Saturday, May 28, 2011

Born Again

It is a Sunday morning in Masealama, and you are putting on your finest clothes to go to the church down the hill. You hear the bell ring, 9:00 am, so you must hurry down to church. You know that ALL of your neighbors will be joining you, because if they do not, the missionaries will come and find them and ask them for one good reason why they are not in attendance. It was a necessity to be at church on Sunday morning, or find a good hiding spot.

In a town founded by Lutheran missionaries, I have frequently heard stories about the church of the past. Everyone was Lutheran because that is what the white people said they must be in order to be saved. And who doesn’t want to be saved? During colonization, this happened all across Africa, where white people stepped in with their “correct” religion and “saved” all of Africa. The missionaries of old flew in, cured all the people from their pagan beliefs, and then flew out. They must have felt like superheroes zooming in with their greater knowledge and the power to save the poor people of Africa in their hands.

Not all missionaries were like this, but unfortunately, the extreme evangelism of a few missionaries has made my life as a missionary in South Africa rather challenging. I have to stay away from the term “global mission” or “missionary” and prefer to stick with volunteer, because the term missionary has so many stigmas with which it is associated. As a “missionary” I am supposed to lead the church, preach to the people, show them the light, convert sinners into the church, and all these things which I am definitely not here to do. Some of the missions of old were one-sided- I am right, you are wrong. Follow the rules of MY church, and you will be saved. I even see how this has affected the terminology used currently by members of the Lutheran church- they speak of needing to be “born again” and to “win others into Christ”- terminology which you do not hear too often in a Lutheran church back in the USA.

So I started questioning- why are Lutherans here speaking about being “born again” and “saved”? What do these terms really mean? I have always kind of shied away from these terms in the US, because I thought they did not really apply to me or my beliefs, but now I have started delving into what is behind them. The term “born again” comes from the New Testament in John 3:3 “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born again.” You must be born again of the Spirit instead of the flesh, and fully accept Christ in your life. The result is sudden- you are born again and instantly you are one with the Holy Spirit. You have done away with all sin and now you are saved, your work is over. POOF! It’s as simple as that. Seemingly, all you have to do is decide to be “born again” and then all your struggles on earth are over. The power is in YOUR hands.

I can see why it is easy to get pulled into the “born again” terminology. We humans love to be in power, so thinking that our ticket to salvation lies totally in our hands makes us feel in charge. We also love instant gratification- I want to be saved and NOW! No added work or fuss, just a quick change like Paul became Saul and all will be well. But it isn’t like that. Our sin and struggles don’t just go away. Even though I am trying to lead a Christian life, I am still drawn in by my ego-centric thinking and unable or unwilling to completely give up to the life God calls us all to lead. And I don’t see how to get out of it. No matter what I do, I sin. This is where the term “born again” throws me, because I expect it to be instantaneous. So I start to lose hope and think, well maybe I can never be a devout follower of Christ. I do not have enough faith. I have too many doubts, and will never be able to give up the things of this world. But we need to realize that being a Christian is a process, a life-long struggle with which we deal. No one has everything figured out and no one ever will. Instead of being born again, we must be perpetually reborn in Christ.

I am not saying that the “born again” and “saved” terminology is wrong, it just is not right for me. Some missionaries would use these terms because of their power to draw people into the church, and they have taken hold. As long as they do not begin to confuse our beliefs, then all is well. But these words in all their strength can begin to delude the importance of the atonement of Christ. As a Lutheran, I believe that Christ died so that we can all be saved. Through His love, God gave his only son, so that we may not perish but have eternal life. This has already been done for us. We are already saved. But if we then begin to save ourselves by being “born again”, are we not rejecting in a way the death and resurrection of Christ?

