not by compulsion

This is a favorite passage from the book of Philemon. In this letter, Paul writes on behalf of Onesimus, a slave he had befriended. He appeals to the master (apparently also a Christian) to accept Onesimus as a friend and brother, no longer as a slave. But Paul does send Onesimus back to his master. Why? Paul explains:

I would have been glad to keep him with me, in order that he might serve me on your behalf during my imprisonment for the gospel; but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own free will. (Philemon 13-14)
I really like that. The insistance that "your goodness not be by compulsion but of your own free will."

I think this is also the reason Jesus taught, "Do not resist one who is evil." (Mt 5.39) Appeal to them, but do not force them. That their goodness not be by compulsion but of their own free will.

I'm thinking of mentioning this tonight if we discuss house rules again. I imagine it will also be very relevant at the Catholic Worker house.


the moral equivalent of war

I really like the concept of the "moral equivalent of war." I can appreciate the importance and virtue of discipline, self-sacrifice, endurance in situations of deprivation and suffering. Laying down your life for others. But of course in war lives are not laid down, but lost. Jesus shows what "laying down my life" means, and his life demonstrates the real alternative to a warrior's valor and courage. It is a life of fearlessness (without a weapon in hand). Self-sacrifice for the ultimate good. Endurance in poverty, in homelessness, in persecution, even death--a beautiful, inspiring, holy, victorious endurance. And perfect obedience. To the One who deserves it.

A pretty exciting alternative, if you ask me.

Much better than James' proposed alternative, which is perhaps best described in this passage:

There is nothing to make one indignant in the mere fact that life is hard, that men should toil and suffer pain. The planetary conditions once for all are such, and we can stand it. But that so many men, by mere accidents of birth and opportunity, should have a life of nothing else but toil and pain and hardness and inferiority imposed upon them, should have no vacation, while others natively no more deserving never get any taste of this campaigning life at all—this is capable of arousing indignation in reflective minds. It may end by seeming shameful to all of us that some of us have nothing but campaigning, and others nothing but unmanly ease. If now—and this is my idea—there were, instead of military conscription, a conscription of the whole youthful population to form for a certain number of years a part of the army enlisted against Nature, the injustice would tend to be evened out...

To coal and iron mines, to freight trains, to fishing fleets in December, to dishwashing, clotheswashing, and windowwashing, to road-building and tunnel-making, to foundries and stoke-holes, and to the frames of skyscrapers, would our gilded youths be drafted off, according to their choice, to get the childishness knocked out of them, and to come back into society with healthier sympathies and soberer ideas. They would have paid their blood-tax, done their own part in the immemorial human warfare against nature; they would tread the earth more proudly, the women would value them more highly, they would be better fathers and teachers of the following generation.

It sounds odd now to hear of "warfare against nature." That's heavily influenced by the writer's culture and that he wrote it around 1900, when the idea of conquering nature seemed praiseworthy and hopeful.

But while we probably wouldn't openly admit to going to war against nature, isn't that still how we see it? Our major efforts are fighting hunger and homelessness and dirt and decay and disease. We praise most highly those who are the hardest workers in this fight and those who make the greatest victories in this battle. Don't we?

Yet those who see their lives as a battle against hunger, homelessness, dirt, decay, disease still seem to me to be laboring under the curse on Adam:
"Cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth to you...

"In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return." (Gen 3.17-19)
Are we resigned to this? More importantly, is this the life of the kingdom that Jesus demonstrated? Compare the curse to Jesus' words, "Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of man will give to you..." (Jn 6.27) A new life. And didn't he live this quite clearly and prove it was true?

I don't see Jesus in a war against nature. He was in a struggle against something in people, not the environment around them. When Jesus sweated, it was not battling God's creation, but struggling against everything in people that kept them apart from God.


(The reference is to William James' essay, "The Moral Equivalent of War.")


at the practical level

I've been reflecting some more on my time here, especially the mistakes I've made and how I might act differently if I could do it again (in Champaign, for instance). One thing I recognize is that here I initially focused on theology/beliefs rather than practical issues. That was a mistake. I mean, I think I did correctly identify theological differences and recognize the sources of some of the problems here (like what I posted as "parting thoughts" a few days ago), but it didn't work too well to try to directly address and change the underlying beliefs. They were too deep-seated and too fundamental. Lately, I've been addressing specific behaviors instead, and this seems to be more promising.

