“There has never been the slightest doubt in my mind that the God who started this great work in you would keep at it and bring it to a flourishing finish…” – Philippians 1:6a (The Message)
The Apostle Paul might be characterized as the Usain Bolt of the Bible. Throughout his letters, Paul situates the Christian journey in terms of a race. “Do you not know that in a race, all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize!” Runners compete. Runners win!
Paul, as confident as the eleven-time World Champion Jamaican sprinter, exhorts each of us to run to win. Yet even in recognizing that life’s run definitely is a marathon, not a sprint, I find Paul’s racing metaphor poses a subtle problem – finish lines beckon but, sometimes, quite fleetingly.
Thomas C. Schelling, the Nobel Prize winning political economist drives home this point in his compelling volume, “Choice and Consequence.” In the book, Schelling notes that “people behave sometimes as if they had two selves, one who wants clean lungs and long life and another who adores tobacco, or one who wants a lean body and another who wants dessert. The two are in continual contest for control.” Paul addresses this human dichotomy in spiritual terms. He flatly states: “I do not understand my own actions.”
We might press the same puzzling prism of inquiry and understanding to the actions taken against those whose life work, passion and urgency is to stand up for peace. At least that’s what I thought to myself as I sat listening to the riveting, courageous and powerful testimony of Lakota historian and activist LaDonna Brave Bull Allard when she spoke at the historic Riverside Church in the City of New York last Friday evening.
Allard was the recipient of the William Sloane Coffin Jr. Peacemaker Award at the 60th Anniversary Gala of Peace Action and Peace Action New York State. She was honored for her activism on behalf of the sacred at the Standing Rock Sioux reservation in North Dakota.
Allard spearheaded protests against the Dakota Access pipeline. Yet in so doing, she described and experienced a mind-boggling level of state-sponsored violence that included sponge rounds, bean bag rounds, stinger rounds, teargas grenades, the distribution of pepper spray and other dispersed chemical agents, Mace, the use of Tasers, unrelenting water cannons and the deployment of some type of sound weapon.
“I asked what country does this to its people?” Allard told a riveted audience.
Her words transformed our transfixed audience into time travelers. Yet all in the room knew only too well one answer to her question before she gave it. Many were old enough to personally remember that the use of water cannons against peaceful protesters – a crowd management technique pioneered in 1930s Germany – had indeed been used in the southern United States during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.
What kind of country does this?
Ours is a country that consistently behaves inconsistently. We are a country that behaves as if it has two selves.
Allard joined a lineup of other compelling speakers that included student activists, the American businessman and ice cream company co-founder Ben Cohen and representatives from the Nobel Prize winning International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN).
All of the remarks reminded me of the urgent need for peacemaking, justice seeking, and radical, demonstrable love.
The race for the cure to the America’s addiction to militarism, racism, sexism, Anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, xenophobia, homophobia and more is definitely a marathon not a sprint. Our sacred texts offer encouragement for the journey, and can help us to stay focused and stay involved.
Look for opportunities to be involved, like the upcoming Peace & Justice, Anti-War Campus Organizing Conference at SUNY Albany next month. Stay focused on opportunities to build new and engaged coalitions, like the work our Believe Out Loud team is doing in North Carolina with the NC Faith Forward Coalition (La Coalición NC Adelante con Fe).
Stay focused not only on the goal, but also stay focused on the Holy One, who begins the good and great work and who is faithful to finish it.
In times of massive stress and injustice, it is so easy to focus on what is not going right. The encouragement I take from Paul’s short letter to the Philippians is that our confidence is to be rooted in God.
Stay focused. Keep running. Finish the race. And you needn’t ask God “for” strength. Just remember the wisdom of the Psalter: God is your strength.
Eternal, Loving and Almighty God, thank you for the race of life. Help us to savor each step on the journey. Remind us God that You are our strength and song. Let us sing as we run. Equip us to run toward love, to run with peace and to keep running for justice for all. In your many names we pray. Amen.