HAS RELIGION ALIENATED you from your body, demonized your sexuality, or caused you to see your body as a source of shame? If so, it’s time to come home. In Sensual Faith: The Art of Coming Home to Your Body, body- and sex-positive pastor Lyvonne Briggs invites Black Christian women and femmes to reconnect with and feel at home in their bodies, sexuality, and sensuality: “You see, Sis, home is not an address; home is where you feel safe.” Finding home in our bodies is important because, all too often, Christian spaces have deemed our bodies “temptations” and our bodily processes “nasty.” And historically, American society has tried to control Black women’s bodies and sexualities, denying our humanity and womanhood through slavery, sterilization policies, and degrading stereotypes such as the asexual Mammy and the hypersexual Jezebel. So, the type of bodily reclamation Briggs writes of is an act of personal and societal justice.
Similar to theologian Candice Marie Benbow’s Red Lip Theology (2022), Sensual Faith is a womanist work that centers the experiences of Black women of faith. “Womanism” is the term coined by writer Alice Walker in the early 1980s to honor the experiences of Black women, who were often overlooked and excluded by the feminist movement. By utilizing a womanist interpretation of the Bible, Briggs challenges harmful religious messages around women’s bodies: “Womanism says: Your sexuality is a sacred gift. Your body is holy. Just as it is. Pleasure is your birthright.”
“WHERE WILL THE Judaica go?” a friend asks Judith Helfand, in reference to the material objects of her faith. Helfand is an Ashkenazi Jewish documentarian who turns the camera on herself and her family to tell larger stories. Here, she’s telling a story of becoming a “new old mother” the year after her own mother dies. She takes a deep breath of her newborn daughter’s hair and turns to her friend, who is trying to help her store and organize the too many things in her New York apartment. “That is such a good question,” replies Helfand, who embraced motherhood by adopting at age 50. “It’s the age-old Jewish question,” she continues. “Once we left the desert we were like, s---, now we have to find places for our stuff!” She breaks into laughter, that special laugh of the sleep-deprived and overwhelmed new parent, and never answers her friend’s question directly.
Love & Stuff, a POV documentary available on PBS, based on Helfand’s shorter New York Times Op-Doc with the same name, is full of age-old questions about holding on and letting go. Love & Stuff doesn’t offer easy answers or quick fixes, instead revealing the struggles and choices we make in curating our living spaces.
Do We Stay or Do We Go?
Women Talking centers on Mennonite women wrestling with how to respond to serial sexual assault by men from their colony. The film explores the complexity of forgiveness and touchingly reminds viewers that leaving one’s community can be an act of faith.
United Artists Releasing
THE OPENING SCENE of Holy Spider is brutal. We see a woman — a sex worker — leave her child at home to go to work. Walking through Iran’s holy city of Mashhad, she stops at a public restroom to adjust her headscarf and apply bold lipstick. She goes on her first call of the night and does some opium. As she prepares to go home, a man approaches on a motorcycle. He offers her money. She joins him. Shortly after arriving at their destination, he strangles her.
Writer-director Ali Abbasi’s Holy Spider is a fictionalized account of Saeed Hanaei, known as the Spider Killer, who targeted female sex workers in Mashhad from 2000 to 2001. The film, which premiered at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival, examines the killer’s life and the process of capturing him, led by (fictionalized) female journalist Arezoo Rahimi (Zar Amir Ebrahimi).
WHEN I SPEAK on the phone with Anne Symens-Bucher, she tells me about the end of St. Francis of Assisi’s life. Francis “was losing sight, suffering from the pain of the stigmata, and on the margins of the community that had grown up to follow him,” Symens-Bucher explains. “This is the moment he writes the ‘Canticle of Creation.’” Symens-Bucher is one of the founders of Canticle Farm in Oakland, Calif., a community of eight households where the fences are taken down, giving access to a large garden in the middle. Canticle Farm is made up of people who, in Symens-Bucher’s words, are “experimenting at the intersections of faith-based, social justice-based, and Earth-based nonviolent activism.” In his canticle, after which this community is named, Francis praises God from a deep sense of kinship with all creation. He sings of “brother fire,” “sister water,” “brother wind,” “mother earth.” Birthed as Francis approaches his own death, it is a vivid, sober-minded song of the interconnectedness of all life.
