Tuesday, March 13, 2012

"Be wise as serpents and gentle as doves": a Lenten reflection on the transforming power of peace

[I was asked to give a Lenten reflection at Hamilton United Methodist Church, and decided to focus on the women of Africa who won the Nobel Peace Prize and relate their story to Jesus' temptation by the devil in the desert. I conclude that to make peace, we need a balance between the male and female energies.]

I want to thank you and your pastor Louis Chase for inviting me to speak during this Lenten series. I am always happy to speak at a Methodist church since for over 20 years I was married to a Methodist pastor named Kathleen Ross. She passed away of cancer three years ago, but I will always carry her and her beautiful Methodist faith in my heart. I recently remarried a Free Methodist named Jill Shook, so I guess I can’t keep away from Methodism and Methodist women!

I am here today because Louis and I are both involved with Interfaith Communities United for Justice and Peace. I became involved with ICUJP because I am a Quaker—a branch of Christians who have been pacifists and advocates for peace and justice for over 350 years. Quakers not only opposed war, they were also the first Christians to abolish slavery. In 1774 Quakers in Philadelphia decided unanimously you couldn’t be a Quaker and hold slaves. Quakers also believed that women have as much right to be ministers as men. Quaker women have been leaders in our movement since George Fox, the founder of Quakerism, married Margaret Fell. An early precursor to feminism, Margaret wrote a pamphlet justifying the right of women to preach in 1666.

Since this is Women's History Month, I think we ought to honor Margaret Fell as one of the mothers of feminism.

Today I wanted to speak to you about the power of women and the transforming power that Christ embodied and taught. I want to focus on the example of the women of Liberia who brought peace to their war-tormented country and elected a United Methodist woman as their president. Three African women won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 and I feel their stories deserve to be more widely known and celebrated. Sharing the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize were Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf; her countrywoman Leymah Gbowee, a peace activist; and Tawakul Karman, a Yemeni human rights leader. I will speak this evening about the first two women.

Because this is Lent, I also want to share with you some thoughts about the third temptation of Christ and how it relates to the theme of peacemaking and the power of women.

Let me begin my Lenten reflection with Jesus’ baptism. As you all know, Jesus’s ministry began with his baptism at the river Jordan. At that time, he allowed John to baptize him in this holy river. When Jesus emerged from its healing waters, he had a vision of a dove descending from heaven and telling them, “You are my beloved child in whom I am well pleased.”
What an amazing experience! What an affirmation! To be assured you a God’s child and loved by God! This was the moment when Jesus was empowered to do his ministry.

I’d like to unpack this experience and explore what this dove meant. We know that the dove represents that holy spirit. We also know that the dove is usually seen as female. Why? Because the word for “spirit of God” in Hebrew is shakinah, which is a feminine noun. The shakinah was seen by Jews as the feminine aspect of God. The shakinah was also associated with Wisdom, personified as a woman in the book of Proverbs. The shakinah is associated not only with wisdom but also with prophetic power. Here’s what the Talmud, the Jewish commentary on the Bible, says about the Shakinah:

The Talmud reports that the Shekinah is what caused prophets to prophesy and King David to compose his Psalms. The Shekinah manifests itself as a form of joy, connected with prophecy and creativity: Talmud Pesachim 117a).The Talmud also reports that "The Shekinah does not rest amidst laziness, nor amidst laughter, nor amidst lightheadedness, nor amidst idle conversation. Rather, it is amidst the joy associated with a mitzvah [a good deed] that the Shekinah comes to rest upon people, as it is said: 'And now, bring me for a musician, and it happened that when the music played, God's hand rested upon him' [Elisha] [2 Kings 3:15]" (Pesachim 117a). Thus the Shekinah is associated with the transformational spirit of God regarded as the source of prophecy. (Wiki.)

When Jesus heard the voice tell him he was “God’s child,” it was the voice of shakinah, the Spirit of God telling him he was destined to be a prophet, and more than a prophet, a child of God.

Because the Shakinah told him he was loved by God, Jesus was empowered and he had the strength to go into the desert and face temptation.

Jesus spent 40 days in the desert being tempted by Satan. And who is Satan, and how is he represented? As you know, Satan first appears in the form of a snake in the book of Genesis. Now snakes are symbolically associated with men and male energy. They are often, but not always evil. Moses lifts up a snake with his staff and it becomes a symbol of healing. Jesus alludes to this image when he says he must be lifted up on a cross in order to become a healing force for the world. But generally speaking, snakes are seen as Satanic and evil.

Satan takes Jesus to a high place and shows him the world in all its glory and says, “You can rule over all of this if only you worship me.”

This must have been a huge temptation for a charismatic spiritual leader like Jesus. Think of all the good Jesus could have done if he could rule the world instead of its current leaders. But Jesus resisted the temptation to worldly power. He didn’t want to become another emperor, or president.

He told Satan that he worshipped only God. And what is God? We know from Genesis that God is both male and female since God created human beings in God’s image: male and female.

If God is both male and female, so are we. Each of us has a male and female side to our personality, and that’s a good thing.

When we worship only the male part of ourselves, we become out of balance. We can become violent, cruel. When we worship only the female part of ourselves, we also become out of balance. We need both male and female to be in harmony.

Jesus hints at this in the Gospels. He refers to snakes only twice. Once he refers to the Pharisees as a “brood of snakes,” which meant they were liars and power-hungry, like Satan. The Pharisees practiced a religion based on rules, a male-dominated religion. This kind of religion is out of balance.

