Fellow Passengers: This week’s Pastoral Passage* (I Peter 5) transports me to a service-learning leadership group I was facilitating around 7 or 8 years ago. The theme for the day’s reflection was courage, and the group members had engaged in an introductory hands-on activity with clay, shaping their lump of clay into something that represented one of their recurring fears. Then, we went around the circle with each person sharing their sculpture and saying what it represented. There were all sorts of monster figures, representing things like test anxiety, fear of failure, rejection, public speaking, etc etc. One of the last persons to share was Joseph Majak, a political refugee from the Sudan. Joe had formed his clay into the shape of a lion, and he said he still has nightmares about lions, because he remembered as a young child being among the thousands of Lost Boys fleeing their war-torn country, and at night he would sometimes hear the sounds of a lion who had captured one of the other boys and was killing and eating its prey. Everyone else in the circle reacted with appropriate horror and humility, as Joe’s life experience put our middle-class American fears of failing a test or giving a speech into some perspective.
When the apostle Peter set out to describe the threat of sin in our lives, he sculpted it into the form of a lion threatening to devour us. He had addressed his letter in the first chapter to a group of resident aliens who probably had much in common with the Sudanese refugees. In fleeing the persecution of Rome these exiles had been scattered far and wide. The test anxiety they faced was not over algebra or biology or western civ. Their faith was tested day in and day out as they sought to remain true to the teachings of Jesus in a world that tried every way possible to destroy those teachings. They had real reason to be afraid of public speaking, as their witness often got them into a vat of boiling oil or into an arena with real lions. The enemy, the world system, gripped them with fear, and threatened to devour them, to eat them alive. Their task, according to Peter, was to resist. Resistance was the vocation. Resist violence. Resist bigotry. Resist greed. Resist being co-opted into the culture’s values. There would be suffering, Peter said, but stand firm. God would strengthen the resistance movement, so stand fast.
Earlier this week I read a Lenten reflection from my seminary friend Kyle Childress; he remembered a time many years ago when he had gone to hear Will Campbell and William Stringfellow speak at Vanderbilt Divinity School. After Stringfellow was introduced, he gave his “speech:” The vocation of a Christian at this time in this country is resistance. That was it. With this one brief sentence, Stringfellow stepped down from the stage. Kyle remembers that chaos ensued as people stood up angry, some even shouting and shaking their fists over Stringfellow’s simple and too short address. Will Campbell was bemused, took it all in, and said, “I don’t know who Bill Stringfellow is but he sounds like a prophet to me.” Kyle writes, For prophet and theologian William Stringfellow, the devil was the incarnation of the Power of Death, a power pervasive in our world. It is a power to be resisted at all costs. It is the power that deadened the moral compass of Janjaweed militants, causing them to ride into Sudanese villages and murder everyone in sight, scattering young boys to face the dangers of lions and starvation as they searched for refuge. It is the same power that deadens us in the world of privilege to the realities of the suffering world and paralyzes us with anxiety over the prospects of failing a math test, or speaking in public. Whatever form the enemy takes, our response is the same: resistance. Seeing the resilient courage of people like Joseph Majak inspires me to believe that we all have the capacity to resist the powers of death, as we seek to follow Jesus’ radical call of love in a world of devouring hate and greed.
How about you? Where does this Pastoral Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment, and share with friends on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, email, etc.