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The Practice of Peace in Deeply Divided Times

by Rev. Dr. Cheryl F. Dudley


July 14, 2017

The Practice of Peace in Deeply Divided Times

Rev. Dr. Cheryl F. Dudley

BPFNA – Bautistas Por La Paz, Peace Breakfast
American Baptist Biennial Mission Summit
Portland, OR
Sunday, July 2, 2017

At that time the Lord had spoken to Isaiah, son of Amos, saying, ‘Go, and loose the sackcloth from your loins and take your sandals off your feet’ and he had done so, walking naked and barefoot. (Isaiah 20:2)

Come, you who are blessed by my Father, take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world… I needed clothes and you clothed me. (Matthew 24:34; 36)

As if sackcloth wasn’t modest enough, God directed Isaiah to loose the sackcloth from his body, and to remove his sandals. Not to be fitted with better clothing, but to be (un)clothed like a slave. Without sandals, Isaiah would have to put his bare feet upon the ground, and without sackcloth (the fabric of mourning) around his loins, he could hide nothing. In obedience, Isaiah stood alone, naked, and as a mouthpiece for God -a revered role, but in so doing, exposed himself to ridicule, compromise of his health and risk of his life. Some speculate that only a handful of people ever heard him speak, but a whole lot more saw him. His bizarre appearance made him a spectacle. Respectable men in public and religious life glared, and then averted their eyes – and told their wives and children to look away.

As we know, the book of Isaiah is prophetically poetic, pointed and poignant in its various descriptions. The vision of God that Isaiah describes is picturesque yet evokes all our other senses with its words like found in the 3rd chapter:

18 In that day the Lord will snatch away their finery:
the bangles and headbands and crescent necklaces,
19 the earrings and bracelets and veils,
20 the headdresses and anklets and sashes, the perfume bottles and charms, 21 the signet rings and nose rings,
22 the fine robes and the capes and cloaks,
the purses 23 and mirrors,
and the linen garments and tiaras and shawls.
24 Instead of fragrance there will be a stench;
    instead of a sash, a rope;
instead of well-dressed hair, baldness;
    instead of fine clothing, sackcloth;
    instead of beauty, branding. (Isaiah 3:18-24)
(And also)
Woe to those who call evil good
   and good evil,
who put darkness for light
    and light for darkness,
who put bitter for sweet
    and sweet for bitter.
21 Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes
    and clever in their own sight. (Isaiah 4:20-21)

Even before answering God’s call, Isaiah knew that God had great expectations. Yet, Isaiah responded willingly to the grand question of God, who asked, “Whom shall I send?” by saying, “Here I am. Send me.” 

Isaiah might have wondered after volunteering to go, “How long will this gig last? How long must I do this?” Isaiah must have inquired. God plaintively replied, “Until the cities lie ruined, and are uninhabited.” Oyyyy Veyy! Okayyyyy! Isaiah knew it was going to be a hard gig.

Speaking of hard gigs, these are difficult times for advocates of prophetic peace. Our usual tricks and practices, that weren’t that easy in the first place, don’t seem to work as well as they once did. Many of us are bone tired, as we live in a time in the USA where there is hypersensitivity, dread, loathing and a propensity for holding our breath as if we are perpetually teetering on the brink of something potentially (more) devastating. We have adopted to a new normal that we pray is not permanent.

These are hard times to talk about peace for those of us who happen to live in the United States. It has always been hard for Americans with a modicum of sensitivity to join in global conversations of peace with those from other North American and global locations given now more common negative perceptions of the US across the globe. American peace activists and rights workers are used to critiques of US government and culture, because we know where we live, the United States, and the reality of all of us tacitly benefiting from the spoils of empire. We are in even more awkward spaces now, both within and outside of country, in the pursuit of peace. Our usual pithy pronouncements are not good enough. We find them flaccid or arid in the face of current national and global circumstances. What is there to do?

There are three things, I believe one has to and we have to personally (individually) and communally reckon with in our practice of peace in these deeply divided times:

1. We have to know who we are 
2. We have to be prepared to strip away some things 
3. We have to be prepared to take some other things on

1. You/we have to know who you/we are – your/our spiritual and social makeup. What motivates and calls you/us. What you/we know to be true about yourself/ourselves?

When Isaiah was moved to take on the call, he confessed to God saying, “I am a man of unclean lips and I come from profane people.” This meant that he and his people were those who had seen and said just about every-thing. Yet because he was from those who had seen virtually everything it didn’t diminish his capacity to recognize the real deal, the holy, when he saw it, so he responded the  he was willing to not only go, but to go for the long haul.