Jesus wants his disciples to be balanced. He tells them to be “wise as serpents and gentle as dove.” Note that here the snake is associated with wisdom, and the dove with gentleness. Note the balance.

Jesus is saying we need wisdom and compassion, we need the male energy and the female energy, to be complete, to be whole. It’s like what Taoists call the Yin and the Yang.

So what does this have to do with the women of Africa who struggled for peace and won the Nobel peace prize?

This story didn’t get the media attention it deserved so let me sum it up for you.

Liberia is one of the few countries in Africa not to have suffered a colonial past. Nevertheless, it has had a bloody history. From 1989 to 1996 one of Africa's bloodiest civil wars took place in Liberia, claiming the lives of more than 200,000 Liberians and displacing a million others into refugee camps in neighboring countries. Following a peace deal between the warring parties in 1995, a man named Charles Taylor was elected president in 1997.

Taylor was a vicious tyrant. Under Taylor's regime, Liberia became internationally known as a pariah state due to his use of blood diamonds and illegal timber exports to fund the Revolutionary United Front in the Sierra Leone Civil War. The Second Liberian Civil War began in 1999 when Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy, a rebel group based in the northwest of the country, launched an armed insurrection against Taylor. In March 2003, a second rebel group, Movement for Democracy in Liberia, began launching attacks against Taylor from the southeast.

The women of Liberia grew fed up with this war. Young boys were being given drugs and sent out in the villages to rape and pillage. So the Christian and Muslim women got together, formed a peace movement, and began to use nonviolent means to end war. Their pressure on the men eventually paid off.

Peace talks between the factions began in Accra in June of that year, and Taylor was indicted by the Special Court for Sierra Leone for crimes against humanity that same month. By July 2003, the rebels had launched an assault on Monrovia. Under heavy pressure from the international community and the Liberian women’s peace movement, Taylor resigned in August and went into exile in Nigeria, and a peace deal was signed later that month. The United Nations Mission in Liberia began arriving in September 2003 to provide security and monitor the peace accord, and an interim government took power the following October.

The subsequent 2005 elections were internationally regarded as the most free and fair in Liberian history. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, a Harvard-trained economist and former Minister of Finance (and a United Methodist), was elected as the first female president in Africa. Upon her inauguration, Sirleaf requested the extradition of Taylor from Nigeria and immediately handed him over to the SCSL for trial in The Hague. In 2006, the government established a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to address the causes and crimes of the civil war.

This story is powerfully told in a documentary film called “Pray the Devil Back to Hell,” which I showed last year at a gathering of United Methodist women. I love to share this film and hope you will all have a chance to view it.

This documentary shows how the Christian and Muslim women of Liberia banded together to make peace. They used techniques borrowed from Martin Luther King and Gandhi, but they were also very creative in their nonviolent actions. At one point, they decided not to sleep with their husbands until their husbands made a commitment to work for peace. When peace talks stalled, one of the women threatened to take off her clothes publicly, thereby shaming the men, if they didn’t get serious about a making a truce.

These women showed amazing courage and faith. And they were successful because unlike the men, they didn’t want power, they wanted peace. Peace with justice, peace with reconciliation.

This is the kind of peace that Jesus wants us to pursue. That’s why he rejected Satan’s offer of power. The power that Jesus wanted was the power of cooperation, the power of reconciliation, the power of justice tempered with mercy.

The women of Liberia discovered and practiced this transforming power and it saved their country from a bloody war. The women were not anti-men. They didn’t want to lord it over the men the way that the men had lorded it over them. They wanted men and women to share power, to honor each other.
That’s what a good marriage is all about. I was recently remarried to a wonderful woman who loves Christ and serves as a catalyst to network, inspire and educate churches in how to go about community transformation. She is involved with a variety of issues that have emerged over the years, but more recently has been called to help churches see the value of affordable housing not only as a tool for community transformation, but a way to house those in need. I fell in love with her and proposed marriage after only three weeks. I knew she was the one that God had chosen for me. We met last year on Palm Sunday at a Peace Parade in Pasadena, and during our wedding vows we affirmed that “The Prince of Peace brought us together for a purpose greater than either of us can imagine.”

The Prince of Peace brought us together, but our relationship at times is not peaceful. We have had conflicts and misunderstandings, like every newly wedded couple. Slowly but surely we are learning how to listen to each other’s hearts. We are learning how to balance the feminine and masculine when we make decisions so that each of our needs are met. We are learning to appreciate that conflict is an opportunity for spiritual and emotional growth. It isn’t easy, but it’s worth it. A good marriage, like peace, is very precious and worth every effort it takes. I thank God for Jill and for what she is teaching me. She is my shakinah. (And when I told her this, she said I was her “wise guy.”)

Men can learn a lot from listening to wise women, and vice versa. As peace activists, we can learn much from these amazing Liberian women who truly earned not only the Nobel Prize for peace, but the crown that Jesus offers to those who are true peacemakers. I recommend that you all see the documentary “Pray the Devil Back to Hell” and take its lessons to heart. Because we are all children of God, made in God’s image, we have much more power than we realize. We have the power to make peace, to change the world, if we work together, as the women of Liberia did. This is why Jesus refused Satan’s offer to rule the world. Jesus doesn’t want us to lord it over others, but to become a beloved community, working together cooperatively to make this world a place of peace and justice for all.

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