THE SKIES ABOVE can give us a daily reminder that we are intrinsically part of God's creation. God not only created us with intent, but God also reached out to meet us in human history.
In this season of Advent, we remember the coming of Jesus Christ to earth. God became fully human and lived among us (John 1:14). As Eugene Peterson paraphrased it, “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood” (John 1:14, MSG). Jesus’ body, like ours, was made of atoms that were once between the stars. In his incarnation, Jesus not only took up human form and human DNA but took up atoms that tied him to our planet, our sun, and the stars beyond. Yet he was still fully God!
Jesus Christ is the cosmic Creator. As John 1 declares, “All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being” (verse 3). I am still amazed whenever I remember that God, Creator of the galaxies, became one of us and walked the dusty roads of Palestine. How can humanity be insignificant if the Creator took on our form?
FOR THE MILLENNIAL founder of a viral social media account, Cole Arthur Riley is surprisingly unplugged. “This is a fun fact that most people probably wouldn’t guess,” she told Sojourners in June, “but I actually don’t have a smartphone.”
Riley is the creator and curator of @BlackLiturgies, an Instagram profile and social media “space where Black spiritual words live in dignity, lament, rage, and liberation to the glory of God.” It is where, until this fall, she posted almost daily the liturgies she writes: Liturgies for Ma’Khia Bryant, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd. Prayers of remembrance for the Tulsa Race Massacre. Invocations for those living with chronic illness and those struggling with anxiety. @BlackLiturgies goes beyond the usual liturgical calendar of Advent, Christmas, Lent, Holy Week, and Easter, embedding that rotation within a larger grammar of spiritual expression for Black survival and thriving.
Riley’s liturgies look and circulate like memes, but trade humor for a holiness rooted in the embodied knowledge and sacred truth of Black life. The bricolage of written prayer, quotations, scriptures, poetry, and statements in white text on brown, green, and blue backgrounds gained thousands of likes and reposts within hours. If you are on social media, the images are likely familiar, but the person behind them, and her story, less so.
“I GRADUATED FROM university in 1968. I was drafted immediately. I had not really thought much about the war, but the more I talked to the guys who were coming back from Vietnam, the more I realized that this thing was terribly wrong. I began to think of the Vietnamese forces as liberation forces trying to free their country from foreign invasion—we were the invaders.
I went through a crisis of conscience. I saw a news report about soldiers who were speaking out against the war. I thought to myself, I can do that. I began to organize among soldiers in the barracks. We submitted a petition signed by 1,300 active-duty service members that was published in The New York Times.
The basis of my commitment to activism is faith: the belief that our role in life is to serve others, to overcome suffering and injustice, especially war, which to me, is the greatest sin."
ON SUFJAN STEVENS' 2012 Christmas album, Silver & Gold, he includes “Ah Holy Jesus,” a hymn about Christ’s crucifixion. Stevens sings: “For me, kind Jesus, was thine incarnation / thy mortal sorrow, and thy life’s oblation / thy death of anguish and thy bitter passion / for my salvation.” The cross on Golgotha casts a long shadow toward Bethlehem. When the child in the manger grows into adulthood, our world kills him. The story of the incarnation is the story of crucifixion.
For Stevens to sing such a hymn during this season reminds us that Jesus was born into an anguished world—an anguish that took hold in his life, an agony unto death. “The whole life of Jesus comes under the heading ‘suffered,’” theologian Karl Barth commented. “For the evangelists Luke and Matthew, the childhood of Jesus, his birth in the stable of Bethlehem, were already under the sign of suffering,” Barth continued. “The entire life of Jesus is lived ... in the shadow of the cross.”
Jesus didn’t offer salvation as an escape plan from our life’s travails but as a commitment to heal us from the habits of sin, the violence that cuts through each of us and the world. Christmas Day doesn’t redeem our wounded world in an instant—as if the old order vanishes with the newborn’s first cry. Instead, Jesus undergoes a human life and entrusts our lives to the Holy Spirit’s care.
