Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Waste Amid Want

In his new book "American Wasteland," writer Jonathan Bloom documents how so much food produced in America is wasted along every step of the supply chain from field to fridge. Somewhere between 25-50% of all food produced in America, he says, goes to waste every year.

Journalist and author Bloom documents specific examples, beginning with food crops lying rotting in fields owing to intentional policy, economic factors, and sheer ignorance. And in restaurants, portion sizes have become ever larger and daily buffet meals result in enormous amounts of delicious leftover food being thrown away at the end of every day.

Unlike my mother, who believed wasting food was a mortal sin, Bloom points out how many Americans allow food to spoil in their refrigerators out of carelessness, lack of meal planning, and just plain neglect.

He does find hopeful signs, though, in some grocery stores and restaurants disposing of their surplus through food pantries and other charities. And some socially conscious farmers are even reviving the ancient practice of allowing those in need to glean from their fields after a harvest.

What makes food waste especially appalling is that while in developed nations like ours we throw away massive amounts of food, people all over the globe are starving. Every day we see TV images of dying children and gaunt mothers dying of malnutrition in Somali refugee camps--interspersed with ads urging already overweight Americans to gorge on super-sized burgers and fries and to make yet another trip to an abundance laden supermarket or a restaurant buffet. 

Bloom believes we have trained ourselves to regard food as a symbol of American plenty that should always be available cheaply in all seasons and times, and in limitless quantities. He warns, "Current rates of waste and population growth can't coexist much longer," and makes practical suggestions on how we can all help "keep our Earth and its inhabitants physically and morally healthy."

My mother would like that.

P. S.  Here are some agencies that can help provide urgently needed food relief:,

Thursday, July 21, 2011

What You Can Do For Your Country

In times like these, here’s the kind of speech I would love to hear from politicians, teachers, presidents and preachers everywhere:

My fellow Americans, the only way a country can become truly great is for its citizens to become truly good. So in the spirit of John F. Kennedy’s “Ask not what your country can do for you...” here are ten good things you can do for your country:

1. Become friends with people who are different from you. Respectfully share good things from the diversity of your cultures, traditions and faith convictions.

2. Be generous with your neighbors in need. Government programs must do their part, but each of us needs to volunteer more of our time and resources to help those less fortunate across the street and around the world.

3. Live a life of honesty and integrity. Show up on time at your work or school every day. Do your share and more. Never defraud your workers, employers, government agencies, insurance companies, or any other persons or institutions.

4. Obey all legitimate laws, and work to change unjust ones. Be law abiding not just for fear of being caught but simply because of who you are and the good example you want to set.

5. Respect all life from the womb to the tomb. Honor the unborn, and help spare the already born from the ravages of abuse, hunger, disease, war and poverty.

6. Save lovemaking for the married love of your life. Be faithful to your spouse, and take responsibility to bring up children in loving, stable and nurturing environments.

7. Take special care of the planet’s soil, air and water. Reduce wasteful consumption by reusing and enjoying more of what you already have, recycling everything you can, and by relying less on forms of  energy that pollute the atmosphere and waste scarce resources.

8. Don’t harm your body with tobacco, illegal drugs, or other harmful substances. Take personal responsibility for your health by eating right, exercising every day and maintaining a good level of emotional and spiritual well-being.

9. Honor your parents, grandparents and all aging and dependent persons. Care for them as you would want to be cared for yourself.

10. Avoid entertainment media that promote pornography, denigrate women, and glorify violence--and make sure to protect children from their destructive influences. Spend less time with TV, movies, video games and the Internet and more time in wholesome interactions with real people.

With God’s help, we could truly make ours a great country and the whole world a better neighborhood. In the process we could save billions in law enforcement and court expenses, in health care costs, and in prison and social service programs.

Best of all, none of the above would require special legislation or more tax dollars, only more personal responsibility by people like you and me.  

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Should This Economy Recover?

At a meeting I attended over a year ago on coping with the recent economic recession, one of the presenters asked, “Which do you want to hear first, the good news or the bad news?”

We all wanted the good news, which went something like this: If we can weather the current crisis, get the right kind of stimulus going and manage to restore consumer confidence, we should eventually see our economy recover and life return to normal.

I had to wonder, though, should we actually welcome the “recovery” of any economy so dependent on overconsumption, waste, and exploitation of the world’s poor? Is that really “good news,” and if so, for whom?

