WHEN MARI STEED began searching for her birth mother in Ireland, she knew little about the system of secrecy and abuse that would lead her to co-found a social justice group to right its many wrongs. Born in 1960 in a convent-run “mother and baby” home in County Cork, Steed was one of more than 2,000 “banished babies” adopted from Ireland to the United States beginning in the 1940s. As an 18-month-old, she was taken to Philadelphia.
When Steed became pregnant as a teen, she was put in a Catholic-run home in Philadelphia and made to give up her child. In the mid-1990s, she decided it was time to find both the daughter who had been taken from her and the birth mother from whom she’d been taken. Her American family were “decent people,” Steed told me. “I don’t have any serious qualms with my upbringing. But I did begin to search for my mother to find out more about where I’d been.” She created a website to connect with other adopted people of Irish birth.
Eventually, Steed learned her mother, Josie, had given birth to her out of wedlock and had been born to an unwed mother herself. In Ireland, such circumstances put Josie on the full merry-go-round of church-and-state institutions before the age of 30: a county home, an industrial school, 10 years in a “Magdalene laundry,” and finally the mother and baby home. Steed, who lives in Virginia now, recalled she at first had no clue what all this information meant. “‘What are laundries?’ I didn’t even know what that was at the time.”
The answer led Steed down a rabbit hole of secrecy and obstruction. Originally founded in the 18th century as places of refuge for so-called “fallen women,” Magdalene laundries evolved into institutions where women and girls labored for no pay as penance for transgressing Catholic Ireland’s moral and class codes. In his book Ireland’s Magdalen Laundries and the Nation’s Architecture of Containment, Boston College professor James M. Smith described a system of interconnected institutions “including mother and baby homes, industrial and reformatory schools, mental asylums, adoption agencies, and Magdalen laundries.” (Ireland’s first such institution was called the Magdalen Asylum for Penitent Females, using an archaic spelling of Magdalene.)
“THE SPIRITUAL LIFE, in other words, is not achieved by denying one part of life for the sake of another. The spiritual life is achieved only by listening to all of life and learning to respond to each of its dimensions wholly and with integrity.”
In this quote from Wisdom Distilled From the Daily: Living the Rule of St. Benedict Today, Joan Chittister writes about living a spiritually active existence that fully engages with our daily reality. She couldn’t have known it at the time, but Chittister might as well have been describing one of the biggest pop culture trends of the last few years: the multiverse.
The concept of multiple worlds and multiple versions of ourselves (some of whom live the life we secretly wish we had) has become ubiquitous across screens, from movies like Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness and Spider-Man: No Way Home to TV shows like Rick and Morty and Doctor Who. Perhaps the example of multiverse storytelling to most successfully plumb emotional possibilities so far — listening to all of life and responding to its dimensions with integrity — is also one of 2022’s most surprising hits: the indie film Everything Everywhere All at Once.
A Comanche woman eschews gender norms to protect her tribe from fur trappers and alien warriors in the sci-fi horror film Prey. The movie honors Indigenous culture and offers a compelling, brutal picture of divine justice against colonial powers.
ONE DOESN'T NEED Margaret Atwood’s dystopian fiction to see the frightening potential of theocracy. In this issue, writer René Ostberg tells a chilling story of a malign collusion of church and state — in this case, the Irish Catholic Church and the newly formed Irish state of the 1920s. Together, the two institutions acted as morality police, imprisoning women and girls for the “crime” of becoming pregnant out of wedlock — as Ostberg puts it, “for transgressing Catholic Ireland’s moral and class codes.” More than 10,000 Irish women and girls were incarcerated in so-called Magdalene laundries run by Catholic religious orders with state funding, the last of which wasn’t closed until 1996.
INDIE-ROCKER MAGGIE Rogers says she feels her emotions in her teeth: Anger and love make her gums pulse and jaw tighten. Rogers’ second studio album, Surrender, is testament to what happens when we unclench our jaws and give our emotions room to breathe.
“This is the story of what happened when I finally gave in,” Rogers said in the trailer for Surrender. The result is a cohesive journey through the many questions that plague our grief-stricken culture. Offering both solace and space for unanswered questions, the album, released last summer, is an invitation to dance — to surrender to the coexistence of beauty and suffering in the world.
