A Christmas letter from Bishop Ken Carter




The Peaceable Kingdom

A Christmas Letter to the People of the Florida Conference of The United Methodist Church

Ken Carter

Resident Bishop, Florida Area

The United Methodist Church

 

The Prophet:  Isaiah

The prophet Isaiah, living in the eighth century before Christ, had a dream, a vision, and over time this dream, this vision has been given a name:  the peaceable kingdom.  It’s a compelling vision:  A shoot will come from a stump.  A stump is a tree that has been cut down, destroyed.  But the hope is that life will come out of destruction.  We often place our hopes on a new leader, the next leader, and so an ideal king would be enthroned, and would come from the family of David.  A new political order would fulfill the hopes of the people (Isaiah 11. 1-5).   This passage may have been read on inauguration day, with the prayer that the Spirit of the Lord would guide and govern the leader. 

Accompanying the spirit would be three sets of gifts, listed in pairs:

Wisdom and understanding: how we make decisions;

Counsel and might: how we use our power;

Knowledge and fear of the Lord:  how we study the ways of the Lord and how we live in the awareness of his glory. 

There will be no pride in the one who will lead us, for pride goes before a fall.  The one who will lead us will be humble.   How will we know that the leader is of God?  The leader will see beyond the surface, things as they appear, and will protect the weak and the vulnerable.  The poor, who often have no access to power in the world, will be treated with justice and fairness.

Edward Hicks:  Peaceable Kingdom

Then Isaiah’s vision shifts from political science to art, to the creation, a vision of a new heaven and a new earth:  the wolf and the lamb will lie down together; no one shall hurt or destroy on God’s holy mountain.    Paradise will be restored.  All nature will sing in harmony.  Isaiah is painting a picture:  this is what peace looks like.  This is the peaceable kingdom.

Peace is a reality that has been diminished by our hyper-contentious politics, trivialized in our stress-avoiding lifestyles, and suppressed by our ultra-violent sports. And, yet we cannot avoid the fact that peace is important to God.  If God’s people sit still long enough, listen closely enough, discern carefully enough, it becomes clear.  God even paints a picture for us.

In these days there are wars and rumors of wars.  In the past few years we have read and heard about hiding in caves and friendly fire, special operations and prisoners of war, drone attacks and torture, forced displacement and ethnic cleansing.  We know what violence looks like.   There has been a continuous war for almost one hundred years somewhere on the planet.  At the end of the day, we almost dread tuning into the television, for somewhere there has been an explosion, a suicide bombing, an assassination, involving gangs and tribes, drugs and oil, property and power. I write on the anniversary of the Newtown murders of twenty children and six staff at a Connecticut elementary school. In detail we hear the story, and because of our advanced technology, we experience it with graphic precision. We know what violence is like.

The biblical writers asked a different question: “What does peace look like?”  For the prophets of the ancient Middle East also lived in days where there were wars and rumors of wars.  They could also describe it in vivid detail.  Yet they had a different focus, an alternative vision, when they asked the question, “What does peace look like?”

The Painter: Edward Hicks

This vision of the prophet Isaiah has always been inspirational.  You can see it, and, of course, that is a part of what makes it so compelling.  In the 1820s, almost two hundred years ago, there was a deep separation within the Quakers of our country over slavery.  It was a church fight.  Some of us have been through church fights.  Conflict is present in many of our congregations, in many of our communities, and in our denomination.  There are deep divisions within the people called Methodist as the year 2013 concludes, over our polity in relation to the LBGT community and the interpretation of scripture. 

Edward Hicks lived in Bucks County, Pennsylvania and was a Quaker minister. To make a little extra income, he painted, mostly responding to the needs of others--he painted tavern signs, farm equipment, whatever was needed, and he was good at it.  Although he was self-taught, he had a gift.  He began to make a fair amount of money, and this upset his Quaker congregation, who felt that he was violating their customs of simple living.  Finally he became enmeshed in a church split--between those who wanted to live more frugally, and those who did not see a problem.  He gave up painting and took up farming, but he was a terrible farmer. Later he gave up the preaching ministry too, and transitioned back to the craft of painting. 

