The Rev. Eric Elnes, senior minister of Countryside Community Church (UCC) in Omaha, Nebraska is a most intriguing fellow, and his web-based weekly program “Darkwood Brew” is arguably one of the most content-rich shows in U.S. religion-based programming, though the program itself defies convention.
On any given Wednesday night starting at 6:45 (CST), those tuning in – or rather, clicking in – to Darkwook Brew’s live internet broadcast will be treated to in-house performances by some of the best Jazz and Folk singers and muscians from the American Midwest and beyond. From there, Elnes and host Chris Alexander, associate minister of Countryside Community Church, embark on a conversation about God, the Bible, and the meaning of it all.
Though the program is set in a cozy Omaha coffee house with groovy musical vibes, don’t let the ambiance fool you: there is a tight structure to the show that will force you to focus on the word of God and what it means for your very existence. If Joni Mitchell and the late Miles Davis were tasked with building a Trappist monastery from scratch, it might look a lot like “Darkwood Brew.”
In this Q&A, Elnes discusses his role in the “Convergence Christianity” movement and what the movement may have to offer America as it grapples with a world that often appears to be tearing at the seams.
Based on your public persona, your inner peace is externally palpable. Have you always been that way?
I’m almost always at peace when I’m doing something I love, even if the context takes me out of my normal comfort zone – such as being on camera as an introvert. Over the years I’ve experienced a greater sense of internal peace. I attribute this, in part, to the natural affects of aging. However, I think that my 30+ year practice of daily prayer and meditation has a lot more to do with it. This isn’t to say that prayer and meditation have made me any more comfortable with the world’s suffering and injustice. If anything, these things have become less tolerable to me over the years, not more. But trampling around in my internal world each day, reflecting upon and seeking relationship with The Unexpected Love (my favorite name for God), radically expands the context from which I can respond to life’s struggles. It also connects me quite a lot more to life’s joys.
It’s so refreshing to know that prayer and meditation have made you even more in tune with the world’s suffering and injustice rather than less so.
St. Augustine once observed that the path to knowing God and the path to knowing yourself are the same path. In my experience, one of the main benefits of prayer and meditation is that it helps me discover myself, and the particular ways I may engage my energies with the world most effectively and vitally.
When you see acts of such violence toward our fellow human beings aired on television and the internet – and there has been much of it lately – how does it impact you and how do your coping skills come into play?
I often find myself wondering, “Why aren’t we all far more concerned over the state of the world? In the coming decades we could literally end life as we know it on Planet Earth or cripple it for centuries to come through acts of violence against our “enemies” or through environmental degradation yet we seem to think that peacemaking and environmental stewardship are merely options within an array of other possibilities.
There are times when you need to boldly jump into action, and other times when the best action you can take is to stand still. Standing still often takes more courage than taking actions because we are driven more by our desire to overcome our feelings of helplessness than we are to be of actual help in a given situation. In my experience, the power of evil is often at its most powerful when it tempts us to move into action before it is wise to do so, or by tempting us to remain still or silent long after the stillness and silence should have ended. When ISIS posted videos of the beheadings on the internet, I believe they were trying to get us to spring into action at the worst possible time to do so and in a way that would make us most vulnerable to exploitation by the ISIS propaganda machine.
We took the bait, at least at first. I am concerned that our sudden race to lead the charge against ISIS compounded an already difficult and highly complex situation by several orders of magnitude. I believe in acting against ISIS, but I very much disbelieve in allowing ourselves to be manipulated into making decisions that are based more on our desire for revenge than on our desire to be effective, which means acting in greater partnership with the Muslim community.
What do you think Christian clergy can do to help quell the human revenge instinct within their flocks?
One of the clearest, most emphatic messages of Jesus in the gospels is that those of us who would be his followers are to love God with heart, mind, soul, and strength, and love our neighbor as ourselves. To Jesus, our “neighbor” includes our enemies – as he makes perfectly clear in his Sermon on the Mount. If we are to take Christian faith seriously at all, we must take Jesus’ statements – or rather, Jesus’ commands – seriously as well.
