Wednesday, September 24, 2014

John Steinbruck and the Challenge of Peace

We are on this planet to exemplify that light, that bread, that living water, those metaphors that Jesus used, to live out the truth in a non-violent way, simply to do justice, live justly, try, in the space over which you’re responsible . . . to create an oasis . . . to which the stranger can come and find refuge. – Rev. John F. Steinbruck
Long before he became an ordained Lutheran minister and a champion of the church as a place of refuge, John Steinbruck was taught a pivotal lesson on the sacredness of life. As a young teen in the early 1940’s, he purchased a Red Ryder spring-action BB gun with money earned from cutting lawns and setting up pins at the local bowling alley in his Northeast Philadelphia neighborhood. Only a few years past the Great Depression, with Americans fighting and dying in far-off lands, young John was proud of his new purchase and impatient to use it. He saw a beautiful red-breasted robin land on a bush behind his house. John aimed and fired, killing it with instant precision. As the bird fell to the ground, its eyes misty and body warm to the touch, John felt the disproportionate power a weapon provides.

But there was another witness. Ann, an elderly Catholic woman, slow moving and handicapped in speech, who lived behind the Steinbruck home, had watched from her back window as young Steinbruck ended the life of one of God’s creations for no apparent reason. Ann told John’s mother what she had seen, expressing her shock and hurt for what the young boy had done to such a vulnerable and innocent living thing. Mrs. Steinbruck, equally upset when she learned of her son’s conduct, immediately shelved John’s BB gun until he learned and understood the cruelty of his act.

America was then in the midst of World War II. Gold Stars of young men killed or missing in action hung in the windows of many of the city’s row homes as a testament that death in war was painfully necessary for the greater good. But it took a simple, elderly Christian woman of weak body and limited speech to teach Steinbruck that life is sacred, a gift from God; it possesses dignity and demands reverence. To take an innocent life for simple pleasure, even a small, ordinary bird in a bush, is morally and ethically wrong, a violation of God's will. It is a lesson he never forgot.

Steinbruck came of age during the Second World War, when suffering and sacrifice for a greater cause were part of the American fabric. He had seen what the devastation of war did to soldiers and their families. He watched his father struggle physically and psychologically from severe wounds inflicted during the First World War. Then, as a teenager during the 1940’s, Steinbruck witnessed the devastating news delivered to many local families as they were told that their sons, husbands, and brothers had paid the ultimate sacrifice. Too young to serve and fight himself during the war, Steinbruck enlisted in the Navy in December 1948 at the age of eighteen. He went off to boot camp a month later and commenced two years of peacetime service. He would eventually attend college and seminary and commit to a life of urban ministry.

Inspired in part by the life and work of Albert Schweitzer, Steinbruck devoted his life to putting his faith in action with a theology modeled on what he called the “sacred obligation” of “welcoming the stranger.” He came to recognize that, in the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, “The task of a human being is to represent the Divine, to be a reminder of the presence of God.” He embraced the Quaker teaching, “There is that of God in everyone.” As described in a previous essay (“A Saint in the City: The Life, Faith, and Theology of John Steinbruck”), and in Eat Bananas and Follow Your Heart (Bookstand Publishing 2011), Steinbruck’s talents and passion for justice eventually led him to Luther Place Memorial Church in Washington, DC, an historic red-stone church centrally located in the city’s red light district, with prostitutes and pimps patrolling the street corners just eight blocks from the White House.

In 1970, when Steinbruck became the Senior Pastor at Luther Place, the area surrounding 14th and N Streets was full of crime, drugs, and racial strife. It was here that Steinbruck developed and put into practice a non-violent theology of welcoming the stranger, of treating life as God intended us to.  But Steinbruck believed in the power of faith grounded in justice to transform the lives of individuals and the nation. “As we are hospitable to each other,” he said to me a few years ago, “we will thrive as a country.” His passion for justice is based in part on Matthew 25:35 (“For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink; I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”). These are not just nice sounding words, according to Steinbruck, but God’s commandment that we treat all of humanity, including the “least of these,” with love and compassion, an imperative reinforced not by Karl Marx, but by Acts 4:32-35 (“…and it was distributed to anyone as he had need”).