Western colonialist people have often failed — or refused — to recognize this interconnectedness. Earth, animals, plants, and people suffer from our (and I say “our” because I speak as a white U.S. citizen) denial of this oneness. Soils are depleted, waters and air are poisoned, and sea levels rise and temperatures warm, threatening the most vulnerable among us immediately, and all of us eventually. Perhaps in this time of environmental crisis, we might find a “canticle” moment, one that renews our kinship with creation.
Liz Carlisle explores these questions in Healing Grounds: Climate, Justice, and the Deep Roots of Regenerative Farming. As an environmental scientist looking for healthy soil, Carlisle interviews experts who are Black, Indigenous, and people of color — scientists and farmers engaged in work ranging from bringing buffalo back to the prairie ecosystems of Montana to growing mushrooms on ancestral forest land in North Carolina. Through the process, she realizes that if we’re serious about fighting climate change by rebuilding soil carbon, we’re going to have to address the very roots of the colonialist systems in which we live.
EVANGELICALS AND OTHER Christians involved in adoption and “orphan care” ministries have often evoked Paul’s use of adoption as a metaphor: God “adopts” us into the family of God, so we should adopt children as a manifestation of the gospel.
But New Testament scholar Erin Heim, a U.S. domestic adoptee herself, has raised questions about Pauline adoption metaphors. “The thing that always gets said — ‘contemporary adoption is a horizontal expression of God’s vertical adoption of us’ — there’s something at face value that is a little bit comforting about it, but that doesn’t sit very well for very long,” Heim said in a podcast about her research on these metaphors.
Adoption by nature is a vertical relationship, Heim explained, referring to power inequities between parents and children and between cultures. “There’s no such thing as horizontal adoption,” she said. “When we make mini vertical things that [try to] look like what God does in the Bible, it’s idolatry.”
Christians were pioneers in the establishment of international adoption to the United States in the 1950s and later spurred an orphan care movement during the peak of international adoption in the early 2000s. Since 1948, roughly 1 million children globally have been placed in new families, far from their original families and culture, through intercountry adoption, according to demographer Peter Selman — more than 380,000 of them between 2000 and 2009.
While faith has guided Christians in promoting adoption, religious narratives also have upheld harmful power structures and practices. “White saviorism” and racial hierarchies have led to the separation of children from their cultures of origin. Adoptees who are now adults have shared stories of struggle within families and societies that deny or misunderstand these dynamics.
PHILIP JENKINS’ REMARKABLE Climate, Catastrophe, and Faith: How Changes in Climate Drive Religious Upheaval leads off with Voltaire: “Three things exercise a constant influence over the minds of [humankind] — climate, government, and religion ... That is the only way of explaining the enigma of this world.”
Climate and geology are now the new prisms for our shared discernment of how we are to live in our own time and place as followers of Christ. We’re driven to centering climate because we can no longer live with the expectation of the balanced climate of the last 12,000 years, the geologic epoch called the late Holocene. We are now in a new geologic epoch: the Age of the Human, or the Anthropocene.
Anthropocene reality leaves Christian ethics nowhere to hide. Nowhere to hide because unprecedented cumulative human powers doubled down on planet-spanning changes that launched the first geological epoch created by human choice and action. The fact that human choice and action has done this means that everything, including extinction, turns on ethics. As Christians, we can look away and abdicate our responsibility, but we cannot escape the massive human presence that lines out our lives — and all life. We’ve become totalizing creatures. We humans are, for the first time, both ark and flood.
This extraordinary power has been recognized for a while. In 1944, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote that the unprecedented powers of modern science and technology led to a world in which “it all comes down to the human being,” a world where “everything turns upon humanity.” He thus set out to reconceive human responsibility for a world that had come of age. For Bonhoeffer, “world come of age” was not a statement of moral maturity. It was a statement of moral accountability. People who legally come of age at 18 or 21 are accountable, whether they exercise their agency maturely or not. When everything turns on humanity, Bonhoeffer said, the whole human world has arrived at that point of accountability.
