On the afternoon of Wednesday, June 29, 2011, I interviewed the eight members of the 2010-2011 PULSE unit at their house in the Highland Park neighborhood of Pittsburgh. These brief interviews transpired near the end of their term of service, giving me the benefit of nearly a year’s experience and the insights gained thereby.

My thanks to the interviewees, who were: Andrea Bowman (Archibold, Ohio), Maggie Graham (Greensburg, PA), Beth Glick (Goshen, IN), Laura Hanisch (Flanagan, IL), Abby Stern (Chambersburg, PA), Elizabeth (Dill) Dillon (Livonia, MI), Alicia Donner (Toledo, OH), Anna Pawsey (Clyde, OH).

The questions they answered for me had to do with what they had learned and how they had grown during this year of community and service. I explained, at the start of each interview with each person, that growth was the focus of my months of pastoral sabbatical, growth in God’s kingdom through growth in our giftedness for Christian life and leadership, that as a result of my sabbatical I would hope to weave together and locate myself within a chain of Christian spiritual nurture, with myself being mentored and mentoring others. Part of that could, God willing, be something related to Emmanuel Mennonite Church, and its partners, something like a PULSE community. Therefore, I would like their reflections on their reasons and hopes for joining a PULSE unit, how they grew through both the service and the community components of the program, how the church (local and more) fit in with their experience or not, and what they would recommend for anyone else, anywhere else, who would start and sustain a similar community. I will summarize below the answers they gave to my questions.


I. REASONS AND HOPES FOR JOINING PULSE: common to most or all of the responses was the desire to serve and to “give back” to the world and society. Having had experiences of community and relationships in home and in college, some expressed desires to continue and grow in what had already been good and formative relational experiences. Most also spoke of wanting to take several manageable transitional steps between the structured life of college to a life in which they would be totally responsible for all aspects of adult independent living. PULSE is such a transitional step. And some spoke of the leading of God, through what at the time seemed to be coincidence, accidents and serendipity.



All of the respondents spoke positively of the community aspect of PULSE life, though it was not without some difficulties, challenges, tensions and growing pains. But with good communication skills and a solid commitment to each other, almost anything could be worked through, or at least endured and put in a sustainable perspective. Several respondents spoke of learning greater patience, communication skills, conflict management, assertiveness, listening, and a consensus model of working out covenants and procedures. Love is not too strong a word for what develops, even when one will never like everything about everyone.

Living together also spurs learning how to live with oneself, that is, learning what is one’s own and unique mix of need for solitude and interaction. Everyone needs some of both, but not in equal amounts. To get along, the differences must be known and respected. It also helped to have had some training or testing during the year to discern personal gifts and skill sets.

Some gave credit for the generally good relationships to the previous year’s selection process, where some attention to compatibility within diversity must have been given. But kudos were also in order for the mix of structure and independence and responsibility that went into the formative stages of the community last summer. For example, the participants, in their initial orientation to PULSE and Pittsburgh, were encouraged to draw up a covenant regarding the many details of life together, such as cooking, cleanup and communication. Ultimate responsibility for both the formation of this covenant and its follow-through was theirs, they were told. And yet they were also given a sample of a previous year’s covenant, plus some understanding of the issues such a covenant would have to address. In effect, they were given responsibility, but were not abandoned.

Respondents also gave credit to such practices as the four meals together each week, and of sharing prayer requests, concerns, highlights and disappointments, as well as prayer, before each of the four common weekly meals. Such practices gave them access to more than the superficial presence of each others’ lives, and helped cultivate deeper levels of trust and friendship.

The weekly seminar also got high credits for helping connect members with each other and with the community. An additional growing and learning experience was having each PULSE member do at least one of the weekly seminars.

Other forms of community mentioned included the city itself, PULSE alumnae, and the church. I’ll reflect on the church below. As for the city, it is noteworthy how many past PULSE participants have stayed in Pittsburgh, and how many current ones plan to stay. One even called it “home,” though she neither grew up here, nor had any family in the immediate area. For that we can credit some of the PULSE alumnae, as well as the efforts of Chris Cooke and others to educate PULSE participants to “deep Pittsburgh,” the history, dynamics, development and character of Pittsburgh, on the neighborhood and regional level.



PULSE seeks to connect participants with work and settings in line with their passions and gifts. Still, some hiccups can occur. One member’s placement had to change early in the year. But the adaptability that all PULSE participants showed was one evidence of their growth through service. Of special note is the fact that PULSE-ers are working in the areas of arts, economic development and the environment, in addition to the more expected realms of service, such as social service, advocacy, accompaniment, and education. While the latter fields address important and urgent needs, the first three are what make a city viable, livable and appealing.

Through their service experience, PULSE-ers learned much about themselves, their fields of interest and their gifts. As in the community experience, so at work, they learned communication skills, adaptability, assertiveness, patience, and maintaining boundaries between themselves and others, including those whom they served. Other lessons included learning how to handle difficult people, to see through bluff, bluster and facades, and to overcome the stereotyping of older people who often have diminished expectations of young adults.

For some PULSE-ers, their year of service has led to careers in their field of placement, or at the placement itself. For others, even when going into other fields and locations, valuable lessons remain. And they have the satisfaction of knowing that they have done something counter-cultural and against the grain: a year or more of service when the typical career ladder was beckoning.



As a pastor, I was especially interested in the role of the local church, or the lack thereof, in the lives of PULSE members. By church I do not mean the local Mennonite Church alone (not all PULSE participants are Mennonite). Nor do I mean just any one particular congregation.

One of the values of PULSE is “the exploration of faith.” PULSE does not hold its members accountable to a particular faith statement, though typically its members will include some component of faith in their covenants with each other. Members are not pressured to attend church, only encouraged.

All respondents had attended at least several churches, including churches other than the those of the denomination in which they had grown up. Most shared that they had not gone as regularly than they might have while at home or in college. Partly that was due to the fact that much of what a church does, PULSE members already do for each other, so that it would be hard or unusual for a local congregation to be as close and intimate for PULSE participants as is the PULSE community. Another factor was geographical distance and lack of mobility if they wished to attend a church of their denominational background. Another issue, however, was that the typical church of their background, as well as their home church, was not quite on the same wavelength as they now were, as a result of their experiences and growth. They were connecting their faith with issues of justice, poverty, peace and urban dynamics, things that may be “off the radar screen” of so many churches.



I asked for advice on what to do, especially, what to replicate, should a comparable community get started elsewhere, as well as for what not to do, or repeat. That I got much more of the former than the latter I take as a good sign. Some of the advice I got was:

  • Try to keep placements geographically as close as possible to the community house
  • Keep up the weekly seminars and education
  • Give a similar mix of structure and responsibility, guidance and freedom, necessary expectations of each other (covenant) and flexibility
  • Keep the community building aspect right up there in importance with the service aspect
  • Do personal skills and gifts discernment like we did
  • Get to really know your neighborhood and the city down to its roots
  • Have fun together
  • Don’t skimp on space to hang out together, especially on a great front porch like what their Stanton house has.
  • Conversely, get to know and respect each other’s need for solitude, space and separation, as well as your own
  • Beat the drum for your organization; modesty and hiding in the shadows will get you nowhere; develop a strong network of friends and supporters, locally and beyond
  • Have a fairly rigorous application process by which you select for compatibility and complementarity among members



A. Personal and Spiritual Growth

Our growth, as Christians, is not just a personal process. It is a cosmic event, with consequences that can be called, in the best sense of the word, “apocalyptic,” or “revealing” of present and future realities, of the end and goal of God’s work in Creation. In Second Peter, we are described as those who “are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells.”(3:12) We are even told that we can “hasten that day.” (3:10)

How? As we “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (3:18). Thus we become and display the end result of our prayers, labors and longings.

The paradox of personal growth is that we are each responsible for attending to our own growth, and yet we cannot grow ourselves. Growth is a partnership of God, self and others.

PULSE is oriented toward the growth in faith and personhood of young adults. Its mission statement is to cultivate “a community of young servant leaders who will transform Pittsburgh.” Yet it has important things to say for the growth in faith and humanity of all persons, at all stages of life. The ingredients of relationship, commitments, service, faith, worship and spiritual practices are necessary to the growth of all persons and communities into the will and image of God, until the day when we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” (I Jn. 3: 2)

For the church to organize itself and invest in the growth of young adults is not only right and good for their growth, it is necessary for the growth in grace and godliness of all other members of the church and the wider community. For as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., put it, “we are woven together into a seamless web of interdependence and mutuality, so that what betters anyone benefits everyone.”