I first met Steinbruck in 1986, when I heard him preach and knew immediately that Luther Place was a church to which I could belong. Steinbruck preached with power and charisma and, with the help of a socially conscious and politically active congregation, gave witness to biblical hospitality, opening the church doors each night to hundreds of homeless women. Long before I arrived, Luther Place and an interfaith coalition of supporters in the community had created what came to be known as the N Street Village, an impressive collection of homeless shelters, health clinics and counseling centers that served to re-unite families and transition them from homelessness and drug addiction to recovery, work, and self-sustaining independence.

*     *     *     *

Steinbruck will turn 84 in October. His health in serious decline, he suffers from Parkinson’s and was recently diagnosed with cancer. He has slowed considerably from the days he shook up the halls of power in the nation’s capital. I have been privileged to occasionally speak and correspond with Steinbruck since leaving Washington in the mid-1990s, and after he and wife Erna retired to Lewes, Delaware. During these talks, and through his emails and correspondence, I have sensed Steinbruck’s growing frustration with the Church as an institution and America’s inability to reflect seriously on issues of justice, inequality, and peace. “We live in a bubble in America,” he often reminds me, “oblivious to other people’s suffering. We consume like hell, an insatiable greed. Yet are you aware there is a war on?”

Steinbruck contends that the majority of self-proclaimed Christians in the United States misuse and distort the Gospel and the nature and spirit of their stated religion. “We mix religion and patriotism very shrewdly,” he says. “Our society uses the stamp of Jesus to sanctify a system based on inequalities and military might.” But the purpose of Christianity and religion is not to make us feel good, he insists. It is instead to spur us into action to make the world better, more just; to impose God’s vision of shalom and justice on Earth.

Recently, Steinbruck sent me a draft of his reflections on peace, or more specifically, the challenge of peace in the 21st century. “Read our theology. Read our Gospel. We are a peace church,” he insisted during a phone call last week. “And yet we have never met a war that the church could not embrace. We have never reconciled that the United States is the most militarized society in the world, and then we tell our kids, ‘Thou shall not kill.’ Excuse me? Is God just giving his opinion?”

“But what do we even mean by peace?” he asks. “Do we mean the absence of conflict? Or do we mean something larger, deeper, more profound, all encompassing? Is it even possible? Would we humans ever allow it?” Steinbruck contends that, perhaps it is time for the human race to try something as radical and revolutionary as peace, that “perhaps it is time that followers of the Prince of Peace call for a spiritual, theological, biblical, ethical caucus.”

During the years I attended Luther Place, Steinbruck regularly reminded his Lutheran flock of the Jewish roots of Christianity, and his sermons often contained traces of wisdom from influential Jewish theologians. In his writings on peace, Steinbruck contends, “The Church and its faithful need to recall the original biblical vision of shalom, and never forget that God has sanctified every human life. Every blessed one! So why then do we easily opt for violence, instead of the creative, reconciling, inexhaustible love we know from the biblical witness, and that we experience regularly in Communion with the Prince of Shalom?”

To Steinbruck, shalom means so much more than simply peace. “In my biblical understanding, shalom is the vision toward which we strive.” It is properly paired with another Hebrew term, tikkun olam, which means “to repair the world,” for it is only by “working together to maintain balance among all of the competing needs of the world’s humanity” that we can ever wish to attain shalom, tikkun olam, and this holistic vision of peace and justice.