Salvation is a salve, the soothing presence of the Spirit. This same Comforter took care of Mary at Jesus’ birth and ministered to him during his passion. “For me, kind Jesus, was thine incarnation ... and thy life’s oblation.”
AS I WRITE this, it has been 16 months since my last haircut—the last time I felt safe being partially restrained by a front-facing cape while a stranger hovered near my face with scissors. Needless to say, my hair is unruly and prematurely greying, but fear not, it is doing wonders for my love life. I have kissed dating goodbye and started washing people’s feet with my hair. Because why walk a mile in someone’s shoes when you could just take a good hard look at their calluses? If you can feel the tug of your hair between your partner’s toes and not turn away in shame (or accidentally tickle them), what can’t you accomplish together?
This method is not only pandemic-safe-ish, it’s biblical. And it is much wiser to take intimacy advice from Mary of Bethany than Joshua Harris of Dayton, Ohio. In the gospel of John, Mary pours an expensive perfume on Jesus’ feet and wipes his feet with her hair. In the gospels of Mark and Matthew, Jesus himself calls being anointed, “A BEAUTIFUL THING” (the original Greek did not use all caps, but it should have).
Each word I choose
carries a different rucksack load for each of you
like I’m the fox slinking along rail lines
thinking by instinct & appetite & you’re
the commuter passing through
like I’m the moon whose same beams call
to a weeping child to a prowling owl
to shivering rodents in the grass
THE WORK OF peacemaking has been long beset by the stereotypes of it being “nice” work, polite to the point of being inoffensive. In her new book, Melissa Florer-Bixler wants to disabuse us of the idea that making peace means having no enemies. If anything, as she argues, Christians should have enemies well. Having enemies does not mean that the Christian who pursues justice incurs the resentment of others, but that their witness is direct, pointed, and takes sides.
The church, she writes, is “not to unify as a way to negate difference or to overcome political commitments,” but to sharpen those disagreements between the gospel and the world, particularly where reconciliation conceals power inequities. It does no one any favors, she suggests, to resolve moral disagreements within the church in a way that “disregards how coercion and force shape the lives of enemies.”
THE STATUE OF Liberty, author Clint Smith tells us, was supposed to celebrate the abolition of slavery. Early models depicted the iconic copper lady holding a raised torch in one hand and a pair of broken shackles in the other, but the final version included only a piece of broken chain at the lady’s feet. With slavery shifted to the periphery, Ellis Island’s visitors could imagine liberty was, and is, possible without abolition.
In How the Word Is Passed, Smith visits multiple historic sites to offer a mosaic portrait of how different places tell, or do not tell, the truth about slavery. The book meditates on the capacity of our collective symbolic infrastructure to prepare us to rectify persistent material inequalities. If we frame slavery as something that “happened a long time ago” or leave unchallenged the warping of the Confederate commitment to enslavement into myths of honor and heritage—if, in a word, we misremember the wound—then we will not summon the will nor the proper know-how to heal it.
THE MET GALA is fascinating. Part chaos and part fundraiser, the Gala has created a treasure trove of cultural touchstones and meme-worthy content over the past few years. Created in the 1940s to benefit the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, the Gala is, at its core, a paean to the sartorial arts. In many ways, it’s the gift that keeps on giving, especially if you, like me, are not opposed to a lot of pomp and very little circumstance. However, in the thick of my 2 a.m. behind-the-scenes-at-the-Met video binge, a thought occurred to me that I’ve been turning over ever since: America may not have bread, but it sure has circuses.
Adapted from Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel, Passing explores a Harlem Renaissance-era relationship between two reunited childhood friends, one of whom now passes as white while the other lives as a Black woman. The black-and-white film, which debuted at Sundance, moved to Netflix on Nov. 10. Picture Films.
OVER THE LAST year we’ve had to reconsider our definition of what makes a “sacred space.” When churches and temples closed due to the pandemic, our homes became places of worship for many of us.
