New wine, new wineskins

November 2, 2008

This week we traveled to Istanbul to participate in a regional gathering called, “New Wine, New Wineskins” – a process to gather feedback from constituents and global partners as MCC thinks about future directions for its work. It was a delightful time of meeting and listening to MCC partners from across Europe and Middle East.

Iris deLeon Hartshorn, Daryl Byler and Linda Herr in a brainstorming exercise at MCC's "New Wine, New Wineskins" process

Daryl shared the following devotional reflection on the second morning of the “Wineskins” process.


“No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old cloak otherwise, the patch pulls away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost, and so are the skins; but one puts new wine into fresh wineskins.” – Mark 2:21-22

I grew up just outside Harrisonburg, Virginia, which was a small conservative southern town at the time. My religious understandings were shaped by my upbringing in the Mennonite community.

As a child, I understood that “good Christians” – which was a code phrase for “Mennonites” – did not go to war, did not dance, did not smoke and did not drink alcohol. One could get in equal trouble for participation in any of these forbidden activities.

Mennonites in Harrisonburg were not unique. In villages and cities around the globe, religious traditions and understandings define what is good and what is evil. They set the boundaries of who is inside and who is outside the community.

At their best, our religious understandings guide and direct our lives. They help us live justly and peaceably in the human family.

At worst, our religious understandings are the source of conflict – even violent conflict. They are used to judge those who are less than human and, therefore, not worthy of being treated with dignity and respect.

Sometimes this judging happens within a particular faith tradition – among conservative and progressive Christians, for example. Sometimes this judging happens between faith traditions. The Crusades and the Holocaust are examples of religious judging which has gone awry between faith traditions.

About a year ago, Christiane Ammanpour did a three-part series for CNN in which she explored religious extremists in the Jewish, Christian and Muslim traditions. In all three faiths, she found those who were ready to kill in the name of defending or promoting their particular religion.

At about the same time that Christiane Ammanpour was airing her documentary, 8 Muslim, 8 Christian and 6 Jewish scholars were gathering in Stony Point, New York, to explore how their respective faiths “could lay the groundwork for nonviolent alternatives to resolving conflict and addressing injustice” in the world.

The report of their meeting was published this month by the U.S. Institute of Peace. It is called, Abrahamic Alternatives to War: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Perspectives on Just Peacemaking.

Before this group of scholars could discuss the common themes from their own traditions, which could serve as the basis for just peacemaking, they had to acknowledge that each of their religious traditions has sometimes been co-opted to support the use of violence against the other. In summary, the scholars acknowledged three things:

First, that “Jewish, Muslim, and Christian sacred texts all contain sections that support violence and justify warfare as a means to achieve certain goals. In particular historical circumstances, these texts have served as the basis to legitimate violent campaigns, oftentimes against other faith communities.” So, for example:

• Jewish scholars reflected on Hebrew texts about the wars against Amalek and the seven Canaanite nations – texts which some use today as justification for the Israeli occupation of Palestine and oppression of Palestinian people.
• Muslim scholars reflected on the Qur’anic call to jihad and “a Qur’anic exortation that calls on Muslims to kill infidels ‘wherever they are found’ (9:5).”
• Christian scholars reflected on biblical texts that have been used to support Christian holy war, and “just war” and Christian Zionism.

Mosque of Sulieman the Magnificent (Istanbul, Turkey)

Second, the scholars acknowledged that “Many of the passages from sacred texts in all three religious traditions that are misused in contemporary situations to support violence and war are taken out of context, interpreted in historically inaccurate ways, or can be better translated. Finally, all these passages need to be understood within (and contained by) the primary spiritual aims of the individual faith.”

Third, the scholars acknowledged that “There are also a great many teachings and ethical imperatives within Jewish, Christian, and Muslim scriptures that promote peace and present the means to achieve it. These include mandates to strive for political, social, and economic justice; tolerant intercommunal coexistence; and nonviolent conflict resolution.” For example:

• Jewish scholars said that predominant themes in Hebrew Scriptures include human rights, the moral imperative to actively seek good for others and a special concern for the poor.
• Muslim scholars noted that “peace is the central preoccupation in Islam: ‘Islam is a religion that preaches and obligates its believers to seek peace in all life domains. The ultimate purpose is to live in a peaceful as well as just social reality.’”
• Christian scholars pointed to the fact that “the Christian scriptures overwhelmingly argue for pacifism in the face of war and violence” and that “principled pacifism calls one to go beyond the condemnation of war to promote constructive steps toward creating a just and peaceful world.”

Reading the summary of this gathering of scholars gives one a sense of hope that, far from being the reason for war, religious faith can be the bridge for justice and peace in the human community.

The process we are engaged in these days is called “New Wine, New Wineskins.”
Religions are a bit like wineskins. They are containers for our understandings about God and about what is good and right and true.

Wineskins have their place. Without them, the wine would spill onto the ground and be lost. But wineskins also have their limitations:

No one enjoys drinking wineskins. Wineskins are only the containers. It is what is inside the wineskins – the wine – that gives life and joy.

• Whenever our religious traditions are reduced to rigid rules rather than helping us to better love and walk humbly with God, we have become too focused on the wineskins and too little focused on the wine.
• Whenever our religious traditions separate us from one another rather than help us to live justly and peaceably with our neighbors, we have become too focused on the wineskins and too little focused on the wine.
• Whenever our religious traditions become ends in themselves, we have become too focused on preserving the wineskins and too little focused on preserving the wine.

Wineskins don’t last forever. God is always doing new things in the world – healing, restoring and reconciling. God is always fermenting new wine. And new wine requires fresh and flexible wineskins. Over time, wineskins become old and brittle. They become incapable of containing God’s new wine. Unless we are always in the process of becoming fresh wineskins, we will be poor containers for the new things God is doing. No organization; no denomination; no religious tradition can stay the same if it hopes to be an effective container of God’s good news.

We do well to be humble about our role. The biblical images are clear. We are wineskins, not wine. We are jars of clay, not the treasures they contain (II Cor. 4:7).

My hope is that the “New Wine, New Wineskins” process in which MCC is engaged with its partners around the world will help us all become better containers for the new things that God is doing.

Together, may we have the humility and grace to become these new wineskins.

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