In the apocalyptic book of Revelation, chapters 17-19 introduce us to an image of a luxurious and powerful seductress named “Babylon,” a symbol of economic systems based on greed and oppression. In contrast to the Radiant Woman of Revelation 12, who represents the humble and holy people of God, this Great Prostitute is dressed in the finest purple and scarlet and sits elegantly astride the powerful “Beast” representing the world’s political powers (introduced in chapter 13). All of the nations are in bed with her, since “all who had ships on the sea became rich through her wealth” (18:19).

When Babylon finally collapses in disgrace, the kings and merchants of the earth “weep and wail” in anguish. They are desperate to have her recover so the status quo disparity between the very rich and the very poor can continue unabated. In the same way, we North Americans want to restore (and grow) our incomes, our institutions, our accustomed ways of life, to the level we’ve come to believe is our birthright.

But the Babylon of Revelation is doomed by God Almighty, is clearly beyond any recovery. And in the Bible, this is hailed as good news. At her demise all heaven breaks loose in outbursts of praise, “Hallelujah! The Lord God Omnipotent reigns!” (19:6).

I’m not suggesting that all of today’s entrepreneurs have sold out to Babylon. There are many business men and women who operate with integrity and who offer invaluable services to their community. They provide decent jobs at fair wages and don’t assume that their managing more capital wealth entitles them to a greater share of consumer wealth. Because they choose to live frugally and share sacrificially, they should be blessed and celebrated as signs of Jesus’ new order.

But to pray for the “recovery” of our current consumer-driven economy is to counter Jesus’ brand of “good news.” In his upside down kingdom, where his words about wealth represent both law and gospel, it is the world’s hungry who are to be filled with good things, and it is the too-well-to-do who are to be left empty-handed. In his new community it is the poor, and "the poor in spirit," who are truly blessed with happiness, whereas the rich (those who claim the right to ever more consumer wealth) are promised only woes.

This means that what is really needed is not a recovery of an old economy, but the restructuring of a new one, first through a radical reordering of our values (what we consider to be true wealth) and then through adopting lifestyles that represent fairness and justice for everyone on the planet.

Our U.S. economic downturn needs to be seen as a gigantic wake up call, reminding us that to continue to live like Babylon--instead of more like Jesus--is not only wrong, it is unsustainable. It would take additional whole planets to provide enough resources (and enough landfill space for our waste and pollution) for all six billion of the world’s people to consume at the rate most of us do who are among the top 5% of its wealthiest inhabitants.

In that light, does the recovery of a Mammon-driven, “trickle-down” global economy represent good news?

No. If it’s not first of all about good news for the poor, it’s not the kind of “recovery” Jesus has in mind.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Menno Simons (1496-1561) in his own words

Menno Simons was a Roman Catholic priest who joined the much maligned Anabaptist movement in Friesland about a decade after its beginning in Zurich, Switzerland in 1525. One major branch of that movement eventually became known as "Mennonite" because of his prominence as a leader.

Menno managed to live a relatively long life in spite of a 1542 edict by Charles V which placed a price of 100 gold guilders on his head and threatened severe punishment for anyone offering him shelter or reading any of his works. In spite of that threat, Menno devoted his life to preaching and writing what was considered rank heresy in those days, that one should have the right to be a member of a church of one's choice rather than having to be baptized into the official state church in the region of one's birth.

The following represents a selection of his words from various parts of "The Complete Writings of Menno Simons," a Herald Press book translated from the Dutch by Leonard Verduin and edited by John C. Wenger:

    My dear friends, I tell you the truth, I am no Enoch, I am no Elijah, I am not one who sees visions, I am no prophet who can teach or prophesy otherwise than what is written in the Word of God and understood in the Spirit...

    At one time I was wicked and carried the banner of unrighteousness for many years. I was a leader in all kinds of folly... the fear of God was not before my eyes. Yet everyone sought me and desired me. The world loved me and I it. Everyone revered me.

    But my conscience tormented me so that I could no longer endure it. The blood of innocent martyrs I knew of fell so hot on my heart I could not stand it. I thought to myself, I a miserable man, what am I doing? If I continue in this way, and don’t live according to the truth I have, if I don’t put away the hypocrisy, the impenitent, carnal life... If I don’t use all my powers to direct the wandering flock who would gladly do their duty if they knew it, how shall their blood rise up against me in the judgment?

    So I prayed to God, with sighs and tears, that he would give me, a sorrowing sinner, the gift of his grace, create in me a clean heart, and graciously through the merits of the blood of Christ forgive my unclean walk and frivolous, easy life and give me wisdom, courage and a manly spirit so that I might preach his exalted name and holy word in purity.

