Sermon for Littlemore Baptist Church, 27th May 2018 – by Ruth Wilde (UK Outreach Worker)
1 John 4: 16-21 (Inclusive Bible)
‘We have come to know and to believe in the love God has for us. God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God in them. Love will come to perfection in us when we can face the day of judgment without fear- because our relation to this world is just like Christ’s. There is no fear in love, for perfect love drives out fear. To fear is to expect punishment, and anyone who is afraid is still imperfect in love. We love because God first loved us. If you say you love God but hate your sister or brother, you are a liar. For you cannot love God, whom you have not seen, if you hate your neighbour, whom you have seen. If we love God, we should love our sisters and brothers as well; we have this commandment from God.’
Thank you so much for inviting me to speak today. My name is Ruth Wilde and I am the UK Outreach Worker for a charity called Christian Peacemaker Teams. I am actually a Quaker, but I know many Baptists through the Anabaptist Network and the Mennonite Trust, who support me in this job. I have plenty of information about what CPT does and how you can get involved, so please just come and chat to me afterwards to find out more…
God calls us to take risks. We’re not very good at taking risks as human beings. We like to feel safe, don’t we? It’s understandable, as safety is one of our ‘basic needs’, just above things like food, water and shelter. Our need for safety sometimes goes so far that it tragically and ironically makes us less safe. Do you remember the conversation around the renewal of Trident in this country? On the one hand, people were saying ‘We must keep an up-to-date nuclear warhead to keep us safe. It is an effective deterrent so other countries don’t attack us’ and on the other hand, people were saying ‘How on earth does something which would start a full-blown nuclear war if it were ever used make us safer?’ I think the funny-were-it-not-so-ridiculous moment came when the pacifist-leaning leader of the Labour party, Jeremy Corbyn, knowing that he could not win on this issue, implied that Labour would keep Trident but would never use it!
Jesus looked to the world, in the words of Paul, like a ‘fool’, and yet what Jesus really did was to expose the world as a place of tragi-farce. That conversation about Trident was, for example, tragically nonsensical. Jesus didn’t even have a ‘place to lay his head’, he depended on others for food and water, and he never allowed for the use of force to keep him safe, even when he was facing his own death. Jesus always chose vulnerability and risk-taking over safety, and to the world this was the ultimate in foolishness. And yet… Jesus exposed the world’s tragic obsession with safety when he showed that a life lived in community, and in dependence on other people, was not foolish but wise, because the truth is that we all need one another and cannot do without other people. It seems that some of us are just a little more honest about this than others. Disabled people are often seen by society as burdens, and yet (as one disabled friend always tells me): we are all a combination of needs and gifts, and when our needs are met, our gifts can flourish. The epidemic in loneliness is directly related to our tendency to see ourselves as individual units: loneliness has become a far worse issue since we became a society of individualists. We are all vulnerable and we are all dependent on one another. It’s just that some of us admit it and some of us don’t.
In the reading from 1 John, it says ‘perfect love drives out fear’. I’ve been thinking a lot about this verse recently, for several reasons. I have often found in my own life that the decisions I’ve made that have seemed the most foolhardy and risk-taking have led to the most wonderful and life-changing experiences, especially when they have been done prayerfully. Just as one example, in 2013, I left my permanent job in an office in Leeds in order to do an unpaid year-long placement in a church in Mansfield, Nottinghamshire. It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made in my life and has now led to me doing jobs which I absolutely love- one as the part-time UK Outreach Worker for Christian Peacemaker Teams (more about this in a bit) and the other as the National Coordinator of the charity Inclusive Church. Recently, in making some big life decisions again which involve risk-taking and trust, I have come back to this verse in 1 John in order to think about whether the decisions I’m making are being made in the spirit of love. For me, that is the ultimate litmus test when risk-taking with God: am I doing, as the Quakers say, ‘what love requires of me’? If I am, I must allow that love to cast out all fear!
Another reason I’ve been dwelling on this verse recently is one which takes me back to the beginning of my talk and this idea of safety being inextricably wrapped up in militarism. The Romans used the idea of ‘Pax Romana’ or ‘Roman Peace’ to argue for the brutal crushing of dissent and the shutting down of democracy and argument against their authoritarian rule, because (in their view), this was keeping the people safe. The ‘Pax Romana’ or the Roman Peace’ is still alive and well today. Today we argue that we cannot have peace unless we threaten other nations with disproportionate force (like Trident) and we shut down discussion of all options other than military ones, despite the extremely good evidence that nonviolent solutions work better than violent ones in twice as many cases. For more on this, have a look at the research in the book ‘Civil Resistance Works’ by Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan.
When we heard recently about the horrific murder of 50 Palestinian civilians at the hands of the Israeli military, even our own Press tried to paint the picture as two-sided, using words like ‘clashes’. The Israeli government itself of course always justifies the murder of Palestinians, even when (as in this case) quite a few of the people killed were under 16. It has a kind of ‘Pax Israel’ mentality to peace and justice, and the subjugation of a second-class citizenry is allowed to persist because the State and its people are afraid. Fear is the driver and it drives out love. Some of that fear may be understandable, especially if you have experienced a Palestinian rocket attack that killed a member of your family, but it is the fear which must be driven out in order to make space for love, and in order for there to be justice for Palestinians and true, long-lasting peace in Israel. The use of force, and the heavy-handed brutality used on Palestinians by a paranoid State has not ever and will not ever work. We need love, vulnerability, justice and a new, creative nonviolent solution.
Christian Peacemaker Teams know a thing or two about risk-taking love and vulnerability. One of the places we have a presence is Hebron in the Palestinian territories. Our team regularly sees children under the age of 16 shot with rubber bullets and imprisoned for years for crimes like throwing stones or shouting at soldiers. Israeli children who have committed far worse crimes would never be put in adult prisons, as Palestinian children are. We try to keep the children of Hebron safe, walking them through the endless Israeli checkpoints on their way to school. The lives of Palestinian children are worlds apart from the lives of Israeli children, and yet they are all supposedly citizens of the same State.
Our teams are also present in other places of conflict around the world, like Iraqi Kurdistan and Colombia. Often CPTers put their own safety at risk, in trying to stand alongside others who are oppressed. CPT itself was formed following a speech by the theologian Ron Sider to Mennonite World Conference in which he called on people who believe in the way of nonviolence to be as risk-taking as soldiers, who believe in the way of violence. He said that if peacemakers are serious about their belief that peace is the way, we must be prepared to put our lives on the line for peace in the way that soldiers put their lives on the line for what they believe will bring peace. CPTers are willing to take risks with God, in order to drive out fear and trust in the way of perfect love. Will you join us?