We must try to bring about justice and peace as Jesus did, recognizing that the God whom Jesus called ‘Father’ beats up no one. He does not vanquish the bad and vindicate the good through superior muscle-power, speed, or sharpshooting with a gun.” (From chapter 8 of The Holy Longing)

I can appreciate what Rolheiser is saying from the perspective of the New Testament and the example and teachings of Jesus I just outlined above. Where I run into trouble is reconciling his words with the God of violence I do find in the Old Testament.

For example, just this last week I’ve been meditating on Psalm 44, which says:

“You with your own hand drove out the nations, but them [Israel] you planted; you afflicted the people, but them [Israel] you set free … Through you we push down our foes; through your name we tread down our assailants. For not in my bow do I trust, nor can my sword save me. But you have saved us from our foes, and have put to confusion those who hate us.”

We can’t hide from the fact that God used violence to overturn the foes of Israel. Clearly, he was for Israel and against others, and he used violence to accomplish his ends. This happened over and over in the Old Testament, so how can Rolheiser talk about “the God whom Jesus called ‘Father’” as one who “beats up no one”?

Read More

Beyond Belief: Love that Conquers Hate

This past weekend I was on a group retreat for my Audire training program, and on one of the evenings we watched a film called Beyond Belief. This is the story of two 9/11 widows who founded a non-profit organization to help support Afghanistan widows once they learned that widows in Afghanistan rarely have a chance to survive and care for their children with dignity and hope once they lose their husbands. These two women were particularly struck by the fact that many Afghanistan women are being widowed now because of the war America has brought to their land in response to the 9/11 attacks. In the face of hate, we’re returning hate — but what if we brought love instead?

The documentary chronicles the grief these two 9/11 widows face at the loss of their own husbands, their coming together as friends over this shared grief, and their process of founding the organization that helps the widows in Afghanistan. It depicts their efforts to raise money by bicycling 250 miles from Ground Zero to Boston in 2004, as well as their eventual visit to Afghanistan to meet the women whose livelihoods they have enabled to thrive.

Ultimately, this film speaks of a shared conviction that hatred is learned but love conquers hate.

These women seem to embody the spirit of what I began asking here. Instead of hatred and retribution resulting in war, ought we be loving our terrorist enemies? What would such a love look like? Would it have the power to transform hearts? Could such love result in repentance? And even if it didn’t, should we do it anyway?

Lord, Why Did You Tell Me to Love?

My instructor for a class at Spring Arbor shared a poem with us this week that has hit me really hard. It is a poem that speaks of opening our hearts to love those around us with the love God has given us, only to find that every single person in the world is in need of this love from God. As we grow in love for others, the territory of that love expands continually, until we cannot see any person without seeing the need to love.

If we attempt to love each person we meet in our own strength, we will fail because it is too overwhelming for us to handle ourselves; the need is just too great. But if we seek the face of Jesus in each encounter, if we invite him deeper into these experiences, then we will be loving Jesus when we love each one of these, and we will find his presence and love available for us to receive and then pour out.


Lord, Why Did You Tell Me to Love? by Michael Quoist

Lord, why did you tell me to love all people?
I have tried, but I come back to you, frightened.

Lord, I was so peaceful at home, I was so comfortably settled.
It was well-furnished, and I felt cozy.
I was alone, I was at peace,
Sheltered from the wind and the rain, kept clean.
I would have stayed unsullied in my ivory tower.

But, Lord, you have discovered a breach in my defenses.
You have forced me to open my door.
Like a squall of rain in the face, the cry of others has awakened me;
Like a gale of wind, a friendship has shaken me;
Stealing in like a shaft of light, your grace has disturbed me.
Rashly enough, I left my door ajar. Now, Lord, I am lost!
Outside, they were lying in wait for me.
I did not know they were so near; in this house, in this street, in this office; my neighbor, my
colleague, my friend.
As soon as I started to open the door I saw them, with out-stretched hands, anxious eyes, longing
hearts, like beggars on church steps.

The first came in, Lord. There was, after all, a bit of space in my heart.
I welcomed them. I would have cared for them and fondled them, my very own little lambs, my
little flock.
You would have been pleased, Lord; I would have served and honored you in a proper,
respectable way.
Until then, it was sensible.
But the next ones, Lord, the others - I had not seen them;
they were hidden behind the first ones.
There were more of them. They were wretched; they overpowered me without warning.
We had to crowd in; I had to find room for them.

Now they have come from all over in successive waves, pushing one another, jostling one
They have come from all over town, from all parts of the country, of the world; numberless,
They don’t come alone any longer but in groups, bound one to another.
They come bending under heavy loads; loads of injustice, of resentment and hate, of suffering
and sin.
They drag the world behind them, with everything rusted, twisted, and badly adjusted.

