"Life is too short for nastiness," retired South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu told participants at the first of two Spiritual Formation Conferences sponsored by Trinity Church Wall Street and held at Camp Allen, Texas, April 7-11.
"Have you ever thought of yourselves as a center of peace, as a pool of serenity?" Tutu asked his audience. "God only does something in the world with you, through you…God needs you. God is omnipotent, yes, but God is also impotent. God is weak…because God needs you."
The Spiritual Formation program is a new mission outreach of Trinity, intended to introduce lay and ordained church leaders to the latest and the best methods of empowering the spiritual development of individuals and congregations and to equip attendees to introduce new practices and liturgies into their own parish programs.
Keynoters and presenters at the conference included Tutu; Walter Wink, professor of biblical interpretation at Auburn Theological Seminary in New York; Phyllis Tickle, religion editor of Publisher's Weekly; Joan Borysenko, author and lecturer; the Rev. Thomas Keating, OCSO, founder of Contemplative Outreach, Ltd.; and the Rev. Alan Jones, dean of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco.
A nonviolent revolution
"Peace never comes from the barrel of a gun," Tutu told a Trinity TV interviewer following his conference presentation. Clasping his hands and lacing his fingers together, he spoke of the importance of recognizing that the Iraqi people are part of God's family. The lesson we need to learn is interconnectedness, he said.
"Archbishop Tutu really moved me profoundly," said David Catron, a parishioner from All Saints Episcopal Church in Salt Lake City, Utah. "Tutu was the most powerful because of where he comes from, his personal experience. He speaks with authority because he has stood for peace when it meant putting your life at risk."
The theme of peace through nonviolence pervaded the conference. "It would be a tragedy if churches were not part of the nonviolent revolution," Wink told the conference as he stood under the huge wooden cross at the front of the camp's All Saints Chapel. He said the most important ethical challenge of our time is to grow a spirituality of nonviolence. "Violence has become the spirituality of the modern world," said Wink. Our culture believes "violence saves" and that "only violence can rescue us from the violence of our enemies."
Nonviolence is still resistance
"When pulpits are silenced because of fear, the church's integrity is at stake," said Wink, comparing current governmental influence on the church with that of the Emperor Constantine, who legitimized Christianity in the Roman Empire in 313. Wink's suggestion for church leaders was to study Matthew 5:38-41, Jesus' admonition about "turning the other cheek." He used people from the audience to act out those stories from the perspective of Jesus using nonviolent resistance. "This text has become a way of making people subservient," when it is quite the opposite, said Wink.
He and several volunteers demonstrated what the physical actions in the story would have meant to those who first heard this story. Turning the other cheek would have meant claiming equality against your aggressor, he said. It would have been understood as a challenge, an act of resistance. Giving up your garments until you are naked was a defiant act protesting the oppressive economic system of the time. Being naked in public was not a shaming thing for the naked person, he said; under Jewish law, it would instead have shamed those who looked upon the naked person.
Nor was carrying the pack of a soldier the extra mile an act of sheer generosity on the part of the follower of Christ. Wink acted out the text for his audience, showing that by that act it would have forced the soldier to break the law and could get him in trouble with his superiors. "Nonviolence is the heart of the teachings of Jesus," Wink said. "It is the breaking in of the Kingdom of God."
"Non-violence is absolutely gospel-based," agreed the Rev. Dru Ferguson, newly called rector of St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Dallas. "Christ calls us to a radical way of living and very few of us, and I include myself in that," she said, "are willing to live into that."
"Violence begets violence," continued Ferguson, "and you never bring about peace through violence. That is an illusion."
But not everyone agreed. "Walter Wink was a little too political for my taste," said one conference participant, who preferred not to be identified. "I don't know how we can say to Saddam Hussein turn the other cheek," said Wray McCash, a retired physician and parishioner at Trinity Episcopal Church in Longview, Texas. But he said he was impressed with Wink's presentation. It was the first time McCash had heard those interpretations of that passage of Scripture.
‘A person through other persons'
Other workshops included a presentation by Philip Roderick, an Anglican priest in the Diocese of Oxford, England who practices contemplative living. He offered a prayer practice for discernment around any issue. Catron said he hoped to use it to help heal the polarity that many are experiencing over the current war.
"Ubuntu theology" was the topic of a workshop offered by the Rev. Michael Battle, a parish rector and seminary professor at Duke University. Ubuntu is a concept of being that comes out of South Africa and that is summed up in a proverb: "A person is a person through other persons." Acknowledging that most of us have been asked if we have a personal relationship with Jesus, Battle asked the workshop how many had been asked if they had a communal relationship with Jesus. No one answered.
The concept of ubuntu, says Battle, is the concept of Christian community envisioned by St. Paul in Romans 8. The personal realm and the communal realm are "inextricably tied together," he said. "I am because you are and you are because I am."
Such a concept of community is what made possible South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Battle explained. Government officials seeking amnesty sat in the same room to be confronted by the victims or relatives of those they had tortured and killed. Tutu was the chair of that commission.
A second Spiritual Formation conference will be held at Kanuga Conference Center in western North Carolina the week of May 11 - 15.
--The Rev. Dan Webster is director of communications for the Diocese of Utah.