Fellow Passengers: This week’s Pastoral Passage* (James 3:9-18) transports me to an impromptu presidential campaign speech given at 2 A.M. in the October of 1960 by Senator John F. Kennedy. In that speech, he challenged several thousand students at the University of Michigan to spend two years of their lives helping people in countries of the developing world. The idea of the Peace Corps was thus conceived. Chris Stevens was just six months old when that speech was given, but it would impact his life tremendously. By the time he turned 10 years old, more than 15,000 volunteers were serving abroad as ambassadors of peace, including Lillian Carter, mother to future President Jimmy Carter. The program was something of a political football during Chris Stevens’ teenage years, with President Nixon cutting funding and putting it under his ACTION program, and later President Carter reinstating its independence as an agency. In the early 80s, when Chris Stevens was a student at Berkely, enrollment in the Peace Corps fell to an all-time low, as the agency head fought off efforts by the Reagan administration to wed the program to U.S. military adventures throughout the world. The increasing militarization of our nation, with more resources and energy going to bombs than to diplomacy and peacemaking, did not assuage Chris Stevens’ idealism. At this low point in Peace Corps history, he enrolled and headed to North Africa, where he would teach English and begin learning Arabic. He was a true peacemaker who believed in the power of dialogue, even in the midst of unrest and instability. His beliefs led him to continue the work he began in the Peace Corps, through work in our country’s diplomatic corps, serving in that same north African region where he started as a young idealist. He knew what the risks were, and paid the ultimate price for his beliefs this week, losing his life at the hands of extremists hoping to derail diplomacy and peacemaking efforts.
John F. Kennedy was not the first to believe in the power of diplomacy and peacemaking through dialogue. James, the early church leader who modeled his theology on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, well knew the power of words, for good and for ill. He knew there were demonic forces in the world, creating disorder, alluring people into sinful ambitions to power, provoking people to curse others, even as they masked their hate-speech with religious piety and praise of God. James let the fledgling church know under no uncertain terms that you can’t have it both ways, you can’t speak with forked tongue if you want to be a true follower of Jesus. You can’t praise God and curse your enemies; no matter how dreadful their actions might be, they are at root human beings made in God’s image. Sweet praise and salty put-downs do not flow from the same spring. In God’s vineyard, bitter olives don’t fall from grapevines. For the idealist James, the fruitful ideals of faith were simple – a good life, deeds done in humility by peace-loving people, considerate and submissive and impartial, full of mercy. Like an effective Peace Corps recruiter, James laid out the benefits promised to those who share these ideals: Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness.
We could hope that the purposes of the extremists who killed Chris Stevens would not be carried out by pious praisers of God in our country. We could hope that the extremists’ agenda of derailing diplomacy and peacemaking would be thwarted by all those who praise the name of Jesus, that all believers would use their tongues to speak with one voice, praising the lifework of this righteous peacemaker, and redoubling all of our efforts to carry on his work and his dream of peace. We could hope that the bullying threats of extremist violence would not frighten us into abandoning the ideals of Jesus, would not terrorize us to the point that profane cursing of other human beings would flow from our tongues. We could hope, but as we have seen in these first days following Chris Stevens’ sacrifice, our hope would be futile, as a strong current of curses have already been flowing, many from people praising God out of the other side of their mouths. These curses, aimed at the “blood-crazed Muslims” and a President they abhor, have the potential to fulfill the extremist’s goals. In the words of James, these cursings flow out of a demonic force, from which all people of faith should flee. To all pious praisers out there who are succumbing to the temptation to post vitriol against other human beings, be they the Muslim extremists or a President who is a professing Christian, remember James’ admonition: if you want a harvest of righteousness, bridle your tongue and start sowing peace. In other words, repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.
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.