Sunday, December 22, 2013

The mystery and wonder of life

“Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced,” said SΓΈren Kierkegaard. Personally, I have reached the point in life where I don’t feel the need to understand everything, particularly in the area of faith.

The mystery and wonder of life is at the heart of this season when we celebrate the birth of Jesus. But religion often focuses on doctrine, creeds and even the divinity of Jesus to such an extent that we miss the reality of his humanness.

My friend Rev. Ben Campbell in his wonderful lecture series Who is Jesus?, says: “The Son of God can mean a lot of things. But the one thing it most  assuredly cannot mean is that Jesus was not human, that he was not a man, that he did not come from the womb of Mary, that he did not function in a  normal human  way… God may be a lot more like the Jesus we see as human than the miracle-working Jesus we see as divine… The more we sense the reality of Jesus as a human person, the more likely we are to be infected by the holiness of his being.”

Watching our two granddaughters (18 months and 6 months), I marvel constantly at the gift of life, a true miracle each time. I imagine Jesus as a baby and a toddler who, like our grandchildren, had to be fed, washed, and educated and – no doubt – scolded from time to time. The values that he lived he learned from his mother and father. One of the things that fascinates and humanizes Jesus for me is that he appears to have been learning all his life. He was open to new insights and even challenges – sometimes from women. 
Jesus did not come to found a church or a religion. He came to demonstrate a way of life that above all emphasized love of our neighbors, particularly those of different economic, cultural and racial backgrounds. Yet his name has been used as justification to exclude, persecute, imprison and kill countless innocents. Other religions are equally culpable. In Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road? Brian McLaren recalls a mentor telling him: “Remember, Brian: in a pluralistic world, a religion is judged by the benefits it brings to its nonmembers.”

A demand for certitude and discomfort with ambiguity misses the wonder of the season. Ben Campbell remarks on the frequent descriptions of amazement in the Gospels. “The good news will call you to a stature of astonishment rather than certitude; of appreciation rather than control; of heart knowing rather than head certainty.”

Friday, December 13, 2013

Mandela’s spirit in Ukrainians’ stand for democracy

While the world celebrates and mourns Nelson Mandela, another great drama is playing out in Ukraine, Europe’s largest country. While South Africans throng the streets of Soweto to honor the man whose moral courage overcame the brutality of apartheid, thousands of young (as well as not-so-young) men and women brave winter weather and the security forces to stand for democracy in the streets of Kiev. 

This fall our office was privileged to host as an intern a leader of the young Initiatives of Change team in Ukraine. Lena Kashkarova is among the many young professionals in Eastern Europe who have been trained by the IofC program Foundations for Freedom. Based in Kiev it fosters the values of honesty and personal responsibility that are essential for free, democratic and just societies.

Lena leads the House in Baranivka project. With their own hands she and her colleagues are building a meeting place and establishing a community of people who are working to improve society. Few countries suffered more than Ukraine in the last century. Millions of Ukranians died under Stalin and under Nazi occupation. Lena is a facilitator for an important project called Healing the Past

In November, Initiatives of Change and Open Ukraine Foundation jointly led a forum for 51 young professionals from 13 countries of Eastern Europe and the Black Sea region. Held in association with Chatham House, Britain’s Institute of International Affairs, it drew people working in government, academia and civil society on the topic Towards the European Union through Good Governance. Participants were selected through a competition for the best policy papers on good governance.

Last week, as the protest movement in Ukraine grew, Lena cut short her internship in Richmond to fly home to be with her colleagues. Before leaving she shared with us her feelings about the growing demand for change in her country: “It is about dignity, being treated with respect and feeling responsible for what happens in your country… This is not about economics and trade agreements. It’s about honesty, accountability, rule of law and democracy. Young people are not scared. They don’t have the experience of the Soviet Union and they feel they can really change something.”

South Africa had the good fortune of transitioning to democracy after the collapse of Soviet communism. But as Chrystia Freeland writes in the New York Times “The struggle that seemed to be over in 1989 is still going on...Russia and the former Central Asian republics developed a new, post-communist form of authoritarianism; China never dropped the original, communist version, though it finally figured out, at least for now, how to combine it with robust economic growth.

“Meanwhile, back at home, free-market capitalism is feeling tired. Europe is economically sclerotic, politically fragile and flirting with xenophobia. The United States is still struggling to recover from the 2007-9 recession. The neo-authoritarians in Beijing and Moscow are, by contrast, increasingly confident… What is important about the demonstrators [in Kiev] is their certainty that democracy matters, and that it can be made to work.”

When I first visited South African in 1977 it was hard to imagine how the country could transition from the grip of apartheid to a non-racial democracy or how horrific bloodshed could be avoided. Yet South Africans surprised the world. Paying tribute to the man who made this possible, President Obama said, “We will never see the likes of Nelson Mandela again. But let me say to the young people of Africa and the young people around the world -- you, too, can make his life’s work your own.”

People like Lena and others in the Foundations for Freedom network embody Mandela’s spirit. They are the best hope for Ukraine. Maybe they will also inspire Western Europeans and those of us in the USA to take our democratic responsibilities more seriously.