American Christians often wring their hands about the absence and defection of young adults from the church (except from young adult churches). This is not the case in much of the rest of the world, where the average age of Christians is probably under twenty-five. But as many sociologists and philosophers have observed, there is every incentive in the culture and economy not to grow up. Many are quick to point fingers at young adults, raised on a media diet of role models such as what we find in Arrested Development and The Simpsons.

But the media and the market are creations of their parents’ generation, a generation that is now making a growth industry out of nostalgia and the rescue and retention of our (formerly) youthful bodies. That is directly at odds with the stories and traditions of other cultures, and those of our ancestors, which saw life as a gift, that it was short (it still is), and that its only fair to help the next generation take the same place that the previous generation gave you. That was the measure of maturity.

As someone the age of their parents, I was pleasantly caught off guard when PULSE participants said to me, “I joined PULSE because I want to give something back” (emphasis mine) to life, the world and to God. They’re barely out of college and already they feel like debtors? Besides for the cost of college?

As we age, the sense of obligation doesn’t stop, according to the words of an old hymn: “Oh to grace, how great a debtor, daily I’m constrained to be.” This sense of gratitude, and the joy of paying forward what we have received, are markers of current and emerging maturity. From what I heard and observed, I doubt that a year of PULSE will fulfill and still this sense of gratitude and the desire to give. If anything, it may stimulate it.


B. An Emerging Christian Urbanism

I expected to find young Christian community service workers placed in food shelters, homeless shelters, community accompaniment and advocacy positions, day cares, housing rehabilitation, and other human service endeavors. Some PULSE participants have done or are doing just those things, thanks be to God.

But a pleasant surprise was to find PULSE participants engaged in urban forestry and gardening (for food and beauty), economic development, and the arts. Why should those be surprising? I now wonder. These latter things are what make a city livable and enjoyable, not only feasible. They are also the features of that “City with foundations, whose builder and architect is God” (Heb. 11:10) according to the descriptions of it in Isaiah 65, Ezekiel 47-48, and Revelation 20-22. Common to these visions of the city of God, the New Zion, is a geography of reconciliation, even an urban infrastructure of reconciliation, between God and humanity, between the tribes of humanity, and between humanity and the rest of Creation.

God builds such a city. But it should not surprise us if hints and foretastes of that city emerge now, especially through the life and work of the church, which is to be a human foretaste of a divine victory. PULSE and its participants are visible expressions of a hidden but emerging reality: the New Zion.


C. Young Adults and the Local Church

In spite of PULSE’s affiliation with the Mennonite world, its an unavoidable and unfortunate fact that Pittsburgh’s one Mennonite church is geographically removed from the PULSE house. PMC may have intentional efforts and programs to reach out to PULSE members, but I could discern very little of that from the respondents’ answers. To be fair, I have asked no one at PMC about that. Furthermore, its probably good for Mennonite young adults to visit and experience other churches, so that they either re-choose to be Mennonite, intentionally, when they return, or they find a church which they better suit.

As the pastor of an urban church in a city with many colleges and universities, I know how frustrating it can be to reach out to young adults of college age. Their parents and grandparents may call you with their contact information, eager for the pastor to contact them. Often, you soon learn that some of them are in town to get away from church. Others may wish to attend and worship, but only where there are others of their age and interests, rather than in the smaller local church of their denominational background, where gray heads outnumber young adults. Whatever the case, they should be blessed and released for such exploration. Nothing is to be gained by pressure, guilt or compulsion.

Even if young adults do attend regularly, chances are good that they will eventually move on to other places and other churches. Much more rare is it today that a young adult attends, stays, joins, marries, raises children, dies 60-70 years later and is buried in that same urban church. It happens, but we cannot build a church growth strategy entirely upon it. Such mobility can lead, if we’re not careful, to a reluctance to relate to college-age and young adults, out of grief over so many goodbyes.

No one is guaranteed tomorrow together. But we are guaranteed forever. Whatever we can invest then in relationships and people today will bear fruit in God’s kingdom forever. And the seeds that young adults plant in our congregations, through their visits, their fellowship, their questions, insights, experiences, challenges, growth and struggles, will bless and benefit the local church, however long or often they are with us.

How does the local church both bless and benefit from the young adults who may go almost as often as they come? The respondents spoke of how much they appreciated potlucks after church, invitations to people’s homes, and other expressions of interest and hospitality in them as persons, and not just as a group. It helps if the local church is also grappling with and interested in the things they are doing and learning, especially when it comes to the justice and social issues they face in their assignments.

And yet the primary focus of the church must be neither them nor the issues they face. One respondent said that what she looked for most in a church was not the programs nor the traditions, but the members’ “passion for God.” Could it be that, when we reach first for God, we touch the world, while when we reach only for the world, we touch neither?



I came to PULSE wondering what such a community and program could teach me about church and leadership in an urban environment similar to the one in which I serve. I even am looking to see if such a community could take shape in Minneapolis, related to the congregation I serve. Furthermore, I am in discernment over whether such a service and learning community should be part of a wider national organization, like Mennonite Voluntary Service, or something more independent (“autocephalous” was the word John Stahl-Wert used), yet affiliated, like PULSE.

Its simple and reassuring in some ways to have uniform and authoritative policies, procedures and personnel already in place (“service community in a box”), so as to benefit from the experience and guidelines of an outside authority, especially when differences and problems emerge. They will. But an unhealthy dependency on the distant authority can take shape. If there is much turnover in the headquarters, or too much distance from headquarters, this dependency can prove fatal.

Now the idea of something independent and affiliated seems to be not so far-fetched nor impossible. Being independent but affiliated (with local and national partner agencies) has the potential to combine the benefits of local guidance and responsibility with those of support and counsel from partners, as long as the mission and its values are clear, and as long as the governing body and the participants hold to them and follow through on their responsibilities. There would, however, have to be other people who would share the vision, fill in the missing gaps in my skills set, and give the time to linking the dream with reality. They and their offerings would be confirmation that this is God’s idea, not just my own.

But the goal must be kept firmly in mind: Not just another program, institution nor an organization for its own sake, nor for our own sake, in a world already full of programs, institutions and organizations competing for people and funds. The goal is the growth of God’s honor and God’s kingdom through the growth of God’s people. Not just young people, but all people who would be in partnership and relationship with them. That would have here the kind of transforming effect that PULSE seeks to have in its setting.


Respectfully submitted,

Pastor Mathew Swora

Emmanuel Mennonite Church

Minneapolis, MN






…..or should I entitle my reflections, “The Peacemaking Pastorate?” How about “Pastoring AS Peacemaking?” The fact that I am still struggling to define how it is that peacemaking and pastoring relate could mean that I am still a mental captive of the segregation in our culture of church and gospel from justice and peacemaking. The scarcity of American pastors and church leaders at this summer’s Summer Peacebuilding Institute (SPI), part of the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding (CJP) at Eastern Mennonite University could be a symptom of this segregation. I’m glad to say, though, that churches from other countries stepped up and sent more pastors per capita, even churches from some of the world’s poorest countries.

Or could it mean that the two worlds of church and peacemaking are so big and so deep that it will take a lifetime in either pair of shoes to explore the territory? One then finds that there are always some differences between that which pastors regularly do, and that which civil society agents, like conflict mediators and victim/offender reconciliation workers, do, at least on a regular basis. Pastors don’t normally start sermons by asking the congregation, “So, what did you just hear the other person saying?” Maybe sometimes they should. And conflict mediators don’t normally ask their clients to open their hymnals or their Bibles to a certain passage. But that might not hurt, either.

After all, pastors preach, teach and counsel from “the gospel of peace” (Eph. 6: 15) in a “ministry of reconciliation.” (2 Cor. 5:18) And conflict, peace and reconciliation are spiritual matters, not just procedural nor technical ones. Things happen when hearts begin to melt, adversaries begin to reflect and repent, and broken relationships begin to mend, that make your eyes tear up, that puts a lump in your throat and a shiver down your spine, so that you want to “take off your shoes, for you are standing on holy ground” (Exodus 3: 5).

A peacemaking pastorate, or whatever we want to call it, accepts conflict, anxiety and tension as part of even the best relationships and the healthiest of growth. Conflict may even be a sign of growth. It amounts to wearing new lenses that reveal the commonalities, conflicts and other connections under the tip of the iceberg that is our shared life. Its about learning to see each difference of belief and every clash of interests, personalities and desires not as a dead end to a relationship but as a doorway to a deeper relationship, even, as an invitation to spiritual and relational growth.

This new set of lenses also helps one see and avoid the pitfalls and shortcuts to a positive conflict transformation, such as avoidance or denial. On the other end of the scale of self-defeating responses are physical or emotional violence, blaming, shaming and sometimes even bargaining. Raising our fists, our weapons or our voices in rage, for control, effectively slams the door on personal growth.

