Archive for November 2015 – Page 2

Fifty Years Ago, a Quaker Lit Himself on Fire to Protest War. How Can I Understand It?

As he poured the gallon jug of kerosene over his head, onlookers reacted with disbelief. Before anyone knew what to do, he lit a match. In one terrible instant, 31-year-old Quaker Norman Morrison set himself ablaze in front of the Pentagon, just 40 feet below the 3rd floor window of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara.

Moments before ignition, Morrison passed his 11-month-old daughter, Emily, to a bystander. His wife and two other children were in Baltimore that day, unaware of what this young husband and father had planned.

Through his terrifying act of self-destruction, Morrison brought the Vietnam War home to a country that was still largely unaware of the widespread atrocities taking place in Southeast Asia. It was hard for most Americans to comprehend the true human cost of U.S. carpet bombing, and the incineration of whole families in the name of peace and security. Even the U.S. military officials leading the war effort did not understand on a visceral level what it meant to burn human beings alive in Vietnam.
Norman Morrison provided a live demonstration.

Morrison’s action had a profound effect on those who witnessed it. It left an indelible imprint on Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, who observed the inferno from his office window. He would later write, “Morrison’s death was a tragedy not only for his family but also for me and the country. It was an outcry against the killing that was destroying the lives of so many Vietnamese and American youth.”

It is still not clear what long term impact Morrison’s protest — or the similar act of self-immolation by Catholic social worker Roger Allen LaPorte in New York City one week later — had on the conscience of our nation or on the war in Vietnam. Throughout the 1960s, successive U.S. administrations escalated the carnage in Southeast Asia. The Pentagon directed a sustained bombing campaign on the people of Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. U.S. forces kept up the assault for another 10 years after that awful morning in 1965.

“What can we do that we haven’t done?” This was the pressing question that seems to have led Morrison to emulate Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thích Quảng Đức‘s self-immolation. From Morrison’s perspective, resistance to the war machine seemed so overwhelming a challenge that burning himself alive in front of his infant daughter seemed like a necessary alternative.

Morrison’s choice does not seem reasonable to me. Being a 30-something Quaker myself, also with an infant child, I have a tough time understanding how he ever imagined that burning himself alive was the best way to serve the cause of peace and justice. How could the loving God that Quakers — and all Christians — seek to worship inspire such a self-destructive act? I just can’t fathom it.

But I can appreciate that Morrison was clearly committed to living out the full implications of his faith, no matter how terrifying and painful they might be. Hero or madman, Morrison was a person who sought to live a radical faith. He was willing to incinerate himself rather than be complicit in the continued fire-bombing of men, women, and children in Vietnam.

And it makes me wonder: What would happen if the Christian community today were endowed with that level of commitment to gospel nonviolence? What if the followers of Jesus were willing to lay down our comfort, rather than continue to accept a world where billions live in poverty? What if we took the health and well-being of the planet as seriously as where we send our children to school?

We live in a time of such great suffering and confusion. The poor are trampled by the 1%. Our precious earth is groaning under the abuse that we’ve heaped on it. When Morrison struck that match, the world stood up and took notice. If the followers of Jesus led lives completely given over to the practical work of love in the world, no one could miss that either. We would feed the hungry, heal the sick, and clothe the naked. We would speak the truth about climate change and challenge economic inequality. Our lives would shine.

We are desperate for change. And to become part of this movement, we’ll have to engage in a surrender akin to the shocking sacrifice of Norman Morrison.

Yet Jesus is inviting us into a kind of spiritual self-immolation — one that heals, rather than annihilates. He redeems our lives rather than destroying them.

What fear and self-doubt is preventing you from living a life transformed by truth and grace? What joyful sacrifice are you being called to make, so that your life speaks to the heart of a world eager to hear good news? How will you let your life shine?

The Spirit is ready to lead us. She wants to gather us into a movement that can expand our lives, bless the poor, and heal our broken planet.

It takes a courage to light yourself on fire. But it takes more courage to live the rest of your life having already surrendered everything to God. That’s the kind of soul force we’ll need to catch a glimpse of Jesus’ radical kingdom of joy and peace.

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You're Going to Die (And Why That's a Good Thing)

Isn’t that what being young is about, believing secretly that you would be the one person in the history of man that would live forever? 

Vanilla Sky (2001)

It’s not just the young who think they can cheat death. Most of the time, none of us dares to hold that stark reality before us. We live in a world of double-think, simultaneously knowing that the end is coming while living our lives as if it were all limitless. We refuse to look death in the face.

Religious people are particularly good at this. We know intellectually that we can’t cheat death in this life, so we project our fantasies of immortality into the afterlife. In heaven, we’ll be even smarter, richer, healthier, and happier than we are now. Death is swallowed up by dreams of Cloud 9.

Despite all our resistance, deep down we know that death is real. It’s fearsome, and it’s coming for us. Death is an end to everything we think we know. It will strip us of every plan we’ve made and possession we’ve accumulated.

Death is egalitarian. It doesn’t care who you are. Your good deeds won’t spare you. No amount of foresight and planning can hedge against it. Death exposes the fact that, no matter how much we might like to imagine we’re in control, we are finite creatures of an infinite God.

Most of the time, we just can’t handle this level of reality. We hit snooze, postponing the moment of awakening. We flee awareness of our own impotence. In a society that worships the self-made individual, the last thing we want to do is look death in the face.

So we accumulate endless tokens of our own strength and self-sufficiency. Whether it takes the form of base materialism, idealistic causes, or dedication to family and friends, we seek immortality through our possessions, accomplishments, and progeny. We’ll cling to just about anything if it means we can keep sleeping.

But the cost of slumber is high. Ignoring death means shutting our eyes to the truth of who (and whose) we are. As death-deniers, we shut out anything that reminds us of our own finitude. We doze in a fitful, anxious sleep. We linger alone, with our isolating and selfish dreams.

As much as we may fear it, waking up to death is a gift. A life lived with the end in sight is categorically different from the zombie existence of death-denial. There’s incredible freedom in knowing that nothing lasts – accepting that you are dust, and to dust you will return.

Death is an antidote to the megalomania and despair that has gripped our civilization. It is a cure for the sense of trapped anxiety that seizes our hearts. Contemplating the certainty of your death, you come to see as never before what your life is worth. This amazing existence is a limited-time offer, and we don’t get to set the terms.

When all is said and done, only love endures. Only truth, hope, and open-eyed joy can redeem the annihilation of death. That’s the message of the cross. That’s the saving power of the gospel.

Look death in the face, and smile.

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