Are you a pacifist? Do you believe that physical self-defense, individually or by a nation, is ever justified?
I believe strongly in active use of non-violence 99.9% of the time. I also believe that Jesus was neither naive nor unrealistic when he commanded those of us who call ourselves disciples to love our enemies, do good to those who hate us, and pray for those who persecute us. For two thousand years we’ve been paying lip service to these commands but when push has come to shove, literally and figuratively, our actions have betrayed our true feelings. Yet now that we have democratized the weapons of mass destruction in our day, putting the future of human civilization at risk through our warfare and terrorism, Jesus’ words show undeniable wisdom. It’s high time we put the faith of Jesus into practice.
Until this last century, human civilization has never been in a position where failure to love our enemies could result in our extinction But now we could extinguish ourselves in two ways – by failing to reconcile with our enemies or failure to reconcile ourselves with Creation. Our behavior on these two fronts much change. My hunch is that these two basic forms of reconciliation will become increasingly part of what it means to be reconciled with God.
For people who may not be familiar with the Convergence Christianity movement, how would characterize the movement’s approach to just war theory?
There is no clear consensus on just war theory that could properly be called “convergent.” However, the contemporary convergence movement, not to be confused with an earlier convergence movement among evangelical and charismatic Christians who sought to blend their worship with Anglican liturgy, is really the result of reconciliation between former enemies, theologically speaking. Thus, my hunch is that it will develop a strong bias toward peace-waging over war-waging. Many of those associated with Convergence grew up on one side or the other of the Great Theological Divide between conservative and liberal Christians. Problems they perceived within their respective traditions led these Christians to distance themselves from their native traditions and move out “into the wilderness” seeking to find faith in a new way, and live it out. When refugees from the conservative and liberal traditions discovered one another out in that “wilderness,” they also found that they share surprisingly similar hopes, values and dreams. Each group also found that the other group provides something that they have been searching for. For instance, post-evangelicals tend to be attracted to the social justice stance, inclusivity, and commitment to intellectual honesty that post-liberal progressives bring to the table. Post-liberal progressives tend to be looking for a stronger emphasis on spiritual disciplines, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit that post-evangelicals often bring to the table without the conservative spin traditionally associated with them. Convergence is also bridging more of the divide between Protestants and progressive Catholics. Since both sides clearly see that people they were formerly at odds with can truly change in their views – and bring gifts to the table when they do so – I believe that Convergence is prone toward non-violent resolution to conflict.
I’d like to come back to where we started from about your experience with meditation and how that experience “radically expands the context” from which you can “respond to life’s struggles.” How can Americans of goodwill go about “radically expanding” their context in the face of our current struggles, so that they will know, perhaps even intuitively, when they are being asked to support any foreign or military policy – be it of an interventionist or non-interventionist strain – that has the disregard of human life at its very core?
I have a deep intuition that if you and I were to meet God together and had a chance to ask God why God has given us some – but not all – of the essentials that make for peace in this world, God would respond, “But I have indeed given the world all the essentials. I have given some to you and the rest to your enemies.” One of the ways that Convergence Christianity has changed me personally is to open my eyes to the fact that when we speak of “enemies” these “enemies” are not an homogenous, monolithic crowd. There are always people in the “enemy” camp who share the same hopes and yearnings as we do, and bear the gifts – gifts that are different than mine – that make for peace and justice, if only I have the eyes to recognize them and the ears to listen. This recognition does not lead me to lay down my defenses, join hands with all enemies, and sing Kumbaya. Rather, it moves me to be less quick to judge who is, and who is not, an enemy, and keeps me from making overly easy generalizations about entire populations of people – other than the assumption that if I look carefully enough, Christ may be found in their midst.
Rev. Eric Elnes, thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts.
“Darkwood Brew” airs Wednesday nights at 6:45 (CST) and can be found at www.darkwoodbrew.org
Timothy Villareal is a freelance writer based in Miami, FL.