A current term for human powers and their collective impact is “assisted evolution.” But the phrase is deceptive because it hides the depth, breadth, and temporal reach of those powers. Does the phrase “assisted evolution” reveal that the carbon people produce has the ability to alter marine chemistry, flood coastlines, strip glaciers “to bare bones,” embolden deserts, warp the circulation of ocean currents, “supercharge extreme weather events,” and rearrange “the distribution of animal, plant, and microbial species across the globe,” as author David Farrier puts it? This isn’t evolution “assisted”; it’s evolution hacked and hijacked.
IN A JUST ECONOMY, everyone who wants a job has one, and it pays a living wage, sufficient for workers and their families to thrive. Everyone’s material needs — for nutritious food, safe and secure housing, transportation, clothing, utilities, education, health care, and economic security — are met. Economists call this full employment in living wage jobs, and it is a goal of many justice advocates. It is also God’s vision for society.
Jesus told the disciples that he came so all may have abundant life (John 10:10). As Jesus showed, God’s vision encompasses more than abundant spiritual life. Jesus understood that God’s vision of abundance encompasses material needs as well as spiritual ones. Jesus healed broken bodies. He fed hungry people and encouraged others to do so as well. In God’s reign, everyone’s material needs are filled. But how does God envision this to happen?
The Old and New Testaments reveal a great deal about God’s intentions for the economy, the word we use to describe the way in which we use God-given natural resources — soil, rain, sun, fuels, minerals, trees, etc. — in combination with human effort and ingenuity (also given by God) to produce all our goods and services. We can gain important insights relevant to our economy today by examining the economic circumstances of the Israelites during three different biblical eras and then exploring what the biblical writers and Jesus taught about the economy and economic injustices during those periods.
Over the more than 10 centuries during which the biblical narrative was composed, the economic circumstances of the Israelites changed markedly and, in response, so did the economic instructions in the Bible. But, surprisingly, in each of the three eras, the instructions called for livelihoods for all that enabled thriving or, in our language today, full employment in living wage jobs.
In the Old Testament — the Hebrew Bible — the economic instructions are part of the laws found in Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy. Today, Christians often insufficiently value this body of law. Some of it seems strange to our modern ears. Other provisions fall far short of current standards for justice — for example, slavery and patriarchy were normalized then. Certainly some of our laws today will fall short of more enlightened future standards. But as we will see below, the law contains much timeless wisdom. To the Israelites, the law was a gift from God, a blessing, a guide to more joyful and fulfilling lives lived in right relationship with God. Psalm 23, one of the most beloved and well-known biblical psalms, tells of the comfort derived from God-the-Shepherd’s rod and staff, tools used to guide sheep in safe, life-giving paths. If we are open to it, we can gain important insights from the ancient laws.
UKRAINE IS, IN A WAY, a very pluralistic country. Nobody has an absolute majority. The Orthodox are the biggest group of believers, but they are divided into two jurisdictions — one that is independent and another one that depends, to a bigger or smaller degree, on Russia and the patriarchate of Moscow. Around 10 percent of the Ukrainian population are Catholic, mostly Eastern Catholic, and follow the same calendar and liturgy as the Orthodox. One to 2 percent are Latin Rite Catholics, and 1 to 2 percent are Protestant.
AS SOMEONE WHO has lived with chronic pain and come to terms with being a body with limits, I struggle to square a theology of limits with a theology of abundance.
I have limits on my time, energy, and what my body can do. I’ve made peace with and even come to appreciate God’s elegant design of bounded human bodies and an Earth with limited, depletable resources. And yet, our faith speaks of a God who can do “immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine” (Ephesians 3:20, NIV), the same God who led the Israelites into a land “flowing with milk and honey” (Exodus 3:8) and pours oil over the psalmist’s head until his cup overflows (Psalm 23:5).
In a world rapidly running out of arable land, fossil fuels, and healthy soil and water, how do we rightly interpret a theology of abundance?
TUESDAY, MARCH 21, is the day for our big national action against the giant banks that are backing the fossil fuel industry.
Why March 21? Because it’s — if you think about it — 32123, simply too good a palindrome to pass up. It’s a countdown to the end of something (our economy’s blithe support for energy sources that scientists tell us we must now forego) and a count up to the real start of a possible transition.