Perhaps the most difficult thing to learn to see is the difference between mere analysis and manipulation of conflict, and the compassionate wisdom of a vulnerable engagement. The latter is what Jesus did among us. Its the difference between being a mere technician and a true friend. The first can come and go; the subject does not touch him or her deeply, nor will it change him. But the Christ-like peacemaker (pastor or not), whatever his or her role in a conflict, sees in every conflict that same invitation: to grow and to be changed, along with the conflicted parties and their relationship.

But you wouldn’t know that from much of what passes for pastoral training or coaching, in many pastor-oriented books, seminars and magazines. Over the last few decades we have had dangled before us the executive, managerial leadership models of mega-corporation CEO’s. They were worth hearing because of how much their companies, their stock and their compensation grew. So, leadership was evaluated mostly by objectives, achievements and rewards.

There’s always something to learn from that world (or from anyone, for that matter). But to keep the analogy going, pastoral and congregational growth have too often been measured mostly by budgets, facilities, programs and attendance.

What about growth in personhood, spiritual giftedness, wisdom, virtue and love? My new peacebuilding lenses, as fuzzy as the view still is, are leading me to see that what CJP and SPI call ‘peacebuilding” is largely what the Bible calls “wisdom”.

Whoever would love life and see good days
must keep their tongue from evil and their lips from deceitful speech.
They must turn from evil and do good;  they must seek peace and pursue it.
For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous and his ears are attentive to their prayer,
but the face of the Lord is against those who do evil.”
(I Peter 3:10; Psalm 34: 10-12)

And all these years I thought “wisdom” was mostly about “how to win friends and influence others” and not embarrass myself too much in public. Just as the Apostle Peter and King David saw the deep unity of wisdom with peacemaking, social justice, personal virtue, and a living, saving faith, so must we, beginning with us pastors.

These are some of the thoughts that recapture the glowing, “take-off-your-shoes” holy space experience of my three weeks at EMU’s Summer Peacebuilding Institute. I was already enriched and humbled on the morning of Day 1, standing in line to register with students from all around the world, even from different religions and some claiming no religions at all. I made friends with Iranian Shiite Muslim seminary students and teachers, Sudanese, Nigerian, Irish and Ethiopian pastors, civil society workers from Guatemala, Brazil, Myanmar, and more than I can recount here.

I am aware that this diversity of students and teachers brings EMU and the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding some criticism, as though the universality of SPI’s participants means that EMU has gone all universalistic on us. I would argue instead that CJP’s generosity, hospitality and global engagement amount to a valuable and powerful Christian witness.

What CJP and SPI offer is not a diversion from, nor a substitute for, the gospel of Jesus Christ, but an open and alluring doorway to it. The evangelist must scratch where people itch. When it comes to war, conflict and reconciliation, “itch” is too mild a word for the world’s trauma and terror. That people from all over the planet, even from the worlds of Islam, Hinduism and secularism, are beating a path to EMU indicates that reasons and resources for making peace apart from the influence of Jesus and the kingdom of God are few, feeble and far between.

And yet so many of these same people will also attest that they have experienced the church as a barrier to peace and a contributor to their troubles. And not just the secularists nor the Muslims, with their memories of the Crusades and of “Christian” colonialism. A Protestant pastor from Northern Ireland told me, “This stuff is changing my life! But after I preach this back home for a year, then what kind of a job do you think I can find?” Renewal, like judgment, begins with the household of God (I Peter 4: 17).



The one big exception to the puzzling separation of the church and the peacemaking world was the first class I took: Faith-based Peacemaking. Not only were half the students pastors (two of us from the U.S.), but so was the teacher, Roy Haines. We covered the peacemaking resources of Christian, Jewish and Muslim traditions, from our scriptures as well as our histories and traditions.

My primary take-home lesson from that class is that in the Bible, as well as in real life, major spiritual breakthroughs in the salvation history of God are usually accompanied by major breakthroughs in broken relationships, or by restorations of right relationships. Consider Jacob and Esau, or Joseph and his brothers. And when people fight the healing, reconciling work of God, then God still breaks in to work for true peace. Consider the Exodus, the Exile and the Gospel.

So read the Bible and look at the world with the overlapping lenses of reconciliation between God and people, and between people and people. One without the other amounts to tunnel vision.

How to integrate and bring about the symbiosis of peace on earth and with heaven was more the focus of my second class, The Philosophy and Praxis of Forgiveness and Reconciliation, taught by Dr. Hizkias Asefa. We often use words like reconciliation, forgiveness, mediation and peacemaking interchangeably (I likely have already, in this report). But Dr. Asefa helped us differentiate all these terms on a scale of intensity and engagement, with the weakest kind of peacemaking being the pseudo-peace imposed by terror and superior power, at one end of the spectrum. The strongest and most enduring kind of peacemaking, on the other end of the spectrum, is reconciliation, an ongoing relationship of former or potential adversaries committed to improving their relationship and to each other’s well-being. Hollywood movies like to present reconciliation as a total breakthrough that happens instantly, at the end of the movie. But in real life, reconciliation is hard and lifelong work. But everything else is harder, more painful and and more costly.

Dr. Asefa’s vision of peacemaking and reconciliation brought out the essential unity of peace on all levels between heaven and our divided human hearts, including peacemaking with Creation. Like in a game of Jenga, if we remove one kind of peace, say, with our spouses or our neighbors or the environment, other kinds of peace will eventually collapse, too. When working at one level of peace, say, with an estranged sibling, don’t be surprised if you also have to work at peace with God, yourself or another person. Dr. King was right, “We are enmeshed in a web of mutual destiny, so that what effects one person affects another.”



So, what will be different for me and the pastorate as I assimilate more of my SPI experience? Wisdom tells me not to be too quick to answer. Hopefully, I will be different, for having a more perceptive and patient view of conflict, and of all the underlying connections between us on the level of self, family, church, community, country, world, and with God. All these relationships and conflicts, and their movements toward reconciliation, are connected. Hopefully I will be different, for having learned more about my own tendencies, strengths and weaknesses, my vision and my blindspots around relationships and reconciliation. Hopefully I will come into every conflict and community with the awareness, as Paul puts it, that “I am the chief of sinners” (I Timothy 1:15), and that I must take personal responsibility for my part in every conflicted system, good and bad, rather than by trying only to fix others.

Already I have experienced something of this synergy and symbiosis of reconciliation among all relationships through my visits with family this summer. My extended family is no more conflicted than most, and probably no less. Like most people, I have tended to focus outwardly, on other people’s problems, that they need to fix. But this summer I have tried to be responsible for what I alone can do and am responsible for, by giving honor where honor is due, and by admitting to and asking forgiveness for some things I have done in the past, like neglect and withdrawal.

Never has the sunshine poured through the clouds to the accompaniment of angels singing as a result, as in some Hollywood movie ending. But I do feel gratitude and a greater freedom and connection in those relationships that spills into other areas of my life. I’m sure I heard this in seminary but must have forgotten it: that I can do no better by my church family than what I do by my human family.

Hopefully, I will be different, in that the mere whiff of conflict neither shames nor frightens me, but invites me and others to growth. Hopefully, others will sense something of my growth and change and will want to change and grow in similar ways.

Southside Minneapolis is looking for peacemakers. Our neighbors have every right to expect them to come from the ranks of the church. I, however, do not feel the call to run after all the needs and invitations that could come our way. Nor does my pastoral job description envision that.

No, the pastor cannot always be the go-to-fix-it person for all conflict in a congregation, because the pastor is part of the congregational system. Sometimes, he or she is even the cause of conflict, sometimes for no fault of anyone, sometimes with the best of intentions, sometimes even because of his or her gifts, strengths, skills and knowledge, and not just because of his or her inevitable weaknesses. So its no sign of anyone’s failure when differences arise and a congregation and a pastor must call for outside help to improve or restore relationships. They should get medals for bravery and wisdom. The church both has and needs the ministry of reconciliation.

But I am called, by both the Bible and our job description, to attend to the church’s growth (personally and corporately), beginning with my own. Reconciliation is what unblocks our own path to growth. Maybe my growth in peacemaking wisdom will encourage the growth of more peacemakers among us. If its part of my self, my soul and my pastoral toolkit, then it will become part of the congregational culture.

