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How My Credo Has Changed

"Following the Nonviolent Jesus"

by Richard Deats

After I earned my Bachelor of Divinity degree at Perkins and completed my graduate work at Boston University School of Theology, my family and I served in the Philippines from 1959-1972 with the Board of Global Ministries of the United Methodist Church. Especially in the latter part of our service there we went through tumultuous events, with the country growing increasingly polarized between the repressive policies of the Marcos regime and the Maoist guerrilla movement in the countryside. Many in the churches, Catholic and Protestant, were likewise polarized, taking the position of being either for the Marcoses and their policies or for the communists and their rebellion.

Teaching social ethics at Union Theological Seminary near Manila and becoming involved in the issues affectinc, church and society throughout the archipelago, I found that my involvement in the U.S. civil rights movement before coming to the Philippines helped ground me as I struggled to find a way of living faithfully in that time and place. Martin Luther King Jr. had given direction and meanin- to the civil rights movement by combining what he said was "the spirit of Christ and the methodology of Gandhi." The power of both the Indian independence movement and the U.S. civil rights movement came from this revolutionary nonviolence in which means and ends were held together in a creative tension. The way of Jesus - love of God and neighbor, even the enemy - broke down the walls of injustice and oppression without stooping to violence, hatred, and revenge. Gandhi's spiritual grounding and political genius mobilized the Indian people to overcome imperial Britain, just as King applied"love force" to bring down racist laws and policies. This approach, I believed, pointed the way forward in the Philippines, rejecting the violence of both the right and left with means that were consistent with the Gospel in the pursuit of justice, freedorn, and peace.

This understanding profoundly shaped my credo as I struggled to discern the church's role in the world. Since leaving Union Seminary, I have offered a peace ministry through my work with the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR). I have worked with movements from the Philippines to Lithuania, from Haiti to South Africa, from Bangladesh to the United States. I returned to the Philippines in 1985 to lead workshops on the "Gospel and Nonviolence" during a nine-week project with those in the churches wanting to oppose Marcos and the Maoists with a Gandhian/ Kingian approach. Later I led workshops with Burmese guerrillas near the Thai-Burmese border, development workers in Haiti, teachers and police in Russia, Lithuanian militia volunteers defending their parliament from the Red Army, and, most recently, with a democracy movement in Bangladesh. At the invitation of the South Africa Council of Churches in 1988, Walter Wink and I co-led a workshop with anti-apartheid leaders in Lesotho (we were not allowed to hold it in South Africa); and when the Palestine Liberation Organization was still in exile in Tunis, Tunisia, I was part of an FOR delegation that spent four days with PLO officials, including a meeting with Yasir Arafat, talking about alternatives to violence in the Israeli/ Palestinian conflict. In this country I have worked with groups dealing with racial antagonism, intolerance, injustice, and militarism.

In country after country, Gandhian and Kingian nonviolence have inspired and informed people's movements in witnessing for peace and against oppression. Often the church - or more accurately, prophetic minorities within the church - have been in the forefront of these efforts, such as the "people power" movement in the Philippines; the prayer/ discussion meetings in East Germany prior to the toppling of the Berlin Wall; the nonviolent resistance to apartheid by churches in South Africa; and Haiti's lavalas movement, the "washing away" of fear and injustice by Christian-base d communities. Innovative initiatives are being formed today to find ways to develop nonviolent national defense and nonviolent peacemaking teams and forces. In the United States we can draw upon our nonviolent heritage - from the dumping of tea in Boston Harbor to the underground railroad, from the suffragettes challenging patriarchy to the civil rights movement - to face the challenges of today. Nonviolent methods can be used to deal with community violence and addiction, support efforts of oppressed groups like gays and lesbians as they struggle for their civi I rights, and enable women of color to organize in the workplace for safe and just working conditions.

For me, Kingian nonviolence is at the heart of my understanding of the Gospel imperative to witness to the Beloved Community. Ours is a culture of pervasive violence. The Cold War is over, but we still have a budget-busting Cold War military budget. We incarcerate the highest rate of prisoners of any country in the world and cannot keep up with the demand for new prisons. We remove the safety net for the weakest and most vulnerable members of our society even as the gap between the rich and the poor continues to widen (today, I percent of the population owns 40 percent of the wealth). I believe, however, that the Christian faith fosters a culture of peace and equips us with love force to lift the fallen, empower the weak, and recognize the 11 somebodyness" of everyone, without exception. I believe the church is called to mobilize God's people to "walk the talk," to incarnate the way of selfgiving love - in the home, workplace, and community. During the civil rights movement people were inspired by preaching that combined personal and social righteousness - you prayed for the racist even as you went to jail to protest racist policies - with nonviolence training to prepare you to witness for the ending of Jim Crow. I believe our churches should again be training centers to equip persons with the vision, strategy, and tactics to replace our culture of violence with a culture of peace.

The second development in my credo has been a heightened awakening to the voices of oppressed and marginalized persons. I received my theological education at a time when the civil rights movement was just beginning to make an impact, but it was still a time of overwhelmingly white, straight, male Eurocentric domination. I was privileged to be at Perkins when the first group of African Americans were enrolled as students; those were times of a sea change in my perceptions that had been shaped by an upbringing in West Texas. And that sea change has not stopped. Living in Asia for 13 years helped me see all my assumptions from a radically different perspective. The voices of women, indigenous people, other races and nationalities, the poor, gays, and lesbians - all have awakened in me a sense of awe and humility at the richly varied strands that make up God's one human family.

Closely related is a third development: a sense of the universality of God's grace that embraces far more than our provincial loyalties. We all laughed in theology class when Albert C. Outler devilishly exclaimed, "Christianity may die but Methodism will march onward!" For me, however, the Christian triumphalism that still is prevalent in many churches is no longer sufficient. In my work with Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, and indigenous peoples, I have been enriched greatly by traditions where compassion, love, and devotion are present. Christians have no monopoly on godliness or faith; we have much to learn from other sheep who are not of the familiar fold. In the 1990s we are catching a fresh, alarming glimpse of how zealous believers - you name it, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Jew - can tear a community or a country apart with their intolerance, self-righteousness, violence, and tribalism. We need to turn to each other, not on each other.

Finally, my credo has changed in the way I look at God's creation. The assault on the natural order threatens the human race with extinction. A rapacious technology and a rapidly growing population are laying waste to an irreplaceable legacy: this spinning green ball of life and wonder that we inhabit. When I was in seminary there was not yet a real awareness of what humans were doing to the Earth. "Ecology" was not even a concept, but today it is inescapable as we try to decide what to do about toxic wastes, the loss of top soil, the dropping water table, and the disappearing rain forests. The only adequate spirituality is a creation spirituality where we learn a proper reverence and humility before God who is the life-giving force of the universe. We defile God with our waste, our carelessness, and our mindless consumption.

As I look back over these changes, there remains through them a constant commitment: I seek to follow Jesus and his way, a way that is not static but ever unfolding. That commitment is as strong and the source of as much joy and inspiration today as it was when, as a junior at McMurry College in Abilene, I decided to enter the ministry.

 

From: PERSPECTIVE, Spring 1997, pp. 9, 23
PERKINS SCHOOL OF THEOLOGY

 

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