Choose life

We returned to Amman, July 1, tired but encouraged by the many interactions with MCC constituents and policymakers in Canada and the U.S. during the past seven weeks. The opportunities to connect with family and friends along the way were a special source of joy and delight!

While in Ohio, we had a chance to see Cindy’s cousin Rachel Augspurger, and Rachel’s niece Sydney

Below is the devotional reflection that Daryl shared at the MCC U.S. board meeting, June 29, in Goshen, Indiana.

For the past five years, Cindy and I have lived in Amman, Jordan — about 60 miles from Jerusalem. Both cities are about 3,000 feet above sea level. When we travel to Jerusalem we drive down into the Jordan Valley through what was known in biblical times as the Plains of Moab. Near the Dead Sea – some 1,200 feet below sea level –we cross the Jordan River and take a bus up the mountain to Jerusalem.

It was in the Plains of Moab that the Israelites gathered more than 3,000 years ago in their final staging area before crossing the Jordan River into the “Promised Land.” It was in these same Plains of Moab that Moses gave the sermons that became known as the book of Deuteronomy.

In his sermons Moses reminds the people that God delivered their ancestors from slavery in Egypt. He recounts God’s faithfulness in spite of the Israelites’ many acts of disobedience during the wilderness years. He warns the people not to follow the gods that are worshiped in the land they are about to enter. Moses speaks repeatedly of the blessings of obedience and the consequences of disobedience. He outlines a series of choices that will determine whether or not they experience God’s blessing and, consequently, whether or not they will be a blessing to others.

Looking over the Plains of Moab — from Mt. Nebo

Crossing the Jordan into the Promised Land can be a metaphor for the new journey that God calls each of us to embrace. Indeed, these choices that Moses outlined millennia ago are equally relevant for our faith journey today.

The choice between fear and faith
The first choice is between fear and faith. The book of Deuteronomy begins with a reminder that, when God initially commanded the people to enter the Promised Land, they were afraid and did not trust God. Instead, they grumbled and said, “It is because the Lord hates us that he has brought us out of the land of Egypt, to hand us over to the Amorites to destroy us.” (Deut. 1:27) The Israelites saw only giant challenges ahead. They were unwilling to face their fears and take the risk that the God who had called them would also protect and provide for them. For their lack of faith, they spent an additional generation aimlessly wandering in the wilderness where they were a blessing to no one.

Not every risk is worth taking. Not every risk that we take is evidence of our faith in God. But when God calls us to act, those risks must be taken. In such cases, we must choose faith over fear.

As part of our speaking engagements during the past six weeks, we traveled to Mississippi. While there, one of the members at the Jubilee Mennonite Church in Meridian told us that the formerly classified files of the notorious Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission were now available online. This Commission was the state’s official counter civil rights agency from 1956–1973. They constantly investigated and harassed persons thought to be part of the civil rights movement. Their members included the then governor of the State of Mississippi.

We did some quick research and found the files containing the Sovereignty Commission’s investigation of Camp Landon in Gulfport, Mississippi, where the General Conference Mennonites had a voluntary service unit for many years. Cindy served there as a teacher in the early 1970s.

While in Mississippi, our daughter Jessica surprised us with a gift of hand-made pottery bowls — delivered by the potter himself, Bob Baldwin, pictured here with Cindy and Bob’s wife, Edea.

The Commission’s recently opened files show that a neighbor to the Camp Landon property constantly wrote letters to the Commission, updating them on the comings and goings at Camp Landon, and complaining about the regular interaction between African Americans and the white members of the VS unit. This informant – a Mr. M.M. High — was a college graduate who had worked 37 years for the U.S. Government’s Department of Agriculture. This is a sampling of the things Mr. High would write in his letters to the Sovereignty Commission:

“We have a sect here that call themselves Mennonites. They have a camp here by me, and it would appear they are teaching integration as much or more than anything else. I do not know if state can do anything much or not. They hold parties for teenage negroes, go out and build outdoor toilets for negroes, repair negro houses, etc. They are from the north, we wonder if they are teaching some kind of “ism” through their kind of religion, at least they mingle with the negroes, and maybe sleep with them. The director seems like a fairly nice chap, but most of them have foreign names. We do not need their kind in Mississippi.” (7/21/1959)

Within weeks of Mr. High’s letter, Mr. Zack VanLandingham, a Sovereignty Committee staff member, traveled to Gulfport to visit Mr. High. Shortly thereafter, Mr. VanLandingham sent a two-page memo to the Director of the State Sovereignty Commission, further documenting Mr. High’s complaints, noting that the Rev. Orlo Kaufman was in charge of Camp Landon and that he was trying to get black people and white people to integrate in parks and playgrounds and that he “was a potential source of trouble in Harrison County.” He concluded his memo with the recommendation “That the new Sheriff of Harrison County be contacted and the matter of Orlo Kaufman and his integration activities be discussed with a view to putting a stop to such integration activities that are going on at Camp Landon.” (8/11/1959)

