I was 17 years old when an army captain asked me, “What would you do if our battalion was attacked tonight? What would you do if someone came and shot you?”
“I would pray,” I responded.
At that instant, I felt a sharp pain on my head. The captain had hit me with a lyre striker. A lyre is a musical instrument made of metal that produces sounds with a fiberglass striker. The pain was very intense.
The captain asked me again, “What will you do if someone attacks you?” I said, “I am not going to defend myself.”
He hit me again and asked, “Why do you want to be a Christian? Aren’t you going to defend your country?” My answer was: “I follow Christ because I have found life in Him.”
Why was I responding like that? I was just 17, and at that time, I was full of doubts. In fact, I was experiencing a spiritual crisis to the point of almost losing my faith. I had left my church, I did not have Anabaptist convictions. Military service was compulsory in Colombia, and my Christian convictions weren’t strong enough that I was willing to go to jail for them.
Walking a path of learning
I think the reason I had the courage to respond that way can be found in Luke 24, where a story is told of two disciples who are on the road to Emmaus after the death and resurrection of Christ. “Walking” in the Gospel of Luke has a very special meaning: it is about a way of life or conduct. In this Gospel, walking is related to discipleship.
In Luke, many lessons are learned while walking. Here, the two disciples are talking and they don’t agree. Jesus comes up in the middle of the discussion and asks them, “What are you discussing as you walk along?” In the original language, verse 15 conveys the idea that there was a strong difference of opinion between the two disciples.
Walking despite disagreement
Is walking together possible if we are in disagreement? Is it possible to live in a community as diverse as ours?
When we observe the map of the Mennonite World Conference, we immediately realize that the Anabaptist movement is scattered around the world. Is walking together possible within our global community when we have so many cultural, theological and ecclesiological differences?
In Luke, the two disciples that had left Jerusalem were in strong disagreement. They had likely reached the point of asking themselves whether it was worth continuing together. But that was not the way that Jesus wanted his disciples to leave Jerusalem.
Leaving Jerusalem, facing our mission and our call, cannot be carried out if we are divided. Jesus wanted his disciples to leave Jerusalem filled with the Spirit to give testimony. This is probably why the two disciples had to return to Jerusalem.
“If you want to get there quickly, walk alone; if you want to go far, walk with others,” states a well-known African saying. This is what the disciples discovered on their way to Emmaus. It is at the end of the journey in community, after walking together despite their differences, in the moment of celebrating communion that the disciples’ eyes were opened and their understanding of Christ was clarified (Luke 24:30–31). As a result, they returned to Jerusalem in unity.
Walking in different ways
The theme of our assembly, “Walking with God,” reflects various lessons we can learn from this passage. In each language, a different idea is expressed in reference to what it means to walk with God.
In English, walking refers to a constant action. It is a continuous, endless process, and thus calls for our whole life. When walking with God, we need to constantly ask ourselves, “What are we leaving behind? What do we need to take along on this journey?”
In Spanish, caminemos is an invitation. It is an invitation to abandon our fears, to open our hearts to become vulnerable. This journey requires patience: we need to wait for those who aren’t as fast and are tired. If we act with individualism and independence and consider that we don’t need any help, we will be strongly tempted to go separate ways. However, the invitation to walk together is still open.
In French, en marche, implies becoming completely involved in walking. There certainly will be tensions with other walkers that will cause many mixed feelings. But, if we walk totally committed to God and others, the tensions or problems that may arise will lead us to be transformed. If we don’t walk totally committed, those same tensions or problems will lead us to fragmentation.
The next part of the phrase, “with God/con Dios/avec Dieu,” refers to communion with God. It is impossible to walk together if we aren’t walking with God.
Those disciples on the road to Emmaus were walking together despite their differences because God was at the centre of their walk. They discovered that unity wasn’t something that was miraculously achieved in the end; it is something that is built along the way. This unity leads to a transformation that can only be found in community.
Every day during this Assembly, we will reflect on the various moments we experience as we walk with God.
As the disciples surely experienced on the road to Emmaus, there will be moments of doubt and moments when we are sure we are on the right track.
There will be moments of conflict and of reconciliation.
There will be moments when we want to walk alone in autonomy, but there will be times when we recognize our need to walk in community.
There will be moments when we need help and moments when we are ready to help.
This is the life of discipleship. We are in the midst of a process; we haven’t reached our goal yet, but are moving forward.
This passage helps me to understand why I responded to the captain the way I did. Beside me, there were four other soldiers who were also Christians. They weren’t Mennonites or Anabaptists. But when the captain asked them the same questions, they responded that they were just obeying Jesus and weren’t willing to kill to defend themselves.
Some of these friends were on the floor in pain because of the blows. Therefore, I was able to respond the way I did because I had found a new community there. Four friends with whom I was ready to walk amid suffering, violence and persecution. Four friends to whom I could say, “Let’s walk with God” despite our differences. And tonight I would like to say to you, “Let’s walk with God,” let’s walk during this week and during the years to come.
César García spoke on Tuesday evening, 21 July 2015, at Assembly 16. He is general secretary of Mennonite World Conference. He lives in Bogotá, Colombia.