What does a real Christian look like? Christians come in all shapes and sizes. Like dieters, some are dedicated and others are derelict. Some are near their goal and others have many miles, or pounds, to go.
Christians come in all shapes and sizes. Like dieters, some are dedicated and others are derelict. Some are near their goal and others have many miles, or pounds, to go. All of them are “real” Christians, I suppose, but a few of them begin to resemble the real Christ that all Christians purport to follow.
My choice for contemporary Christian pinup models would be Tom Fox, Norman Kember, James Loney, and Harmeet Singh Sooden–members of a group called Christian Peacemaker Teams, an international group which asks: What would happen if Christians devoted the same discipline and self-sacrifice to nonviolent peacemaking that armies devote to war?
These people believe that those who want to follow Jesus should personally go where they believe Jesus would go in today’s world.
Call it Extreme WWJD. Unrest between Israelis and Palestinians? CPT members accompany Palestinians to their destination to avoid bullying and worse from Israeli soldiers. They ride Jewish buses that might be targeted by suicide bombers. In short, they lay down their lives for their fellow human beings.
War in Iraq? Like Jesus riding into Jerusalem at Passover, these four and others left the comfort and safety of their homes in the U.S., Canada and England to travel to Iraq to practice peacemaking on the front line of the battlefield. They knew the real danger of bombs from both sides, and the real possibility of being abducted by desperate, undiscriminating insurgents who might mistake them for spies or missionaries. Their purpose came from their faith: “to bear witness to injustice and to embody a different kind of relationship between cultures and faiths.”
On Nov. 26, 2005, Tom Fox, Norman Kember, James Loney and Harmeet Singh Sooden were abducted by a previously unknown group called the Sword of Righteousness. They have been seen on video only a couple times since then, each time accompanied by the threat that their lives will be taken unless concessions made in the Iraq War.
I can’t get these four Christians out of my mind. Every morning as I shower, I think of these four and their present living conditions. Their pictures on my desk in the church office beckon me to live with courage, to focus on the important matters of life, to feel my connection to these witnesses to “a more excellent way.”
Some have accused these four of being fanatical and naive. But is it fanatical to practice what you preach? Fox, Kember, Loney and Sooden believe that to stand literally in opposition to violence on both sides of a battle is a faithful expression of Jesus-following today. Can anyone claim that this is not consistent with the teachings of Jesus? If these four are fanatical or naive, then so is Jesus.
Fox, Kember, Loney and Sooden did not set out to be heroes, but simply faithful to their understanding of the Christian message. In a way, they are incredibly ordinary.
I briefly met Norman Kember last July. He is a quiet, unassuming retired teacher. I’d forgotten the meeting until someone jogged my memory after his name appeared in newspapers around the world. To the untrained eye, Kember doesn’t fit the profile of hero. But he and the other three have become today’s models of “leaving all to follow Jesus,” as the old church saying goes.
I’d like to be able to quickly say that celebrating these men does not imply that all Christians should rush to Iraq to stand in the gap. True, we’re not all called to drop everything and go to Iraq.
But such a disclaimer gets us all off the hook prematurely. Perhaps we should seriously consider it. What if there were 500 Christians who heard the call to practice what they preach in Iraq? Can you picture 5,000 Christians in Iraq, gunking up the works of war by being willing to die if necessary in the work of love?
Would we at least honor and pray for Tom Fox, Norman Kember, James Loney and Harmeet Singh Sooden? Would we be willing to hold them up as solid examples of “real Christians”? Would we remind ourselves that every person who takes the title “Christian” is called to be real–to live courageously, passionately, peacefully, lovingly?
Wherever we are and wherever we’re sent, Christians should be living, and sometimes even dying, as Jesus did.
Joseph Phelps is pastor of Highland Baptist Church in Louisville, Ky.
A minister in Louisville, Kentucky, for 21 years as pastor of Highland Baptist Church, Phelps is now Justice Coordinator for Earth and Spirit Center. He leads, along with Kevin Cosby, EmpowerWest, a black-white clergy coalition calling for recognition, repentance, and repair of injustices to black Louisvillians.