Let me say just a few words to you this day. If you don’t remember anything else I say, remember this. Be suspicious of slogans. Slogans are the shorthand with which we view our world. They are the text messages of our discourse. And they do us a disservice if we simply take them at face value. A lie repeated over and over again becomes in people’s minds a foregone conclusion and an accepted truth. Be suspicious of slogans.
Clever words and images are to make us confused, fearful or even ignorant of the truth. But an even deeper difficulty is that we tend to take the words of a sound bite or a slogan and not go any further. We don’t look beyond the headline for the facts of the story. We let the pundits do it for us and we accept the slogan, the sound bite, the frame of the argument and don’t go deeper.
- Think of some of the slogans out there:
- More of the same.
- Read my lips.
- Change we can believe in.
- The war is to get weapons of mass destruction.
- Red state, Blue State.
- Minnesota, it’s not that bad.
- Welcoming and Affirming.
- A Baptist Church. A Liberal Church. A Liberal Baptist Church.
- Al Franken doesn’t pay taxes.
- Norm Coleman always votes with the president.
- Pro-life. Pro-choice.
- Value voters (as if any voter does not vote his or her values)
- Mission Accomplished.
- Yes we can.
- We use these words and we draw quick short-hand conclusions about people. We’re all guilty of it. .
This is not a new problem. The disciples had it too. They were following the Messiah. They were so excited by his good deeds and his good works. They were excited about finally having the opportunity to overthrow Roman rule and reestablish Hebrew leadership. But what did that look like? Was it a military overthrow, like some expected? Was it the suffering servant as others expected? Was it a bit of both? Is this the Messiah, or shall we wait for another one?
Jesus didn’t accept the frame of the Messiah. He called Peter Satan for accepting the old Messiah slogan. It was not about triumph. In fact, he said that anyone who followed him would lose their lives, be tortured and probably killed. Not the best way to grow a church. That is unless the cause is so important that it is worth sacrificing your life so that others might have freedom, liberty and a sense of the inspiration of God in their lives. That’s what the disciples ultimately signed on for. It’s what the gospel is about if we get beyond the slogans.
To be honest, I’m not sure I’m there all the time. Sure, I like the idea that Jesus calls us to speak the truth to powers and principalities. I like the fact that the Christian message contains the methodology and paradox of blessing that comes about when peace is mingled with justice. But I don’t think I’m always ready to sacrifice my life for the cause. And if that’s the case, what does that say about me? Can’t I just find a slogan or a Christian praise song that I can hide behind or under? Can’t I replace the Gospel’s demands with simple piety? Can’t it be easier?
I guess those questions are part of my life and reflections. I think about them a lot. I want to get beyond the slogans and have a real authentic faith.
Let me tell you about two people in whom I recently saw the faith I am seeking.
The first person’s name is Vicente Padilla (not the baseball player, the campesino. He lives on a small coffee farm in Matagalpa, Nicaragua. He’s a Christian, a father, a husband and a farmer. His farm also happens to be on land that is eagerly sought after by a rich land owner who wants to expand his plantation.
As he told his story to those of us from the Baptist Peace Fellowship’s delegation to Nicaragua two weeks ago, he said he found inspiration from the Prophet Micah, who was also a peasant farmer who was fighting rich landowners trying to take his land. Micah is the one who summed up the way of faith as “doing justice, loving mercy and walking humbly with God.” (6.8)
LeDayne Polaski from the Baptist Peace Fellowship wrote eloquently about him recently. The story below is a commingling of her words and mine: Like many fellow farmers, he wanted only to be able to support his family. Wealthy land owners in Vicente's area were buying up small farms, often paying a pittance to the farmers. They lured them with promises of wealth that they would share with them. One land owner came to buy Vicente's farm, but Vicente would only sell for a fair price, a price that would enable him to start again elsewhere. Vicente had done his homework and would not accept the slogans of the large landowners. Vicente refused to sell for less than fair price.
