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Not long ago, I posted my interview with Disciples theologian and author Rita Nakashima Brock, founder of Faith Voices for the Common Good and a member of the Axis of Friendship — a coalition of individuals and groups reaching out in solidarity with the people of Iran.
With the visit of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the U.N. this week and the ongoing concerns about its nuclear aims, the spotlight is once again on Iran, as it has been off and on since the highly-contested elections of this summer.
In another article, published the same day on the Dog Canyon blog, Brock asks “What has Christianity to do with Iran?” and answers “A lot, it turns out.” Her article there, “Iran and our Axis of Friendship,” is a fascinating look at the role of Persia (now Iran) in the world at the time of Jesus’ birth.
What are your thoughts on Iran, and on Ahmadinejad’s visit and speech?
On September 12, 2001, thousands of people around the world lit candles in solidarity with the United States following the terrorist attacks of September 11. Recently, the 2009 General Assembly adopted a resolution supporting the Axis of Friendship initiative encouraging Disciples to light a candle on September 12, and to hold services of candle-lighting and peacemaking in local churches. Disciples of Christ theologian, scholar and activist Rita Nakashima Brock, of Faith Voices for the Common Good, was a catalyst behind launching the Axis of Friendship in 2008. Brock is in London, but had an email conversation with Rebecca Bowman Woods, DisciplesWorld news and website editor, this week.
Rebecca Bowman Woods: How did the Axis of Friendship begin?
Rita Nakashima Brock: Last July, Rev. Pat DeJong [senior minister] at First Congregational Church in Berkeley, Calif. (FCCB) and I met to discuss what we could do about the demonization of Iran, and HR 362 making its way through the House, which included a naval blockade against Iran, an act of war under international law. It was clear the US military was in trouble in Iraq, so starting a war with a country 3 times its size whose legally elected government the US overthrew in 1953 was of great concern to us.
We decided to meet with others in the East Bay we had worked with previously in trying to stop the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. At that meeting, I suggested that another war protest would not be news and we needed to include some Iranian Americans to create a strategy they could support. We invited leaders of the Iranian Student Association at Cal Berkeley, an organizer for Iranian voters in the South Bay, and a friend of mine, Amir Soltani, with whom I’d shared a Harvard connection and with whom begun to work on poverty in Oakland.
The Iranian Americans said no one from their communities would show up for a political protest (because of danger to their families and themselves, and disillusionment with such protests), but they love festivals. We decided to hold a US-Iran friendship festival in San Francisco’s Civic Center Plaza with food, music, art, and speakers, ending with taking children’s peace art to Nancy Pelosi’s office near the Plaza. We had the speakers first (nine leaders from various faiths and communities, plus a middle school group, which read peace poetry) and called a press conference (excerpts from the event are at http://www.axisoffriendship.org).
Faith Voices for the Common Good [which Brock founded] is the fiscal home for the Axis of Friendship, but a number of churches and organizations are part of the network that supports the work of it that joined together last summer.
RW: How did you settle on September 12 as the date?
RB: The first feasible date for the event last year, given all the political conventions that summer, was September 12, a Friday afternoon. Amir, who had worked as a journalist, pointed out that on that day in 2001, 10,000 people had stood with candles in the streets of Tehran in solidarity and sorrow with the tragedy of 9/11. So, our choice of date seemed ideal to point to the global friendship that emerged that day all over the world. After discussing what to call it, we settled on the Axis of Friendship. A Festival of Friendship seemed to vague and general and needed explaining. Whereas Axis of Friendship directly linked the festival to the aftermath of 9/11 and the invention of an “axis of evil” in January of 2002, which was used to launch “preemptive” wars of aggression.
We decided to hold a candle lighting vigil as the conclusion of our festival and invited other communities to do so. Both Chapman University’s church relations office and the community at Pilgrim Place in Claremont, Calif., decided to hold vigils, and our festival in San Francisco was very successful.
RW: Who was involved in writing and submitting resolutions to the Disciples’ General Assembly and the UCC’s General Synod in support of Axis of Friendship Day?
RB: In its aftermath, Pat, Amir, and I thought we needed to do further work on education about the people and country of Iran (Pat had visited Iran with the Fellowship of Reconciliation’s Iran program). Amir and I had written an op ed, published Sept 11 in the Boston Globe, about the Axis of Friendship, and Pat and I used it as a basis for creating a resolution to go to the United Church of Christ General Synod. She invited other churches to get involved.
I approached the Oakland congregation to see if we might do something similar with the General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). They jumped on board with enthusiasm, so I invited DJAN [Disciples Justice Action Network] to provide some support. I also knew that Park Avenue Christian Church [in New York City] had a strong peace program, and they too supported the initiative and joined as another church sponsor of the resolution.
