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Cathedral dean shares hopeful signs in path toward peace

The new dean of the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John in Spokane, the Very Rev. Bill Ellis, regularly challenges his congregation to dare to imagine a future fulfillment that is not the product of human endeavor, but is a gift of God received gratefully.

The Very Rev. Bill Ellis
The Very Rev. Bill Ellis

“Most of us can imagine a reasonably peaceful future for ourselves and those we love, but we are also keenly aware that the future we imagine is lived against the backdrop of an increasing spiral of human violence,” he said.

He is thankful that the scriptural imagination dares to envision “a world whose end is not apocalyptic violence, but delivered from that end by unconditional forgiveness that breaks the cycle of reciprocal violence and so founds a new heaven and a new earth.”

Each era with its challenges intersects with the ongoing vision and hope faith gives.

Once the cruciform Gothic cathedral on the South Hill was an ecumenical spiritual center, a center for art, music and social life, and the place where the movers and shakers of Spokane’s political and financial power structures worshipped. 

While the cathedral still serves as an important center of religious and cultural life, he said that in today’s “none zone” culture—most Northwest people polled claim no religious affiliation—the cathedral, like most Inland Northwest churches, no longer has the significance it once had.  Today, most of the cathedral’s 600 members are ordinary, middle-class people, he said.

“Now in a wilderness period, we are still about what the church has always been about, proclaiming the Gospel and living it out,” he asserted.

As the cathedral reflects on its purpose, the spiritual formation needed today and the type of life members will share with each other and the community, Bill preaches and teaches the gospel messages of providing for people who do not share in the blessings of life and of challenging today’s climate of violence.

He brings insights from studying history at the University of Oregon in Eugene.  He set aside plans to study law in order to study theology at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley, Calif.

Since graduating in 1982, he has served Episcopal churches in Coos Bay and Reedsport, Ore., followed by eight years in Forest Grove and 10 years in Bend.  He came to the cathedral in September 2006.

Through the eyes of history, Scripture and human nature, his sermons call worshipers to live in and reflect on today’s realities.

“We are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers, invited to share our lives in ministries of outreach like Habitat for Humanity, providing a way for people to enter the economy,” he said, sharing that outreach from the cathedral is both individual and institutional.

“Much of the Old Testament is about economic justice that people didn’t practice.  Jubilee was established so land would revert periodically to the original owners,” Bill said.

Then he shared reflections from two recent sermons on overcoming violence.

Bill’s commitment to nonviolence means he does not limit preaching or teaching about peace to the season of the birth of the Prince of Peace.  It is a year-round theme, because it permeates the Scriptures.

On Veterans’ Day, for example, he connected the messages of three Scripture lessons—from Job, II Thessalonians and Luke—that speak of a future, in which “all is fulfilled and redemption is at last accomplished.”

Bill is concerned that the American approach to violence destroys the values on which the nation was built.

 “We’re escalating the cycle of violence.  The stakes are higher than 100 or 1,000 years ago.  Humans need to realize that use of violence to end violence does not work. Once governments had a monopoly on violence and might temporarily end violence but, with new communication tools and technology, no one has a monopoly on violence,” Bill said.

“People can form small, international cells, communicating their ideological designs through new technologies.  Through other new technologies, they can invent more sophisticated means of killing than disgruntled groups in the past.

We can’t use violence to end violence,” he said.

For him, the naïve people are those who say violence will end violence.

Bill calls people to use their capacity to forgive, reconcile and fit in.

“We have to, or the world will not survive,” he said.  “We will create global, cataclysmic destruction from which it will take centuries to recover.”

Bill finds hope in unexpected places, such as the way leaders today justify violence.
“We can no longer justify violence simply for glory or imperial expansion,” he said, noting that the President recently appealed to empathy for victims to continue to “sell” U.S. violence, saying, “We have to liberate victims of an oppressive regime.”

“The Jewish-Christian tradition of empathy is about our common humanity and God’s requirement that we not victimize other people,” Bill said.  “The President’s justification for the invasion demonstrates that this tradition of empathy for victims has seeped deeply into our consciousness even without our realizing it.”

He also sees hope in the increasing numbers of people “sick about what we have done in Iraq and believing little has been accomplished.”

Having been to Nicaragua three times—2004, 2005 and 2006—he saw the destruction U.S. involvement in the 1980s Contra war caused.  Today, much destruction remains.  The economy has not recovered.  Of the population of 5 million, 50,000 or 1 percent were killed.  He saw injured people, amputees everywhere.

“The war accomplished nothing.  Daniel Ortega was president then with a moderately socialist government, and he is president now with a moderately socialist government,” Bill said.

Similarly, he said the Vietnam War accomplished nothing:  “In 1955, Vietnam could have been reunited under a moderately communist regime, as it has now.  What is true of our relationship with Vietnam today could have been true without the war.”

Those who believe in violence are the naïve ones, he repeated.

“Yes, the extremism of terrorists is dangerous.  We need to say ‘no’ to it, but we do not say ‘no’ to it by becoming like the terrorists.  That shows agreement with their tactics, implying killing and hating accomplish something.”

Bill pointed out that recent enemies once received U.S. arms and training: Osama bin Laden to fight the Soviet Union in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein to fight Iran, which was once a conduit for the illegal transfer of U.S. weapons to Contras in Nicaragua.

Another hopeful sign, Bill said, is the extent people oppose violence.

He sees an evolution in thinking, like the story of the 100th monkey—the number that would tip the tide of thinking in the world to change the world from dependence on violence.
The destruction nuclear weapons can cause is so horrible that people realize motives don’t matter. 

“Whether humanity has a future and what that future is are the prevailing questions,” Bill said.  “Albert Einstein said he did not know the technology the third world war would use, but knew the weapons of the fourth world war would be sticks and rocks.

 “When pragmatists win, violence declines,” he said.

Bill experiences hope when people change their thinking, slowly developing understanding and new ways of looking at divisive issues.

For example, since the election of Gene Robinson, a partnered gay man, as bishop of New Hampshire in 2003, there has been a dialogue in the national Episcopal Church about participation of gays and lesbians.

While there has been some attrition from it, most people are conversing, wrestling with it, have come to terms with it and are supportive, said Bill.

“I believe we need the full participation of all people in the life of the church,” he said.  “Any organization may do or be things we do not like.  We can critique what disturbs us about our church or country without loving our church or country less.

I engage people to be committed to the church, despite its mistakes and its fallibility,” he said. 
“We need to be faithful to each other, correct what is wrong and allow ourselves to be changed.  Too often we think unity means uniformity.  Organizations are weaker if all members think alike.”

The story of Jesus is about his choice to suffer and die rather than cause suffering or death, Bill said. 

“If in the collective experience of humanity we can become transformed by forgiveness, which has been there from the foundation of the world, then indeed our children and their children may just see that day when the swords are beaten into plowshares and the spears into pruning hooks,” he said.

For the psychic and spiritual situation today, Bill said the Scriptures call for endurance as the way for people to gain and retain their souls.

“Gaining your soul is about staying true to the God of love, justice and mercy in the midst of a world in which those values seem increasingly expendable,” Bill said.

That means being “profoundly counter-cultural” by “refusing to demonize or hate those who demonize or hate you,” he explained.  “To gain our souls is to resist the temptation to become like those we oppose.”

He quoted Martin Luther King, Jr., on nonviolent direct action:  “We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering.  We will meet your physical force with soul force.  Do to us what you will, and we will still love you.”

Bill challenges people to endurance in love, in compassion and in the quest for justice for all, “not just for our own sake, but for the sake of the world.”

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