    Let me repeat, I have formerly acted shamefully against God and my neighbors; and I still sometimes think, speak, and act recklessly, which I sincerely regret. But I desire and seek sincere teaching, true doctrine, true faith, true works and an unblamable life. For this I must pay dearly with so much oppression, trouble, labor, sleeplessness, fear and anxiety, shame, heat and cold, and at last with torture, yes, with my blood and death.

    So while others rest on easy beds and soft pillows we have to hide in out of the way corners. While they revel in the music of trumpet and lute at weddings and baptismal banquets, we have to be on guard whenever a dog barks for fear an officer has come to arrest us.

    We do not agree with those who teach a mere historical faith which knows no conversion, spirit and fruit. On the other hand, we do not agree that we can be saved by our own merits and works. 

    True evangelical faith cannot lie dormant. It clothes the naked, it feeds the hungry, it comforts the sorrowful, it shelters the destitute, it returns good for evil, it seeks that which is lost, it binds up the wounded, it becomes all things to all people. 

    Some charge that we have our property in common. This charge is false. But we do teach that all truly believers are members of one body. Since they are one, it is Christian and reasonable that they love one another, that one member be concerned for the welfare of the other. The whole scripture speaks of mercifulness and love, which is the only sign whereby true Christians may be known.

    They say we will not obey the magistrates... We have obeyed them when not contrary to the word of God. We intend to do so all our lives. 

    (But) Love compels us to respectfully and humbly show all high officials what the Word of God commands them, how they should rightfully execute their office to the glory and praise of God... to punish the transgressors and protect the good; to judge rightly between a man and his fellows; to do justice to the widows and orphans and to the poor, to rule cities and countries justly by a good policy and administration, not contrary to God’s Word but to the benefit of the common people.

    We who were formerly no people at all, and who knew no peace, are now called to be a church of peace. True Christians do not know vengeance... Their hearts overflow with peace. Their mouths speak peace, and they walk in the way of peace.

    The regenerated do not go to war, or engage in strife. They are the children of peace, who have beaten their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks, and they know no war. Since we are conformed to the image of Christ, how then can we kill our enemies with the sword? Spears and swords made of iron we leave to those, alas, who consider human blood and swine’s blood as having well nigh equal value.

    Therefore, my precious brothers and sisters in the Lord, take the crucified Christ as your example, and the apostles and prophets of God. Learn through them how they all came in at this very narrow gate and have left all things hanging at the entrance. They were so endowed and trained by God that they knew nothing, sought nothing, loved and desired nothing but the eternal treasure--God--and eternal life.

The following is a translation of words on a simple stone memorial more recently erected at Witmarsum, Menno's home village:

Witmarsum may with right its Menno Simons claim,
In Netherlands the first of church-reforming fame.
He took his stand there, from the priesthood broke,
And in a little house the word of freedom spoke.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

The Opposite of Death

The book, “Miracle in the Andes: 72 Days on the Mountain and my Long Trek Home,” published by Three Rivers Press in 2006, is one of the most gripping I've read in a long time. In it Nando Parado describes the harrowing experience of being in a plane crash on a glacier in the Andes Mountains, 12,000 feet above sea level, where he was stranded, cut off from communication with the outside world, and given up for dead with other members and fans of his rugby team on their way to Chile.

Nando lost his mother and sister and other friends in that fateful accident and in the days that followed. After weeks of desperately trying to survive in the bitter cold, resorting to eating remains of frozen cadavers to avoid starvation, he and two other survivors resolved they must try to find their way back to civilization for help, in spite of the risk and their lack of sufficient food and adequate clothing.

After miles of desperate climbing they reached a western ridge they thought would finally give them a view of civilization, only to find that when they finally got there they could see only more mountains. 

He writes, “In that moment all my dreams, assumptions and expectations of life evaporated into the thin Andean air. I had always thought that life was the actual thing, the natural thing, and that death was simply the end of living. Now, in this lifeless place, I saw with terrible clarity that death was the constant, death was the base, and life was only a short, fragile dream. In my despair, I felt a sharp and sudden longing for the softness of my mother and my sister, and the strong embrace of my father... and in that clarity of mind I discovered a simple, astounding secret: Death has an opposite, but the opposite is not mere living. It is not courage or faith or human will. The opposite of death is love.....Only love can turn mere life into a miracle, and draw precious meaning from suffering and fear...”

Nando and his friend did manage to press on and to eventually make their way back to civilization, and a rescue team was able to go back for the remaining 14 survivors at the crash site.

But this is a life-changing story you'll want to read for yourself.

Friday, July 8, 2011

An Unforgettable Story

Earlier this week Alma Jean and I attended the opening session of the Baptist Peacemakers Conference at EMU to hear keynote speaker Vietnamese-Canadian Kim Phúc tell the story of her journey to forgiveness.