This cemented what’s always been true: Sacred space is a fluid thing. It can be a place of deep personal meaning or shared memories with people we care about. A sacred space doesn’t even need to be a physical location. It could also be the spiritual space created whenever we’re with those we love or remember people we’ve lost.
Céline Sciamma’s tender film Petite Maman speaks to this. A little girl, Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) and her mother, Marion (Nina Meurisse), grieve the death of Marion’s mother and clean out Marion’s childhood home. Sciamma’s movie becomes a meditation on everyday sacred spaces, including those that can exist within mother-daughter relationships.
AS NEW YORK CITY'S elected public advocate since 2019, Brooklyn native Jumaane Williams is the ombudsman for more than 8 million people in all five boroughs, charged with overseeing city agencies and investigating citizen complaints. And, starting in 2016, when he was a member of the New York City Council, he has performed in more than 40 staged readings of plays, most of them classical tragedies, with Theater of War Productions.
Starting in 2009 with a performance of scenes from “Ajax” and “Philoctetes” by Sophocles that highlighted the issue of military PTSD, Theater of War Productions has presented dramatic readings of classical Greek tragedies and other plays followed by guided discussions linking their themes to contemporary social issues. It now has a repertory of more than 20 works addressing a wide range of complex social issues—from racism to refugees, gun violence to sexual assault, frontline medical worker mental health to criminal justice, and more. Essential to the experience are post-performance discussions in which audiences engage with the play’s themes, creating cathartic release and deepening understanding. During the pandemic, Theater of War has gone online, reaching a vast international audience.
MAPS ARE NOT just drawings of a place; they are also windows into a perspective. In the era of European colonial expansion, maps were essential tools.
The 15th century imperial edicts known collectively as the Doctrine of Discovery theologically and politically justified the brutal seizure of land not inhabited by European Christians. This set into motion a new worldview that is the basis for all modern property ownership and established a relationship to the land based on colonization rather than habitation. As a result of this and other political arrangements, the Roman Catholic Church controls about 177 million acres of land around the world.
Molly Burhans is a Catholic, an activist, and an entrepreneur. She is also a cartographer and geographic information system (GIS) analyst who sees the church’s landholdings as an opportunity for a global spiritual and ecological transformation. If church maps in the past too often represented cultural oppression and land domination, the maps Burhans creates are powerful tools for ecological regeneration and social repair.
WHO SHOULD CARE about the future? Young people, obviously, because they have to live in it. And they have done their job. I spent the ’80s and the ’90s and much of the ’00s listening to my peers complain about “kids today” and how they were apathetic and how it wasn’t like the ’60s and on and on. I don’t know if it was ever true, but it clearly hasn’t been in recent years: On issues from civil rights to prison reform to the one I know best—climate change—young people have been firmly in the forefront.
When I founded 350.org, the first iteration of a global climate movement, it was alongside seven college students—and it was their generation that built that movement out, from the divestment campaigners on college campuses to the Sunrise Movement that spurred the Green New Deal to Greta Thunberg and the many like her who built the powerhouse Fridays for Future coalition.
But they cannot do it alone. They need, in particular, their grandparents and great-grandparents—the boomers and the silent generation above them. Those of us in those categories are the fastest-growing demographic in the country—we add 10,000 to our ranks each day (though, of course, we subtract some too). We vote in huge numbers, and we have ended up with most of the assets, fairly or not.
I SIT IN one of our robin’s-egg blue chairs on our front porch, one of my favorite places on earth. It has been a haven of peace, a slice of paradise amid the pandemic. It is dark. And late. And chilly. No one is around. Looking up between two branches of our mature red maple, I can see at least one star twinkling.
My mind’s eye turns to the stars in the desert. I dream of laying down, blanketed by the desert night, and staring up at the Milky Way in a reverie of wonder. Suddenly my thoughts shift to the shepherds on the night of Jesus’ birth who were minding their own business and about to turn in for the night. I imagine them comforted by the constant companionship of their night lights—the stars—and their sheep, whose bleating lulled them to sleep in the wilderness.
