Thursday, September 16, 2004


My Conversion: Pacifism to Peace Acts

This is my first contribution to the Failure to Communicate blog and I write hoping to discredit the name of the blog while I expect to confirm it. If the title of the blog was "What we got here is someone who uses too many words to express himself" then I would always fulfill the title. As such, I will always make bold what I consider the most important paragraphs and you can select accordingly.

For those of you interested, I plan to write a series of posts dealing with my particular experience of transition that characterizes my current place in the world. To begin, however, a brief paragraph is necessary for background. Please endure these paragraphs for the 'valuable' insights below about gang activity and lemonade.

Where I'm Coming From
I am white. I am a male. I am around 22. I was born in Wyoming, lived in suburban Dallas TX for 10 years lived in Northwest OH for about 10 more. I most recently am coming from Huntington IN where I attended Huntington College, a conservative Evangelical Liberal Arts College. I double majored in Philosophy and Theology. My Philosophy professors are all analytic. Huntington College is in many ways the home base of Open Theim, a particular theological development trying to engage evangelicals in the possibilities of God changing, not knowing the future, and entering into a "risky" relationship with humans. My parents make enough money that they recently built a new house that cost somewhere around $300,000. My time at Huntington was one of intellectual development that immediately challenged my background. I read liberation theology, studied the suffering of the world, and was moved by the idea of a God who suffers with creation. I wrote papers about how the role of the Church is to be in the midst of the suffering of the world. I went to 3 different churches a combined 50 percent of the Sundays that I was in college.

Where I am now
Seeking to continue my intellectual development I am attending Garrett-Evangelical Seminary at Northwestern University in Evanston IL. I am doing a 2 year Masters of Theological Studies degree. Coming here was a conflict between feeling compelled to be with those who are suffering most severely in the world (read: not graduate school) and 'optimizing' the 'gifts' God has given me. Having decided to go to school for two more years I was constantly depressed by how nice (read: expensive) Evanston was. I did not want to live in what has to be considered one of the most affluent neighborhoods of the Midwest even if it is multi-cultural, a step beyond my background.

Looking into the concept of conversion, I have become convinced that a radical following of Jesus begins first and foremost with the most basic, commonplace aspects of our lives. That being said, nothing is more basic to living then where we live. In addition to location, the biblical model shows vocation and relations as the most basics aspects of living. Jesus calls the first disciples out of their jobs and into the unemployment line. God called Abram away from his homeland and family. Paul was put on the road without a wife for the sake of the Gospel. Although my evangelical background tells me that conversion is a change of heart or mind in favor of Christ, I have become convinced that this sort of internal conversion only happens through an external conversion, a radical turning of our lifestyle. While this has often been interpreted as a call away from drugs and sex and movies and dancing, in my life the call was away from money, security, suburbs, white-only communities.

I moved into the Rogers Park neighborhood of Chicago almost three weeks ago now. This is traditionally one of the more 'dangerous' communities in the city while it is also the most diverse, both economically and culturally, in the US. While faced with the issue of gentrification like the rest of Chicago, Rogers Park appears to be nearly in the middle of the issue with some development but a lot of 'cultural' limitations. I will write more about this in other sections.

I have began communing with a church, Living Water Community Church. LWCC seems to have become a gathering of Christians from diverse denominational backgrounds who don't fit in most places anymore yet seek to fellowship in honest christian community while actively relating to people who the church has often forgotten. That being said, there appears to be a mild disdain for overtly evangelical activity, even though a number of members of the fellowship come from evangelical backgrounds. Out of this disdain, no one is interested in handing out tracts or 'breaking into' people's home with money or other material to evangelize. Instead, we are living in the neighborhood, trying to be a presence while also trying to figure out who we are.

Through my short time here I've begun to see how certain critical intellectual stances I have taken over the past few years are challenged and integrated into my lifestyle. This happens almost automatically out of my environment. While I study and develop at school, I am forced to see how these play out in the simple practice of living in Rogers Park. As I continue to seek a convergence of orthodoxy as well as orthopraxis I will try to share some insights with you all.