And so began a struggle that has lasted for the better part of a decade. The land owner has tried every trick and threat possible. He has brought lawsuit after lawsuit. He has persuaded both army and police that Vicente was an armed threat and had him beaten and twice imprisoned -- once along with his 16-year-old son. He has sent men with guns to threaten Vicente's wife and children while Vicente was away. He took part of the land by force and destroyed the crops, threatening the family livelihood. He has paid men to dress as thieves and invade the home. He has threatened neighbors who stood in solidarity. He has brought lawsuits against people who have stood with Vicente. Time and again, men with guns have surrounded the family home.
Vicente still has his land and his story is helping other campesinos gain hope and strategy in the face of domination. Vicente says, "We have these tools: truth, reason, and rights -- also I have a tape recorder and a camera." He will never use violence as a tool, because it just breeds more violence. To face the men with guns, he trained his children to turn on a hidden tape recorder and he says, "I would turn my camera toward the guns."
Vicente has not left it at defending his own rights. He is a community leader. "From conflict," he says, "we can grow in community or we can allow the conflict to destroy the community." He works to train his community in the practical techniques of nonviolence. He serves as a mediator in local disputes. His oldest son, a veteran of the long fight for the farm, is now in law school and has been appointed as a local counselor to help people settle disputes by coming to agreement without the courts. Vicente and his son advocate for the rights of peasant farmers on local, regional, and national, even international levels. They encourage others struggling to defend their land that is possible for the small to defend themselves against the powerful and to do so nonviolently.
He says, "Personally I believe that we can transform the world if each and every one of us is working for peace. Evil breeds more evil but goodness brings goodness. It is obligatory that after a night of darkness the sun must come out."
He told us of his experience of having a gun pointed at him and at his children. When we asked how he could do this and not fight back, he insisted that he was fighting back, only with nonviolence, which is a force more powerful than violence. He said that he counted on the fact that the person with the gun would not be such a coward as to use it on an unarmed man. He also knew that if he raised a gun in defense, one of them would use it.
Vicente Padilla is a man who is a Christian not just in name, but in word and deed. He will not settle for the slogan of Christian. Instead, he searches the scriptures and finds someone like him in its pages. Someone like Micah. Micah envisions the day when “they will bend their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks, nation shall not raise up sword against nation neither shall they study war anymore.” And through it all, even when they are lying about you and trying to rip you off, remember to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God.
Vicente’s sad eyes are burned into my memory as he said this: “The way of the world is that the fattest fish swallows the smallest. As the rich want more, they often attain it through corruption, violence and injustice. But”, he says, “rich people are so poor that their only richness is in their wealth.” Vicente has a rich life because he sees his life intertwined with the struggles of his people. He sees himself walking along with Micah and with Jesus as he lives out his faithful life. He reminds us that real power comes from faith, hope and love, not from guns, threats and violence.
The second person I want to lift up is Joan Parajon. She is an American Baptist Missionary who is a trained opera singer. Her gifts have been used in Nicaragua in many ways over the 40 years of her missionary work. Music has been a means of peacemaking for her. She directs the choir at the First Baptist Church in Managua. She also directs a choir of convicts at the men’s prison in Managua. She takes Matthew 25 seriously when it says that we are to visit those in prison. When the revolutionary fighting was happening in the late 1970’s she told of how there was gunfire just a few blocks from the church. When asked what to do in the face of this gunfire, she replied, “Sing louder”. The people sang louder. The guns got closer and they sang even louder. “They can scared us and intimidate us, but they can’t take away our spirit. Sing louder!” When I heard their 50-voice choir sing very loud on Sunday, I knew the depth from where it came. “Sing Louder” may be a slogan now, but it represents something deep, profound and life-giving. It is a hope born of struggle and the faith that we serve one who is stronger than violence and who calls us to be witnesses for peace and justice in the world.
How is your Christian faith? We know the hymns, the slogans even some of the doctrine, but do we know why it is vital to our lives? How it saves our lives?
Think about that. Discover that. If and when you do, you will find purpose meaning and a whole lot of work. It won’t be easy. Nothing worthwhile ever is. But it will be very good news to people who need it.
Why not let this vortex of events on this last day in August focus us on a bigger picture—one that is bigger, deeper and more powerful than slogans and labels. May we inspire each other to live at the deepest and most committed levels. And through it all, may we live and be the good news that the world needs.
Thanks be to God.