Veterans Day: War on Every Shore (Mark 13:1-8)
By Shively Smith
It is so easy to read Mark and think of war as far off-especially if you are someone living in a neighborhood or region that has a semblance of peaceful times. For non-military families and organizations it is easy to miss that "wars and rumors of wars" mean families, perhaps right next door to us, are bracing for the possibility that parents or children may be leaving soon. Annually, on November 11th, Americans honor the willing service military members and their families provide the rest of us ("History of Veterans Days").
The portion of our population making the daily sacrifice to serve "the common good" is staggering. According to 2013 reports, approximately 2,220,412 of our population were on active duty in the armed forces and reserves with family members out numbering military personnel 1.4 to 1. There were reported 689,344 spouses and more than 1.2 million dependent children living in active duty families (Department of Defense 2013 Demographic Profile of the Military Community).
In Mark 13:7, Jesus sounds an alarm and offers comfort when he says, "When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come." Unfortunately, "alarm" and "watchfulness" is how many of us respond to such news in our midst (Mark 13:33, 37). We turn to media outlets, monitoring reports about victim totals and the fallout from tragedy. Absorbed in media sound bytes, it is easy to forget that "rumors of wars" mean military families are put on alert.
Children are wrestling with fears of the unknown because they may relocate to a new area. Spouses are arranging to function as single-parent households again and managing feelings of loss that accompany distance. Parents are bracing for the fact that their daughters and sons will be in harms way again. Likewise, the soldiers of those families may be anxiously anticipating the stress and depression that accompanies deployments. According to a 2007 Mental Health Advisory, signs of combat stress or depression appear in 12 percent of service members during their first deployment, "19 percent exhibit signs during their second deployment and 27 percent exhibit signs in their third deployment" (Real Warriors Campaign).
Whether in war-torn zones or in the quiet horse-country of Kentucky, from which I hail, announcements of conflict and war surround us. From the escalating frosty relations between Russia, Egypt, and the West, to the ongoing civil war of South Sudan, and the increased violence and insurgencies in Afghanistan and Syria (Foreign Policy, "10 Wars to Watch in 2015") as well as unforeseen natural disasters like earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, and wildfires-unrest is commonplace.
"Wars and rumors of wars"- hardly appears like a take on times past. This phrase appears more appropriate for our current global context than when Mark penned Jesus speaking to his disciples approximately 2,000 years ago.
Mark 13:1-8 does not gloss over the likelihood of turmoil. In fact, it is so attentive to the possibility of conflict and danger, it shifts the Gospel's language, style and content to address it. Up to this point in the Gospel, the author has had a singular focus-namely, telling the story of Jesus' life and ministry. In our passage, the Gospel turns to telling the story of others.
What will happen to everyone when the Second Temple is destroyed?
Historically speaking, Mark appears to focus on the events leading up to the First Jewish War with Rome in the mid-first century in Palestine (66-70 CE). Literarily speaking, however, Mark's goal is not to capture a historic moment, but offer warnings and encouragement. Mark cautions his readers to be suspicious of teachers, recognizing that not all are proclaiming what is true and real (Mark 13:5-6, 7-8, 21-23). Jesus tells his readers there are many uplifted voices in the world, but they are not all going the way of Christ. They are not all going the way of love and acceptance (Mark 9:42; 10:14).
For Mark, Jesus' messiahship is characterized by suffering and death (Mark 8:31, 10:45). Trauma and calamity are unavoidable realities, even for those who understand themselves as "insiders" of the Christian community. True to its apocalyptic character, Mark 13 offers comfort by balancing honest assessment of present circumstances with a vision of what is possible for followers of Christ.
On one hand, Mark's images of war and catastrophe echo prophetic announcements of conflicts between world powers (2 Chronicles 15:5-6; Jeremiah 4:15-16) and natural disasters (Isaiah 13:13; Daniel 9:26) in the Old Testament. No doubt, Mark 13 forewarns readers of what lies ahead in the not so distant future.
But what if Mark is not just broadcasting what could be? What if Mark 13 is describing the situation for what it is right now? Right now, there are bodies in our midst that brace everyday for experiences of micro-aggressions, oversight, and erasure. Everyday bodies enter so-called "safe public spaces" such as college and university campuses, knowing that these spaces just aren't so safe anymore. As an elder in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, rarely does a Sunday service or weekly bible study pass that I do not think about the heinous mass shooting that took place at Mother Emanuel AME Church on June 17, 2015. We have unsafe spaces right here on our shores because hate and prejudice lives. Just like the soldiers who spring into action abroad, there are heroes who spring into action among us fighting for justice and the safety of all.
I also recognize that everyday a military family laments the death of a loved one. Daily, a mother, father, child, and sibling pray for someone in active-duty abroad. Everyday rumors of war bring real transition and an entrance into the unknown for segments of people we may not be in the habit of thinking of and considering in the church.
