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Poor God

Waramu Primary School

“And so I sent some men to fight, and one came back at dead of night.
Said he’d seen my enemy. Said he looked just like me”

– from the song “Same Mistake” by James Blunt

Tanzania always grabs me by the heart. My good friend and mentor, Martin Russell (who introduced me to this country during a Nebraska Synod Vision Trip in 2009), once told me that the more he visited Tanzania, the less he knew about it. For me this is visit number eight, and I’m knowing less by the day. So many contrasts, so many mysteries, so much brilliance, so much adversity, so much love.

The Spirit seems to choose themes for my learning as I bumble around in the dichotomies of developing countries like this one. The theme for this one is “Poor God”. This characterization comes from Father Richard Rohr in his CD The Art of Letting Go, where he says “Poor God has been invested and enlisted on both sides of every war. Jesus says God is wherever the suffering is. Go where people have been expelled, diminished, abused – that is where God is.” Also “Jesus made the hero of every one of his parables an outsider. He critiques the insider.”

When my hotels have English language news, it is usually the BBC World News, which I think is pretty honest — not invested in the worldview of “my group”, whichever group that may be (as opposed to most of what we get in the US: pap that panders to what some group wants to hear). When flip it on I see various armies claiming to have enlisted God. The 3 sides in Iraq, the 3 sides in Gaza, the 3 sides in Afghanistan, the many sides in Syria, the multiple sides straddling the southern border of the US, the 2 entrenched sides in the American political debate. Where might God really stand in all of this? I suspect on none of the sides, but rather gazing in frustration at us intransigent and often obnoxious offspring.

The 8 hour time difference between Omaha and Tanzania creates a few hours each night of unplanned awake time. I have been filling those hours listening to the audio version of Brian McLaren’s Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?: Christian Identity in a Multi-Faith World. First of all, Brian is a soothing balm to hear in the dark of night. But more importantly, he is on to something critically important to all of us. That is finding a way to get free of the strictures of the history of Christianity, or Islam, or any of the other perennial faith traditions in order to create the kingdom that the founders of all of these traditions all pointed toward. Read the book, or listen to the audiobook.

Last night I shared dinner with a long-time friend in Tanzania, Saltieli Munisi. He brings deep wisdom, deep faith, and deep life experience to the pizza table. I asked him if he thought that the type of violence that is such a threat in Kenya (just a few miles to the north) now was likely to impact Tanzania. He didn’t think so, because he felt that it was mostly a local fight between radicals from Somalia and the Kenyan government’s attempts to stabilize that difficult area. As I visit some of the many Tanzanian schools involved with Opportunity Education Foundation, it is very common to see Muslim students, Christian students from a variety of traditions, as well as students more rooted in native faith traditions all sharing the same classrooms full of laughter and positive energy. “How did that come about?” I asked. Munisi’s hypothesis was that a few important factors were at work. The first Tanzanian president’s (Julius Nyerere) insistence on a shared Swahili language was a big way to synthesize the many tribes and traditions. But I think the poignant lesson came from his description of life in his family village. People from all of the traditions live together, farm together, intermarry, bury each others’ dead, share each others’ wedding expenses – not using religious beliefs to drive wedges, but rather as respected differences. A model for global peace.