Steinbruck writes of one quiet Sunday afternoon in 1949, when as a lowly seaman he was restricted to the naval base in Norfolk, Virginia. He took a long walk along the dock and observed the entire fleet of battleships, aircraft carriers, cruisers, destroyers, and a nest of submarines, all resting quietly side-by-side. Although America was officially at peace, the dark clouds of the Cold War hovered ever so near and the tranquility of that Sunday afternoon would be disrupted time and again over the next 65 years. Steinbruck re-enacted that solitary stroll thirty years later, in 1979, when he was a Chaplain in the U.S. Naval Reserves. He was amazed at how little had changed. A near-identical assortment of ships and carriers, submarines and cruisers were all there, except now the entire menu of warships was nuclear – nuclear submarines and nuclear equipped aircraft carriers. “It occurred to me then,” he said, “that over the thirty year stretch we had spent more billions than I can count, and I felt not one degree safer.”

Steinbruck wonders today whether it is time to finally ask, “Is this working? Are the trillions of dollars we spend on so-called ‘Defense’ bringing about a more just world?” One can hear the exasperation in Steinbruck’s voice when he begins to go down this path. “I understand history and the complexity of different situations we find ourselves in, but what I am contending is that the church should be constantly grasping and struggling with these issues.” It is a point of contention that resonates with me, for I have often suggested that if the Church and the institutions of faith are not providing a moral voice and aspirational vision for the rest of society, then who will?

Steinbruck’s theology is defined in very simple terms: “The face of God is in every human being. . . . Every human life possesses dignity and demands reverence.” These concepts, says Steinbruck, are “at base in all of our Christian faiths and in Judaism, which is the base of the Christian faith. But what bothers me is that we don’t even struggle to figure it out – we don’t agonize over it. Maybe it’s about time we sweated this issue out.”

Having lived through a state of permanent war in places like Afghanistan, with repeated drone strikes in Somalia, Pakistan, and Yemen, and with the United States once again becoming embroiled in another war in the Middle East, Steinbruck ponders if “perhaps it is time to be more demanding of ourselves; what is the reality of the church?”

“Know this,” he says, “the peace we seek cannot tolerate the bombs we drop, or the firing of missiles from above upon innocent villages.” It all goes back to the heart of shalom and the church as refuge. “It is all connected,” he says. “I was hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, homeless, and you welcomed me, fed me, clothed me, healed me, [and] embraced me with limitless love.” Instead of spending trillions on the armaments of death and destruction, why have we not seriously contended with “the malnutrition of our children, the homeless families in need of housing . . . a war oriented economy exhausting vital resources for human survival, in this, God’s world.”

What is our mission, or what should it be? Steinbruck has a suggestion. “It is to walk in peace,” he says, and to recognize the virtue of life and the face of God in all of humanity. “It is time for a moral caucus. To talk to one another. To pray together. And to act in loving witness for the saving of this precious, gifted world.” In the time he has remaining on this Earth, we would do well to listen to John Steinbruck.
What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? – Micah 6:8


Thursday, September 11, 2014


The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. – Carl Sagan
There are times in life when we are reminded of how little control we have over the everyday progress of our lives. When we see clearly that the Earth is but a speck in a vast universe, for a moment we better understand the fragile nature of life and our relationships to the natural world and to each other.

I was reminded of this in the Fall of 1991, when I saw Grand Canyon, a film directed by Lawrence Kasdan that revolves around the lives of a small group of people in southern California. From a wealthy Hollywood accountant who finds himself threatened by a group of black youth when his luxury car breaks down late at night, to an African American tow-truck driver who arrives in time to diffuse the situation, their lives are brought together through a series of random life-changing events. The characters, though separated by race and economic status, are each in their own way struggling to find meaning in a world that is often broken and divided. At the end of the story, they journey together to the Grand Canyon, where they encounter monumental wonder and the majestic beauty of the natural world. The experience allows them to step out of time and culture to discover something much larger than their individual and collective selves; to become united in a place that puts into better perspective their personal struggles, exposing the myth of separateness in their lives.