The voice of Mark 13 enters the conversation and takes a specific platform. It urges readers to endure present distresses (Mark 13:9-23) and future ordeals (Mark 13:24-27). It reaffirms an essential confession of Christianity, which is that Jesus Christ has already suffered in obedience to save others. As such, discipleship is cast as obedience and service in spite of difficulty.
In our current context, that form of service and obedience is visible in the lives, actions, and sacrifices of service-oriented people. Mark 13 raises a flag for communities of faith. It is not okay to forget about the people who are facing danger so that others can be safe and at peace. As this Sunday falls immediately after Veteran's Day, we should encounter Mark 13:1-8 with a degree of sobriety and thankfulness for those who live out the vision of the way of Christ through how they serve us. In faithful response to their actions, we should be compelled to do something to help their lives be a little easier.
After all, when wars initiate, conflicts ignite, and earthquakes hit our service members and veterans act. ALL those who serve for justice, whether under the uniform of military or under the "uniform" of personal choice and moral code help make "the end" still be able to come (Mark 13:7).
_ Faith communities are uniquely positioned to help military families and veterans. _
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Bible Study Questions
- Are you or someone you know members of an active-duty family? If yes, what have been some of the ups and downs of that service experience?
- How can your church, small group, or family support the families of service members in your local neighborhood? Does your organization have connections and relationships with the military chaplain(s) in your area?
- What are some similarities and differences between the disciplined obedience and service active-duty members and their families exhibit and the life of obedience and service to others Christ calls for in the Gospel of Mark?
For Further Reading
Molly Clever and David R. Segal, The Demographics of Military Children and Families," in Future of Children Vol. 23.2 (Fall 2013): 13-39. https://www.princeton.edu/futureofchildren/publications/docs/Chapter%201.pdf
Kate Braestrup, Here if You Need Me: A True Story (Back Bay Books, 2008)
Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited (Boston: Beacon Press, 1976).
The Rev. Dr. Shively T. J. Smith has been actively working in the arenas of ministry and academia for over 17 years. She was called to the ministry in 1997 at the age of 16 at Mount Nebo Baptist Church in Louisville, KY under Rev. Benny Williams. A few years later, Smith was also licensed by Nebo Christian Ministries under Bishop Larry E. Williams in Baltimore, MD. Since then, she has worked with various church organizations and denominations from Baptist, to Pentecostal, non-denominational, and Methodist. In these spaces, she has worked in various areas of ministry such as: college ministry, women's ministry, church education, couples ministry, evangelism, and preaching and prayer. Now, she is an ordained elder in the African Methodist Episcopal Church where she is currently attending Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church in Washington, DC.
In addition to church ministry, Dr. Smith has worked devotedly in the arena of higher education in religion for over 12 years. She has taught courses in New Testament, Biblical Greek, Black Religion, among others. She has taught at a variety of institutions such as Morehouse College and Candler School of Theology and served as faculty for special programs, such as the United Methodist Course of Study Program and the Certificate in Theological Studies Program at Arrendale State Prison for Women, which is supported by ATA-affiliated schools. She served as mentor and advisor for national fellowship programs such as the Institute for Recruitment of Teachers and the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Program.
Smith's educational background includes a Bachelor of Arts in religious and philosophical studies from Fisk University where she graduated Summa Cum Laude and Phi Beta Kappa. She then went on to earn a Masters of Divinity from Candler School of Theology at Emory University and a second degree, a Masters of Theological studies, from Columbia Theological Seminary. Smith was also awarded an international fellowship to study theology at Oxford University in England as an English-Speaking Union Luard Scholar. In 2002-03, she was honored by Essence Magazine and named one of "The Ten Most Incredible College Students" in the USA.
Dr. Smith completed her Ph.D. in New Testament Studies at Emory University as the first African American woman to receive a doctorate in the New Testament Program. Her dissertation is called, "Live as Strangers in Your Own Land: The Letter of 1 Peter and Diaspora Discourse," which is due for publication Fall 2016. Her work has been supported by organizations such as the Louisville Institute, the Ford Foundation, The Fund for Theological Education, the Mellon Mays Fellowship Program, Black Women in Church and Society Program, and the Social Science Research Council. Her research interests include: Studies on Peter and Peter's Letters, Luke-Acts, Call Narratives, and biblical discourses on diaspora.
She has contributed to multiple writing projects and series, including the Feasting on the Gospels series, the Reading & Writing Theologically series, the Human Rights Campaign Online Lectionary, the Church Health Reader Magazine, and others. Smith is currently working on academic projects related to her dissertation and research interests. Smith also does a lot of independent writing and blogging about graduate work, applying for scholarships and fellowships, studying the bible as well as offering independent bible study podcasts through her website: www.shivelysmith.com. She is a sought after preacher, teacher, and motivational speaker. Smith is Assistant Professor of New Testament at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C.
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