Dave Pullin serves as the Director of Technical Arts at The United Methodist Church of the Resurrection. The Technical Arts ministry handles all audio/ visual/technical support for the church including worship services and events.
“…belonging to God’s kingdom means that our ultimate allegiance is not to any earthly country or ruler, but to God’s kingdom and its principles.”
It was the summer of 1996 when I met Dzan (pronounced john). We were both in our early twenties, and from the outside we seemed pretty similar, two young guys with their lives ahead of them. On the inside, however, because of our life experiences, we couldn’t have been more different. You see, he fought in the trenches for 3 years during the Bosnian War, a war that completely ravaged his home, his friends, and his family. And that changes a person.
Following the signing of the Dayton Peace Agreement in 1995, humanitarian aid organizations were officially allowed into Bosnia. In coordination with UMCOR, I spent nearly 3 months in Bosnia and Herzegovina working to coordinate & assist reconstruction efforts as well as establish interim schools and ‘Youth Houses,’ all of which were a means to better facilitate mediation and rehabilitation for those remaining in the war-torn country.
Dzan and I connected immediately. He’d learned English from bootlegged and subtitled American movies, so he was one of our interpreters. The communication gap vanished and was filled with constant conversations about American movies, music and all things pop-culture. Over time though, our conversations deepened, and he began to share more and more of his story.
Dzan is a Muslim who grew up in a small town in the central part of the country. This town was unique in that there were a relatively equal number of Muslim Bosniaks, Orthodox Serbs, and Catholic Croats (the 3 primary ethnicities), all living together and among each other in this town. Before the war, life was all intermingled–there were no boundaries or lines. A Croat taught school to Serbs and Bosniaks alike. People intermarried and had multiracial children. Dzan’s parents lived in a relatively nice home, and were good friends with many of those from different backgrounds. Neither ethnicity nor religion mattered, at least not until 1992. But on June 20th of that year, everything changed.
Gornji Vakuf, where Dzan and his family lived, was one of the towns where the fighting began. It was a strategic stronghold for supply lines, and it was targeted from the beginning. It became quickly evident that the Muslims were the primary target, yet what unfolded astounded Dzan. The people he knew–his close friends, his teachers, the grocery store clerk, his father’s employees, even some of his extended relatives–all of those from a different background joined ranks with their ethnic country. It was no longer the city of Gornji Vakuf fighting together as an outside enemy approached. The city began fighting against itself. Over time, they tore themselves completely apart.
Dzan described to me how everyone practically lived in ski masks for nearly 3 years. Since the fighting was in such close quarters, people didn’t want to be recognized. When I asked him why, he told me that everyone there knew each other, and no one wanted to imagine what life would be like after the war; what it would be like if others knew who it was that pulled the trigger. Listening to him describe the atrocities he witnessed was difficult, but I could not even fathom the amount of relational pain and agony Dzan had endured, and continues to.
I realize this war was anything but simplistic. There have been numerous wars in the former Yugoslavia over the centuries, and the politics surrounding them all are quite overwhelming. But I tell you part of Dzan’s story because I often wonder: what would have happened if all of the Catholics, Eastern Orthodox Christians and Muslims living in Gornji Vakuf in 1992 had decided to offer a higher allegiance to God (and His corresponding principles), rather than to their country or race of origin? Would anything have changed? Perhaps not. But set aside for a moment the religious differences between the three groups, and focus more on what it means to place God before country, especially when country seems to directly contradict God’s wishes, regardless of religion.
I have often thought about the juxtaposition of my aim of living out the Christian faith while at the same time being a dedicated patriot. Most of the time it seems there is little conflict between the two, but perhaps I am being naive. As I look more closely, it doesn’t seem to be so clear. I used to think that when I disagreed with American politics or a decision the government made, distancing myself from (and blaming) the offending political party was the “go to” answer. I’d just shove my head in the sand and wait for it to pass by. But as a person of faith who has been given clear instructions on how to treat others, I don’t think I can plead ignorance any longer and pretend that Jesus didn’t tell me to love my enemies as well as my neighbors, which is pretty much everybody in existence. That is the ultimate message that I have chosen to promote, yet I often find reasons and excuses not to.
I hope and pray that I never face a situation as horrific as Dzan had to endure. Few of us reading this ever will. But I do think we are faced, on a daily basis, with the opportunity to place our allegiance to God’s Kingdom higher than to our own country (or to our business, or to our self). For me, that means identifying and changing the areas of my life that might not align with the teachings of Jesus: the way I treat people I don’t like, the way I don’t speak against the injustices I see, the integrity of my thoughts, they way I spend my money, they way I talk to my kids and my spouse when I’m angry. Or the way I blame the state of our nation’s politics on a particular leader or group when I have not taken an active role in educating myself and voicing my opinions to my state’s representatives.
The way I see it, giving my full allegiance to God’s Kingdom means that regardless of the policies that end up being passed into law, I am still instructed to love everyone, not just those the government or the media tells me are worth loving, or those who are convenient for me to love–but everyone, which honestly can be quite difficult sometimes. Perhaps this may all be a bit idealistic, but isn’t the pursuit of God’s Kingdom here on earth an ideal we should be striving to make a reality? If I am honest with myself, the answer is an absolute “yes.” Yet selfishly I don’t like the implications that has on my lifestyle. I like being comfortable. But then I remember Dzan and think about how easily comforts can be lost or taken away when our primary allegiances are to a country looking for power rather than to a Kingdom looking for love.
Return to the GPS Guide to read today’s scripture and reflection questions.