This week’s blog entries are by guest blogger, Jean-Luc Krieg, whom I met during my time in Mexico City earlier this summer. After you read this entry, see the reflection question I’ve put at the end to help us process the ideas and their implications for our own ministries.
My awareness of ethnic discrimination was accentuated when I joined Service Civil Internacional for short periods of time in 1994 and 1995 to work with war-traumatized Bosnian children in Croatia. During those trips I came to see the destructiveness of ethnic pride gone awry. I was confronted with a lot of bitterness, anger and sheer powerlessness by victims of the ongoing Balkan war, who told me of brutal murders and acts of rape. Bosnians and Croatians justifiably denounced Serbian oppressors, since Serbia with its politics of “ethnic cleansing” had become so full of its identity with itself that it rejected any “otherness.”
At the same time, Croats and Muslim Bosnians, in their hate of Serbs, demanded incontrovertible love and loyalty to their own ethnicity, so much so that they too came dangerously close to do away with the “ethnic filth” of anything Serbian within their own cultures. I heard how a Croat Catholic priest encouraged ethnically pure Croatians to have as many babies as possible, in an effort to create a pure Croatian race that would overpower and put away with the despised Serbs. The hatred and conflict was felt even eight hundred miles away in Switzerland, when two formerly close associates at my work in a nursing home stopped talking to one another, since one was a Serb and the other a Croat.
I wondered: How did we as Christians respond to such a conflict? Could we continue to talk about reconciliation as a purely individualistic event between God and individual people in light of such a conflict? Was sin not more than just an individual’s wrongdoing, but also embedded in structures and systems? What about ethnic and societal reconciliation?
In short, I became more and more frustrated with my church’s and denomination’s theology and its view that discipleship was mostly a spiritual and overall an individual matter. I was frustrated by the inconsistency that the Bible’s teachings with regard to sexual ethics and its derived stance on pro-life were taken so seriously, while its teachings regarding simple living, justice and generosity for the poor, and advocacy against oppression and structural injustice were hardly addressed at all. Much rigidity was applied to safeguard the realm of sexual purity, while nothing at all was done about those people who lived affluent lifestyles and didn’t show an inkling of concern for the poor, yet continued to hold leadership positions in the church.
I arrived at a crucial juncture and was seriously considering turning my back on the church, because very few seemed to understand my concerns. Instead of wrestling with me through these issues, some fellow Christians reacted with fear and concern about my anger and told me I had a rebellious spirit and was losing my once-vibrant spirituality. That I should just believe and stop asking all of these difficult questions.
I decided to take a six month leave of absence from my church and give up all of my leadership positions, in an effort to redefine my own stance on things and sift through the many questions that were bombarding my mind. I knew I had to face the questions head-on because I wanted to stand on a faith foundation that was my own, not one adopted from others in a superficial and un-reflected manner. So instead of participating in church-related activities on Sunday morning I read books by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King Jr., Jim Wallis and Viv Grigg, an urban prophet who had spent many years living in a squatter settlement in Manila.
Particularly in Bonhoeffer I found someone to look up to: his authenticity, his will to bring the gospel of Jesus into the here and now, and his courage to live a costly discipleship made a deep impression on me. His was a discipleship that transcended the vertical-spiritual concept of discipleship that was part of the individualist pietism of my church; a discipleship intentional not just about transforming the individual person, but also the person’s surrounding culture and social structures. His was a gospel that could be touched and that was intrinsically “worldly” and “humane” at the same time. It was down to earth, yet broad enough to encompass life’s complexities.
What issues really upset you? How does that compare with what upset Jesus?