I am not your stereotypical missionary. I did not come to “save” people. Christ has already saved all of us. I came to do God’s work by spreading his love to fellow brothers and sisters around the world. To be in community with them, and most of all to learn from them what it means to be a Christian. Not just to be a North American Lutheran, but to be a Christian in this world. I am not saving people because that is neither necessary nor in my power. Martin Luther took the first step into transforming the Bible into the people’s vernacular. He believed that each person should be able to read the Word of God for themselves, so that they can determine their own beliefs instead of having someone else tell them what they believe. He did not say follow me, I have got this whole God thing figured out; he just gave people the ability to figure it out for themselves. No one knows the whole truth; no one church has it right. But through Christ’s death and resurrection, we do not have to be right, we do not have to be born again, we do not have to save ourselves or each other. We have already been granted salvation.

~Heather Anne Nelson

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Celebrating Violence

On the morning of May 2nd, 2011, I awoke to my usual routine. It was a holiday here in South Africa- we were celebrating Worker’s Day so the schools were closed and consequently I had no where to go, but I woke up at 5 am as per usual to do my morning devotion and workout. After I had finished I flipped on the TV to SABC 2 to watch the Morning Live broadcast, and then proceeded to do other chores while remotely listening to the news in the background. And then I heard it- Osama bin Laden has been killed. I stopped everything and sat down, glued to the TV screen for almost the complete 2 hours of the broadcast, as the news of Osama bin Laden was the biggest story they had, although the information was still minimal. He was killed in a mansion outside of a major city in Pakistan by US Seals- shot in the head. That was it, but even in those few words, the news was still HUGE.

I went up to the Dean’s house to spend time with Muano and Divhani for the day since I had no other plans, and I told them the news. Bin Laden has been killed- he was the mastermind behind the September 11th attacks on the United States. They remembered, in fact they remember where they were when they heard the news about September 11th, just as I do and every US citizen that I know. They remember watching the towers crashing on the TV, over and over again, same as me. Since the Deanery has dish, they are able to pick up more than the four channels available on my TV, and one of them includes CNN. For about an hour we sat and watched CNN- it was still night time in the United States, but already the news was spreading like wildfire. We heard the same details over and over again- Osama bin Laden, dead, mansion, Pakistan, US Seals, head shot.

You would think that watching the US broadcast of the death of Osama bin Laden would make my chest puff up as I feel proud to be an American. But I didn’t feel pride, or happiness, or even relief at the news that I saw. People were celebrating his death in the streets of NYC and Washington- university students were yelling and rolling the quads on campuses all over the country. Yes, Osama bin Laden was the leader of Al-Qaeda and was responsible for the death of thousands of people, not only in the United States but across the world, but why are we celebrating like it’s the Fourth of July? I felt torn while watching these celebrations, because while I was still trying to soak in the news and figure out how I felt about it, I saw people my age happy and jumping down the streets of Washington.

I realize that was not the only reaction. There was also a man who brought a picture of his son, who had lost his life in the war against terrorism, to the White House not to celebrate but rather to be a part of the history that he had helped create. However, the majority of the broadcast that I saw spoke of the celebration for the great victory that the USA had achieved on this momentous day. And that sickened me.

Reverend Mark S. Hanson presented, in my opinion, one of the best reactions to Osama bin Laden’s death- which helped me to feel confident in my lack of celebration with seemingly the rest of the USA. In his address to the ELCA, found here, he said: “The death of Osama bin Laden is an occasion for solemn remembrance. We remember the lives of all whose deaths resulted from his choosing hatred and violence… We pray for our neighbors, even those who are our enemies… Most of all, in these 50 days of celebrating Christ’s resurrection, joy finds its fullest and deepest expression not over a human death but in God’s promise to unite all things in heaven and on earth, to reconcile the human family and to bring God’s reign of peace.”

The death of any human should not be celebrated, no matter how much pain he or she has caused us. Osama bin Laden unfortunately chose the path of hatred and violence, and with what did we return? Hatred and violence. How are we any better than him, and who are we to judge? As a country we spent these past 9 years hating this one man, and returning his violence with more violence- finally we have our sweet revenge. We thought it would feel good, but it has not and will not bring the peace which we seek. The only way we will find peace is through God- not war, not death, not hatred, and not violence. We killed the man who killed us, how much longer will this vicious cycle continue?

~Heather Anne Nelson