REVELATION IS AN intimidating book of the Bible to understand, let alone apply to everyday life. Dense with symbolic imagery and metaphors, it has been subject to innumerable interpretations and far-flung theories. But what are we to make of startling moments in the text, like when Jesus regurgitates a sword or John eats a scroll? In Upside-Down Apocalypse: Grounding Revelation in the Gospel of Peace, author Jeremy Duncan walks readers through Revelation by drawing parallels between the genres and figures of speech of John’s day and ours, lending clarity to how John’s apocalypse is deeply steeped in Jewish literary tradition and Roman culture. When we ignore this context, we miss the point of the final book of the New Testament: Revelation is not the wrathful reckoning of a conquering king; rather, as Duncan writes, it’s a testament to “how the Prince of Peace turns violence on its head once and for all.”
With each chapter, Duncan decenters “chrono-centric” approaches to Revelation, encouraging readers to avoid reading the text as “a story about me and my world and my time exclusively.” As the perfect, timeless witness of God, Jesus must be the guiding principle by which we understand all of scripture. Only then can we appreciate how God’s kingdom in Revelation contrasts with earthly kingdoms fueled by oppression. “[E]very time you awaken to how empire is trying to steal your imagination and make you believe in violence,” Duncan writes, “you have rightly interpreted Revelation regardless of the time period in which you awake.” Revelation asks us to watch for injustice, wherever and whenever it appears.
THE LEADING CAUSE of death for children in 2020 wasn’t COVID-19. It wasn’t cancer. And it wasn’t car crashes. Rather, more than 4,300 of our children in the United States died by firearms — the first time in at least 40 years that guns have accounted for more deaths than motor vehicle incidents.
The numbers are stark: More than 110 people in the U.S. are killed every day with guns, while more than 200 others are shot and wounded. “Gun violence in any form — any form — leaves a mark on the lives of those who are personally impacted,” Giselle Morch, a deacon and mother whose son, Jaycee, was shot and killed in their home, told Sojourners. “So many of us will never be the same.”
On July 19, 2017, Morch took her grandson to Vacation Bible School, where she played the role of the Lord in a skit from Judges about Gideon and the Midianites. “One of the lines was ‘For God and for Gideon,’” Morch said. “And when I got home, that’s when the battle was: That’s when my own son was murdered — my son who said, ‘I may not change the world, but I want to inspire many.’”
One thing about the senseless loss of Jaycee has always been clear to Morch: “This could have been prevented.” Shortly after he was killed, Morch began volunteering with Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America to advocate for cultural and legislative change. She has since joined Everytown for Gun Safety’s Survivor Fellowship Program to connect with others who have been impacted by gun violence. “There are others in this movement, because it’s not a moment,” Morch said. “A moment was when my son died; a movement is the call to action to make the change so that nobody else does.”
WHEN I STEPPED off our back porch that June morning, some kerfuffle of squawks, feathers, and paws stopped me. There was Tom, our all-gray feral cat, slinking about. Then I made out some red streaks above — cardinals. I noticed Tom had something in his mouth. I cringed. Legs? Wings? Tail? Head? It was a baby bird. Its parents were hot on Tom’s trail.
Some sense of moral — my husband would say unnecessary — responsibility got hold of me. In that moment, I decided I was not going to let the cat I had brought into this backyard eat that bird, no matter how many birds he’d already nabbed. I yelled and chased Tom. And after I shamed the cat into dropping his prey under the trampoline, my 8-year-old son, Oliver, rescued the fledgling.
I GOT TO spend a couple of days this autumn at the 25th annual Ignatian Family Teach-In for Justice — it was the first time I’d been there, and it cheered me immensely. Formed in the 1990s in response to the murder of Jesuit priests and lay leaders in El Salvador, it was originally held outside the School of the Americas at Fort Benning in Georgia, where the officer corps of often-repressive armies trained (including the Salvadoran military who murdered the Jesuits). Civil disobedience was often a feature of the Teach-In.
Now, it’s held in D.C., and mainly young people attend: a couple of thousand students at Jesuit high schools and colleges across the nation. This year’s participants were a diverse bunch, and extraordinary in the quality of their attention and engagement. I came away heartened, even amid the political chaos of the moment.