On this night—and really all throughout the year—I cannot stop thinking about how a mass choir of angels unexpectedly appeared to the shepherds to announce Jesus’ birth. Advent. Why appear to those looked down upon as poor societal nobodies? Why parade through and light up the night sky in concert for those the world deems to have little to no worth? Who would believe their testimony anyway?
GROWING UP, I read tons of historical fiction and often imagined the lives and times of my ancestors. My curiosity stemmed, in no small part, from my family, who dragged us to every available Black history and Black art museum. Whether visiting California’s first and only Black town, where my great-great-grandparents had bought land; making a pilgrimage to the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center during a family reunion; taking Black history bus tours; or hearing family stories from my grandmother and great-aunt, Black history was never far from our everyday lives.
Recently, technological developments and my growing archival research skills have enabled me to dig further into our family history. As DNA ancestry testing and digitized documents have become more widespread, I have been able to find graves and documents that could have been lost to history. The past, for me, has become even more close at hand as a crucial way of understanding the present.
Relating to the past in this way—an approach that resonates with Black families across the diaspora—stands in stark contrast to ongoing efforts to erase, distort, and lie about history.
IT MIGHT NOT be a violation of professional legal ethics to participate in the Roman Catholic Church’s campaign to escape financial responsibility for the genocide of Indigenous peoples in Canada and the United States. But it is a violation of Christian ethics. And for Christian attorneys, the latter should take priority.
The Catholic Church is not the only Christian denomination from which survivors of abuse in church-run residential schools are demanding justice. Episcopalian and Anglican, Methodist, Presbyterian, and other churches also ran residential schools in North America. However, the Catholic Church ran nearly three-quarters of the residential schools in Canada and more than 20 percent of the 367 Indian boarding schools in the United States. Since May, more than 1,300 suspected graves have been identified near five former Indian residential schools in British Columbia, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan. Four of those were run by Catholic institutions.But thanks to the Catholic Church’s lawyers, it has largely succeeded at avoiding financial accountability for its legacy of violence.
THE COVID-19 CRISIS has intensified food insecurity and hunger globally and exposed the failings of a profit-driven, industrialized agriculture and food system.
In August, an alliance of more than 500 African faith leaders and smallholder farmers delivered a strong message to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation: “The Gates Foundation’s support for the expansion of intensive industrial scale agriculture is deepening the humanitarian crisis.”
Faith communities and farmers want the Gates Foundation to stop funding the so-called “green revolution technologies” through the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA). African faith leaders are witnessing the negative impact of industrialized farming to the land and the well-being of their communities. They are calling for a shift to sustainable and agroecological farming that works in local contexts for people and does not harm the land.
FOR MANY OF us, this summer felt like a cosmic wake-up call about climate change. Fire, floods, hurricanes, and other cataclysmic signs of our rapidly heating planet seemed to offer near-apocalyptic warnings that we’re approaching a make-or-break point, especially for those already vulnerable because of poverty or geographic location. We almost didn’t need the scientists—such as those who produced the dire U.N. report in August—to once again sound the alarm, as they have done so many times over the past several decades, nature already having done the job in her impossible-to-ignore fashion.
Anger seems an apt response to global warming, given that the world’s climate crisis isn’t an unavoidable act of nature; rather, it’s rooted in intentional actions by people seeking power and wealth. The main perpetrators—including ExxonMobil and its GOP enablers—knew about the causes of climate change more than four decades ago and, as Scientific American put it, “spent millions to promote misinformation” and manipulate public opinion. Some might call such duplicity “crimes against humanity” and “indictable behavior.”
JEANIA REE V. MOORE, a Sojourners columnist since 2019 who’s working on her doctorate at Yale, explains why she thinks Cole Arthur Riley’s @BlackLiturgies, featured in this issue, is so important, especially now: “At a time when social distancing due to the COVID-19 pandemic precluded most forms of Christian liturgy and threatened to make permanent the temporary church closures,” Moore writes, “Riley traversed the digital divide and rerouted traditional channels for spiritual expression.”