Amir, in the meantime, both became a member of our Faith Voices board and was recruited to become the operations director for Omid for Iran. We continue to work on ways to further the work of the Axis of Friendship.
We are pleased that both the UCC and Disciples passed resolutions in support of Axis of Friendship Day and will continue with ways to promote it in the future, including adding more organizational members. While we are currently focused on Iran, the Axis is not limited to friendship with Iran.
RW: Things have changed in Iran, and here in the US, since last year. Do you feel more hopeful that we can foster diplomatic relations with Iran, and avoid the alternative of conflict or war? And with Iran’s recent elections and the accusations over the outcome, what role can friendships and an Axis of Friendship play in making the voices of the people of Iran heard and in learning what’s happening there?
RB: One of our objectives last summer was to put a human face on Iran and to de-demonize its people (who were demonized during the hostage crisis under Carter). The aftermath of the June election fraud in Iran this summer did this. I think many Americans could identify with their struggle, after our own difficult elections. But the courage of the Iranian people who continue to work for democracy has its own amazing and inspiring power.
We hope via the Axis of Friendship to keep Iran in the U.S. public consciousness and to create new ways to develop people-to-people exchanges to other countries where people struggle for human rights and dignity, especially as opportunities develop via Global Ministries’ work in many such places.
RW: What else is important for people to know?
RB: I think there are many ways for Christians to promote peace. The work of overseas ministries is an underappreciated and underutilized avenue for positive work for peace. At the same time, we have an increasingly diverse society and amazing opportunities to strengthen the Axis of Friendship with people in our own regions. We need to be reaching out to Iraqis, Afghanis, and Iranians who are our neighbors, and befriending them.
I first came to appreciate Iran in college because of work I did in Biblical studies and the impact of Persia on Isaiah and on Christianity. Then over a decade ago I met an Iranian Muslim feminist in London, Roxanne Zand, who introduced me to feminist writings she translated and to modern Iranian artists she was supporting as an art curator. And, of course, I have learned a great deal from Amir and the Iranian Americans I have come to know in the East Bay.
At the Disciples’ upcoming General Assembly in Indianapolis, Jason will share his advice on writing theologically for a broad audience during a resource group on Theology and Writing, on Friday, July 31 from 2:00 to 3:30 p.m.
Rebecca Woods, DisciplesWorld news and website editor, spoke with Jason Byassee in June.
RW: So you’re leading a General Assembly resource group on theology and writing. What will you cover?
JB: I’ll encourage pastors and others to think about themselves as writers. It’s not hard [at least for pastors] because every pastor is already writing sermons. But I want to encourage them to think about having a more expansive audience.
Many pastors write for their church newsletters. I suggest that they do this with as much care as they take with their sermons; and from there, to consider writing for a broader audience — religious publications and secular settings.
This has been made easier because of the Internet, but it’s harder than ever to make any money at it. So…there’s not necessarily a reward for this type of writing. It has to be seen as part of a pastoral lifestyle.
The question isn’t whether a pastor is going to be a writer…it’s the kind of care that they’re going to take in writing. And not only every pastor, but every Christian. Writing is a way of transforming feeling into thought.
RW: How does this type of writing fit into the pastor’s role?
JB: I’m convinced that this kind of broader writing changes the way a congregation views its pastor. I remember when my own pastor started publishing. Suddenly he had a new authority — I listened to him with a different set of ears.
Some may think, if you do that kind of broader writing, it takes away from the local parish. It may do that in the short run, but in the long run, it changes the way people listen.
RW: What sources from the Christian tradition do you draw on to make your case for pastor-as-writer?
JB: I really love some of the sources from the ancient church, about learning how to discern Christ in surprising places, and learning how to pay attention to Jesus in strange forms. I draw on a number of ancient and modern sources — from Simone Weil and Annie Dillard, to Augustine and the Desert Fathers.
RW: So what are some of the obstacles to writing that pastors face?
JB: There’s something every writer has to get over — the discipline of clearing space to write regularly. Because as important as it is, it isn’t urgent. Nobody is saying “You have to get this to me by Thursday.” So you have to clear space for it, even though nobody can see what you‘re doing. Later they may see the value, but maybe not right away.
And then there’s the mystification of the publishing process. I want them to know that people on ‘that side of the curtain’ are always looking for newer and better writers. And pastors are involved in things we editors can’t see. They’re involved in day-to-day things that we want to honor.
The tasks that go along with being a pastor contribute to being a writer. For example, noticing is a kind of pastoral activity. Noticing is also a crucial writing activity. I’m fascinated by the overlap.
Also, being a writer is not just about publishing your sermons. Often sermons don’t translate well to print. There are ambiguities [in sermons]…it can be done, but it has to be done with real care.
RW: How did you become interested in helping pastors to develop as writers?
JB: I was doing doctoral work, and I was frustrated. I wasn’t sure if I dropped dead that anyone would notice. I couldn’t figure out how I was helping anyone.