Soon enough, he came to discover that he could use his painting to express his faith. He began to draw oil paintings based on Isaiah’s prophecy:  The wolf shall live with the lamb, a little child shall lead them (11.6). He drew the same painting over and over again, and there are now over one hundred versions.  We know it now as the Peaceable Kingdom, and it is his best known work.  One version of the painting is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City; another is in the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C.; another, which inspired the composer Randall Thompson, is in the Worchester Art Museum; and, another is in the Reynolda House in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, a few miles away from one of the congregations my wife Pam and I served and adjacent to Wake Forest University, where Pam attended undergraduate school.     

In most of the paintings the predators and prey are together.  There is a bull, a lion, a lamb, a bear, a child.  They are most often to the right of the painting, congested together.  For the artist the animals reflected something of our temperaments--the lion was anger, the bear was calmness.  To the left there is often a separate scene, William Penn conducting a treaty with the Indians.  A river flows toward them, and light shines upon them.  The spirit, the light placed within us by God, helped us to dwell together in peace, despite our animosities and our differences. 

It could be that Edward Hicks was inspired to paint this picture, over and over again, because he was obsessed with a vision of peace.  Perhaps it was due to the growing division in America between North and South over the practice of slavery.  Perhaps it was due to the conflict that was present in his own community, over the teachings of his church and his lifestyle.  Perhaps it was due to the inner turmoil within, over what exactly God wanted him to do with his life.

The Theologian: Stanley Hauerwas

Thirty years ago, in 1983, Stanley Hauerwas published a book entitled The Peaceable Kingdom.  His earlier works had been collections of essays in the field of Christian Ethics; this was an attempt to write an introduction to his discipline, from the perspective of character, virtue and narrative.  The title was taken from Isaiah’s prophecy and the introduction included a discussion of the painting of Edward Hicks.  In time, Hauerwas would become the most influential theologian of his era.

In The Peaceable Kingdom, Hauerwas suggests that Christians are called to bear witness to the truth of the Holy Scriptures, noting that "this world is the creation of a good God who is known through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus" (15).  We believe this to be the truth of the gospel, and yet we cannot use violence in the advancement of this truth.  Instead we have trust and confidence in the ultimate victory of God over the forces of evil, sin and death.  In a fragmented and polarized world, this is crucial:  Christians with liberal and conservative convictions are tempted to use coercive strategies for the sake of an end they believe to be just, and Christian leaders mimic the practices of our secular counterparts in seeking strategic gains through actions that are not consistent with our covenant promises. 

At our best, we understand that leaders never cease being disciples.  The formation of character and conscience takes place through immersion into the Christian narrative and participation in the Christian community.  We discover that we are sinners, that we have a continuing capacity for self-deception.  To be a Christ-follower is to move beyond individualism to see the persons God has called us to serve; in so doing we discover the needs of others to be the pathways to our freedom, as they remove the greatest obstacle to freedom, namely our self-absorption (44). 

Freed from self-absorption, as individuals and congregations, we are given new life.  The call of God is, in Hauerwas' words, "the confidence, gained through participation in God's kingdom, to trust ourselves and others.  Such confidence becomes the source of our character and our freedom as we are loosed from a debilitating preoccupation with ourselves" (49).

United Methodism, at the conclusion of 2013, has become a church infected by a "debilitating preoccupation with ourselves".  Many of our congregations do not have the energy or will to be in mission beyond the walls of the sanctuary.  Commenting a few days after his election, Pope Francis spoke of the “self-referential church”, which believes that “she has her own light”, and “lives to give glory only to one another, and not the rest of the world.”  At a denominational and structural level, we often reflect the systemic polarization of American political culture; our social pronouncements, even those that advance values of inclusion, protection of the vulnerable, and peace, are often harsh and brittle.  Ironically, these pronouncements become louder as the church itself becomes more marginalized, fragmented and disconnected from the real world.   

Our fragmentation, violence and disconnection are signs that “we have failed to be an obedient church,” in the language of our liturgy of confession (United Methodist Hymnal, 8). In our individual lives, in our congregations, in our denomination, in our nation, we yearn for a right path, for a new and living way, for an alternative to the status quo.  In the language of the hymn, there are “fightings without and fears within.”

