Sunday, May 13, 2012

Jesus and Nonviolent Conflict. What can the church do?

This week, friend and colleague Heap called and invited me to give a sermon at his church on Sunday, the Philadelphia Cambodian Evangelical Church. I thought I'd post it...

Good morning, my name is Chris, and my family Samantha, Patrick and Isaac and I lived and worked in Cambodia for 7 years with Heap and Jennifer as part of InnerChange. As an Australian I experienced what it is like to be a foreigner – someone who looks different to most other people – very white and very tall, who doesn't speak the language on the street and who never seems to understand what is really going on around me. As a foreigner I felt less in control of my life. I had to rely on others to tell me how to do very small things, like where the market is and how to bargain when I get there, where the post office is, how to ride a moto dope without falling off, and how to speak a new language.

While this experience was difficult at times, it really was a wonderful blessing. It gave me insight into the concerns that Jesus had for the people around him, living under a military occupation, and in a time when there were huge differences between the rich and poor, those who own land and those who work the land, and those who were considered worthy worshipers of God and those who were considered as unimportant.

So I want to speak humbly this morning. This is a topic that I'm very passionate about. And perhaps we can consider this the beginning of a conversation. I don't know where this conversation will lead, but I offer this to your community for prayer and consideration.

1. Understanding Power

I train people in nonviolent action. I help them to see the world through the eyes of nonviolence.

The basic idea of nonviolence is that there is a special kind of power that resides within people that can stand up to guns, police, tanks and dictators simply because all these things require people for their power to be effective.

When people give their consent, and accept the legitimacy of a person, or a company or government, then that person, company or government has power over them. But if they don't, then they have no power.

Now, power can be used for good things. To provide education, hospitals, roads, transportation, access to food and drink, electricity, for communities to work together and support one another.

Power can also be used for oppression, injustice and discrimination.

We've all experienced the good use of power and the oppressive use of power. In fact, each one of us uses power every day. Sometimes for good purposes. Sometimes in ways that don't take into account that our actions will hurt others.

2. Three Forms of Nonviolent Power

There are three basic ways in which we can use nonviolent power. That is, power that doesn't use violence.

These ways are: protest and persuasion, noncooperation and intervention. Imagine this child again - maybe your child, maybe a child you know. You've asked the child to clean up their toys. You think it's a reasonable demand, but the child is not impressed. You are stopping the fun time. The child says, "No," and you say, "yes, you will!" And so begins the battle.

Now, you're bigger and older than the child. You can raise your voice, you can stand over the child. When I was a child and I did something my parents didn't like, they might even hit me with a wooden spoon!

The child can't hit back very hard, but has other "weapons" that he or she can use.

First, the child might protest, "I don't want to clean up, I'm having too much fun!" Then she might try to use persuasion, "Just give me five more minutes - I promise I'll clean up then."

If that doesn't work the child might resort to noncooperation, and simply not do what you ask. No matter how angry you get. she just sits there with her arms crossed and an angry look on his face. If the child uses this tactic there really is nothing we can do to make the child to do what we want.

Even if we try to make the child afraid of us, noncooperation is a very powerful tool of nonviolent action. And I know from experience, as a parent, that I end up feeling so sad that I've wanted my own child to be afraid of me.

Finally, if a child still can't get what she wants she might stand between you and the toys, preventing you from starting to clean up. This is nonviolent intervention.

Nonviolent action can be a very powerful force. And it is used everyday, in our homes, our schools, our workplaces and our governments.

3. Jesus and Nonviolent Power
So why am I talking to you about power and nonviolence today? What does nonviolence have to do with church, or being a Christian?

Well, from my point of view, a Christian is someone who attempts to imitate the life of Jesus in their own life – as best they can. And Jesus often demonstrated how power works by using nonviolent actions.

Earlier we read the story of Jesus going to the Temple in Jerusalem. Do you remember what happened? Let's re-read that story again.

"Then they (he and his disciples and a large crowd 10:46) came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves; and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. He was teaching and saying, "Is it not written, 'My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations'? But you have made it a den of robbers."
        And when the chief priests and the scribes heard it, they kept looking for a way to kill him; for they were afraid of him, because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching. And when evening came, Jesus and his disciples went out of the city.

First of all, Jesus tells us it's a protest by turning over the tables. He was clearly upset and trying to say something! He was protesting the use of the temple as a market place.

He recited scripture saying the sellers had turned the temple into a den of robbers. In the language of nonviolence we call this a teach-in. Jesus also refused to allow anyone to carry anything through the temple, which is called nonviolent obstruction.