Kim is the nine-year-old girl who was shown naked and badly burned in the Pulitzer-Prize prize winning photograph of her and other children fleeing a napalm attack in her village of Trang Bang, South Vietnam on June 8, 1972. A South Vietnamese pilot mistook the group for enemy soldiers and diverted to attack, killing two of Phúc's cousins and two other villagers and inflicting severe burns on many others.

Associated Press’s Nick Út’s photograph became one of the most haunting images of the Vietnam War and is thought to have further turned the tide of public opinion against it. Kim recalls that she was yelling, "Nóng quá, nóng quá" ("too hot, too hot") in the picture.

Her story, which included her conversion to Christianity and her growing conviction that she must let go of her bitterness over the physical and psychological scars inflicted on her, was profoundly moving. She described it as being like “heaven on earth” to be able to love those who had inflicted all the suffering and the many surgeries she had to go through.

“And my scars? They are my protection against being proud,” she said.

Monday, July 4, 2011

To Submit or Not to Submit? The 1776 Question

In 1776 my great-great-great-great-great grandfather, Christian Yoder, Jr., moved his family by team and wagon from Berks County, Pennsylvania, to the far western frontier of the state. A man now in his early fifties, he had emigrated to this country in 1742 at age sixteen with his widowed father, and was now ready to make another major move that would forever change his life.

It is likely that his father, Christian Sr., undertook the hazardous transatlantic journey that brought him to the new world for two reasons. One was to avoid having his young son conscripted into the Swiss army, the other was to enjoy the level of religious freedom and tolerance William Penn promised religious minorities in the New World.

These immigrant ancestors, having endured intense persecution and one bloody European war after another (often over religious conflicts), in 1776 faced another set of trials. Their new found place of refuge of 30-some years had become a land of turmoil, with Christian, Jr.,’s own sons now being in danger of being conscripted to help overthrow the British.

This created a serious dilemma for members of their Anabaptist community. To them, King George’s rule seemed anything but tyrannical in comparison to all they had experienced in the past. Besides, they read their Bibles as commanding them to submit to constituted authority in every way that didn’t violate their conscience.  As three Mennonite bishops in Pennsylvania wrote in 1773, "Through God's mercy we enjoy unlimited freedom in both civil and religious matters."

Ironically, once the fight for liberty started, the freedom of nonviolent Christians to live by their religious convictions became much more limited. By 1777 colonists were being forced to sign a pledge of loyalty to the revolutionary government, which incidentally never represented a full majority of its citizens, many of whom either remained Loyalist throughout the Revolutionary War or were neutral.

So what were the Quakers, Brethren, Mennonites and their Amish cousins to do? Not given to making political protests, some just moved west.

Here are some of the principles outlined in their Bibles that shaped their response:

Romans 12:14, 17 “Bless those who persecute you... Do not repay evil for evil.”
If this was to be the stance of first century Christians toward a Roman emperor like Nero, they reasoned, shouldn’t the same apply toward a far less malevolent King George III, whose authority was greatly limited by the English Bill of Rights (forerunner of our own) adopted in the prior century?

Romans 12:18 “If it is possible, as far as it is depends on you, live at peace with everyone.”

In November 1775, Mennonite and German Baptist ministers sent "A Short and Sincere Declaration" to the Pennsylvania assembly. In it they suggested that as an alternative to militia duty they donate money and otherwise help any families left destitute because their husbands and fathers were off fighting. Instead Pennsylvania passed a law levying a special war tax on all non-associators. Later the state agreed nonresistant Christians could hire substitutes or pay a fine, which most felt they could not do, because as their Declaration stated, they found "no freedom in giving, or doing, or assisting in anything by which men's lives are destroyed or hurt." As a result, Patriot officials confiscated their property to pay the taxes and fines.

Romans 12:19 “Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord.”

The 1775 Declaration also said, "We have dedicated ourselves to serve all men in everything that can be helpful to the preservation of their lives, but... we are not at liberty in conscience to take up arms to conquer our enemies, but rather to pray to God, who has power in heaven and on earth, for us and them."

Romans 12:20-21 “”If your enemies are hungry feed them, if they are thirsty, give them something to drink.... Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
The Continental Congress made it illegal to provide lodging or food to any Loyalists, and illegal to even market food in Philadelphia while it was under British control. Three men from the Weaverland Mennonite Church were charged with treason for giving lodging and food to some escaped British prisoners, and a 70-year-old Susannah Longacre was sentenced to 117 lashes on her bare back (fortunately, this sentence was reduced to a lesser punishment) for offering food to some men who claimed to be British soldiers but were really American soldiers who were going up and down the Philadelphia Pike to see who would be willing to feed their enemies. These people did not offer hospitality to others because they were British or revolutionaries, of course, but simply because they were hungry or in need of shelter, enemies or not.