The way forward may be the rediscovery of our core mission:  “to make disciples of Jesus Christ, for the transformation of the world” (Book of Discipline, 120). Jesus is the embodiment of the peaceable kingdom.  To recall the words of the gospel about John the Baptist:  he was not the light; he came to bear witness to the light” (John 1. 8). The church approximates the peaceable kingdom as she stays close to the person and work of Christ. This is an act of radical self-denial.  The first task of a disciple, Hauerwas notes, is not to forgive but to be forgiven (89).  To confess our need for forgiveness is an act of humility, and one that calls upon the patience of God.  To confess that we need to be forgiven is to give up control, and to place ourselves in communion with God’s people, who are also imperfect and, yet, who are God’s chosen messengers of grace and acceptance for us.

The Savior: Jesus

And so we gather in congregations across the Florida Conference to discover anew the meaning and message of Advent and Christmas. It is a moment when the message and meaning of Advent and Christmas emerges.   Christians believe that Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of the prophet’s wildest hopes and the artist’s deepest imaginings: “a little child shall lead them.”   The peaceable kingdom is a new way of doing politics, for sure, and it is a new creation; but it is also the vision of a new community, and this has everything to do with the church, which gathers as forgiven and reconciled people, who seek to live in peace with one another, because we have been cleansed in the waters of baptism, marked with the sign of the cross, and sustained with his body broken for us and his blood poured out for us. 

At Christmas, God gives us the vision of the prophet and the artistry of the painter, and if we have eyes to see and ears to hear it is all a gift, the mystery of our faith:

Christ has died--and making peace with God on our behalf (Ephesians 2);

Christ is risen--breathing on the disciples and saying, “peace be with you” (John 21);

Christ will come again--this is Advent….”Emanuel--God with us--shall come to Thee, O Israel” (Matthew 1).

You may be thinking about the words of scripture or imagining the painting and/or engaging with a contemporary theologian, and asking:  those are prophets, but I’m not very spiritual; those are painters, I’m not very artistic; those are theologians, I’m not very intellectual.  How is all of this relevant for me, a two thousand-eight hundred year old collection of words, a two hundred year old painting, a thirty year old theological book?

It is relevant because you and I struggle with the very same questions: 

How do we discover restored relationships? 

Why is it so difficult for us to ask for forgiveness?

How do we most faithfully advocate for those who have been treated unjustly? 

How do we accept of God’s will for the future? 

Where do we find the capacity to live in fellowship with those who differ from us?

What is our vision of peace?

The ruins and devastation surround the prophet Isaiah in the eighth century, but he does what God’s people have always done: he sits still long enough, listens closely enough, discerns carefully enough, and it becomes clear.  God even paints a picture for him, and us.  It is a portrait of anger and calmness, strength and weakness living together.  Could this vision exist, in the present moment: in our nation, in our denomination, in our congregations, in our families, even within each of us?

It is precisely in a culture that is saturated with hyper-contentious politics, stress-avoiding lifestyle trivia and ultra-violent sports that we unplug, detach and take the long view.  We continue to live with the questions:  What is God saying to us?  What does God want us to see?   What does God have to do with how we make decisions and how we exercise our power?  And perhaps we have, in Stanley Hauerwas’ words, “the grace to do one thing” (149-151), meaning we live in community and we engage in the basic practices of discipleship that make the forgiveness and love of God visible and tangible. This is the peaceable kingdom.   

At Christmas, if we sit still long enough, if we listen closely enough, if we discern carefully enough, it will become clear.  Let us open our eyes and our ears, our hearts and our hands, and see the salvation of God. 

The peace of the Lord be with you.


Sources: 

John Braostoski, “Hicks’ Peaceable Kingdom”, Friends Journal, February, 2000.  Stanley Hauerwas, The Peaceable Kingdom.  Edward Hicks, The Peaceable Kingdom http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Edward_Hicks_-_Peaceable_Kingdom.jpg.  The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume VI.  Pope Francis, Speech to the Pre-Conclave College of Cardinals (America, March 27, 2013).  The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church.  The United Methodist Hymnal.

 

 

 




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