The deep-seated theology and convictions of our lives are still what I'm most interested in, because that's where the roots of our problems lie. But these usually cannot be addressed directly. Normally, they need to be addressed through the actions and choices that spring from them. Our core beliefs are what shape our actions, our practical decisions. What we really believe in is seen in what we do. And it's these actions that most impact other people; this is where we can really rub up against one another and have to struggle together. So this is the best place to test and challenge the underlying beliefs.

In other words, our beliefs and convictions best connect with (and challenge) others at the practical level, not the theoretical level.

I've thought that struggling with particular behaviors was almost futile, like treating many small symptoms when the real problem was much deeper. But these particular behaviors offer both the opportunity and also good practical examples for addressing the deeper issues. So I need to pay attention to them and use the opportunities they offer.

For example, for a long time I've disliked the rule in my household requiring everyone to be at dinner (most days) and to stay for an hour of community time. I could see how the rule evolved, to encourage interaction among the people living here. But it seemed to have become a rigid structure without much meaning anymore. We were all sitting there for an hour, but our engagement with one another was pretty superficial, sometimes just listening to a book being read. This seemed like a minor thing, so I didn't complain about it. But now I see it's a very good opportunity to challenge the tendency to fall into communal structures rather than continually engaging and struggling with one another to make community real. That's a much bigger issue and especially important in a place like this. We're going to talk some more about it tonight.


more on sustainability

I didn't mention anything Jesus said or did about material sustainability, maintaining property (or income) long term. Because I couldn't think of any examples. I don't think there are any. This morning, though, I did think of one thing he said that could be interpreted to support sustainability concerns:

Which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation, and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, 'This man began to build, and was not able to finish.'

Or what king, going to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and take counsel whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? And if not, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends an embassy and asks terms of peace. (Lk 14.28-32)
In seminary, I heard this passage used to encourage prudent money management. But I had to question that interpretation when I read the very next verse: "So therefore, whoever of you does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple."

That neither seems prudent nor a good way to produce a sustainable ministry. But it matches very well with Jesus' own life and ministry.


woman in black

This picture of Heather appeared on the front page of the Daily Northwestern this week. It was taken during a weekly Women in Black (hence the black cloak) protest in downtown Evanston.



In a discussion last weekend, someone mentioned that a big concern for ministries like Catholic Worker houses (soup kitchens, homeless shelters, etc) is "sustainability." Keeping the place from being run down, for example, so that it will be available and useful for many years. Or keeping an orderly environment, so people can bear to stay and work there for longer periods of time and don't get burned out. And this is usually achieved by putting limits on its usage, making rules, telling people no, etc.

This causes some tension in a place like a Catholic Worker house, where there is usually a resistance to making rules and using our power to shut out those who are the poorest and weakest. But it's understandable that with overwhelming needs and demands from people, the assumption is that such service couldn't last long without laying down some laws. That seems to be the only way the ministry can be sustainable.

I do think there are good reasons for saying no to some requests, but when I look at Jesus ministry, I have a hard time finding a model of sustainable management. The only instance I remember of anything like this is in Mark 6.31-34 (and here the disciples don't get a break after all):

[Jesus] said to them, "Come away by yourselves to a lonely place, and rest a while." For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a lonely place by themselves.

Now many saw them going, and knew them, and they ran there on foot from all the towns, and got there ahead of them. As he went ashore he saw a great throng, and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.
What's worse, the next thing the disciples know, Jesus is telling them, "You give [the crowd] something to eat." Sustainablity?

And it seems Jesus' ministry was not actually sustainable for long--within three years he was killed. Perhaps it could be said that his means of sustaining his ministry was to recruit and train disciples to carry on. And that's true. As long as we also recognize that he taught his disciples to follow his example, which was not an example of sustainability. No properties, no secure source of funding, no way to defend themselves. Like Jesus, they also were to go all out, giving everything, living a life of extreme witness, and expecting persecution and the cross. It wasn't a model for the long haul. The only way the ministry would be sustained is if their example inspired others to step up when they fell.

I think one thing that stands out in Jesus' ministry is how much it is not bound by concerns for sustainability. "Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Let the day's own trouble be sufficient for the day." (Mt 6.34) The fact that it is sustained is then the miracle.


"If your brother sins, rebuke him"

"Be on your guard! If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him." (Lk 17.3)

One more thing I've struggled a lot with while I've been here is how to keep loving people even when they do wrong. My preferred response has been to try to forgive (whether they ask or not) and try to set an example through my own actions, but not directly challenge them on the fault. Not that I thought it was wrong to directly confront people. But I just so seldom see it done well, and I don't have much experience of it myself.