Within months the matter of the Mennonites had reached the State Attorney General’s office. In his letter to the Director of the State Sovereignty Commission, Zack VanLandingham wrote: “On October 30, 1959 I conferred with Asst. Atty. Gen. Dugar Shands and Mr. John Sullivan who is doing some investigative work for the General Legislative Investigating Committee. They are interested in the Menonite (sic) group at Camp Landon just north of Gulfport, Mississippi. They desire further investigation to be made in an effort to determine whether there is any subversiveness attached to this group. (11/3/1959)

Across the years, Camp Landon received multiple visits from the Sovereignty Commission and local law enforcement. Sovereignty Commission documents frequently refer to Camp Landon leaders as “agitators”. They expressed fears about “fraternizing” between blacks and whites and about mixed swimming. But most of all, they were afraid that the Mennonites were trying to integrate the local churches. Camp Landon also received threats from the Ku Klux Klan. There must have been many days when the leaders of Camp Landon wondered if they work would survive such scrutiny. But in the end, Camp Landon continued its ministry.

With the dismantling-racism and anti-oppression analysis that MCC uses today, the program at Camp Landon would likely have looked different today. Still, leaders at the time sought to follow God’s call as they understood it – many times at great risk to their own safety and well-being.

What risks is God calling MCC to take in this generation? Where is God calling us to agitate and to challenge the powers of oppression in our day? For what faithful actions are we at risk of being called subversive? Our choice is between fear and faith.

The choice between forgetting and remembering
A second choice is between forgetting and remembering. Moses knew the serious consequences of forgetting. He knew that if the people forgot who had called them they would turn to other gods. He knew that if the people forgot from where they had been called – from slavery in Egypt – they would mistreat the vulnerable people in the land they were about to enter. He knew that, if the people forgot why they had been called (to be a blessing to others), they would become proud, accumulate wealth and only care about their own survival and well-being. And so Moses pled with them to remember their true identity.

“Take care that you do not forget the Lord your God, by failing to keep his commandments, his ordinances, and his statutes, which I am commanding you today. When you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses and live in them, and when your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold is multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied, then do not exalt yourself, forgetting the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, who led you through the great and terrible wilderness, an arid waste-land with poisonous snakes and scorpions. He made water flow for you from flint rock, and fed you in the wilderness with manna that your ancestors did not know, to humble you and to test you, and in the end to do you good. Do not say to yourself, ‘My power and the might of my own hand have gained me this wealth.’ But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, so that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your ancestors, as he is doing today. If you do forget the Lord your God and follow other gods to serve and worship them, I solemnly warn you today that you shall surely perish.” (Deut. 8:11-19)

Zochrot staffer Eitan speaks to MCC learning tour members at Canada Park, built over three destroyed Palestinian villages

An MCC Israeli partner, Zochrot – which is the Hebrew word for remembering – is staffed by Israelis who could easily enjoy their privileges as Israeli nationals. They could choose to buy into the popular Israeli narrative that Palestine was “a land without a people for a people without a land.” Instead, courageous Zochrot staff members have taken it upon themselves the unpopular task of educating the Israeli public about the Palestinian “Nakba” – the tragic story of 530 Palestinian villages that were depopulated or destroyed in order to create the State of Israel in 1948. Members of Zochrot believe that Israeli’s won’t be secure until the also seek justice for their Palestinian neighbors.

Our choice is between forgetting and remembering.

The choice between hostility and hospitality
A third choice is between hostility and hospitality. Gary Percesepe, editor of Mississippi Review, notes that the English words hostility and hospitality come from the same Latin word hospes, which originally meant “stranger,” but later took on the meaning of a “hostile” stranger or enemy. Hospitality, says Percesepe, has to do with the power of a host in deciding what level of welcome, if any, to extend to the stranger. While hospitality focuses on welcoming all – including the stranger– hostility thrives on creating differences between insiders and outsiders.

Because the climate of the desert is so harsh, the Bedouin of the Middle East had a practice of offering three days of hospitality to anyone who passed by their tents. Amazingly, this hospitality was extended even to their enemies.

Dr. Kamal Abu Jaber – the former foreign minister of Jordan and son of a Bedouin father – told us recently that he cannot remember a day or week during his childhood that his family did not host visitors – sometimes for weeks or months at a time. Indeed, when we go to Dr. Abu Jaber’s farm for lunch, the hospitality is extraordinary – with Dr. Abu Jaber personally serving our food throughout the meal.

A Syrian woman and her children at Caritas Jordan distribution center in northern Jordan (photo by Nada Zabaneh)

Jordan has a history of welcoming the stranger. Well over 60 percent of the population is made up of newcomers who have arrived to Jordan during the past 60 years. Jordan, whose population is about 6.5 million, has opened its arms to several million Palestinians; half a million Iraqis; thousands of Somalis, Sudanese and Libyans; and now, in the past year, more than 100,000 Syrians.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees reported two weeks ago that “2011 was a record year for forced displacement across borders, with more people becoming refugees than at any time since 2000.” According to the report, “Worldwide, 42.5 million people ended 2011 either as refugees (15.2 million), internally displaced (26.4 million) or in the process of seeking asylum (895,000).”

