Last spring, Jessica and I were blessed to be able to host one of our Mennonite Church Canada Witness Workers, Darnell Barkman. Darnell and I were taking classes at the Canadian School of Peacebuilding and were able to hang out for a whole week.
The Barkmans come from Canada and have spent the last five years as Witness Workers in the Philippines. They were sent by our national church, and so, Sterling is part of the network of churches that support them and many other Witness Workers around the world. They started Peace Church in Manila, a growing church movement built on Anabaptist theology and the peace teachings of Jesus.
Over food, basketball, studies, and in the car, I had the chance to talk with Darnell for many hours. I heard about their church, the work they’re doing with sandbag homes, and the different ways they're making peace an available option in a country torn by violence and conflict.
As we were talking about some of the ways in which Jesus changes our lives, Darnell posed the question, “Is the Gospel big enough to change the world?” I soon realized that this was a question he was asking for himself. He and his family live in a place filled with all kinds of difficult situations. They see the effects of religious and political violence and wonder if the message of Jesus Christ can make a real change where they are.
I think this is a question that many Christians ask. A friend from church stood up one Sunday and asked about where all the peace is that we keep talking about. She sees so much poverty, abuse, disunity, selfishness, and war in this world, and wanted to know where the good news was. This week we have once again seen horrific images of the attacks and war in Syria. I can’t even bear to look at the videos of children gasping for air after the chemical attack. Yesterday I was listening to a podcast about missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in Canada. Tonight, The Fifth Estate will air an episode on the suicide crisis in Cross Lake, Manitoba. The list of brokenness and hurt I see goes on and on.
I know that the gospel changes us in profound ways. When we believe in Jesus, we are reconciled to God and are made new. The old is gone as we are adopted into the family of God. However, I think there's a difference between believing in Jesus and choosing to follow Jesus. To believe is to trust that God exists, created us, loves us, and forgives us. But to follow is to pick up our cross, take the teachings of Jesus seriously, and allow Him to work in and through us. When we follow Jesus we make Him Lord of our lives as we die to ourselves.
One of the downfalls of the Western church is that we have bought into our individualistic culture. Faith, in some ways, has become about my personal relationship with Jesus. Church, in some ways, has become a product to be consumed. Devotion, in some ways, has become about my own personal encounters with God.
There is nothing wrong with a personal relationship with God, but if that relationship does not lead to a changed life and a changed world, then we return to Darnell’s question. Can the message of Jesus really bring healing and hope to a broken world? Can it make a difference in the midst of violence, abuse, war, poverty, etc.? Or do we conclude that there is no real change until Jesus comes back?
This past Wednesday I attended the “Spring at CMU” event at Canadian Mennonite University. A large part of the evening was offering the PAX award for service, leadership and reconciliation to Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT). I know a handful of people who have and do serve with CPT, and their stories have been powerful for me, as was learning more about how CPT began in 1986.
CPT started as fellow Christians from a number of Mennonite conferences asked the very question we are asking here. As historic peace churches, we have sometimes been looked at as passive, believing in not standing up for ourselves and letting people trample over us. However, we actually believe in active peacemaking through non-violent means. The visionaries of CPT were wondering about what they could do in places that are riddled with violence and injustice.
The answer became quite clear. The Gospel doesn't tell us to stand by and do nothing. CPTers go where they are invited to stand alongside those who are experiencing injustice and oppression. They accompany children to school in Palestine under the threat of Israeli military forces. They work for land justice in places like Hebron and Iraqi-Kurdistan. They lead delegations for people to learn about the mercury poisoning in the First Nations reserve of Grassy Narrows, Ontario. All of this is done with the belief that the gospel of Jesus can bring change and healing to these situations.
Wherever followers of Jesus go, they spread the news that there is another way. Oppression, violence and injustice do not have to become natural ways of life. Fighting violence with violence also doesn't have to be the way to win. But the message of Jesus reaches into these destructive and disturbing situations to say that the Kingdom of God brings abundant life.
So, is the Gospel big enough to change the world? Yes, if Christians are willing to take the message of Jesus seriously, not only believing in Jesus, but following Him too. John Howard Yoder, in his book, Body Politics, writes:
“If reconciliation between peoples and cultures is not happening, the Gospel’s truth is not being confirmed in that place.” (p.38)
Perhaps the reason I have so much respect for people like Darnell, CPTers, and others like them, is that they have taken life changing steps to live out the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Their stories are an inspiration to me as I ask how the Gospel can come alive in my life, in my context. I see Jesus at work all around me, reconciling the world to Himself. Jesus invites all of us to be ministers of reconciliation and to join in His work of changing the world. It's risky, dangerous, and we may suffer for it. But it's the way of Jesus, the way of the cross.