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Archive for September, 2013

Social ignition points

Ignition points. Places where the fight, the conversation, the encounter are just waiting to get going, to burst forth. Today among Mennonites and in the U.S., “affectional orientation”, such as same sex romance, is an ignition point. Ignition points are the subjects “in the air” that we avoid in “polite company” or at the family reunion table. These subjects gather energy around them, a sort of combustible electro-magnetism. We worry that a misplaced word will be the spark that strikes a relational conflagration.

In the seriesĀ Fawlty Towers, Basil Fawlty warns everyone not to mention “the war” to the German guests at the hotel. But of course, he stumbles into himself. “I mentioned the war, but I think I got away with it.” Which he didn’t. Conversational and relational ignition points. Bring up the subject of race almost anywhere, and try to say more about it than that racism is bad and we should be tolerant. Anything deeper will soon give you skin prickles as the electro-magnetic energy begins to gather. So with affectional orientation. And policy in the middle-east. And so on.

To manage this, we only chat about these subjects with people with whom we think we have pretty comprehensive agreement. But it is hopeless. There is too much fuel lying around the subject. One false move and… bam!

Now ignition points can be the point of beginning for uncontrolled burning or explosions. But there is a happy consideration as well. Since ignition points represent a location of fuel, they can also propel engines of change. And this change can be for wonderful things likeĀ greater relationship, greater love, renewal, healing, and restoration. These ignition points can give us fuel to drive up out of our ruts, even perhaps blast us out of a deep hole in which we find ourselves. They can become the frisson and delight that makes new connections for us, and along the lines of these new connections, the resources of life may flow. So that’s pretty cool.

How do we use ignition points for good outcomes rather than explosions? Very briefly (and by no means comprehensively):

1) Pay attention to goodness – look hard for possible bits of goodness in the midst of it all. Try to ignore the ridiculous and offensive stuff, and see if it fades due to lack of attention.

2) Listen – if nothing else, in the argument, at the cocktail party or coffee break, or with family and friends, listen and listen and listen. Brenda Ueland used to say that all talk tends to start like a muddy well, but as we listen, the water begins to clarify. Not always, of course. But try it.

3) Practice extravagant love, so that you’re strengthening your ability to redefine any situation toward love. Give, apologize, rejoice, sing, build, be profligate and generous, seeking to bind up, restore, and create goodness. Do it a lot. A lot.

Social ignition points, used rightly, have just what we need. Built in fuel, capacity to get going and to go where we want to go together. Schweet!

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Humility. Is it possible for a nation to have humility? Is it possible for a leader of a powerful nation to have humility? Our leader?The Amish have the word “demut” that they use to talk about a particularly communal expression of humility. Demut is a character quality to be nurtured so that overweening pride does not do damage to community. I think demut or humility is something that at least a national leader may demonstrate, if not an entire nation. It is a way of affirming that on this one earth, we are all in this together, and we will behave accordingly, seeking shared solutions rather than prideful demonstrations.

Humility is not a counsel of unattainable idealism in a world of hopeless invasiveness and violence. Rather, it is a show of strength characterized by restraint, self-control, and a sense of honest self-awareness. Humility is not even a counsel to the more dramatic suffering love that is a key commitment of Mennonite faith (a love perhaps most convincingly demonstrated in recent decades by Martin Luther King, Jr. and others in the civil rights movement, as they refused to return evil for evil and suffered and even died for the sake of transformation of race relations). Humility is something that can be done practically and unilaterally in international relations today.

For a national leader, humility includes a deep readiness to listen and to talk with other leaders, and to send the offer out over and over again for conversation, negotiation, and shared struggle and deliberation. Humility also includes a strong historical memory. Therefore, whatever we do, it is not from the back of a high and shining war horse, but rather from the a stance of strong but gentle walking on the ground with others.

Practically, in the question of Syria, this humility based in memory of our own history includes the confession that our nation stood by as “Chemical Ali” (Ali Hassan al-Majid) gassed his own fellow citizens in Iraq on April 16, 1987. It includes a clear answer to the question: Have we ever used chemical weapons against populations or even stock-piled chemical weapons as a “deterrent” (deterrence to be credible always includes a reasonable threat of use)? Do we have any stock-piles now? And what about nuclear weapons? Like gas, they are also indiscriminate in their killing power when used against populations. They are a threat even against children. A nation with as many nuclear weapons as we have would surely have great humility about declarations of good and evil regarding use of weapons in our shared world.

Would humility not arise among us as we confess that we often turn to missiles and guns, and that this habit or addiction keeps us from more imaginative and humane responses and solutions?

Humility is also the confession that truly, all of us harbor deep distortions about life and love in this world, and that we have all done hateful things even to our most-loved ones, whether in more explicit acts of betrayal or in fleeting words that disgrace or fail to hold the dignity of the other. I think we could all rejoice in confession and release from daily falsehoods and poor relationship practice. So let us find joy in repentance, and also let those without sin cast the first missiles.

It is utterly necessary that we respond to human suffering around the world. We are often too slow to respond and then when we do respond, too quick to make our response guns and missiles. Let us rather be quick to make our nation a blessing around the world, quick to work to deconstruct the international harm of our corporate laws and individual passivity and ignorance, quick to wade right in with over-whelming aid, witness against harm and for restoration, quick to disarm whenever and wherever we can, quick to stand always with the poor and dispossessed, and so become a truer light among nations.

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