Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Not Natural Enemies

He said to me, pointing to the friend with whom he had just arrived:  “We were enemies.  We hated one another; we would have killed each other on the street on sight without even thinking.”  His friend smiled and nodded in agreement.  I don’t think his friend understood any English, but he appeared to be in the custom of agreeing with the other man.  I could tell there was a history between these two; they had made some difficult journey together and now were in the habit of trusting one other.   We were all sitting in the shade trying to escape the worst of the midday sun, waiting for the worship service to begin.  We passed the time talking, drinking that ubiquitous thin green tea, and trying to imagine a breeze.  We were 20 miles from the Cu Chi tunnels that had served as a place of refuge, a tool of ambush, and a means of movement for the Vietnamese guerillas during both the insurgency against French colonialism and then later during the war involving the Americans.   For the Vietnamese, these tunnels still stand as a symbol of their national resilience and resourcefulness.  They still harbor ghosts and carry echoes from more troubled times.  I sensed the same thing in these two friends sitting before me.

The man went on to explain that he had been a colonel in the South Vietnamese army and that his friend had been a colonel in the North Vietnamese army during the war.  He said that his friend is still a communist.  Then shrugging his shoulders he said, almost apologetically:  “But what can we do?  We are both Christians now.  We must love one another and live as brothers, children of the same father in heaven.”  Again, his friend smiled and nodded an expression of trust without understanding.

I looked at these two men, and questions began to percolate.  They were both about the same age; they looked quite similar—black hair, brown skin leathered by a life lived in the sun, skinny with lanky legs and arms.  They looked as if they had both grown up in a village, securing from the land nearly all that they had needed.  And in spite of their natural warmth of character, faces showed the traces of a sorrow that comes with the losses of war.  Theirs eyes would wander now and then to a spot beyond the horizon, as if they were looking for the return of something long ago lost during a youth too quickly taken from them.  They had so much in common; it seemed to me that their interests were so aligned with one another.  They were not natural enemies.  So how did they end up enemies?  Well, that is a story far beyond the confines of this simple reflection.   The thing we can carry away is this: the reconciling power of the Gospel is stronger than all the things that set these two men against one another.  Isaiah told us as much long ago:

11:6 The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
7 The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
8 The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
9 They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.

People in churches do not always agree with one another.  That is to be expected; this is natural and even healthy.  If two people agree on everything, one of them is simply unnecessary.  Disagreements are born of good people caring about things that matter.  But how do we become enemies?  How do we lose the capacity to listen to one another, to compromise, to seek the well-being of each other?  Why do we sometimes go to war, in a way, with one another?  Again, the full answer lies beyond the confines of this simple reflection.  I did, however, learn one thing from those two humble faithful men on that hot afternoon in the Vietnamese countryside.

In our churches, we are brothers and sisters, children of a common God.  In our Region, we bound to one another by our shared faith and commitment to ministry.  The bonds that unite us to one another are deeper and broader, stronger and more lasting than anything that might divide us.  We will never agree on everything; that is not the goal.  But like the man said:  “What can we do?  We are Christians now.  We must love one another and live as brothers (and sisters), children of the same father in heaven.” 

May we know both passion of conviction and love of one another in our churches, in our Region and throughout our lives.

Jim Kelsey
Executive Minister
American Baptist Churches of New York State