MCC’s migration and resettlement work will only become more important in the years ahead. How are we doing at offering hospitality to strangers? How big is our table? Do we extend hospitality only to those who are like us, or also to those who are different – remembering that our own families have also been immigrants? The writer of Hebrews urges: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” (Heb. 13:2)

Two containers of MCC relief kits, school kits, blankets and hygiene kits have arrived in Jordan for distribution to Syrian refugee families

The choice between “just us” and justice
A fourth choice is between “just us” and justice. In another sermon, Moses says, “(God) executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and … loves the strangers, providing them with food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Deut. 10:18-19)

The Middle East is undergoing major changes as a result of the so called Arab Spring. In less than 18 months, four authoritarian regimes have been toppled – in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen. It is a time of much anxiety and of great opportunity. No one is quite sure how things will turn out. Some fear that the current violence in Syria will spill into Lebanon and Jordan, along with the tens of thousands of Syrian refugees. Some fear a war with Iran. Christians – who are a small minority in the region — are especially anxious about what their place will be in the new societies that are emerging. It is unclear whether the new democratically-elected governments will represent only the interests of the religious majority or of minority groups as well.

The Bible calls us to not simply consider our own needs but to also consider the interests of others – especially those who are vulnerable. We are called to seek justice and well-being for them as well.

Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus run “Kids House” for three-five year old children

Since the war in Iraq, up to two-thirds of the Christian community has fled the country. Many of those who remain in Iraq have moved from Baghdad to the Kurdish areas in the north, where they are seeking to build a new life. It would be understandable if these Christian sisters and brothers would only focus on their own needs at this traumatic time. But we have seen beautiful examples of those who have also been ready to look out for the interests of others.

Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus run a kindergarten for 3 to 5 year-olds. Most of the children who come to Kids House are from internally displaced families who have been uprooted from their homes because of the violence in Iraq. But Sisters of the Sacred Heart doesn’t just open their doors for children from their own Chaldean Catholic tradition, they open their doors to Muslim children and children from other minority faith groups as well.

Caritas Jordan staff member Jameel welcomes a Syrian child at Caritas’ distribution center in Mafraq

MCC partner Caritas Jordan has plenty to do with responding to the needs of vulnerable Jordanians. But they understand that looking after their own is not the full extent of what God calls us to. So they have extended their services to Iraqi refugees and now to thousands of Syrian refugees pouring into Jordan.

Another dear MCC partner is the Bethlehem Bible College. Bashar and Alex Awad, leaders of the school, are committed evangelical Christians. Just two months ago they hosted a conference in Bethlehem for several hundred evangelical Christians from the West. The purpose of the conference was to study the scriptures and look again at whether the Bible actually supports the teaching of Christian Zionism – a theology that has been used to justify the Israeli military occupation that makes life difficult for many Palestinians – including Palestinian Christians.

Bashar and Alex are supporters of the Kairos document – a letter that was written in 2009 to explain the situation of Christians in the Holy Land. The letter includes a section entitled: “Our word to the Churches of the world.” I quote from that letter:

Bishara Awad, president of Bethlehem Bible College, with MCC worker Ingrid Rodrick Beiler

Our word to the Churches of the world is firstly a word of gratitude for the solidarity you have shown toward us in word, deed and presence among us. It is a word of praise for the many Churches and Christians who support the right of the Palestinian people for self-determination. It is a message of solidarity with those Christians and Churches who have suffered because of their advocacy for law and justice.

However, it is also a call to repentance; to revisit fundamentalist theological positions that support certain unjust political options with regard to the Palestinian people. It is a call to stand alongside the oppressed and preserve the word of God as good news for all rather than to turn it into a weapon with which to slay the oppressed.

The word of God is a word of love for all His creation. God is not the ally of one against the other, nor the opponent of one in the face of the other. God is the Lord of all and loves all, demanding justice from all and issuing to all of us the same commandments. We ask our sister Churches not to offer a theological cover-up for the injustice we suffer, for the sin of the occupation imposed upon us. Our question to our brothers and sisters in the Churches today is: Are you able to help us get our freedom back, for this is the only way you can help the two peoples attain justice, peace, security and love?

“Just us” or justice? Are our lives focused too narrowly on our own interests, or are we taking time to lift our voices on behalf of sisters and brothers around the world?

The choice between death and life
A fifth choice is between death and life. Deuteronomy 30 is the culmination of Moses’ sermons, reminding the people to choose life rather than the path that leads to death. “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days.” (Deut. 30:19-20)

Choosing life over death is the summary of all the other choices. Choosing life is to choose:
• Faith over fear
• Remembering over forgetting
• Hospitality over hostility
• Justice over just us

In the Old Testament, when God’s people chose fear over faith, they wandered aimlessly and blessed no one.

In the Old Testament, when God’s people forgot who had called them, they turned to idolatry.

In the Old Testament, when God’s people forgot from where they had come, they exploited the vulnerable people for their own benefit.

In the Old Testament, when God’s people focused only on the fact that God had chosen them, they concluded that they were superior to others. They became nationalistic and forgot that God had chosen them to bless the nations around them.

By God’s grace and with the power of God’s Spirit may we choose life – today and each day. Amen

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