At least expect to hear more in my preaching and teaching about reconciliation, communication and relationships, not from the viewpoint of an expert, but from that of a fellow struggler. Perhaps we can have Christian Education classes on relationships, conflict, peacemaking and nonviolent communication. Or we could sponsor, by ourselves or with other churches, seminars from resource people at EMU or the Lombard Mennonite Peace Center. And if God permits there to be a service and learning community here along the lines of Mennonite Voluntary Service or Pittsburgh Urban Leadership Service Experience some day, maybe it can include someone engaged in peacemaking, helping connect us to the community in a winsome witness for Christ, in response to a crying need. Literally.


By Pastor Mathew Swora

Emmanuel Mennonite Church

Minneapolis, MN

STAR–Strategies for Trauma Awareness and Resilience

A Review: by Mathew Swora

“Seeing your face is as seeing the face of God” (Genesis 33:10), said Jacob to his estranged and offended brother, Esau, upon their reunion. This was long after Jacob had betrayed and despoiled his brother of his birthright and his blessing, and long after his brother had threatened to kill him for that. More than a mere exclamation of relief, these words serve notice that the invisible God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is to be seen in relationships, especially in stages and moments of healing and reconciliation, in effect, through love. For “God is love” (I John 4:8). What began with Cain and Abel, God can and will stop and heal, through such things as what Jacob learned and did. Ours is “The God of Jacob.”

In Jacob and Esau’s story we find all the elements of trauma: betrayal, estrangement, fear, violence, even murder, even fratricide (or at least the threat thereof). Some of these elements may also be found after natural disasters, such as earthquakes, hurricanes and tornadoes, when our previous assumptions about our place and relationship with the world are shattered, sometimes literally out of the blue. All of them can be found in human-generated disasters, such as war, genocide, crime, murder, and civil strife. Just read Lamentations for a catalog of trauma.

Although long-term, unrelieved stress can generate physical and emotional symptoms similar to post-traumatic stress, the normal, unavoidable stress of every day lives and our built-in role conflicts are not to be confused with trauma. Trauma differs from stress similar to the way in which a tornado differs from prevailing winds. In Belgium and in Kansas, I have seen how mature trees lean in the direction of prevailing winds, having constantly been stressed to survive in that shape. But they’re still quite strong, maybe stronger for the pressure. Tornadoes, however, can uproot and shatter trees. When a human or natural disaster strikes so suddenly, powerfully and irreversibly as to threaten our lives and our very sense of being and meaning, as though it were a betrayal of the very covenant we had made with God, life and the world, that is trauma.

In response to trauma, our bodies want to shake, weep, cry out, move, even run, the fight or flight response. There is deep, God-given wisdom to such responses; they discharge adrenaline and other God-given hormones that enable us to react to threat and hopefully even survive. But often we are forced—or feel forced—to stuff and stifle these responses for a later time, or indefinitely. Children who were abused in any way quickly learn not to react, lest they “invite” more abuse. Or people in the midst of falling bombs or rising waters have to shut down their shaking and quaking in order to get to safety. They may never let it come back on, so busy are they with coping and putting the pieces of life back together.

Yet the body remembers, and years later, for reasons we may not understand, they may come out in destructive ways, such as “acting in.” That is, by drug and alcohol abuse, risky sexual behavior, or other destructive addictions. Or we may “act out,” by abusing other people, stirring up conflict or in organized mob violence, as with gangs or in war. While such actions may provide momentary feelings of relief, they also widen the scope of trauma victims and add another kind of trauma to that of the victims: participant-induced trauma, the trauma of guilt, shame and spiritual deadening on the part of the offender. Often people carry both kinds of trauma, because, as is often said in therapeutic circles, “hurt people hurt people.” Violence and trauma become, in effect, a spiritual virus passing from one host to another, through families, communities and even nations in a vicious, self-perpetuating circle. The curse of Cain did not stop with him.

Just as we should never underestimate the power and effects of trauma, so we should never underestimate the power and possibilities of healing. In the STAR training (Strategies for Trauma Awareness and Resilience) that I took over the weekend of June 23-27, I learned much about the causes, effects and treatment of trauma. Though hosted by Augsburg College, in Minneapolis, MN, it is part of Eastern Mennonite University’s Institute for Peacebuilding. Mennonite peace and reconciliation workers have discovered that no one can deal with conflict for very long before realizing that it is often driven and complicated by very deep, emotional and historic pain, in effect, trauma. Rarely can the conflicts be resolved and peace made until the underlying pain and fear are addressed and healed to some degree.

The words “healing” and “treatment” makes it sound like it was a course for licensed therapists and psychologists, but only some of the attendees were of that professional status. The rest of us were students, school teachers, community activists and organizers, seminary students, and one pastor—myself. I would recommend STAR for anyone. The information was accessible and applicable for anyone of almost any educational background and level.

Central to STAR’s model of trauma awareness and response is “the snail model.” Think of the inner, overlapping circles as descriptors of the cycle of trauma/abuse, acting in and/or acting out and re-traumatization, of self and others. This cycle, sadly, is the plot line of many stories, epics and movies, from the ancient Babylonian creation epic, to Homer’s Illiad, Hitler’s Mein Kampf, the spaghetti westerns of Clint Eastwood, to today’s shoot-em-up video games, and the revenge fantasy novels of Dean Koontz. Often, the unwilling participants in this cycle bear a tragic nobility, suffering inevitably as both victims and avengers.

If that is not to continue forever and destroy both victim and perpetrator and create many more, at some point one must break free and create a new, self-reinforcing cycle, or story, or identity, by transcending the cycle of violation and vengeance. Because it breaks out from the tight circle of pain and retribution and moves off in another arc, a diagram of this redemptive movement has been called, “the snail model.” Also because it goes slowly and can be messy, as snails are.

The trajectory of the new cycle begins with truth-telling: exploring and memorializing the story of the injury but with a difference from the constant feedback loop of victimhood and the need to avenge. In the new story, the old plot leads to new ones, in which the victim rises above the status of victim, and the offender is considered separately from the offense. Prime examples of this would be the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., or the courageous and careful restoration of Warsaw, Poland, brick by brick, after it was completely leveled in 1944. There’s no excusing or minimizing the offense, of course. But the offender has to be re-considered as a hurt human being (because “hurt people hurt people”), no longer diminishing him or her to a sub-human status, as when the Hutus of Rwanda labeled the Tutsis “cockroaches.” That gave permission to stamp them out. But just as often, the offended must take the offender down from the status of a super-human monster, bigger than life, and therefore, above and beyond the reach of conscience, love or healing. This happened in Nazi-occupied Poland, when the war started to turn against the Nazis. Hearing news of German defeats, and seeing wounded Germans in passing hospital trains, gave many Polish Jews and Gentiles courage to start standing up to the occupiers in both overt and covert ways. They were only human, after all.

From there the trauma victim moves toward a new story and identity, one of survivor, overcomer, forgiver and peacemaker. Forgiveness is not to be confused with reconciliation, which requires just as much responsibility on the part of the offender as on the victim. The victim’s own healing cannot be held hostage to the offender’s willingness—or not–to admit his or her wrong-doing and ask for pardon. The offender may not even be available or alive any more. Forgiveness is not about excusing or minimizing the injury. It is about releasing oneself from a felt need to avenge, and therefore re-traumatize oneself and others.

An important way-station in the journey of trauma healing is the willingness to seek reconciliation with the offender. In one of the most touching parts of the seminar, that is what we saw a mother and her granddaughter do, in a documentary film, with the man who had raped and murdered the granddaughter’s mother years before. With the help of a volunteer who worked with Victim-Offender mediation, they were able to meet with the murderer in his prison and hear the answers to many of their questions about the murder. This was possible because of good preparation for this event, which included working with the murderer to help him get to the point where he owned up to what he did, and to all its meaning and ramifications. Forgiveness and reconciliation are not to be confused with condoning what needs to be forgiven. By honestly facing what he had done, and how it had affected them, both the offender and the victim’s survivors experienced some relief from the symptoms of trauma, how it that had long depressed, deadened and imprisoned them. The brutal crime had already forced into fact a relationship between the murderer and the victim’s loved ones. But after their initial meetings, that relationship was on a constructive, life-affirming path for all of them. But the murderer remains in prison.

This cycle of release and healing is the grand, mythic story that must come to inspire, instruct, and re-construct us, as an alternative to the myth of redemptive violence and the cycle of vengeance that has enchanted us for millenia.

