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Wilson-Hartgrove tells convo audience small efforts can lead to big changes

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NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – Speaking at Bethel College Feb. 21, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, Durham, N.C., took the opportunity to reflect briefly on history.

Wilson-Hartgrove is an associate minister at the historically black St. John’s Missionary Baptist Church in Durham, and works in peacemaking and reconciliation efforts as part of a “new monastic” community, the Rutba House in Durham, where he lives with his family and several friends.

He spoke in Bethel College’s Monday convocation on “Why we love our enemies: Tactics from Jesus for a world at war.” Wilson-Hartgrove noted that Feb. 21, 2011, was the President’s Day holiday in the United States as well as the 46th anniversary of the assassination of Black Muslim leader Malcolm X.

“It might not seem immediately evident,” he said, “but it’s good to remember the peacemaking we can receive from Jesus by reflecting on our brother Malcolm X. Mennonites are really good at remembering that Jesus was a peacemaker, but Jesus was also great at being a disturber of the peace. ‘Blessed are the peacemakers’ is not about a tradition of not doing anything, but an invitation to a confrontation with violence that is different from the power of violence.

Shortly before the United States began bombing Iraq, in 2003, Wilson-Hartgrove, still a student at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pa., and his wife Leah went to Baghdad as part of a Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) delegation.

Eventually, Saddam Hussein’s government expelled the CPT delegation from Iraq, meaning they had to hire taxis to drive them to Jordan. After one of the taxis ended up in a ditch, the injured passengers went to a nearby Iraqi village called Rutba for medical help.

The Iraqi doctor in Rutba told the CPTers: “Three days ago your country bombed our hospital but we’re going to take care of you.” Wilson-Hartgrove continued, “He stitched up the injuries and when we asked what we owed him, he said: ‘You don’t owe me anything, just please go and tell the world what’s happening here.’ It was like Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan – we were supposed to ‘go and do likewise,’ go live out the love we had learned from our enemy. This was our experience of learning what God’s love looks like from the good Iraqi, the good Muslim.”

Likewise, we don’t tend to think about presidents as “people who can teach us about peace,” Wilson-Hartgrove said. “John F. Kennedy’s presidency was marked by a turn towards peace, though he was in public a Cold Warrior. During the Cuban missile crisis, Kennedy realized his military advisors were pushing him toward a total nuclear war that would destroy the world. So he reached out to his enemy – he often said he was a Catholic though not a very good one, but he knew the Sermon on the Mount. So he reached out to Nikita Khrushchev, in a secret exchange of letters now available through the Freedom of Information Act. The image that emerged was Noah’s Ark – we can’t sink the boat, we’re in this together.

“That was an image important to the early church, which said we’ve been invited onto an ark of safety – a place where God has invited us to be saved and also to learn a new way of life. Jesus invites us to love our enemies and in the context of the Sermon on the Mount teaches us tactics for a new movement, a new way of life that is deeply subversive to the powers, little seeds that can grow and sprout into a movement that can overcome the powers of the world.”

Wilson-Hartgrove’s “joy,” he said, is “to be tied to these little communities all over the world. A quiet revolution, new seeds being sown, new possibilities – ‘in the place where you are.’ These kinds of experiments will often fail but the incredible thing about God’s faithfulness is that we’re failing forward. When you realize nonviolence is a whole way of life, it affects every decision – how you eat, how you study, how you live together in dorms, how you’re choosing to live in this world.”

Wilson-Hartgrove extended an invitation “at Bethel and wherever you go next, to step into a new way of life. It’s subversive, it’s an affront, it will probably get you in trouble, but it will bring you into contact with your enemies and you can learn all kinds of new things from them. As we begin to live together across the dividing lines in our society, we begin to see what the new kingdom looks like.”

In the question-and-answer period that followed Wilson-Hartgrove’s more formal remarks, a student asked about the roots of his faith.

“I was raised by good people in North Carolina farm country, people who loved Jesus and made me memorize Bible verses,” Wilson-Hartgrove said. “I’m grateful for people who took the Bible seriously and [taught me] if Jesus said it, you need to make it work. My life has been shaped by trying to figure out what it means to follow Jesus if he really meant the stuff he said.

“When you pay attention to what Jesus actually says,” Wilson-Hartgrove continued, in response to another question, “he’s inviting us into a nonviolent movement that necessitates community. You can’t do it on your own. We need a community movement that practices ‘works of mercy,’ according to Dorothy Day – the opposite of works of war. Instead of making people homeless through war, we welcome them into our homes, instead of destroying their food supplies as a result of war, we feed them.”

Another student invoked the recent popular uprising in Egypt that toppled the government with Hosni Mubarak, saying that “we [in the United States] live with government corruption on a massive scale, so what’s the difference between us in this country and the people in Egypt? How did they do that we’ve been unable to do thus far?”

Wilson-Hartgrove cautioned that it’s still early to make definitive statements on what happened in Egypt but added that what happened in Egypt was “a movement made up of people who have been suffering. One reason we haven’t been able to mobilize a nonviolent movement is that we’re so easily distracted – by fast food, Facebook, easy entertainment, texting, drugs. We’re so easily anesthetized from suffering and pain.”

Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s visit to Bethel College came about thanks to Eden Mennonite Church in rural Moundridge, who had brought him to the area for its annual Peace Sunday. In recent years, other speakers and performers who have appeared at Bethel due to this event have been evangelical leader Ron Sider, singer and storyteller John McCutcheon and anti-death penalty activist Sister Helen Prejean.

Bethel College is the only private, liberal arts college in Kansas listed in the 2010-11 analysis of top colleges and universities in the United States and is in the first tier in its category in the U.S. News & World Report annual ranking of “America’s Top Colleges” for 2011. The four-year liberal arts college is affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. For more information, see

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