A Story About lemonade
Across the street from my apartment building is a store front that has a Laundromat, a convenience store, and an open store front in the process of renovation. The tenants of this store front are Living Water Community Church. The renovation has just begun and appears to have a short three month life span to it. Around the corner are two schools, one elementary and one high school. Last week was the first week of school. As the students convene and the church begins meeting in this new home, the history of the corner is remembered.

Several of the buildings in the area used to be public housing and then were abandoned, serving as a haven for the homeless but mostly for drug/gang/prostitution. As the renovation of Chicago began 5-8 years ago, these buildings were rehabbed, one into a Russian Retirement home, one into a low-income co-op and one into my apartment building (still not that nice). Meanwhile, the Latin Kings and Gangster Disciples, two prominent Chicago gangs, have battled out for turf control in the neighborhood. Last summer there were several shootings on the corner, one which drew the children in LWCC to call the church to prayer and meeting on the corner. This was the motivation for purchasing and preparing the store front as our home.

School started on Tuesday last week because of Labor Day. The elementary school lets out at 2.30 and the high school at 2.45-3.00 to allow the younger children to get home before the high school kids get out. Tuesday was my first experience with school letting out in my neighborhood. It was somewhat chaotic as a couple of hundred kids are released from the controls of school and are once again free. What originally seemed like joyful exuberance quickly turned into conflict. A group of students behind my apartment building started yelling at each other but dispersed. A few minutes later the same group was coming in front of the store front across the street from my apartment. As the voices escalated, the police van that was positioned at this street to prevent violence spoke forth, commanding the high schoolers to go home. Needless to say, no one cared. The two groups began throwing a few glass bottles but no one was hurt. Another police car came up the street, drove onto the sidewalk to 'scare' some the kids home. As the cop got out of the car he/we realized he hadn't put the car in park, which he quickly did before anyone got hit. As the students scattered, the sound of glass breaking was heard, and quickly the police followed the students away.

I went outside and met two of my neighbors who also go to LWCC. Three of the large glass windows of our church had been broken by a thrown rock. After sweeping up the glass, we talked with the convenience store manager for a while and were further drawn into our community. From other students we learned that the conflict was gang related as tensions are high due a death on the south side. While I was at school the next day, several of the neighbors decided to make a presence in the neighborhood by standing on the corner when school let out the next day. As they waited for a police presence to show up, school let out. A student was beaten nearly to death a few feet from the church. No police were in sight.

The following day, we gathered again on the corner, only this time we came armed. After what had happened the past two days we knew it was not safe for us to be out on the corner unprotected. So we came out fully loaded with several pitchers of cold lemonade. We were greeted not only by hundreds of happy, thirsty children (what do they feed/do to these kids at school anyway?) but also by somewhere around 25-30 cops within a block or two. While there were many more people outside than this and the students, everyone made it home without incident. And many went home without thirst thanks to the lemonade!

While both elementary students, Gangster Disciples and maybe a few Latin Kings enjoyed the lemonade, the police did not. Seeing us as an armed threat, they sent one of their more aggressive soldiers over to inquire into our presence. This is the conversation I heard him report to his partners:
Cop 1: They're handing out lemonade for free.
Cop 2: What?
Cop 1: Yeah, for free. They don't get it. These freaking liberals don't realize that someone is going to get shot.
Cop 2: yeah.
Cop 1: I mean, they're only going to create a crowd and give someone a reason to get hurt.

Since this cops efforts were not enough, someone higher in rank than him came by a few minutes later inquiring into our presence. Upon realizing that we were simply gathering on property that we owned and handing out lemonade, he began to 'reason' with us off the presuppositions of the police. Our presence was encouring elementary students to stand on the corner, even if only for a minute. Rocks and bottles and bullets often fly around this corner. These children, enjoying a glass of lemonade, were in danger for their lives and when (not if) someone got killed we would obviously be responsible. We began reasoning from our presuppositions. No child waited more than 15 seconds for a second cup before going on their way. The elementary students let out 30 minutes earlier and are mostly home when high school lets out. lemonade is freaking good. By the end of the conversation no one was happy: the cop wasn't happy because we weren't leaving and we weren't happy because he wouldn't drink any lemonade.