All this I have described so far in psychological and therapeutic language. But it is also, I noted, the language and movement of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The break from the self-perpetuating cycle of violence and vengeance into a new self-perpetuating cycle of healing is one that Jesus made even as he was being nailed to the cross, when he prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” On the third day after his crucifixion, he appeared to the very disciples who had abandoned and denied him in his hour of need, an act in their culture that was nearly every bit as bad as his betrayal by Judas and his murder, and said to them, “Peace be with you.” Then he went on, through his disciples, to reach out, incorporate and reconcile people of the very tribes and nations that had abandoned and murdered him (Gentile and Jewish), and to reconcile them to each other. This “ministry of reconciliation,” in the apocalyptic language of John’s Revelation, is “the war of the lamb” (Rev. 17:14).” It is every bit as heroic, mythic and cosmic, and requires just as much courage, discipline and dedication, and then some, as does war. But in this war, bodies, souls and relationships are re-united and healed.

And it is not just for the survivors of war, murder and natural disasters, although one can argue that we are all such survivors, even if only by a few degrees removed. To live and be human is to have to work through offenses, injuries and insults to our selves and our sense of well-being, even if they are self-inflicted or secondary, that is, by hearing the stories of other people’s traumas and helping them through them. Trauma healing is also for social workers, aid workers, medical personnel, pastors and any others who help carry other people’s burdens and may themselves suffer secondary trauma and compassion fatigue.

Much of what we, as helpers, can do for those recovering from trauma, is to listen with patience, attention, care and empathy. In so doing we help them tell their story and thus validate their pain and injury. We cannot reinterpret their story for them, but we can listen for and encourage those steps and twists in the story-telling through which they can begin to move from a cycle of victimhood to one of victory over the symptoms of trauma. Because, by the grace of God, life, hope and healing are ever seeking to enter and re-direct the inward, downward spiral of victimhood. At times, though, we may have to recognize and challenge the temptation to use the story to reinforce a sense of victimhood, rather than to seek a way out of it.

Even if our lives have been incredibly sheltered (like mine, comparatively speaking), in this city (Minneapolis) and in this time, one need only sit somewhere a while before trauma stories and trauma victims come looking for us. Trauma of some sort has driven most of the immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers to our neighborhoods. The Native peoples, whose ancestors received the first Scandinavians and Germans to this community, carry a trauma wound that is re-opening on the occasion of Minnesota’s 150th anniversary. Federal law still says that the Dakota are not supposed to live in this state, under pain of death. I sense that the recent Arizona law requiring the validation of citizenship whenever there is any reason to doubt it, and the recent proposal of such a law in the Minnesota state legislature, has heightened the level of fear in the local Spanish-speaking community, documented and otherwise.

Trauma can feed back to the present from the future, in the one universal trauma we all face: that of death and dying. And so we deny and negate the reality of death in ways similar to the common denial of traumas in our past. But hope and healing can also filter back from the future to the present. On the last day of STAR, our assignment was to bring in some symbol of hope for ourselves. One person brought a cross. A Somali woman quoted a verse from the Q’uran in Arabic. Another brought some of her photography. I brought two matching halves of a freshwater clam shell that I had found alongside the Maumee River, upstream of Toledo, Ohio. It is a sign of healing and hope, I said, because the river, at its headwaters in Fort Wayne, Indiana, begins nearly as a dead zone, so badly is it polluted with silt, sewage and industrial waste. By the time it reaches Defiance, Ohio, however, the river is much cleaner and brimming with life. Freshwater clams are especially sensitive to pollution, but from Defiance on down they thrive in the river nearly all the way to its mouth, near Toledo, so powerful and effective are the powers of healing, renewal and cleansing in this world. That reminded me, I said, of another picture of healing and restoration to come, in John’s Revelation, chapter 22: “Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be any curse.”

And from the previous chapter, verse 4: “God will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. He who was seated on the throne said, ‘I am making everything new!'”


Another casualty of the Vietnam war was hope. With major Civil Rights legislation and Great Society programs signed into law by President Johnson, the 1960’s were a heady time of hope for progress toward social justice, equality and opportunity for all. But the hope soon faded, like the last note of a bugle playing taps.  The war, like a cowbird in a robin’s nest, was eating up more and more of our nation’s energies and resources. In his address to the New York chapter of Clergy and Laity Concerned, at the famous Riverside Church, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., drew this parallel between Vietnam and the abortive War on Poverty: “A few years ago there was a shining moment in that struggle. It seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor — both black and white — through the poverty program. There were experiments, hopes, new beginnings. Then came the buildup in Vietnam and I watched the program broken and eviscerated as if it were some idle political plaything of a society gone mad on war, and I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic destructive suction tube. So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such.” (Read the text of the entire speech, “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break the Silence,” at http://www.hartford-hwp.com/archives/45a/058.html).

In the late ’60’s and early ’70’s, what social investments military budgets did not de-fund, politics and war-driven inflation killed off. Common wisdom says that we tried lifting people out of poverty and poverty, and the poor, proved incorrigible. But its more evident to me that our short-lived social investments died in the fields and forests of Vietnam long before they could bear any fruit. Whenever a nation sends soldiers off to war, it is unavoidably warring against its own citizens, directly, by putting them in harm’s way, and indirectly, by beating our much-needed plowshares into swords and the people’s pruning hooks into spears. Another monument is needed on which to list the names of all the Great Society programs that died in infancy, and all the people who were condemned to remain in, or fall into, poverty by the war. It should be within sight of the Vietnam War Memorial.

The social, spiritual and personal effects of this death of hope could be seen in the 1970’s, aptly called, “The Me Decade.” With trust and idealism dying agonizing deaths under war and the Watergate scandal, with poverty and inflation increasing, what was left but to tend one’s own garden, pursue pleasure, and “tune in, turn on and drop out?”

It was in this setting (1973), while trading in my dying youthful idealism for the mindless pleasures of the Me decade, that I was stopped in my tracks by the Prince of Peace. He affirmed my anti-war and pro-Civil Rights beliefs and even intensified them, putting them on an entirely new footing, other than a secular humanism. My waning idealism he replaced with a loyalty and commitment to the visions of Israel’s prophets. I enlisted in the anti-violent War of the Lamb. That was in the course of “The Jesus Movement,” which rescued many of my generation from either burning out on hedonism, or selling out to “The System.”

Through Christ I entered that “Revolution of Values” that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., urged on us toward the close of his speech on the Vietnam War. Read the following words and consider their import to today: “A true revolution of values will lay hands on the world order and say of war: ‘This way of settling differences is not just.’ This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation’s homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into veins of people normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”

Just to the south of the wall with the names of all the war dead is a statue to the women who served in Vietnam. It too is powerful and touching. The woman who had seen me crying, and the youth group she was chaperoning, got to it just ahead of me. By the time I arrived to contemplate it, with tears still fresh on my cheeks, some of these youth were climbing over the statue and joking about it. I may well have done the same at their age. But their chaperone chewed them out, telling them, “Its not that kind of statue [for climbing on], and besides, there are people here grieving the deaths of their family members and friends.” She also apologized to Becky for their conduct.

Technically, I was not grieving the loss of any “family members and friends.” I can’t claim to have known a single person whose name is on that wall. But a walk through the memorial reminded me that the world is such that no one is untouched by, or immune to, the effects of love or hate, life or death, war or peace, anywhere in this world. Bearing the names of all the war dead, each one representing an inter-connected web of still-grieving family members and friends, that long dark scar of a monument reminds us that we are all members of the same human household, with much left yet to mourn, to learn, to do, and to heal.


“Are you all right, Sir?” the woman asked, as she saw me crying. She had more than half a dozen middle-school youth with her in tow.

“I’m okay. Thank you,” I replied.

Becky and I were about half way through the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C., one day this week, when tears began streaming down my face. Becky remarked how the long, scar-like depression in the earth that is the monument was deepest at the point where it recorded the most names, in the middle and high point of America’s engagement in that conflict. Like the American death toll itself, the monument starts out shallow and narrow, and deepens before it turns and narrows again, to the tiny end point, where someone indeed had to be the last American to die for a tragic mistake. Something about the shape and color of that dark marble scar in the earth mirrors the wound that the war left in ourselves and our country.

Why was I crying? I wondered. I had never served there. Though I got my regulation Selective Service card, like all my peers (that was before I even knew about Mennonites and conscientious objection), I missed the draft for Vietnam by two years. Nor did I know anyone personally who had served and died there. I have since met veterans of the war, but obviously their names will never be on that monument. War stories are written and recounted by survivors. Yet there came back to me memories of the times that some childhood peer had told me that their brother or their father had died there. I either quickly changed the subject or found someone else to play with. The news was too monstrous for a child to face, let alone respond to adequately. Forty-five years later, I do not remember their names. Maybe it was for persons un-known or forgotten, deliberately perhaps, that the tears came. That also shows how, even with a draft, the war did not touch all of society equally. Then, as now, my scholarly, white collar middle class family and friends had options unavailable to poorer, blue collar folks and people of color. That’s worth lamenting, too.