EARLY IN THE 2022 NFL season, I watched as the Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa suffered a second head injury in the span of five days. Although the NFL would not admit the first of those was a concussion, it was painfully clear that Tagovailoa suffered serious brain trauma.
In that moment, I felt the culmination of years’ worth of fretting over the sport I loved and its relationship to head injuries. I determined then and there on a Thursday night that I would quit the NFL. Why? The NFL is violent — and Christians are called to peace.
The league is unrepentant and unaccountable in its abuse of the brains and bodies of its players, and no amount of reform can change that. I am convicted that if I am to love my neighbors — if I am to love God — then I must resist the NFL.
RISHI SUNAK'S ASCENSION in October as British prime minister sparked celebration among some as he became the United Kingdom’s first nonwhite and non-Christian leader. Yet, this evolution comes with some awkwardness. The Church of England is an “established” church in which both monarchy and government play official roles. Sunak’s religious identity remains irrelevant for leading Parliament, but his status as a practicing Hindu would seem to impinge on his ability to discern which Anglican priests are best suited for leadership roles within the church hierarchy.
Raising this concern is not an argument that all prime ministers must be Christian — the U.K. rightly has no religious test for the role, as Sunak’s elevation demonstrates. But his ascension reveals a problem with not fully separating church and state. The Church of England now finds itself with a non-Christian in the ecclesial hierarchy. The roles of the monarch and prime minister in church affairs are in modern times more ceremonial than substantive, but Sunak reveals the problem with the entanglement both in principle and in practice.
ALMOST HALF OF Americans believe the United States should be a “Christian nation,” according to a survey this fall, and a significant percentage say that the Bible should have more sway than the will of the people in shaping U.S. laws when the two conflict. The opinions expressed in the October survey by the Pew Research Center break along party lines, with three-quarters of Republicans (and less than half of Democrats) saying the founders intended for the country to be a Christian nation, and 4 in 10 Republicans (compared to 16 percent of Democrats) believing that the Bible, rather than majority rule, should be the source of the nation’s laws. (A similar percentage of Republicans — 39 percent — surveyed by the American Enterprise Institute in 2021 said that political violence may be necessary to “protect America.”) This summer, Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene declared that “We need to be the party of nationalism, and I’m a Christian, and I say it proudly, we should be Christian nationalists.”
While it may seem that a portion of one of the country’s two main parties has wandered off to never-never land, the survey doesn’t mean the country is heading toward theocracy—yet. Most of the respondents who say the U.S. should be a Christian nation, according to Pew, “are thinking of some definition of the term other than a government-imposed theocracy.” (A small minority, in the words of one respondent, view Christian nationalism as a way “to use the government to impose an extreme, fringe version of Christianity on everyone in the nation, regardless of others’ religious views. They are no different than al-Qaida or the Taliban.”)
DECEMBER IS A stressful time for fundraisers, as a significant percentage of most nonprofits’ annual revenue comes in during the holiday season. We made a mistake this month when we asked Beth, who does much of Sojourners’ online fundraising, to write a humor column for this issue. Instead of a humor column, she sent us the following, in an envelope with a return address of “a cave in the woods; do not look for me.” We hope she’s doing okay. — The Editors
Dear Potential Supporter,
Now more than ever. This holiday season. In this moment, this urgent time, the most crucial of moments that all of us are in, right now. (Yes, you too.) Now — today — more than ever — Sojourners needs your year-end donation.
Did you know that the average American hears the phrase “now more than ever” 500 times a day? Did you know that all other organizations who use the phrase “now more than ever” are copying us, and we used it first? (Did you know that I, a fundraising professional hiding inside a cave, am both deeply normal and a trustworthy source of information?)
A FEW YEARS ago, I set out to knit a baby blanket as an Advent prayer practice. Knitting is incredibly meditative and allows me to pray with focus and clarity. Knitting a baby blanket seems appropriate as the church awaits the arrival of the “newborn king.” I wish I could say I finished the blanket in time for Christmas. I did not. However, even that seems appropriate, as so much remains unresolved for Jesus’ community at his birth. Their political occupation continued, and even Jesus’ birth story reflects the impositions placed upon his family by the Roman Empire. God’s inbreaking happens under serious duress — but it happens nonetheless.
My favorite lines from the poem “Christmas is Waiting to be Born” by Howard Thurman are: “Where fear companions each day’s life, / And Perfect Love seems long delayed. / CHRISTMAS IS WAITING TO BE BORN: / In you, in me, in all [hu]mankind.”