Then I became a local pastor. I was pastoring a rural church in North Carolina with about 80 people in it. And I knew that whatever else I might do during the week, I had done something on Sunday that mattered.
So I had this desire to be in between academia and pastoral work. At the Christian Century, I could pay attention to what was going on in the academy, but I could also pay attention on behalf of pastors.
RW: How did you end up working at the Christian Century?
JB: I was at a conference and the editor of the Century told me he was having a hard time getting people to write about movies. So I started there, and then the job came up [as assistant editor] and they hired me. Even when I was writing for them from the parish, I would never have thought it would become a job. Yet, I worked for the Century from 2004 to 2008, and I’m still a contributing editor there.
RW: So why did you move on to what you’re doing now?
JB: What led me back to Duke? While at the Century, I was adjunct teaching. I was thinking about how the academy is good at saying, “Here’s something new that you weren’t already thinking about,”…and asking critical questions about it. I did a lot of thinking about the distance between the academy and the parish.
And at the Century, I reviewed other people’s stuff. In a sense, I passed grades on it. [Christian writer] Andy Crouch, in his book Culture Making, says Christians shouldn’t be just evaluating other people’s creative works, they should be creating their own.
So I’m back at Duke, and I get to teach the kind of writing that I do. Really, there’s not a big emphasis on this kind of writing in most places in theological education. And Duke is the place that taught me to care about this stuff… [professors and writers] Lauren Winner, David Steinmetz, and Greg Jones are now my colleagues.
I also have a minor administrative post called special assistant to the dean. In an informal role, I am advising students and faculty on how to publish more broadly.
And I’m editing this new website at the Divinity School. We call it a publication — Faith and Leadership magazine.
RW: What was the first thing you ever wrote that was published?
JB: It was a piece on Rick Warren’s book, The Purpose-Driven Life, published in the Christian Century back in 2003.
RW: What are you working on now?
JB: I have a book coming out next year. It’s about the theology of the small church, and Abingdon is the publisher. It’s partly theology, and partly rooted in the pastoral experiences I had in the small church. It’s tentatively called The Gift of the Small Church.
RW: Any advice for writers?
JB: You’ve got to read what you want to write. There’s a famous writing book — Reading Like a Writer. There’s a great deal of overlap between reading and the writing life.
RW: So what are you reading?
JB: I’ve spent some time lately with a book by Christine Pohl — Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition. And there’s a new book by David Hart, called Atheist Delusions. And Dana Robert’s Christian Mission: How Christianity Became a World Religion.
I’ve also been reading a novel called Cutting for Stone, by Abraham Verghese, about a mission hospital in Ethiopia. It’s about a family’s life serving in this place.
RW: Do you have a favorite writer?
JB: Flannery O’Connor is probably my favorite author, from the 20th century. Augustine is the great one for all time.
Paul Elie’s The Life You Save May Be Your Own is another good one.
I like paying attention to people who are sort of writing not on their home field — theological writers who are writing in some other vein. For example, David Steinmetz writes editorials in places like USA Today.
If you’re ever reporting on gay marriage, Steve Kindle is someone you’d want to interview. Kindle (a Disciples of Christ minister, and a straight man) is a vocal advocate for gay marriage and other lgbt issues. DisciplesWorld wrote about him when he appeared in Daniel Karslake’s 2007 Sundance film on Christianity and homosexuality, “For the Bible Tells Me So”, and we interviewed him again after California voters passed Proposition 8 last November.
Like most people who have an opinion on the subject, Kindle took note when Carrie Prejean, Miss California, voiced her opposition to gay marriage. But what really got him going wasn’t the subsequent revelation that she had posed for revealing photos. It was her association with the National Organization for Marriage (the same folks who brought you the thunder-and-lightning ad campaign called “The Gathering Storm”)
Kindle methodically takes on the NOM’s Q&A format — their “talking points” approach to getting people riled up about the supposed threat of gay marriage. He describes the NOM’s effort this way: “I have never discovered a more ill-informed, logic challenged, subject changing, straw man creating attempt at defending a position since the efforts of the holocaust deniers.” And then he sets out to take them apart.
Each day for about the past week, Kindle has taken on one point from the NOM and systematically debunked it. You have to admire the sheer bulldog-like quality of his approach. The guy knows what he’s talking about, and he’s not going to let go.
Donald E. Mitchell, was one of the founders of DisciplesWorld, serving for almost a year without pay, selling advertising to help birth the magazine. Don died April 28 after a long bout with lung cancer. He was 81.
For more than 30 years, Don was known across the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) for his work as public relations director at Church Extension. He won numerous awards, particularly in photography, from church professional groups. He previously had been a newspaper and TV photographer in West Virginia.
Don, thank you. You will be missed.