All of us, I suspect, have taken similar journeys when we have encountered the glory and grandeur of the universe. Perhaps, like me, you witnessed a star-filled sky from the top of a mountain on a clear night in New Mexico, the galaxy visible from a small segment of Earth below it. Or you walked along the shores of Lake Michigan on a cool September morning and watched the sun reflecting off the gentle waves of the clear-blue water stretching to the horizon. Or you stood in the well of the Sistine Chapel and admired the wonders of Michelangelo’s artistic and spiritual masterpiece. With each experience, we are challenged to take something more from the encounter than the visual alone; we take some meaning that enhances the remainder of our life’s journey.

“We are placed in a delicate network of vital relationships with the divine, with fellow human beings, and with the rest of creation,” said South African Bishop Desmond Tutu. “We violate nature only at our peril, and are meant to live as members of one family.” It is an important lesson that challenges the cynicism and depression confronting us on a daily basis, for we live in a time of heartbreaking news, endless conflict and despair. If, instead of always magnetizing what is bad and broken we attempt to see what is good in this world, we can step outside of ourselves and appreciate the beauty of life, the diversity of the world’s humanity, and the decency that takes place every day amidst tragedy and defeatism.

*     *     *     *

“The planet does not need more successful people,” said the Dalai Lama. “The planet desperately needs more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers, and lovers of all kinds.” As the world becomes ever more complex and broken, it becomes more difficult to process and to maintain a sense of hope and idealism. Every day we learn of civil wars and foreign conflicts, the terror of ISIS and Islamic extremism, televised beheadings of American journalists, displaced refugees, homeless children at our borders, environmental degradation and melting polar ice caps, all part of a world divided by religion, politics, and cynicism.

So how does one process the tragedy and heartbreak we read about and listen to each day? In a world of unlimited information and mass communication, with negative and hysterical noise bombarding us from all directions, how is it possible not to occasionally shut it down? Courtney Martin, a weekly columnist for NPR’s On Being, suggests that to remain an informed person in today’s world we must immerse ourselves in “the eternal stream of rubble, corruption, and death that is the daily news cycle.” It may explain why only a small percentage of us follow the news of political violence and religious strife in Syria, Iraq, Ukraine, and other of the world’s trouble spots.

It is understandable that people choose to shield themselves from news that has little obvious effect on their daily lives. Frequent consumption of negative news stories serves only to heighten our personal worries and anxieties. And yet, informed citizens are an important check against the abuse of state and corporate power. “If we, the relatively safe and privileged reader, don’t act as witnesses to the world’s violence,” asks Martin, “how can we fight against it? Is our mental comfort more important than the motivation that our discomfort might produce?”

It is a sense of perspective that is missing from most of the news we consume, a context in which the world’s events fit into a larger historical and geopolitical picture. I am troubled that the media fails to report more positive responses, people and organizations working to bridge misunderstanding, organizations such as United Hatzalah in Israel, where Jews and Muslims work together to provide medical assistance to those in need regardless of nationality, religion or ethnicity; The Water Project, Inc., which brings sustainable water projects to sub-Saharan Africa, where access to clean water and proper sanitation radically transforms lives and brings hope to the people who live there; Aware Girls, which trains young activists in Pakistan to challenge violence and extremism; and Yakjah, a project of Peace Direct in India, which brings together young people from across Kashmir’s different religious and ethnic communities to learn about each other’s cultures and promote social harmony. 

There are so many more – Doctors without Borders, Lutheran World Relief, Church World Service, Catholic Relief Services, Oxfam, the list goes on. Peace and harmony is hard work, but those who strive for it every day rarely make the news. It is not the stuff of newspaper sales or television ratings. 

Only with a sense of perspective and context can we truly understand the significance and long-term importance of certain world events, and the relative insignificance of personal obstacles and setbacks. The world may be full of conflict and suffering, but it also is full of  love and wonder. It is at once cruel and kind, tragic and beautiful, corrupt and creative. Amidst all of the desperation that surrounds us, there exists the transformative power of light and hope and decency. “We must shine a light on the darkness,” says Martin, “but we must also cease overshadowing the light.”
Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us or we find it not. – Ralph Waldo Emerson