The Common Good
May 2010

Antidotes to Cynicism

by Julie Polter | May 2010

Books that help us put heart and soul into action.

The words “hope” and “change” have been taking a beating lately: mocked by some, tarnished in the political sphere by partisan gridlock, seeming like mere illusions to many who need them most. But hope and positive transformation are more profound realities than will ever fit comfortably in the 24-hour news cycle; they germinate in individual hearts and local communities and grow along the long arc of history.

Whether you’re trying to nurture change in your church community, neighborhood, or on a larger scale for our battered, beautiful world, here are some books that can get you started, keep you going, or help you begin again. Because hope, while sometimes down, is never out.

For starters, there’s the new and revised version of Soul of a Citizen: Living with Conviction in Challenging Times, by Paul Rogat Loeb (St. Martin’s Press). Through the stories and voices of dozens of activists from a wide variety of backgrounds and beliefs, Loeb names the psychological and cultural barriers that can stop us from becoming involved in issues that we care about and explores how such hindrances can be overcome. While not writing from a faith perspective, Loeb sees the search for meaning and values as key to the activist life, and includes several people of faith among his interviewees. This thoughtfully researched, engaging book is both grounded and inspiring. First published in 1999, it has been updated to include perspectives and insights from the tumultuous first decade of the 21st century.

“Why are we as societies creating a world that we as individuals abhor?” writer and hunger activist Frances Moore Lappé asks in her newly revised book, Getting a Grip 2: Clarity, Creativity, and Courage for the World We Really Want (Small Planet Media). Like Loeb, Lappé takes on the inner voices and outer pressures that can keep us passive, and sketches out a path to what she calls “democracy as a way of life, no longer something done to us or for us but a way of living together that we shape ourselves.”

A new edition of the classic Hope and History: Why We Must Share the Story of the Movement, by Vincent Harding (Orbis), also was recently released. In this collection of essays, Harding, professor emeritus of religion and social transformation at the Iliff School of Theology and a Sojourners contributing editor, addresses “teachers of all kinds, to explore with them the powerful and humanizing lessons that are available to us in the story of the post-World War II stage of the black freedom movement.” Harding writes as both a participant in and scholar of the movement, and puts forth the themes and nonviolent principles that continue to inform a broad range of struggles for freedom and human dignity. He directs one essay specifically to teachers in religious settings, reminding them that “the raising of rejected stones, the empowerment of the weak and exploited, the establishment of jubilee generations, the healing of broken human connections are as central to your best religious teachings as they are to the heart of the freedom movement.”

This reality, as expressed through the evangelical Christian community development model pioneered by John Perkins, is lifted up in Welcoming Justice: God’s Movement Toward Beloved Community, by Perkins and historian and theologian Charles Marsh. The book is part of the Resources for Reconciliation series produced through a partnership between Duke University’s Center for Reconciliation and InterVarsity Press. In alternating essays, Perkins reflects on lessons he’s learned during a long ministry focused on racial reconciliation and the empowerment of those in poverty, while Marsh draws out the theological and cultural implications of Perkins’ work. Writes Perkins, “The call to reconciliation is a call to commitment—to take up the cross and give ourselves to this community in this place. The world needs a church that does something to interrupt business as usual where we are.”

Follow Me to Freedom: Leading and Following as an Ordinary Radical (Regal), is also a collaboration involving John Perkins, this time in a series of conversations with fellow Christian activist Shane Claiborne. In this interracial, intergenerational, wide-ranging improvisation, Perkins and Claiborne muse together about their experiences and thoughts on how to lead (and follow) with integrity, walking with others through pain, building community, civil disobedience, seeking God’s power instead of relying on our own, and more. Throughout, they extend a warm invitation to others to join them in following Jesus to unpredictable places.

A timely and practical guide for churches who want to do more to express “God’s righteousness through right action” is Social Justice Handbook: Small Steps for a Better World, by Mae Elise Cannon (InterVarsity Press). Cannon, an ordained pastor in the Evangelical Covenant Church, provides solid scriptural, theological, and historical backing for how seeking justice for the poor and oppressed is intrinsic to the gospel—not somehow supplanting Christian discipleship, but flowing from it. She then provides brief overviews of a wide range of justice issues and starting places to learn more. Throughout the handbook are profiles, suggested resources for further study, and prompts for spiritual reflection.

After a midlife conversion, Sara Miles founded a food pantry program that feeds several hundred people a week around the altar of a San Francisco Episcopal church. In the beautifully written Jesus Freak: Feeding, Healing, Raising the Dead (Jossey-Bass), Miles describes the radical claim that Jesus makes on our life, epitomized in John’s gospel when he breathed on his disciples and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”

“It might be reassuring, to those tired of dealing with our violent, scary, or just unpleasant neighbors, to think that we can worship God by turning our backs on them,” she writes. “That we can’t do much anymore about our lives, or the lives of other people, except gaze at the sky and pray to a disembodied spirit … With Jesus safely tucked away in heaven, we’re off the hook.” Except for this, Miles concludes: “He’s still breathing in us.” And that means we have work to do, because “every single thing the resurrected Jesus does on earth he does through our bodies.” Which is, admittedly, a little terrifying—but also, this book testifies, the raw, joyful, exhilarating way to life abundant.

Julie Polter is an associate editor of Sojourners.

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