Lord, they hurt me! They are in the way, they are all over.
They are too hungry; they are consuming me!
I can’t do anything any more; as they come in, they push the door, and the door opens wider.
Ah, Lord! My door is wide open!
I can’t stand it any more! It’s too much! It’s no kind of a life!
What about my job?
My family?
My peace?
My liberty?
And me?
Ah, Lord! I have lost everything; I don’t belong to myself any longer;
There’s no more room for me at home.

And Lord, You answered —
“Don’t worry, be happy! You have gained all.
While others came in to you,
I, your God,
Slipped in among them.”

Are We Called to Love Al-Qaeda?

I’ve recently been reading Ronald Rolheiser’s book The Holy Longing, which includes a chapter on justice and peacemaking. Rolheiser notes that so often those who fight for justice, as righteous as their cause may be, often use tactics and language that are not all that different from those they oppose. As a result, they are ineffective. What will win the heart of the world, Rolheiser says, is a heart of love:

“A prophet … must make a vow of love not of alienation. The great modern-day prophets of social justice (persons such as Gandhi, Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Gustavo Gutierrez, William Stringfellow, Oscar Romero, Jim Wallis, and Richard Rohr) would all agree with that. Love, not anger, is the basis for nonviolence and nonviolence is the only possible basis for a new world order of justice and peace … Jesus, of course, is the ultimate example of the nonviolent peacemaker. He never mimics the violence and injustice that he is trying to change.”

As I was reading, I couldn’t help but think about America’s war against terrorism. We have been served evil, and we seek to combat it. We feel this is a cause of justice, not to mention security. And yet in fighting evil, we are bringing war. We bring anger and retribution against those who have brought us harm. We seek their ill. We even seek their destruction.

Is this how Christ would have us live? Christ, the one who asks us to love our enemies and turn the other cheek, who says that vengeance is the Lord God’s alone? Christ, the one who was unjustly beaten and ultimately killed by those who hated Him and who chose to remain silent and to bear the anger with an ever-increasing love for His mission and those He came to save (which included those who raised Him onto the cross)?

Furthermore, are such tactics of war even effective? If we bring violence against violence, what really changes? Perhaps some people die, but the ideologies they espouse go on living. They take up residence in others who then carry on the mission to bring harm. The only thing that can dispel evil is love.

And so I confess that I wince when I ask this question, but: Are we, as Christians, called to love Al-Qaeda? Is love what would really end this war?

The Root of Injustice: Am I My Brother's Keeper?

As we explore social justice — what it looks like and what it means — we could perhaps learn a lot by looking at its opposite: injustice. Where did injustice come from, and what does it look like?

In the Scriptures, we see God responding to injustice when he leads Israel out of Egypt. In one massive exodus of an entire people group, God parted the Red Sea to set them free from the oppressive yoke of slavery. Here, they were being used by Pharaoh and his people to perform slave labor, reduced to less than human beings to perform less than human work.

But even before the exodus, we see God overturning Sodom and Gomorrah because of the evil being done by every person. And prior to that, when the intent of everyone’s hearts “was only evil continually” in the time of Noah (Gen. 6:5), God allowed a flood to wash over all mankind, save for one righteous man and his family. These are instances where the root of evil in people’s hearts kept them from God and from doing good to their neighbors so that God was moved to exercise justice.

But even still, we can go back further.

Read More

The Difference between Charity and Social Justice

The great difference, I’m learning, between charity and social justice is that one is done personally while the other is done on a large scale to effect changes in whole systems of life. As Ronald Rolheiser defines it in The Holy Longing:

“Charity is about giving a hungry person some bread, while justice is about trying to change the system so that nobody has excess bread while some have none; charity is about treating your neighbors with respect, while justice is about trying to get at the deeper roots of racism; and charity is about helping specific victims of war, while justice is about trying to change the things in the world that ultimately lead to war. Charity is appeased when some rich person gives money to the poor while justice asks why one person can be that rich when so many are poor.”

Richard Foster expresses a similar view. In a chapter on the social justice tradition of the Christian faith in Streams of Living Water, Foster shares the story of John Woolman, a Quaker living in the 1700s who took a personal stand against slavery in several significant ways. He told his employer that he believed slavery to be in direct opposition to the Christian faith. He refused to use the products of slave labor in his personal life. He insisted upon paying slaves for their work when he stayed in other people’s homes. And he converted a friend from continuing the practice of slavery through the transmission of his last will and testament. Woolman’s example even led other friends to willingly give up their slaves.

But as Foster puts it, “These incidents, however, were at best successful personal encounters. While important, they were not sufficient in themselves, and John knew it.” So Woolman then worked to end slaveholding among all those living within the Quaker denomination by speaking and writing pamphlets and traveling far and wide to accomplish it — and, amazingly, he was successful in this endeavor.

Over 100 years before the Civil War took place, John Woolman brought about the nationwide eradication of slaveholding within the entire Quaker denomination. This is the difference between a compassion that effects acts of personal charity and a commitment to social justice that effects change at the institutional, systemic level.