In fact, this whole episode could come under the name of “nonviolent raid”.

The story gets even more interesting when we're told that the chief priests and the scribes were afraid of him. Why were they afraid of him?

Nonviolence helps us understand that authorities only have power if people willingly follow their commands and instructions. At that moment, the people around Jesus were no longer willing to give their obedience to the priests and scribes. They had lost their power, and this is why they were afraid.

So why was the temple such a big problem for Jesus? Why was selling animals in the Temple worth his time, energy and anger?

The temple was to be a place of prayer, and in Isaiah, the prophet tells us that God desires all people, not just people of Israel, to pray there (Isaiah 56:6-8).

The place where animals were sold was in the area which foreigners and other unclean people could pray. Just as animal sacrifices had to be pure, so people had to be “clean” to enter the temple. If this area was already full up with animals for sale, how could foreigners, the poor and unclean people pray?

In short, it was a way to exclude undesirable people from entering the holy place of the Temple. Not only was Jesus getting into a conflict about discrimination, he was educating his disciples, and now us, that conflict can happen without violence.

4. Cambodia and Nonviolent Action

As I mentioned at the beginning, I worked with Cambodian activists. People who defend their families, homes, fishing areas, forests, rivers, trees – all the things which gave them life. Business people knew they had the Government and the courts on their side and they could take homes, destroy forests, fill in the coast line and pollute rivers without giving any thought to how their actions effected the villagers.

The villagers were easy targets because they were poor and had few connections with the authorities.

Right now in Cambodia people are using nonviolence to change this. Here's a few examples of the ways people are using nonviolence in Cambodia right now ...

  • villagers in Lahoc Commune petitioned local authorities to secure land titles
  • 900 Workers at the Wingshing Garment factory went on strike for 10 days demanding better pay
  • Villagers from all over Prey Long go around their forests looking for illegal logging, and when they find it they block the road and burn the cut timber
  • villagers petitioned for fair compensation from the Sopheak Nika rubber company
  • 500 villagers in Memot blocked National Road 76
  • Boeung kak villagers ejected police and security guards from their press conference because they refuse to protect the villagers
  • In the past two years villagers in Om Laing protested 96 times against the Ly Yong Phat sugar company.

5. Nonviolence as the Work of Christian Faith

[[I began working in Cambodia with a small Christian organization training pastors to build new skills for spreading the good news of Jesus. Instead of only reading the Bible to their neighbours they fixed roads after the heavy rains. They helped widows to repair their homes or harvest their crops. They picked up rubbish to make the village look beautiful. They offered homework clubs for students and taught skills like fish farming, and composting to increase profits.

As churches began making a real difference to the life of the village people began to see them very differently. The churches were seen as practicing the words they preached.

Village chiefs came out to say how they give thanks to God because of this new work the church was doing. Here was good news happening in front of people's eyes!

In short, when Christians stop speaking about the Bible or Heaven, and start practicing what the Bible teaches, and loves people in practical ways then Christians are seen as bringing light to places that can feel very dark.]]

If nonviolence is one way to imitate Jesus, what might it look like for us? Where would we begin?

Nonviolence takes training. So I'd recommend that. But you are probably already aware of what Jesus might be concerned about.

Just last month the Phatthana Seafood factory in Thailand was reported to be exploiting Cambodian and Burmese workers. The seafood is then sold in Walmart stores in the United States.

You don't have to go to Walmart and turn over all the aisles of food. As a start you can go to the manager and tell her or him that you are aware and concerned about this situation.

You can ask the manager, “what are you doing to support the rights of Cambodian workers in factories around the world?”

It's really amazing what can happen when consumers start to use their buying power. Companies like Nike, Gap and Apple have all had to change the way they do business because their customers demand change. Car manufacturers now make electric and hybrid cars because of what customers have demanded.

Here in the United States there are threats that need to be addressed.

While the US spends half of all tax dollars on military spending public schools will close in Philadelphia. Millions of people are without health insurance. Young black and immigrant men are much higher risk of being imprisoned – just because of the colour of their skin. And I'm aware that many Cambodians have been deported to Cambodia, even though they've never lived there before.

And there is the threat to our planet through global warming, which effects every single human being on the planet.

Nonviolence is a way to support positive change in this world, no longer feeling overwhelmed and thinking “there is nothing I can do.”

There are very practical ways of following Jesus using nonviolence: protest and persuasion, noncooperation and intervention. You have the power, just as Jesus demonstrated for us, to say, “I do not consent!”

And when enough people say this together, you will find yourself able to change the world, just as Jesus did.

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