I know who I am, at least in part. I am a tall, black, middle-aged woman raised in the desert city of Phoenix, Arizona and now a New Yorker… I’ve seen a lot… I have often sized people up based on my assumptions and experiences of certain types of folks… More than that though, I am a disciple of Christ, and a minister of the Gospel of Peace, which motivates me and often transforms my assumptions and previous experiences. I am an American Baptist by intention. I won’t apologize for my faith tradition, even when other Baptists or Christians embarrass and shame me sometimes. I have been given a heritage of wonder from my parents and church, who aren’t perfect but did the best they could given the messages they’d been given. I was taught to reach high and wide for my own place in the world, and to help push the world to live into its best self.

I do know what helps push me into my better self when I feel myself slipping into grief. I pray and cry and read the bible and other sacred writings. I tell stories of the faith – from the bible and from our historic, and cultural traditions. I sing songs to lift my heart and spirit in order to remember what I know is true. I notice when there is no song my heart and ask God to show me how to sing a song in strange land? And then when I find the strength, I will pick up my lyre that I laid on the willows, pluck a few notes, clear my throat, and open a hymnal when needed to remember the songs tucked away in the heart. Then I sing with my crackly voice until I remember who I am.

When peace like a river attendeth my way,
when sorrows like sea billows roll;
whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say,
"It is well, it is well with my soul."

If someone says why you are singing, it is not well, I say I am singing until I believe it’s true. I am singing because as Brother Roger of the Taize community said, when you sing you are praying twice. I say, I’m practicing peace by singing until it comes.  

You have to know yourself: when you are depleted, and how to get yourself refilled.

2. Know you have to be willing to give up some things, to strip away the unhelpful or the protective coverings. What are you/we are willing to give up and to strip away?

What are we being asked to strip away? Isaiah’s obedience to God’s command to strip off his clothes and remove his shoes speaks to his courage as well as his faith. When Isaiah stood naked, he was not starting a prophetic tradition, but he was following in the footsteps of other prophets. Jeremiah did it. Ezekiel did it. Amos did it. Hosea did it. The people might have thought, there goes another naked prophet. What did he expose in stripping? That he was circumcised. That he was not a eunuch? Was he exposing that he was willing to do what it took?

Sometimes what we have done in the past isn’t enough in extraordinary times. When a plethora of words to the forces that be aren’t enough. When a thousand or thousands of tongues aren’t enough to proclaim and prophesy. When people and institutions turn a deaf ear. Then you/we have to be willing to reveal yourself /ourselves and strip away what is usually hidden to others.

During the Liberian civil war, Leymah Gbowee, a Liberian peace activist responsible for leading a women's peace movement, led protesters by threatening to strip naked in an attempt to push warring factions to agree on a peace deal.

Wangari Maathai, the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize, and the first Kenyan to earn a doctoral degree, used her nudity as a powerful tool in Kenya’s pro-democracy struggle. She was a consistent thorn in the side of an autocratic administration was been described by them as “not a good woman. But Kenya needs more of them.”

Naked protests in Africa have historically been symbolic forms of collective protest utilized by the poorest of the poor - the most marginalized in society, often to shame abusive powers into behaving, and meant to curse persons who brought suffering to them.” There are many examples of the use of stripping on the mother continent.

Literally stripping ourselves naked though isn’t likely going to achieve the same effect here. And, just because one is naked in the square doesn’t mean one is a prophet. Going naked hasn’t been a part of our prophetic tradition like Isaiah, Wangari, Leymah and others. Plus, I really don’t want to see you walking naked around the Portland Convention Center, nor have folks say that I told you to do so. 

However, we need to be willing to strip away those things that that we think define us, give us status and social esteem and lay ourselves bare in the pursuit of peace and justice …

† We may need to strip away our need for the pronouncement of titles and pedigrees
† Strip away the need to be the smartest or most wounded in the room
† Strip away our ethnocentric preferences and habits
† Strip away a need to be the dominant voice or the resident expert
† Strip away layers of privilege and class
† For some clergy, we may need to strip away a tendency to hide behind collars or clerical uniforms of various forms that serve as a protection or distinguishes us from the huddled masses yearning to live free

We have strip away these things until the time we know what garments we might later put back on.

Are we willing to strip away who we have been or who we thought we were in the beginning of the movement in order to reveal something different? I am willing to strip away those things in my demeanor that defy or contradict my commitment to peace. To not arm up with unkind words. To not arm myself with arrogant postures. Even in this time of increased recording breaking firearms acquired - to commit to remaining unarmed, and to find security in non-violent resistance. To not bow to the temptation of taking on the offensive and claiming it as defensive.