Since then, the after school celebration has expanded with one church member playing jazz piano on the corner, several people sweeping and weeding the sidewalk and a few people painting our sidewall for an hour or two everyday. No violence has broken out after school this week. By no means am I implying that our presence has anything to do with that. Likewise, the police come and go, but they never take our lemonade. Children and high school students, however, as well as other random people that I think are coming by just for the lemonade are happy.

Although a somewhat fun story, there is a very serious and important issue being explored and experienced here. First, the violence of our neighborhood is extremely serious and is becoming personal to myself as well as my neighbors at LWCC. While no one in our church has been assaulted in anyway, as the neighborhood becomes a part of my heart, I suffer with the violence, regardless of if it is a broken window, beaten young person, homeless widow, renovated housing project, racist police act, or abused/neglected child. I can only hope to further be affected in this way.

Here is what the internet encyclopedia of philosophy has to say about pacifism:
The best place to begin an analysis of pacifism is with the absolutist argument that all forms of violence, war, and/or killing are unconditionally wrong. The proposed ideal is that social intercourse should be completely non-violent and peaceful, and conflicts which may arise should be dealt with through arbitration and compromise rather than with recourse to violent means. Absolutist pacifism asserts that peace is intrinsically a good to be upheld either as a duty or on the consequentialist grounds that it is more conducive to human welfare than any use of violence or force.

Pacifism is ultimately an intellectual position taken against the philosophical positions that validate violence throughout the world. It is a position to be accepted, postured, and employed when talking with your father/pastor/aunt/neighbor who suggests that war is just and should be supported by Christians or anyone else. I accepted the position of pacifism sometime in the last four years.

The strongest argument against pacifism is that it is not practical. I have spent much time trying to debunk this argument amongst friends the past few years. What I realize now is that they are correct. Pacifism will not save my neighborhood nor will it stop the conflict in the world as a whole. Because of its abstract, intellectual orientation, pacifism is entirely irrelevant in all circumstances. I cannot use it to stop my neighbors from killing each other.

On the other hand, the argument is incorrect when it suggests that justified violence is anymore effective. Instead, what is necessary is something pro-active, even pre-emptive as suggested in ever new ways by the pro-violent amongst us. What must be cultivated are Peace Acts. Born from being compelled to act, to do anything to protect my neighbors, loved ones, and strangers in Rogers Park and around the world, I must leave behind my white, male, suburban ideology of pacifism and instead allow creativity to guide me and my neighbors into the always unknown realm of Peace Acts. Here, instead of deciding that violence is always wrong, we attempt to act in such a way that violence is overcome and replaced. Peace Acts force us to begin before the violence by identifying causes of violent behavior (poverty, racism, oppression, lack of identity, etc.) and doing things to element these causes. Peace Acts forces us to respond to where violence has occurred by doing things to ease the suffering of those who are victims while confronting those who are victimizers with the truth for the sake of delivering them from their status as victimizers. Often times this process begins with the active evaluation of ourselves as victims or victimizers. How is violence a part of our own lives? What acts of violence am I causing on my neighborhood?

I have seen that my old conceptions of violence were wrong because violence is not a concept but rather an action. Because violence is always in the form of an act, a position against violence must also always be in the form of an act. As such, I seek to learn and develop in the area of Peace Acts, whether that be serving lemonade, befriending the young children of my neighborhood who will one day be the gang members of my neighborhood, or encouraging my friends to join me in learning discernment so that we can determine when any regime has become oppressive and act against it, whether that be George Bush, John Kerry, Wal-Mart, McDonalds, the Gap, or the church. When violence occurs we must counter-act. This crucial lesson is being taught to me by my neighborhood and my neighbors as well as the biblical model of Jesus Christ.