Romans 13:1-7 “We must submit ourselves to governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established....Give everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenues, then revenue; if respect, then respect: If honor, then honor.”
To these simple believers, armed resistance to authority was out of the question. They believed God wanted stability and order, not chaos or bloody conflict. On this point they were in agreement with John Wesley, whose widely circulated tract, “A Calm Address to the American Colonies,” sought to dissuade Christians from taking up arms against the Crown. Not that Wesley so much favored either the monarchy or the Anglican church, but  because he believed an imperfect peace was far better than a bloody war. And John Dickinson, a respected Quaker lawmaker from Delaware, made the same argument to his colleagues prior to their signing the Declaration of Independence (which he refused to do).

In the end, the more militant members of the Continental Congress won out. But could there have been a better way to achieve greater independence, liberty and freedom than through war, as in the case of Canada, Australia, Poland, Egypt and countless other countries over the past centuries?

What do you think?

Documentation for some of the above can be found in MacMaster, Horst and Ulle, "Conscience in Crisis" (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1979), pp. 266-7 and 515-6. Thanks, John Ruth, for your help!

Friday, July 1, 2011

Independence, Freedom and the National Anthem

Mark Schloneger, pastor of the Springdale Mennonite Church near Waynesboro, created an unexpected stir with his essay,  "Why I Don’t Sing 'The Star Spangled Banner'" the lead piece on CNN’s website Sunday, June 26.

The essay, which closed with, “I love my country, but I sing my loyalty and pledge my allegiance to Jesus alone,” generated over 4000 on-line responses, many of which labeled him an ungrateful traitor for his problems over some of the words of the anthem, suggesting he and others like him should promptly emigrate elsewhere.

One response to his statement about 16th century Catholics and Protestants torturing and executing Anabaptists was, "I'm disappointed in the Catholics and Protestants. Looks like they missed a few."

There were many others, though, who either expressed support for Schloneger’s convictions or at least celebrated his right to state them, stressing that this was what America was all about.

In scanning the posts I learned a lot about just how hostile many Americans are toward religious minorities, but also about the actual history of our nation’s anthem.

One respondent, “Bruce,” explained:

Francis Scott Key wrote a poem called "Defence of Fort McHenry" in 1814 based on a battle he witnessed in the War of 1812. He didn't experience this war as a soldier, by the way, he was there as a lawyer negotiating the release of some prisoners.... It was not our national anthem officially until 1931, signed into law by President Hoover.

While the first rendition of the anthem at a sporting event was during the 7th inning stretch of the 1918 World Series, it was not until WWII that the tradition of singing it at the beginning of each game came into being. Coincident to this was the evolution of the Pledge of Allegiance, written in 1892... It wasn't officially our national pledge until 1942 (and didn't include the words, "under God," until Eisenhower signed a a new law into place in 1954). Placing your hand over your heart was a convention that happened in late 1942 (about 6 months after adoption), replacing what is now called the "Bellamy salute."

The national anthem, at least the notion that we should open up all of our sporting events with it, is a relatively recent phenomenon. It blossomed with the pledge at about the same time, during the McCarthy era and the red scare times, when our country was at a low point when it comes to political freedom.

What was overlooked in this discussion is that members of the sixteenth century Anabaptist  “free church” movement (of which Mennonites are a part) suffered and died by the thousands for claiming the right of everyone to belong (or not) to the church of their choosing, a freedom we all take for granted today. The official state churches of that time, far from advocating freedom of religion, supported the persecution, killing or banishment of those who refused to have their children baptized and registered in whatever was the official brand of Christendom of the region of their birth (e.g., all children born in Lutheran jurisdictions were baptized Lutheran, etc.).

Thankfully, all of this has changed, but the fact remains that the religious freedom guaranteed in the first amendment owes its origin not so much to the blood of history's soldiers as to that of it's martyrs. In supporting freedom of expression and freedom of religion we are now all Mennonites. In questioning whether we can give full allegiance to both Caesar and Jesus, we cast our lot with the martyrs of the first century, who were persecuted not because they worshiped another deity (of which there were many) but because they pledged "Jesus is Lord" rather than the mandated "Caesar is Lord."

Since I truly do appreciate all that is good about America, but am not so fond of "bombs bursting in air," I would love to see “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” become the nation’s theme song.

“Let freedom ring!”