What I've found, however, is that when I see a significant fault and do not challenge it, it seems to become harder and harder to to continue to love and serve that person. It feels like my heart starts to harden towards them.

I tried to deny this for a while, since I don't believe someone else's wrongdoing can cause my heart to harden, or cause me to do wrong towards them. Yet it became clear that my love was indeed growing cold in some cases. This caused me to focus more closely on what was happening; and what was the most Christlike response in a situation like this (which led me to the verse quoted above). And I came to the conclusion that it wasn't their fault that was causing my hardness of heart, but my own fault.

Because what God was calling me to do in that situation was to challenge the wrong. "If your brother sins, rebuke him." And I was refusing to do that. It's not easy, of course, to challenge someone and it's very difficult to do it well and with love. But if we don't respond to God's impetus to challenge a brother or sister, we start to cut ourselves off from God; if we don't let his love flow through us (to call someone back from sin) then we begin to quench that love in ourselves. So it's not just a matter of doing that person a favor. Or doing what is best for good community life (though both of these are true). It's also a matter of staying in touch with God ourselves. If we will not obey and do the hard, loving things that God asks of us, then we cut ourselves off from that Love.

I think now I can see rebuke (or challenge) more as an act of obedience, rather than an act of intrusion or manipulation or just venting emotions (as long as it's always done from a position of weakness, not power). And I need to look more intentionally for God's guidance and for opportunities to serve in this way.


happy mother's day


parting thoughts

As my time here at Reba Place is coming to an end, I'm feeling the pressure to say or do one last thing before I go. Feeling like it's my last chance.

I'm not sure if that feeling is reliable, though. Maybe I've done and said enough and should just make sure the relationships I have with people here are left in a good place. But there is still something nagging at me, something I feel I should explore. Maybe it won't turn out to be anything worth sharing with others here, but I think it will help me clarify what I have learned anyway.

Probably the most troubling part of what is taught (and lived) here has to do with discerning God's will. Here's a passage from an early pamphlet that describes this important tenet of their common belief:

In another memorable saying ("For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them." Mt 18:20), [Jesus] pointed to the company of those who gather in his name as the place on earth where he would be present to give guidance.

In our Fellowship we want to unite in this way. We want to support one another in the decisions we are facing. We want to take counsel together in the spirit of a common search for God's will.

We do this in many ways, but this side of our life finds special emphasis among us at the time of our members' meetings. To this meeting we bring those individual and group decisions that are confronting us. Is someone facing a difficult moral question in connection with his/her work? Is another out of a job and looking for a new one? Has a neighbor come to us with a difficult request for help? How can we take our stand against war and other forms of violence in our land? These and many other questions like them are spread out before God and one another and sought through to an answer. Very often we become aware that the solution arrived at is far superior to that which any single one of us could have found alone.

The last sentence really sums it up. And as it is written there's nothing I object to in this, actually. As long as the "very often" is in there. Maybe it would help to add: "But not always." Because, while a community of committed Christians may often see God's will more clearly than any one person, there are also many times when one committed Christian see God's will much more clearly than the group. The history of the church (and Israel) offers many examples of this.

The problem really arises when "the group often sees God's will more clearly" becomes institutionalized, as it is here. Then, this "often" becomes "usually" becomes "we trust the group." And submission to the group consensus becomes the practical expression of this belief.

It is a good thing to encourage people to submit to God's will. To lay down their own ambitions and intentions and obey God's leading. But once God's will becomes equated with a group consensus (since the "the group often sees God's will more clearly") then this is no longer submission of the individual to God. It has become submission of the individual to the group. Just another form of replacing God with ourselves, the collective "We, the people."

I think this has happened here to greater and lesser degrees throughout their history, and many (actually a large majority of the people who have ever joined) have experienced this and eventually left. I ran up against it a few times myself, so I know it's still part of the life here. But I don't know if it can be eliminated without dissolving the institution of the fellowship, since it's so central to what membership means. So I don't know how valuable it would be to challenge this (more than I already have in particular situations).

I do believe that we should be open to the guidance of God through others. But the consensus of a group of elders or the majority of members (even if it's everyone else) cannot be trusted completely.

Remember, Jesus was not killed by some fanatic individual but by the official leaders (and popular outcry) of the religious community he was a part of...