There are rewards in stripping down. One becomes lighter – you can’t hide the truth. Isaiah in his nakedness and bare feet was demonstrating or prophesying the eventual state of humiliation that communities’ oppressors will experience in their eventual departure. They will depart in the apparel of slaves, as they had been enslaved to the accouterments of power and dominance... Stripped of dignity and agency, they reveal they have nothing left - nothing to hide and nowhere to hide it. That is the way they will depart.

When we strip away our faux or put-on identities, we make room for a deeper or truer identity that demonstrates God’s vision for the people of God – the people of the earth.

Where the wolf will live with the lamb and leopard lie down with the goat; where the calf, the lion and the yearling lie together; where the infant plays near the cobra’s den; where the elephant and the donkey build each other up; where the evangelical and the transgender enjoy non-threatening friendship. When Black Lives Matter is a given, and where the language of heaven is every tongue uttered on the earth.

What are you/we are willing to take on – not fueled by ego, but out of obedience to God? 

3. What do you/we need to take on for the sake of y/our own souls, our communities and the call God has given us and we has responded to?

I am willing to take on deeper kindness as the strong flip side of the same coin of justice as Micah preached. To remember the strength that God gives us for the journey is rooted in the earth - the hummus. Hummus, which shares the same root as the word humility gives us an earthy understanding of what it means to humbly walk with God. Our rootedness in the earth is the kind of humility that I believe God is calling forth... To behold the whole of creation as holy ground – to be willing to walk on filthy and soiled streets, as well as the still and unsullied places of creation, knowing that God is in all of it, and with u in its. 

The great resistance post-inauguration Women’s March held in DC, NYC and so many communities around the country on January 21, 2017 struck me a few ways as I looked around at those who were there. As I looked at the variety of signs, I thought, “What do all these people have in common? What do we have in common besides being mad at the election outcome?” Seemingly at first glance, and on a deeper level not that much, other than commonly clustered progressive pursuits. So many differences, I thought, almost overwhelming in scope. Do they see me too? Am I willing to take on all of this, some of which I don’t understand or agree with, yet is the burden of my brother and sister who at times must feel as if s/he has been carrying a heavy load by him or herself? Am I willing to be in solidarity with them? 

One Pope said (John Paul II) “solidarity is not a feeling of vague compassion… it is a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good…of all and each individual because we are really responsible for all.” Being in solidarity is linked to our co-relationship with one another on this earth. Deciding what new or other areas in which to authentically accompany another and be in solidarity with is serious business, and not done lightly. Yet justice just for some is a partial, false and imperfect peace. No justice no peace. We have to accompany one another… We may be tempted to say, the hell with it, I can’t take it on. I can’t do it. I give up. Let me say, don’t do it. DON’T DO IT. Take your rest and then take up the mantle again. We haven’t been given this ministry of peace to keep it to ourselves. It is our work for our whole lives. Not everyone is cut out for it, but we are. Let’s keep doing this thing.

As our brother Lance Muteyo, Zimbabwean peace activist who has gone many places we would not go, taught us: Amani Milele! Milele! Amani!  Amani! Milele! Milele! Amani! (Peace Forever, Forever Peace). Let’s keep doing this thing.

The Rev. Dr. Cheryl F. Dudley serves as the Regional Executive Minister of the American Baptist Churches of Metropolitan New York. Dr. Dudley is an ordained American Baptist minister and has lived in New York City since 2006. She holds degrees from Pomona College (BA), Princeton Theological Seminary (M.Div.) and a DMin. in Executive Leadership from McCormick Theological Seminary. Dr. Dudley has been in involved in pastoral, community, as well as global and philanthropic ministries for many years. She has served as the Senior Partner of her own consulting group; Global Religions Director of the Arcus foundation; Senior Advisor to the President of Church World Service; Associate Executive Director of Church in Community Transformation, American Baptist Home Mission Societies; Acting Director of African American Studies at Bradley University; and, Executive Director of Peoria Friendship House, as well as on the pastoral staff of several churches in Illinois and Pennsylvania. She has served on several national and international boards and committees. She is a member of Madison Avenue Baptist Church in New York City. Cheryl has been a member of the BPFNA since the second Gulf War, and served on the BPFNA Board from 2008 – 2014.  During that time, she served as the President of the Board for three years, and as the co-chair of the long-range planning committee. Cheryl counts her time on the BPFNA board as part of the most transformative time of her adult life.

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