We’ll be out in force across the country, picketing Citibank, Chase, Bank of America, and Wells Fargo branches: Those four giants lead the world in lending to Big Oil. Their offices look like benign tenants of strip malls across America, but in truth each should have a giant smokestack coming out the top, to remind us just how much carbon they produce. (If you have $125,000 in one of these institutions, which lends it out to build pipelines and frack wells, then that money is producing more carbon in a year than all the heating, flying, driving, cooling, and cooking of an average American.)
THREE YEARS AGO, I joined a struggle for what I view as the most transformational justice reform today: change to the U.S. Constitution. The change I advocate is at once unbelievably simple and profoundly radical: for Americans to agree that all citizens enjoy equal rights under law, whatever their gender or sexual orientation. It’s time to recognize the Equal Rights Amendment. Equality is central to most contemporary theories of justice. A majority of Americans puzzle why our nation has failed to live up to the promise of equality in our democracy. So why aren’t women protected equally?
“The ERA is dead,” opponents argue, laid to rest by an arbitrary time limit that was negotiated into the prelude of the bill Congress passed in 1972. A procedural objection seems a weak theory to lead with, in response to the unrequited aspirations of half the citizenry for basic human rights. Whatever the amendment’s merits, many claim, it cannot be revived. And yet miraculously, it has been. And women everywhere are testifying to this resurrection.
This is fitting, isn’t it? It was women, after all, who first testified to the resurrection. This Easter, we read how Mary Magdalene and the other Mary meet an angel at Jesus’ tomb, who commissions them to tell the disciples he is risen. The guards are too terrified to move, but the women rush to fulfill their divine calling (see Matthew 28).
IF MARY AND JOSEPH were living in Missouri today and had to make their own shelter after the innkeepers turned them away, Jesus would be greeted by police officers instead of shepherds. Why? In January, Missouri initiated a new statewide law criminalizing homelessness. The law (and similar laws in several states) is based on template legislation from the Cicero Institute, a right-wing group that peddles legal schemes that limit effective solutions and strip support from people who can’t afford a place to live. If Moses and his tribe were wandering in Tennessee, a law that went into effect in July — supported by Cicero — allows for felony charges for pitching a tent on state-owned property.
Across the country, politicians are passing laws that penalize our neighbors who can’t afford a place to live and who must sleep, shelter, and conduct other life-sustaining activities in public. We have seen the results of those laws at the local level when city councils come up with ineffective — and plain bad — ideas to deal with homelessness. Now there is a well-funded, coordinated push to raise those bad ideas to the state level.
IT SEEMS PATENTLY obvious: We live in a world of limited resources. Because of that, humans simply cannot continue to relentlessly produce and consume more and more stuff and expect the planet to survive. The path of unchecked growth is, without doubt, not sustainable. And yet, mainstream economists and headline writers still seem stuck in the mantra that “growth” (by which they mean increases in misleading measures such as gross domestic product) is an unmitigated good — the alternatives being dire situations such as “stagflation” and recession, and thus to be avoided at all costs.
Prophets among us have challenged that view, and have been ostracized by “respectable” experts as a result. Pope Francis, for instance, in his 2020 book Let Us Dream, wrote that “in the wealthier parts of the world, the fixation with constant economic growth has become destabilizing, producing vast inequalities and putting the natural world out of balance.” Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, in her usual plain-spoken way, famously challenged world leaders on the subject: “We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!”
IN THIS ISSUE, ethicist Larry Rasmussen explains that human economic activity has transformed not only our relationship to the world, but the world itself — we are now in an era where “everything turns upon humanity,” as Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it in a different context. While this new “totalizing” reality of what people are doing to the planet has become virtually undeniable, the human tendency toward unceasing growth, as Jim Rice points out in his column, is still defended by economists, headline writers, and the rest of the “more is more” crowd.
MY SEMINARY PREACHING professor used to say that we should only tackle one of each week’s lectionary texts in our sermons, maybe — just maybe — tying in a second. Over the course of a career, a great preacher might have a couple of three-text sermons in her. But only a foolish preacher tries to preach all four. The problem with this month’s readings is that they contain a lot of four-text temptations. Their cumulative effect, though, tends toward incarnation: not just God enfleshed in Jesus, but God enfleshed in us all and, even, in all creation.
