When the earth totters

October 15, 2010

We are back in Amman after attending MCC Representative meetings in Strasbourg, France and speaking in several Mennonite churches in Switzerland.

A particular highlight was speaking at Sonnenberg Mennonite Church, for which a congregation is now named in Cindy’s home community in Ohio. Mennonites in Europe have recently participated in collecting school kits and relief kits for MCC partners in Iraq.

Daryl and Cindy in front of Sonnenberg Mennonite Church (Switzerland)

Below is a devotional reflection that Daryl shared during MCC Rep meetings.

Before the Iraq war in early 2003, I did an extended fast. Each day during the fast I wrote letters to U.S. President George Bush, urging him to consider alternatives to a military attack on Iraq.

Nine months earlier, I had traveled to Iraq with several MCC workers. We talked with MCC partners in Baghdad about the implications of a possible U.S. attack – and heard from them that the consequences could be catastrophic. (Indeed, as a result of the war, nearly half of the Christians have left Iraq.) I’ll never forget the words of one Christian leader in Baghdad, who told us, “The U.S. will do what the U.S. wants to do, and we will trust God.”

I am not a foreign policy expert, but it seemed clear enough to me in early 2003 that, if the U.S. attacked Iraq, all hell could break loose. Furthermore, by going to war pre-emptively and without U.N. authorization – which is what President Bush was planning to do — the United States was setting an extremely dangerous precedent for other nations.

It was an unsettling time — a time when fear was recklessly driving U.S. policies; a time when chaos seemed to have the upper hand.

The fast had a powerful way of slowing me down, of reducing my anxiety and of focusing my mind. One of the biblical texts that I found most reassuring during that time of fasting was from Psalm 75 – verse 3 — which reads: “When the earth totters, with all its inhabitants, it is God who keeps its pillars steady.”

When the earth totters: when chaos seems to prevail; when injustice abounds; when violence is rampant – God holds the earth’s pillars. In other words, God contains the chaos; God places limits on injustice; and God sets boundaries on violence.

The Bible offers these seemingly paradoxical images:

On one hand, God is sovereign; God is all-powerful; God oversees the affairs of the nations.

On the other hand, humans are free agents – with wide latitude for making choices –even choices that are counter to God’s ways; even to the point of killing God’s son.

Indeed, God gives humans a great deal of freedom. We have the capacity to love each other, to serve each other, to do kind things for each other and to work for justice.

But we also have the capacity to hate, to hurt, to do harm, to treat each other unjustly, to act violently and to declare war. Like it or not, our sovereign God allows choice and permits chaos.

We purchased a 90-year-old cowbell from this gentleman in Switzerland. The bells make beautiful music as cows graze in the fields.

Still, there are limits to human freedom:

• Adam and Eve stepped across the boundaries of human freedom by eating fruit from the forbidden tree. They were expelled from the Garden of Eden.
• In the days of Noah, human violence exceeded the threshold that God was willing to tolerate.
• The injustice among the Israelites was so great that God exiled the people to foreign lands.

God’s interventions were not so much vindictive as they were attempts to bring people to their senses and draw them back into right relationship.

One cannot work in settings where there is so much injustice and violence without asking very hard theological questions:

• Why is God so slow to bring an end to injustice?
• Why doesn’t God intervene more quickly?
• Why doesn’t God simply stop violence in its tracks?

In one of the Common Lectionary readings for this past Sunday, the prophet Habakkuk cries out: “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you ‘Violence!’ and you will not save? Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrong?” (Habakkuk 1:2-3; NRSV and NIV)

These are not new questions. They have been around a long time — in many forms:

• Why did God allow the children of Abraham and Sarah to suffer as slaves for 400 years before delivering them from Pharaoh’s grip?
• Why did God allow African-Americans to suffer as slaves for hundreds of years in the United States before they were freed?
• Why did God allow Aboriginal people in Canada and Native Americans in the United States to suffer under the hands of European immigrant groups?
• Why did God allow the Jews to suffer persecution at the hands of Christians for many years and then endure the horrors of the Holocaust?
• Why has God allowed the Palestinian people to suffer dispossession and occupation for more than 60 years?

These are questions that no one can fully answer. Still, we ask, “Why doesn’t God intervene more quickly and decisively?”

1) Perhaps it has something to do with God exercising utmost patience with the perpetrators of injustice and violence – giving them every opportunity to repent from their harmful ways.

Thomas Jefferson instinctively knew that slavery was wrong. And yet he owned slaves. But it troubled him — deeply. One of his quotes, inscribed inside the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C., reflects his turmoil about slavery. It reads: “God who gave us life gave us liberty. Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are the gift of God? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, (and) that his justice cannot sleep forever.”

So perhaps God doesn’t intervene more quickly because God is waiting for the perpetrators of injustice to repent:

• Perhaps God is waiting for occupying powers to relinquish their control.
• Perhaps God is waiting for those who make war to lay down their weapons.
• Perhaps God is waiting for sex traffickers to release their slaves.
• Perhaps God is waiting for the rich to share their resources.

We should perhaps be glad that God is patient with the perpetrators of injustice because sometimes they are us.

Why doesn’t God intervene more quickly and decisively?

2) Perhaps it has something to do with God’s desire for people of faith to step up to the plate and take bold actions for justice and peace. Just as Jesus modeled a nonviolent way to confront injustice in his day, perhaps God is asking, “Why don’t humans get it? When will they ever learn that, in the face of injustice, indifference and violence are not the only two options?”

• So perhaps God is waiting for people of faith to challenge occupying powers by refusing to purchase goods produced in settlements.
• Perhaps God is waiting for people of faith to not cooperate with those who make war by refusing to pay the military portion of their taxes.
• Perhaps God is waiting for people of faith to be creative and sacrificial in their nonviolent resistance in the face of injustice.

Ironically, while we are waiting for God to act, God is waiting for us to act.

We cannot be sure at what point God will intervene because humans have exceeded the limits of human freedom. Would an Israeli or U.S. attack on Iran cross the boundaries of human freedom? I shudder to think about the regional and global repercussions if such an attack were allowed to take place. Would an attempted nuclear attack much larger than the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki cross the boundaries of human freedom? Are their limits to how far God will allow humans to trash the environment?

Of this much we can be sure:

It is always appropriate for us to pray and act for justice and peace. Jesus called upon his followers to act justly. Jesus called the peacemakers blessed. So let us act daily and boldly for justice and peace. Even when we do not see quick results, let us not grow weary of doing what is good and just. Violence and injustice will not have the last word in God’s enterprise – they are not the last chapter of the story. They are doomed to fail.

God’s character and commitment are without question. Again and again, the Bible offers reminders of God’s promise to bring justice for the oppressed; of God’s concern for vulnerable; of God’s commitment to lift up those who are downtrodden; and of God’s promise to care for the widow and orphan.

God holds the big picture firmly in place. God may not intervene as dramatically or decisively or quickly as we would like. But God has not forgotten the world’s suffering. God sets limits on chaos and injustice and violence. Indeed, “When the earth totters, with all its inhabitants, it is God who keeps its pillars steady.” (v.3)

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