Though I missed the draft, if anyone had told me, at the ripe age of eight or ten, that I would likely be sent to war in Viet Nam, I may well have believed them. From the nightly news and magazines like Time and Life, we got to know the names of Vietnamese cities like Quang Tri, Danang and Hue because our boys were always defeating the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese there. We were assured that we were winning, that there was “a light at the end of the tunnel,” because the body counts of their dead and missing were always higher than ours. Now we know that those figures were often invented and imaginary. But after so many years of defeating the VC and the North Vietnamese in Quang Tri, Danang and Hue, again and again, practically every other week, you couldn’t help wondering how many more years of victory this war would require, how many more years of victory we could take, and whether you’d survive when it became your turn to also go fight and win there. Had Congress not begun de-funding the war on Nixon’s watch, and had Nixon not begun his process of “Vietnamisation,” (turning the war over to the South Vietnamese, with American weapons and training—basically how the war stated twelve years earlier), I would be much more surprised today that I, too, had not gone to Viet Nam and become a name on that wall. Or someone who came to put those flowers and that card that I saw, in memory of a beloved comrade in arms, just below his name. Maybe it was the lifelong burden of his or her grief, more than forty years later, that started the tears flowing.

My third grade teacher, Mrs. Renkin, told me to expect as much. “Many boys like those in this class have grown up to serve their country, to fight and to die for our freedom,” she told us one day, “like boys I went to school with, who died in places like Anzio, Normandy, or Guadalcanal.” She added, “And when it comes your chance, all you boys should be proud and willing to do the same, like our boys now dying to defend our lives and liberty in Viet Nam.”

“That’s easy for you to say, Mam,” I thought to myself. I knew better to say it out loud though, because I was already convinced that she had it in for boys, and gave girls preferential treatment. I’m not sure that my conduct in her class gave her much reason to change her preferences. But that got me to wondering when and why the willingness to kill and die became the price for life as a male. So who decided, and when, that I was born to be expendable? More than forty years later, I wonder if there was some burden of grief she carried from World War II or Korea.

Now I embrace the expendability of this life for the kingdom of God, and even find freedom in that, but with the promise that, in losing this life, I get an even greater one. And I am much more assured of the worth of God’s kingdom, than I am of the cause we were supposed to be defending in Vietnam. We now know that all three presidents who prosecuted the war (Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon), plus at least one of their Secretaries of Defense (Robert McNamara) knew that the war could not be won. They simply did not want to be the first American president to lose a war, nor did they want their party to be accused of being soft on Communism and “losing Vietnam” the way the Democrats  had been accused of “losing” China in the late 1940’s. As though any other country were ours to lose. So they kept sending in the soldiers, either escalating or de-escalating the deadly assembly line, to stay in power and to postpone the day of reckoning until the next administration came into office. In effect, so many of the names on that dark scar of a wall were there for protecting someone’s political hide.

As that suspicion turned to realization, my generation lost the faith that the previous generation had: that our leaders always leveled with us, like FDR with his fireside chats; that our country always wore the white hat and rode to war only to rescue the innocent and to restore justice; and that, being so virtuous and powerful, we would always prevail over the evil other. That narrative seemed to have fit the previous wars of living memory, according to all the movies starring John Wayne and Audie Murphy. And many of the teachers, Scout masters, sports coaches  and even some pastors and priests from that generation kept reminding us of it. But many of us were beginning to think otherwise, and to feel betrayed. And afraid. You couldn’t tell all your peers or your coaches or teachers about the loss of your faith in the iron-clad innocence and virtue of your country and its leaders, without risking some serious consequences, the least of which was being called “coward” or “traitor.” Families and friendships broke up, jobs were lost, even (we later found) phone lines were tapped, mail was opened and taxes were audited during the Johnson and Nixon administration, if you were prominent, vocal and active enough against the war. Maybe it was that loss of faith and innocence that came back to me in the form of tears.

April 23,

Mathew Swora


Mark 15: 16The soldiers led Jesus away into the palace (that is, the Praetorium) and called together the whole company of soldiers. 17They put a purple robe on him, then twisted together a crown of thorns and set it on him. 18And they began to call out to him, "Hail, king of the Jews!" 19Again and again they struck him on the head with a staff and spit on him. Falling on their knees, they paid homage to him. 20And when they had mocked him, they took off the purple robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him out to crucify him.

Holy Week and this year’s season of Lent are a time when Scripture and current events overlap, especially in the matter of torture. Whatever we may say about the theological and salvific nature of Christ’s death on the cross, we must also acknowledge that what He suffered, from the moment of His arrest, was torture. Christ died for our sins. And He died by state-sanctioned torture. The passion narratives make up major chunks of the Gospels even if the events only took up a few days in Christ’s thirty-year life among us. One reason for that is that the first generations of Christians would read or hear them knowing that they very well could face much the same trials, and would be called to stand faithfully by their confession as did Jesus.

Its pretty much an open secret that torture is now a weapon in the arsenal of our country’s "War on Terror." But now its called, "Enhaced Interrogation Techniques." I am not in any position to evaluate the efficacy of "enhanced interrogation techniques," although the rationales and scenarios used to justify it strike me as a very long logical stretch. As a human being however, I can and must say something about the moral depravity of torture as an action or a policy, and about its terrible physical, emotional and spiritual effects for the victims. Survivors of torture describe life afterward as a process of "trying to put the soul back into the body."

And as a pastor and a Christian, I can and must say something about the moral and spiritual effects of torture upon all of us, even of its presence and permission, whether we should ever find ourselves being tortured (slim chance, I hope) or not. As a character in George Orwell’s 1984 admitted, "The object of torture is torture." In other words, gathering vital information by the only means (allegedly) possible is not just a rationale or objective for torture; it serves as permission, a cover, a fig leaf for the brutality in people that finds expression in, among other things, torture. The ends and effects of torture are: 1) the sense of power derived from cruelty and domination over others; 2) the intimidation into obedience of both enemies and citizens through the overt and implied threat of torture; 3) the cheapening of public values and morals, so that independent and responsible citizens become obedient subjects, enured to the sufferings of others, and willing to carry out any policy of their government, however reprehensible and illegal. Torture thus becomes a powerful assertion of the state’s or the leader’s ultimate sense of absolute worth, above and beyond the law and the people it is supposed to serve. I can’t think of any other rationales for excusing or engaging in torture.The morally and spiritually contagious effects of torture on the wider society are evident in the growing popularity of "torture porn," the depiction and deployment of torture as a plot device, and for entertainment, in movies, books and television.

On one hand, we might say that the decision of so many governments to take up the power to destroy life as we know it through nuclear weapons makes the decision to justify and employ torture small potatoes. But recent developments around torture, in America at least, represent a political, moral and spiritual sea change. Now there is a claim to the right to act above and beyond the law (military, federal, state and local) and against the constitutional guarantee against "cruel and unusual punishment" by persons and agencies within the government. How can that not risk cheapening everyone’s respect for the rule of law? Maybe this isn’t all that new, either. Except for the degree of openness and the claims of rightness about it.

As Christians we must resist, as did Jesus, the actions and the effects of torture–or at least the threat thereof–upon all of us. We must not let ourselves be infected by the attitude that inflicting pain is real power, that might makes right and that the end justifies the means. Christ’s life and teachings permit no divorce of ends from means. We must not let the official support of violence and cruelty cheapen our values and corrupt our moral sensitivity. We must not let the implied fear of torture, which, though aimed at enemies, can’t help but frighten citizens, render us silent, passive and discouraged.

On one hand, I am very much surprised that I now live in a country that reserves the right to torture, without ever having emigrated. Especially one whose founding documents so eloquently enshrine the rule of law and human dignity. On the other hand, I should not be surprised at what human nature cooks up and justifies. But every day, when I pray, "Create in me a clean heart, and renew a right spirit within me (Ps. 51)," I trust that I am reinforcing the spiritual fire wall between my spiritual and moral center, and the thickening clouds of moral confusion in the world around us. But keeping ourselves pure from the spiritually and morally contagious effects of torture is only a start. One way I have pushed back actively is by contributing to Center for Victims of Torture http://www.cvt.org/main.php. I consider the little bit I can give to them an act of atonement for the use of torture in my name, by my country. I wish I could do more.

What do you think?

Mathew Swora, pastor

Emmanuel Mennonite Church



It hit me so fast my knees almost buckled. As it was, I had to find somewhere safe, alone, to sit down, trembling, wanting to cry. Hearing her statement, it was as though a rock fell from my head down to my feet, taking my heart with it. She (not my wife) said it in all innocence, not knowing how it would hit me, as she looked up from the newspaper account about the latest outbreak of gun violence at a major university, in which victims were shot at random before the perpetrator turned his gun upon himself. "This trend gives us one more thing to worry about," she said. "And what they all have in common is the male gender."