By the end of the month, Lazarus will be raised from the dead (John 11:1-45). He and his sisters, Mary and Martha, were among Jesus’ closest friends. So, it seems odd to me that when Jesus first hears the message that Lazarus is ill, he seems to shake it off (verses 3-4). I wonder if Jesus was surprised, then, when he learned that Lazarus had died (verse 32). I wonder if he was shaken, suddenly uncertain about his certainty. Later, Lazarus’ resurrection prefigures Christ’s own rising again in glory. But at this point in the story, we don’t yet know that life is coming. All we can see is death.
That’s the risk of incarnation; it’s the risk of not knowing. And that risk is why I find this story (and the arc that leads to it) so comforting. My comfort comes not just in knowing that Lazarus came back to life. More so, my comfort comes in knowing that, like us, Jesus — God in flesh — risks not quite knowing the way to and through the ending.
WITH THIS MONTH'S liturgical arc, we move from Epiphany to Lent: from a season of illumination to one of penitence. You’d think they would be reversed, though. You’d think it would be necessary to do the soul-searching first, to clean house before we get to invite God over for tea.
But the natural order of things always becomes topsy-turvy when God gets involved. God’s time “doubles back and loops around and ends up looking something like ... the name ‘Jeremy Bearimy’ in cursive English,” as Michael (Ted Danson) explains to Eleanor (Kristen Bell) in television’s The Good Place. The dot over Bearimy’s “i” represents Tuesdays, July, and “when nothing never occurs.”
Joking aside, this is the gift of the liturgical calendar: It lets us glimpse what it’s like to live in God’s time rather than our own. We don’t need to be worthy of an encounter with God before that encounter can happen because we constantly live in the kingdom space of already-not-yet. Revelation and repentance are like the proverbial chicken and egg: No one really knows which comes first, and it probably doesn’t matter in the end.
Divine time’s topsy-turvy nature is also why Christians are called to discern the difference between the “wisdom of this age” and God’s wisdom (1 Corinthians 2:6-7). What this month’s readings might call us to ponder, then, is not where human and Divine wisdoms diverge but, rather, where on Jeremy Bearimy’s curves they converge. Perhaps even on the dot of the “i.”
This morning it is minus six degrees.
The old woman at the corner with her bundles
says yes to a ride, but is, at first, unwilling
to say where. Then she does say and tells me
as a girl her grandmother kept three hundred chickens
which she tended every morning before school.
She says a Chinese man would come to separate
the roosters from the hens. Apparently they look alike.
In storybooks there’s no mistaking, but it seems
in real life, one must be outed by his crow.
WHEN I FINISHED reading Kendall Vanderslice’s By Bread Alone, I went into my kitchen and measured out flour, water, yeast, and salt. I kneaded the dough, let it rise and fall then rise again. Soon, three golden loaves were ready for me to bring to my pastor and his family. Bread connects us to each other and to Jesus. As Vanderslice details in her book, bread is central to the Christian story.
Vanderslice, who holds a master’s in gastronomy from Boston University and a master’s in theological studies from Duke Divinity School, is a professional baker and practical theologian. She seeks to create an eternal communion, much like the “taste of bread lingering on our tongues.”
NEARLY ALL OF us have encountered a person on the street who is unhoused and asking for help. Perhaps we have felt conflicted about how to respond: Should we give them cash? Should we offer to pay for a meal instead? Will the cash we give cause further harm through the purchase of alcohol or drugs? It can be difficult to know how to engage responsibly at the personal or the policy level with the growing problem of homelessness in the U.S.
Enter Kevin Nye’s illuminating book, Grace Can Lead Us Home: A Christian Call to End Homelessness. Nye offers a new lens through which to view homelessness and, more importantly, our neighbors experiencing homelessness. For him, this is not just another justice issue, but rather his calling: He has devoted much of his adult life to working with unhoused people in Los Angeles.
Grace Can Lead Us Home explains the macro-level causes of homelessness and contributing factors. And it reveals micro-level approaches to engaging with our unhoused neighbors in a way that centers our mutual need for connection and belonging. He discusses the lack of affordable housing that drives this crisis; the inadequate mental health support available to unhoused people; and the surprising truth about substance abuse and addiction affecting homeless populations.