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Photo: kkalyan (Creative Commons license)

Photo: kkalyan (Creative Commons license)


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.

Last week, I threw a bit of a teaser out there, with this whole “Spider vs. Starfish” concept. As I’m sure many of you have lost hours of sleep, and perhaps have had a hard time forcing down a decent meal in eager anticipation of the follow-up, I figured it wasn’t fair to keep you waiting any longer.

The whole concept came from a book on business management practices, called The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations by Ori Brafman and Rod A. Beckstrom. The model presented here resonates with the idea I’ve had for a while now that church could learn a whole lot from the structure and governance of organizations like twelve-step groups like Alcoholics Anonymous. After all, they have reached millions with virtually no budget, and they seem immune to economic conditions, flourishing while we institutional churches struggle to keep the doors open.

So what’s the difference?

I might help answer that question with another question; if you cut the head off a spider, what happens? We all know it dies, right? But what if you cut off the arm of a starfish? It just grows another starfish. Where you once had one, there are now two. In trying to stop it, you actually only made it stronger.

So, how many of our churches are more like spiders instead of starfish? I thought so.

Here’s where the advent of recent technology might teach us an awful lot. If Rebecca Woods will indulge me in the future, I’d gladly post some other blogs about using applications like facebook, podcasting and blogging to further our ministries, but for now, let’s consider them a little more systematically.

In particular, consider a phenomenon known as “Web 2.0.” This is much like the so-called “leaderless organizations” that Brafman and Beckstrom are referring to. They are viral in nature, highly adaptable and scalable, and relatively easy to manage because the users generate the content.

I’ll offer a few examples to clarify the differences between a 1.0 – or spider – model and a 2.0 – or starfish – system. Amazon, which has become a behemoth presence for online commerce, would be considered a 1.0 model. They have a product that they sell to customers, pretty much in the traditional model, despite their lack of storefronts. Though they’ve been successful up until now, they are depending on some basic truths about the market. If, for example, the cost of paper or transport fuel went through the roof, it would affect their business model significantly, or if a supplier shut down, they might be stuck.

eBay, on the other hand, is a 2.0, or starfish, model. eBay, as you probably know, doesn’t actually sell anything. All they do is create the framework within which people can conduct business. This means they can be a conduit for everything from sweat socks to automobiles and homes. If the price of gold plummeted and jewelry markets crumbled, people could just sell more baseball cards or used books on eBay.

Another comparison might be looking at the difference between the traditional military structure versus a network like Al Qaida. Though you can throw an entire military into chaos by attacking its senior leadership or supply lines, Al Qaida is hard to stop in one sense because it is a headless beast. You kill or capture current leaders, and a dozen more pop up in their place. The system is so adaptable, it’s hard to stop.

Our churches have been based upon a 1.0 “spider” model for centuries, and so far, it’s worked pretty well. But now, we’re surrounded by starfish like facebook, Craigslist, BitTorrent, MySpace, eBay and the like, and we wonder why it is that we, the institutional church, don’t seem relevant to younger people.

For starters, we not only don’t look familiar: we don’t even look relevant.

People may not be able to put their finger on it, but they know 1.0 versus 2.0 when they see it, especially younger people. There are consequences to being a starfish organization instead of a spider, such as letting go some control over the content exchanged within the system, but there’s great opportunity as well.

In future installments, I’ll discuss a few more ways in which we can employ Church 2.0 methods in our existing congregations, both with technology, and even on our boards and in our Sunday School rooms. But for now, look around you and see if you can start spotting the differences between the spiders and starfish, all around you.

Until next time!

Christian Piatt is the author of MySpace to Sacred Space: God for a New Generation, and Lost: A Search for Meaning, and he is a columnist for various newspapers, magazines and websites on the topics of theology and popular culture. He is the co-founder of Milagro Christian Church in Pueblo, Colorado with his wife, Amy. For more information about Christian, visit www.christianpiatt.com.

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