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Peace Studies at Manchester University | Plowshares | Indianapolis Peace Institute | Journal of Religion, Conflict, and Peace
  Volume 38  



Memorial Reflections for Ken Brown Service
November 14, 2010

Kurt Borgmann

He has told you, Omortal, what isgood;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with yourGod? (Micah 6:8)

Everybody has a Ken Brown story. My wife has a Ken Brown story that she likes to tell about the time we thought we’d stop to eat at Taco Bell here in town, but as we went to turn into the parking lot, my wife said, “Isn’t that Ken Brown?” And I said “Where?” She said, “Right there – on the little patch of grass with those college students and all the signs.” We both tried to read the signs as wheeled past into the parking lot – all about migrant workers and tomatoes and fair wages. “We can’t eat here!” she said. “We can’t eat here with Ken Brown out front!”

Okay, so it was the migrant workers and tomatoes and low wages that should have kept us away, but in truth it was Ken. She was right. We couldn’t eat there, so we pulled back out of the parking lot and wondered whether he had seen our close call. I’m not sure why we didn’t just stop and roll down the window and tell him and the students why we were making a u-turn. But we didn’t. Maybe we didn’t want him to know of our ignorance on the issue. Of course, that makes no sense either. But in any case, we turned right around.

My Ken Brown stories are, I am afraid, less interesting than that one or almost any of yours. Because my Ken Brown stories all involve Ken coming out of church on Sunday morning, and often giving me a faint smile, sometimes a pat on the arm, and very, very occasionally, an affirming comment on the sermon. But that’s all I needed from him – just an occasional affirming comment, because I also knew that whenever I opened up a vein in the pulpit for the sake of justice, or stepped into that risky, prophetic place a preacher has to step to preach for peace, there was at least one person listening who completely understood. He was already there. No u-turns necessary.

So, this is my Ken Brown story – actually just a sliver of one sermon I preached in May of 2004 when all the news of Abu Ghraib was first coming out in the news media. One sermon, where I wondered aloud not only why we had started the war in Iraq, but how we might end it. Ken came out after worship that day, and not only shook my hand, but held on. I remember it like it was yesterday.

Here’s the sliver of that sermon, which I share again, in his memory:

We need conversion. And furthermore, it’s not the Muslims who need to be converted. It’s us. We need to be converted again to a true gospel of good news, of honest and compassionate action, of forgiveness and freedom from fear, of hope and healing.

So how does that happen? How does a country or a culture seek unity? How might we be converted to compassion? How do people learn to love enemies (instead of abusing them)? How does hope overcome hate? How do prison walls crumble and baptismal waters flow?

Let me tell you just one story of conflict and reconciliation. It’s a story from South Africa. In the Other Side magazine, the May/June issue, Joyce Hallady, in an article about the healing power of reconciliation titled, "The Altar of Truth," tells this story from her visit to South Africa in 1997 when the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was in the thick of its work.

She writes, "South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission was a venue for communal forgiveness. Bongani Finca, one of South Africa’s seventeen Truth and Reconciliation commissioners, shared one particularly compelling story. After the South African military descended on a small, rural village one day during the apartheid era, the official death toll was sixty, but the community knew that, in reality, many more had been killed. Among the dead was one White soldier. The other soldiers asked if they could bury their comrade in the community's graveyard. A member of the village replied, "You have taught us that there are Black schools and White schools, Black buses and White buses, Black toilets and White toilets, Black graveyards and White graveyards. This isa Black graveyard." They would not allow the soldier to be buried there. But wanting to be compassionate, the community directed the soldiers to a piece of land outside the cemetery gate for the burial. Twenty years later, at a Truth and Reconciliation hearing, some of the community members and soldiers told their stories. The soldiers asked for forgiveness for the great violence they had done. The next day, before leaving the village, the soldiers decided to visit the grave of their friend and leave flowers at the site. But they couldn't find it. They inquired of members of the village, and discovered that at the end of the previous day's hearing, the men of the village had gone to the graveyard and worked through the night to move its fence to include the soldier.”

You understand, I trust, that in order to find our own place of hope and healing, and ultimately, unity – personally, corporately, nationally, globally – we are going to have to move some fences, throw open some doors, loose some chains, cry some tears, beg some forgiveness, embrace some enemies, let go of some fears, heal some wounds, free some prisoners, move past some prejudices.

It’s not just about our Christianity. It’s about our humanity. Jesus’ prayer isn’t just for his circle of twelve. It’s for, as he says, those who will come to believe through their example – and that’s us, and anyone and everyone, we hope may come to know the love of God.

When prison walls come tumbling down and people see the face of their enemy as the face of another human created and loved by God; when we stop saying things like “you’re either for us or against us;” when we don’t make any more excuses for abuse; when we cry tears of sympathy for those who have suffered; when we move fences as a testimony to forgiveness, then…then Jesus’ prayer will be answered and the water that washes wounds will be the water that washes away our sins. Amen.

Let us pray:

For all the gifts of Ken Brown’s life, we give you thanks, O God: for his commitment to peace, his ability to teach, his openness to students – their questions, their discoveries, their growth, his willingness to take action, his vitality, his mind and heart.

We pray for his family, this day. We pray for a spirit of wholeness to surround them in the midst of sadness. We thank you for the way in which they embody Ken’s faith and his legacy.

We pray for our world, remembering that an awareness of the fractures and the possibilities of this world were never far from Ken’s mind.

We pray for peace, in the name and for the sake of the One who turns swords into ploughshares and invites us to do the same, Jesus Christ. Amen.


May God’s peace be ours.

May Christ’s unity be ours.

May the Spirit’s healing be ours. 

And may such peace, unity, and healing be our dream,

and in the end, our gift to this world. Amen.

  Kurt Borgmann is pastor at the Manchester Church of the Brethren.

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