Thurman reminds us that God was born into our sorrow and among those who are brokenhearted and struggling. That truth is so important to hold on to as we process years of our own collective trauma. No matter how unresolved things are, Christmas is born in us, too! In December we continue our journey through Advent and arrive at Christmas. We might not have received what we’re waiting for by that time, and very little may make sense. Yet, because of who God is, we open our hearts to the improbable, trusting that we won’t be put to shame.
WHAT IS A devout village to believe in during a time of famine and plague? Ottessa Moshfegh presents a story devoid of hope and redemption in her latest novel Lapvona, proving that in dire times, believing is not a want but a need.
Moshfegh has a flare for brutality (Eileen and Death in Her Hands). With Lapvona, Moshfegh has crafted a medieval fantasy in the vein of Game of Thrones. It reads like a fairy-tale epic for adults, with its cast of fringe characters and fable-esque sequence of events. But this fantasy is far more depraved: As religious as the villagers are, there is no redemption to be found in this village.
PRIMARILY SET IN 1930s Denver, Kali Fajardo-Anstine’s debut novel, Woman of Light, is a deeply immersive story about the survival and legacy of an Indigenous Chicano family. When a violent mob attacks him for having a relationship with a white woman, Diego Lopez flees the city, leaving his younger sister, Luz Lopez, with their aunt Maria Josie. But working as a laundress isn’t enough to keep a roof over their heads, so Luz gets a job as a typist for a local Greek lawyer. When a cop kills a Mexican factory worker, Luz’s boss David takes on the case, and Luz is exposed to the inner workings of an unjust system.
Epic in scope, the novel covers five generations. While we focus mainly on Luz and Diego’s timeline in the 1930s, we also get brief glimpses of the people who came before them. There is Desiderya Lopez, the Sleepy Prophet of Pardona Pueblo, who finds an abandoned newborn and raises him as her own. This child is Pidre Lopez, who later departs Pardona after Desiderya’s death. In the town of Animas, Pidre falls in love with the widow and sharpshooter Simodecea Salazar-Smith when he recruits her for his performing theater. Together, they run the vibrant business and raise their daughters Sara and Maria Josie until tragedy strikes with the arrival of white prospectors.
IN THE EIGHTH season of Call the Midwife, set in post-war east London, nuns and nurse midwives of Nonnatus House assist a woman with severe complications from a “backstreet” abortion. Sister Julienne says to a young nurse, “The word ‘midwife’ means ‘with-woman.’ A woman in that situation needs somebody by her side.”
I’m pro-choice, which was an unpopular stance in the Catholic community I grew up in. For my views on reproductive rights, people in youth group called me a “baby killer” and “Pontius Pilate.” During Advent, specifically, I loathed the hollow teachings on Mary and childbirth. We sanitized the Nativity into a cute story — the equivalent of a Disney movie featuring a white family and a manger crowded with men. Only recently did I learn that some scholars believe that midwives attended Jesus’ birth. As reproductive freedom and care are further undermined in the United States, this is an apt time to reclaim a more feminist view of the Nativity and rethink Advent as the season of the midwife.
Children of the Underground
After seeing the courts return many children to allegedly abusive fathers, Faye Yager created an underground network that hid hundreds of mothers and children. The five-part docuseries Children of the Underground shows the moral complexity of Yager’s vigilante justice. Hulu/FX
THE BEST WORD to describe The Good Wife (2009-2016) in comparison to its prestige TV peers may be generous. Its predecessors (The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men, Breaking Bad) in the TV golden age of the early 2000s set the expectation that serious dramas on the small screen have seasons of about 13 episodes each and air on platforms you must pay for (cable channels such as HBO and AMC, and now subscription streaming services like Netflix). In contrast, less-than-highbrow thrillers with a bit of humor, like the police procedural NCIS, pour out nearly double that amount of content per season on free network TV.
But The Good Wife on CBS defied that expectation. Here was a network drama that was just as revelatory about humanity as the best of cable’s offerings while also being hilarious, accessible, and plentiful (seven seasons of no fewer than 22 episodes each). In a world where complex female TV protagonists are still too rare, revisiting The Good Wife is a holiday break well spent.