The global DIAKONIA conference which has just finished in Chicago, comprising more than 400 deacons worldwide, was addressed by Rev Dr Michael Kinnamon in an outspoken critique of current American politics, and the essential place of the diaconate in the fallout of these policies.
This is the second half of his address. You can find the whole thing here: file:///C:/Users/gmk/AppData/Local/Temp/Michael%20Kinnamon-1.pdf
or here under ‘Plenary Presentation’: http://www.diakonia-world.org/2017/Chicago2017_Presentations.shtml
” … there are signs that we are being shaken by the wind of the Spirit, for which we should give thanks. God is at work, calling us to participate in divine diakonia. But we are also being shaken by turbulent social-political winds, both new and persistent, both in the US and around the world.
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What does all of this suggest for the practice of diakonia in this era? In one sense, diakonia is diakonia in any era. Serving those in need is essential, no matter what political winds are blowing. And our focus on the margins, rather than the center, of society will likely be at least somewhat at odds with most governments.
As I see it, however, there are particular emphases that are especially appropriate, especially needed, right now. I will name five as a way of inviting discussion. These are not new ideas, but I believe they deserve even more emphasis in the way we undertake our ministry in this era.
1) Emphasis on global solidarity, including our ties as DIAKONIA within the world-wide ecumenical movement. Trump’s slogan, as you probably know, is “America First.” Seen in Christian perspective, this is nothing short of idolatrous, an exaltation of artificial boundaries that divide God’s one human family. The noun that defines us is Christian. I am an American Christian, not a Christian American–which means that Chita, not just Jan, is my sister in Christ, a bond more consequential than national citizenship. And because we are followers of One who died for all, there are no boundaries, either national or religious, to our service.
I have no doubt that you practice this kind of global solidarity already, but I am arguing that it needs to be highlighted even more in this era of nationalist fervor. The cross of Jesus undercuts the pretensions of any group that declares its self-interest to be pre
eminent, and especially the pretensions of any rich nation that seeks to preserve its prerogatives and resources at the expense of the poor. Global interdependence is a key theme of Christian living, and I hope we emphasize it in the coming years.
2) Emphasis on welcoming the stranger. The President’s immigration policy proposes to close this nation’s doors at a time of a global refugee crisis because, as he repeatedly says, American safety comes first. Seen in Christian perspective, this is nothing short of idolatry–a denial of the hospitality due to any person who comes to us in need.
I have a friend, a biblical scholar, who argues that the most persistent commandments in scripture are have no strange gods and welcome strangers. The Hebrew people saw the latter as a mark of covenantal faithfulness: Remember that you were strangers in the land of Egypt, and treat others as God treated you. Christians confess that through sin we have made ourselves strangers to God; but, in Christ, God has extended a gracious welcome even to us–and calls on us to do the same.
You know, of course, that such hospitality is not a matter of politeness or distant charity. We have not necessarily done it by giving money, since the issue in welcoming someone is relationship. A genuine welcome also doesn’t mean inviting the stranger to become like us. White churches in this country often put “All Welcome” signs on the door, without changing anything inside, and then wonder why people of color don’t join. No, true welcome is not absorption. It simply enables the other to feel at home.
Welcoming the stranger, while not formally a sacrament, is certainly sacramental: an outward and visible sign of the inward and spiritual bonds that connect all who bear the image of the Creator. I hope the whole ecumenical movement will emphasize it in this era of threatened exclusion.
3) Emphasis on what we might call a “diakonia of resistance.” I realize that this is familiar territory for many of you who have lived in situations of overt oppression. Here in the United States, however, where oppression gets swept under the rug, ecumenically-engaged churches have tended to stress the importance of incremental change, of speaking truth to power as the way “to get things done.” Before becoming head of the National Council of Churches, I was the chairperson of the Council’s Justice and Advocacy Commission, which maintains a regular presence in Washington, DC in order to lobby (we don’t call it that!) for particular legislation. But such a strategy may not be what is needed in this era.
The churches that make up Church World Service signaled a new approach, following the executive orders aimed at stopping refugees, with a powerful statement of “strong
opposition.” A number of congregations, including my own in San Diego, are preparing to resist, making plans to harbor persons threatened with deportation.
There is a time, obviously, for patient, long-term advocacy. But surely there is also an appropriate time to resist policies and systems that are fundamentally at odds with the gospel. As I see it, that time has come for this country, and perhaps for others, as well.
4) Emphasis that following the servant Christ is inherently risky, and that we welcome such risk. Security, as I suggested earlier, has become a one-size-fits-all justification for policies that all of us, I suspect, find troubling. Indeed, there are days when I think “security” is the most dangerous word in the English language. Increase the military budget at the expense of dollars for health care and education–in the name of security. Relax gun laws and promote gun sales–in the name of security. Deny entry to refugees fleeing violence–in the name of security. Step up deportation of immigrants and build a wall against Mexico–in the name of security. Justify the use of torture–in the name of security!
Christians know that, because human community is interdependent, true security can never be achieved through unilateral defense, but through attentiveness to the injustice and anxiety that afflict other children of God. South Korea will be insecure so long as North Korea feels threatened. Israel, in the words of one of its former defense ministers, “will have security only when Palestinians have hope.” European security, as recent events make clear, is intertwined with that of North Africa and the Middle East. US security depends, among other things, on reducing the economic disparities that understandably fuel global resentment.
The Christian vision, however, is even more profound, because, as the United Methodist bishops put it, “following Jesus leads to radical insecurity.” If scripture is our guide, then we are called to live vulnerably as participants in God’s risky mission of serving and welcoming those in need. To borrow a formulation from the Russian Christian philosopher, Nikolai Berdyaev, security for oneself is a material issue–not necessarily sinful, but also not a highest value. Security for one’s neighbor, however, is a spiritual issue. Protecting persons who are most at risk, even when doing so is risky, is the calling of those who follow Jesus. This needs special emphasis in our era.
5) Emphasis on hope. The opposite of fear is not invulnerability; people in guarded, walled communities (or nations) are often afraid. The opposite of fear is hope in God’s future, both for ourselves and for life on this planet. In fear, people live in anticipation of possible danger. In hope, they live in anticipation of promised fulfillment; and this frees us to risk a life of service, welcoming those unlike ourselves. To say it another way,
scripture provides us with a vision of life as God would have it. And we show our trust in God by acting to help make it so.
It takes intentional effort, however, to live hopefully rather than fearfully. Hope is a conscious, cognitive activity; fear is a more automatic, spontaneous emotion–which means it is not easy to live hopefully when the cultural narrative is one of fear. That is why we need the reinforcement of one another, why hope needs to be emphasized over and over, why we need to insist that promoting hope is a crucial part of the church’s diakonia.
There may be some of you who feel that I have not been hopeful enough in this address! Of course, as you know, Christians are not often optimistic. We know too much about sin for that! But Christians are always hopeful because we trust that, in God’s mercy, the future does bend toward justice. And, friends, I am hopeful because of you. You, as a globally-connected community of diaconal ministers, committed to welcoming strangers, are in the front line of the church’s risky, hope-filled resistance to the winds that now shake our world. This morning, let us acknowledge those negative winds, but let us also proclaim together that they are not the most powerful wind in our lives!
And so I pray to our gracious God: May the wind of your Holy Spirit blow through this assembly! May we be shaken and directed and empowered by this wind! And may all we do and say in these days together be to your glory! Amen.