Precisely the thought which I had been fighting to hold at bay. Not just because of the latest killings at Northern Illinois State University, but at Virginia Tech, in other schools, and through a sordid world history of warfare, genocide and ethnic cleansing. Its hard to argue with the sheer weight of numbers. We men grow up with great expectations about being able to protect our loved ones. But deep down, doesn’t it ever bother us that we’re almost always supposed to be protecting them from other men?

Hearing someone else verbalize this broke the last thin line of my defenses against the monstrous logic lurking in my unconscious mind: that since physical violence is overwhelmingly (yes, not exclusively) done by males, violence must therefore be inherently a male trait; I am male; therefore, I am violent, even guilty of violence perpetrated (mostly) by other males, by reason of our shared maleness. Every such assault is not just an assault against women (though it often is); it is an assault against all human beings, including men, especially those of us guys who don’t like being feared for the simple fact of our maleness.

Good thing I took a logic class in college. Now that I have recovered from that momentary wave of despair over my maleness, I can peel open that statement and pick it apart the way I would a tamale (my favorite food). I started to feel better when I also realized that the woman who had made that blanket observation about men and violence obviously felt safe enough around me–a guy– to verbalize it.

But it took me a while to get my head and heart back on straight. Should men despair over their maleness? That’s probably where a lot of male violence comes from in the first place. And it would only lead to more violence. But I don’t know how I wouldn’t despair, except for the fact that Jesus was male. And he wasn’t violent. He was powerful, forceful, assertive and authoritative, as when he threw over the money-changers’ tables and drove the sacrificial animals out of the temple. But never was he coercive nor violent toward other people. Not that maleness is closer to, or more reflective of, God. It isn’t. Both sexes are necessary to each other and to reflect the image of God (Genesis 1: 27), especially through their mutuality and harmony. But if I didn’t believe that, how would I avoid either affirming the (statistical) male propensity to violence, or despairing over ever changing it?

I also find it helpful to draw a distinction between biological maleness, which is a God-given gift (like femaleness) and the many different social and spiritual constructions of masculinity, many of which make violence central and important. I define masculinity as what we and others tell us our maleness is about.

Violence is not a disease of maleness. Prostate cancer is, but not violence. Violence is a disease of fallen human nature, whose most overt and physical aspects have found their expression more often in socially-constructed masculinity than in femininity, ever since the Fall into sin and the resulting estrangement between the complimentary parts of God’s image in the flesh: men and women. Not long after Adam had hidden himself from God and blamed everything on God and Eve, we read that his male descendants, like Lamech, were taking multiple wives and boasting of their homicidal prowess (Genesis 4: 19-24). The gulf of estrangement between men and women that sin brought into the world runs through our very selves, estranging men from the traits and experiences we typically define as female or feminine. I am hardly in any position to say how this estrangement affects women, not being one myself.

While Christians are rightfully struggling over their theological, pastoral and missional responses to homosexuality, we have been relatively blind to the biggest and most destructive issue of sexuality, what I call the unholy trinity of mainstream masculinity:

  • misogyny, the fear and contempt of women and all things female, including those things we typically consider feminine within our selves as guys, like tenderness, connection, receptivity and nurture

  • machismo, the act of basing our value as persons upon our ability to attract, command, control and dominate women, and

  • militarism, our tendency to project our fears and insecurities onto others, and to try to resolve them by means of destructive and dominating power and technology. Militarism is not only a response to enemies; it requires enemies, and will seek them, find them, make them and try to destroy them, even where none might otherwise be found.

This unholy trinity of misogyny, machismo and militarism is such a feature of so many social constructs of masculinity (not of God-given maleness), that it is almost invisible, especially to us guys, as water is to a fish. We men have hard work untangling our sense of ourselves, and the gifts of our maleness, from the thicket of mainstream masculinity in which we live.

So, I’ve started wearing a white ribbon around town. A few people have asked me about it. I got the idea from The White Ribbon Campaign, a men’s movement, based in Canada, which advocates against violence toward women, by men. And if you’ll listen to me long enough, I ‘ll tell you about the church to which I belong, which supports me in my commitment to nonviolence. I wear it as a way of publicly declaring my nonviolence toward all people, as a way of saying that I am unarmed and not dangerous. Just maybe a little scary, with the occasional spastic outburst of ideas like the one you just read, which may be taken as a challenge to so much of what we’re taught about the value and reason for being guys. But what a relief it is to learn that the gifts of being male are about loving, just sometimes in different ways from those in which women love.

What do you think?

Mathew Swora, pastor

Emmanuel Mennonite Church


Which does us more harm? In this age of terrorism, winner-takes-all politics, and growing scarcities, which are more destructive, the things we fear, or our fear of them? The following story, which I heard in Burkina Faso several years ago, may shed some light. I’ll begin relating it the way Jula-speaking griots (story-tellers and singers) of Burkina Faso typically begin a story: 

“Nsirin, nsirin: m’ben’a bla Siriki ani sama kan.”

A story, a story; I shall put it on Siriki and the elephant.

A herd of elephants can be dangerous enough, but most dangerous of all is a young rogue bull elephant who wanders off on his own. No other elephants are around to make him mind his manners and respect his elders. Such a rogue bull elephant once broke from the herd in the neighborhood of Boromo, Burkina Faso, and wandered south toward the sugar cane fields of Banfora.

About this time, in a little village along the winding road to the market city of Banfora, lived a young man named Siriki. Like other young men, Siriki had a field of yams, some of which he sold, and some of which he cut up and planted at the beginning of every rainy season. In just three or four years, the few yams his uncle had once given him had grown in number to where he could take some every market day to Banfora and sell them for money to buy gifts for his family and gas for his moped

Though Siriki lived more than a few miles from Banfora, he could always get to the market early by taking a narrow trail, a winding footpath really, through the forests and the cane fields. He got better prices when he set out his yams early, and by taking this short cut, he didn’t have to contend with the big trucks full of fruits and rice and cloth coming into town for the market.

One market day morning , Siriki loaded a large burlap bag with yams, each one with black, prickly skin, as long as a man’s forearm and as thick as his leg. He wrapped the mouth of the bag closed with string, hoisted it onto the rack on the back of his moped, and tied it down with rubber straps cut from the worn-out inner tubes of truck tires. Keeping the moped and its heavy cargo barely balanced, Siriki began pedaling and cranking the starter on the right handle bar until the moped roared into life and sped off toward Banfora.

Just a mile to the west, by a small village under a baobab tree to the left, Siriki turned off the road, zoomed past a courtyard, scattering chickens and a few goats, waved to the old men sitting in the shade of the big baobab tree, and wound his way through the corn fields toward the trail that would take him directly through the forests and the cane fields to the market of Banfora.

After passing through fields of millet and sorghum, and negotiating his way through two muddy ravines, Siriki was more than halfway to Banfora when he rounded a bend in the trail and saw, standing between walls of tall grass, blocking the path just a stone’s throw ahead, a mountain. Strange: there’d never been a mountain here before. Or was it a big, gray rock? Or the wall of large, concrete block building? That’s new.

And then Siriki saw the rock, or the wall, or the mountain move. When an ear flapped, Siriki suddenly understood, with a shiver going up his spine, that it was an elephant standing broadside across the trail. It was the young rogue bull from the herd near Boromo! Siriki squeezed the brakes of his moped for all he was worth, and the moped slid to a halt. The motor died, leaving Sirki straddling the bike, trying to keep it upright against the weight of his sack of yams, which was now leaning to one side.

When the elephant heard the sound of Siriki’s moped, and smelled Siriki and his yams, it lifted its trunk, flapped its ears and trumpeted an ear-splitting, blood-curdling challenge. Trembling and terrified, Siriki began walking his moped backwards. But the elephant decided that he wanted yams for breakfast and began stamping its feet and shuffling toward him.

Siriki briefly considered abandoning the moped, but then he knew he’d never outrun the elephant on foot. Only on motorized wheels could he possibly outrun the rapidly approaching mountain of a beast. With the elephant getting closer, Siriki turned the moped around and began pedaling as fast as he could, while cranking the starter with his right hand. He could feel the sheer weight of the elephant causing the earth to tremble as it closed in on him. The engine barely began coughing to life when he felt the tug of the elephant’s trunk on his bag of yams, causing him to lose speed for an instant. Then the rear wheel began to spin under the engine’s power, and after a second of resistance from the elephant’s grasp on the bag of yams, Siriki’s moped shot forward, breaking free of the elephant’s hold.

But the elephant was just as determined to eat those yams as Siriki was to escape, and as he sped through the walls of grass on either side of the trail, Siriki could hear the elephant trumpeting in rage and crashing through the weeds in hot pursuit, raising clouds of dust, flattening bushes and breaking through overhanging branches as he came. He could even feel the ground shaking through the spinning wheels of his moped.

Never had Siriki slid so recklessly and so quickly through a muddy ravine as he did with the elephant behind him. The loud thumping and splashing sounds he heard in the trickle of muddy water at the bottom of the ravine convinced him that the elephant was still in hot pursuit.

But while speeding down the trail toward the next ravine, Siriki noticed that he no longer heard the elephant trumpeting, nor did he feel the ground quaking. He wanted to glance behind himself to see if the elephant was still in pursuit, but to do that safely, he would have to slow down. Just as he loosened his grip on the accelerator, he heard more loud banging and the sound of something crashing through the brush. With a quick turn of the wrist, Siriki accelerated and zoomed through the next ravine more quickly than he ever knew he could, weaving and sliding through the mud and the water, with the heavy bag of yams rocking back and forth. More banging and splashing sounds convinced him that he was still being chased.

Soon he began to see the tall baobab tree rising over the village by the road, and the cone-shaped thatch roofs of houses standing guard over the patches of corn that tell you that you are approaching a village. Surely the elephant must be afraid to follow him this far, Siriki thought to himself. But some more thumping, rolling, and crashing sounds made his heart leap up into his throat.

As he passed, at break-neck speed, children and women out hoeing their corn, they looked up at him, frightened that anyone should be driving so recklessly through places where people live and work. “Run; an elephant is after me!” Siriki yelled, and they fled the fields, grabbing the littlest children and running toward their homes. The old men under the baobab tree heard him and scattered, too.

As he regained the paved road, Siriki thought that surely the elephant would never follow him this far. But another loud thump and more crashing sounds in the brush at the edge of the road scared him into fleeing toward his village at top speed. Perhaps a hunter along the road would shoot the raging rogue elephant, he thought. If he ever got home alive, Siriki told himself, he would wait for the next market day to go to Banfora, and by the main road that time.

People were still coming down the road, some in trucks and cars, some on bicycles, some on foot, carrying firewood or charcoal or sacks of fruit or grain on their heads, to sell in Banfora. As he raced up the road toward them, yelling about a pursuing elephant, people scattered left and right, which only further convinced Siriki that the elephant was indeed still behind him. More thumping and crashing sounds in the brush along the road kept him racing ahead at full throttle, until he saw a woman drop her load of firewood from her head and yell, “Yams! You’re dropping yams from your moped!”

Siriki slowed down, glanced behind himself, and saw a young boy running from the road toward the woods with a big black yam under his arm. He stopped and, turning around, saw, almost beyond sight, another girl stooping to pick up a yam from the side of the road. Looking behind himself, at the moped’s rack, he saw that the burlap sack was open and nearly empty, except for one last yam. No raging elephant was anywhere to be seen.

Then Siriki knew: the elephant must have opened the sack when he pulled on it with his trunk. When, he wondered, did the elephant stop chasing him, and when did he start confusing the sound of falling yams with the sound of the world’s largest land animal in hot pursuit? And the question I leave with us is this: Which did Siriki more harm in the end, the elephant, or his fear of the elephant?

All Jula stories end this way: “N’y’a soro yoro minna, m’ben’a bla yen.” And now I shall put this story back where I found it.

Mathew Swora, pastor


You’d think that that is what we are, according to some people, even us pacifist Mennonites, because we believe in God. In the words of a rising chorus of writers, bloggers and even a few preachers, belief in God is either a necessary prerequisite for violence, or constitutes a kind of violence itself. A November issue of The Economist suggests this with a cover picture of God handing down a grenade from a dark cloud, in a caricature of the Sistine Chapel painting by Michaelangelo. I understand that much of this is in reaction to militant Islam and the terrorist attacks of September 11, which were labeled by some wags as “the supreme faith-based initiative.” It doesn’t help that some of the Christian language supporting America’s War on Terror mirrors the Islamist language of the terrorists.

The charge, outlined by “evangelical” atheists such as Richard Dawkins (author of The God Delusion) and Sam Harris (The End of Faith), is that if anyone would believe in the outrageous tenets of any religion, then they would be capable of believing and doing anything, no matter how outrageous. And when the stakes are so high (eternity) and so absolute (God, right and wrong, heaven or hell), then the true believer can allegedly only prove his or her faith worthy of God’s approval by the ultimate act, the willingness to kill infidels, and even to die in the act of killing. The claim is also made that there is nothing inherent within any religion, especially not among the Abrahamic ones, that would moderate or restrain any murderous impulse. Quite the opposite, some say. Even before the events of September 11, 2001, I was repeatedly told by some who had lived through the Second World War that to claim belief in anything or anyone implies an unavoidable next step: that I must kill anyone who believes differently. So they strongly believe that you should never believe anything strongly. Granted: that is indeed how they experienced belief in pre-war Europe, of either the religious, fascist or Marxist sort. This may explain, in part, the great degree of secularism in post-war Europe. Karen Armstrong effectively declared, in her book Holy War, that warfare and violence are inherent and inevitable aspects of monotheism. I look in vain for any mention of Christian pacifists and of Christian pacifism among these assertions about religiously-inspired violence.

But they do exist.

So, if violence and monotheism are inherent and necessary to each other, how does anyone explain the Amish? Or the Mennonites? Or Quakers, Hutterites, the early Franciscans and other Christian pacifists, as were most of the first Christians of the first three centuries before Constantine? They are and have long been staunchly pacifist, yet not because their faith was weak, relativistic, universalistic and tolerant of all things. Many of them would qualify as fundamentalists, evangelicals and true believers of a type that would have Dawkins or Armstrong scanning them nervously for weapons or suicide bomber belts. In vain, of course.

Its not that we necessarily believe any less strongly than would a suicide bomber or an armed Christian crusader. Its that our belief system insists that the ultimate proof of our faith is not in the depth of our hatred for anyone, nor in our willingness to kill, but in the depth and extent of our love for friend and foe alike, to the point that we would rather die for our enemy than kill him or her. The world saw evidence of this stance in the response of the Amish community to the killer of the schoolgirls at Nickel Mines, PA., and to his family.

For the Christian pacifist, the proof of our faith is not in the urgency wth which we seize the levers of history with weapons of terror and acts of violence, but in the love and patience with which we work for the eternal and the temporal welfare of all, indiscriminate of whether they agree with us or like us or even wish to kill us. Because this is what we see in the nature of God, “who makes his sun to shine and his rain to fall upon the just and the unjust,” and “whose kindness is meant to move us to repentance.” And we know this because of Jesus, who demonstrated such love to the end, and who calls for the same from his followers. He is the definitive self-expression of God, and the key by which we read and interpret the Bible.

Nor is it that our willingness to coexist and even to serve and love people who disagree with us is based on any warm and fluffy universalism or moral relativism. Peace of the sort I’ve just described requires a cold, realistic eye to the nature of human stubbornness and sinfulness, beginning with our own, so that we know ourselves to be in need of at least as much forgiveness as any foe or persecutor. Peace of this sort requires a moral absolutism even stronger than that of the suicide bomber or the Christian crusader, because it applies to the means as well as to the ends. We’d rather fail by virtuous means than succeed by evil ones, because we trust God to vindicate his means by the end he brings to history. Its not that we lack absolutes; its that peaceful, positive, merciful coexistence with even our enemies and detractors is as much a moral absolute to us as is any other value in the realm of sex, wealth or truth-telling. But our job is to apply these absolutes to ourselves. That is all for which God will hold us accountable.

I hope that reassures any reader that they would be safe to visit Emmanuel Mennonite Church, no matter what they believed, or not. But then, some people in history have feared us precisely because we wouldn’t kill people. That’s one reason why the pacifist Anabaptists were so fiercely persecuted in 16th Century Europe, in part, because they wouldn’t join the Wars of Religion. This was Eduard Gibbons’ accusation against the early church in his 18th Century classic, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: that the Roman Empire was overrun by the barbarians because there were so many Christians who wouldn’t fight them. If I could choose, I would prefer this older criticism over the more contemporary one; its fairer, and its just galling to be constantly accused of something you stand so strongly against.

Let’s see: Gibbons slammed Christianity because of its pacifism, while others slam Christianity because of its allegedly inherent violence. Which is it? I guess it only proves that moral discernment around matters of war and peace shouldn’t be based on public opinion polls or approval ratings.