The Hungry Spirit

Tackling the Unspeakable

On Jan. 20, the United States of America inaugurates its first African-American president and first Catholic vice president. As a nation—and as an ideal—America has reached a watershed point, a kairos moment.

Barack Obama’s election symbolizes a resurgence of what some theologians call a “passion for the possible.” It’s essentially a spiritual experience—even if those to whom it’s happening don’t understand it in those terms. The church calls it “hope.”

However, genuine hope often incites a backlash. If we take seriously Paul’s description of the fallen “principalities and powers” (Ephesians 6), then palpable, prophetic, authentic hope will provoke a response from “the spiritual forces of wickedness,” evil, or “the Unspeakable,” as Trappist monk Thomas Merton phrased it.

In a groundbreaking 2008 book, JFK and the Unspeakable: Why He Died and Why It Matters, Catholic theologian and nonviolence leader Jim Douglass probes the role of the principalities and powers in the assassination of John Kennedy, the first Catholic president. JFK is the story of how President Kennedy nearly started a nuclear war, then turned toward peace with the enemy who almost started it with him—and why that turning got him murdered. It’s an old story of prophets, kings, and consequences.

Douglass’ years of meticulous scholarship, including fresh interviews and access to White House memos only released in the mid-1990s, prompted Gaeton Fonzi, former staff investigator for the U.S. House Select Committee on Assassinations, to write that JFK and the Unspeakable is “by far the most important book yet written on the subject.” Douglass tells the story that, until now, America has not had ears to hear.

Read the Full Article

Sojourners Magazine February 2009
​You've reached the end of our free magazine preview. For full digital access to Sojourners articles for as little as $2.95, please subscribe now. Your subscription allows us to pay authors fairly for their terrific work!
Subscribe Now!

Elections and Christ the King

The great wheel of the Christian liturgical year is turning once again.

In the Catholic tradition, we mark the end of the church year—and all the good and bad that occurred therein—by crowning Jesus Christ as King. We go all out on the Feast of Christ the King to name and proclaim that there are no temporal authorities—religious, political, economic, or otherwise—that own us. As Christians, we are owned by one alone—and that is Jesus the Lord.

On this day, we are also a triumphant people. This triumph is not human over human or even religious system over religious system. Instead it is the victory of truth over the dehumanizing illusions spun by powers and principalities of this world. In our Christian freedom, we tear off the masks of the death-dealers and expose their stratagems to the light.

In the liberty of this victory, we proclaim with Paul: “death hath no more dominion” (Romans 6:9)! Death, fear, and scarcity are the reins used by the little gods to control human lives. But as followers of Christ we stake a claim that “death hath no more dominion over us” either.

Secure in this truth, we are respectful of the little gods of the world—governments, economic systems, religious institutions—for the roles they play in the organization of human society at a particular moment in history. But we do not worship them; we do not offer sacrifices to them; we do not place them before the Lord our God.

I spend all this time pontificating on Christ the King because, in an election season, it is easy for us to get confused. It can be exhausting to separate the religious and political rhetoric that’s been flying all around us—somewhat unique to the American context—from deeper foundational truths.

Read the Full Article

Sojourners Magazine December 2008
​You've reached the end of our free magazine preview. For full digital access to Sojourners articles for as little as $2.95, please subscribe now. Your subscription allows us to pay authors fairly for their terrific work!
Subscribe Now!

The Busted-Up World Needs Us

In my mind, I am climbing above the tree line. The air is dry. I’m higher than the gnarled spines of the bristlecone. Above where the noisy jay birds chatter a blue streak. It’s hot here. The sun liquefies and soaks through the skin into the bones, making, it seems, the very marrow melt like wax.

Why am I here? I need to climb above the daily news, to somewhere I can breathe. In the valley below, I’m overwhelmed with anxiety, grief, and a curious disinterest in the news: 51,000 dead from an earthquake in China; 78,000 dead from a cyclone in Burma. A thief broke into a church-run food bank in Virginia and stole $1,000 worth of canned goods. (Apparently, there’s a demand for black-market canned goods.)

From the crest of this ridge, I see three bent mountain lakes, bluer than the jays. All they do—these lakes—is praise. With every twisted thread of blue woven through their luminous watery skin, they praise. The mountains that cup them are young—15 to 20 million years old. Perhaps the lakes are the alleluia of the mountains.

IF THE HILLS, STREAMS, and lakes can praise in this way, what is the utterance of the earthquake in China, the cyclone in Burma, the food thief in Virginia? If all are part of a hymn of praise that stretches from before Time to after Time, what is the prayer? Hebrew and Christian scriptures say when mortals veer too wide from the laws of the Creator—and there is no effective witness against them—“the very stones will cry out.”

If creation is the first grace, the first revelation of God’s goodness, as Catholics believe, can we read these natural disasters as the earth’s psalms of lament? And when, in a human society, the hungry steal from the hungry, who has sinned?

Read the Full Article

Sojourners Magazine August 2008
​You've reached the end of our free magazine preview. For full digital access to Sojourners articles for as little as $2.95, please subscribe now. Your subscription allows us to pay authors fairly for their terrific work!
Subscribe Now!

To Give or Not to Give?

It’s Sunday morning. I’m on my way home from church. The epistle reading from Acts 2 is still bumbling around in my head. At the Dunkin’ Donuts walk-up window, I line up for the “hot coffee plus two glazed” special.

Then a woman approaches. Her gray hair is unkempt. She has few teeth. Her clothes don’t fit. She asks: “Can I get money for a cup of coffee?”

It’s a dilemma as old as the “thou shalts” in Exodus, as direct as the declaration in Luke to “give to everyone who asks of you,” and as complex as the admonitions in 1 Timothy that the wealthy “be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share” (6:18). Here at the Dunkin’ Donuts window, I have an opportunity to reflect on salvation and the rights of the poor. How have Christians dealt with this moment in the past?

In classic Greek and Roman societies, “doing good” was a practice of the very wealthy. To much public acclaim, they gave in support of the arts. Their philanthropy had nothing to do with poverty, social need, or addressing economic disparity.

According to Poverty and Leadership in the Later Roman Empire, by Peter Brown, a great change occurred with the rise of Christianity. Suddenly, the poor were brought into “ever-sharper focus.” The church made visible what previously had been politically invisible.

It was not that poverty was something new in Rome. Instead, as church historian Roland Bainton puts it, “Christianity brought to social problems … a new scale of values.” Christians remembered that Jesus said when they fed the hungry and welcomed the stranger, they did these things for him. As a result, they valued the poor and cared for them as a necessary part of serving Christ. In fact, bishops were given a specific charge to be “lovers of the poor.”

Read the Full Article

Sojourners Magazine June 2008
​You've reached the end of our free magazine preview. For full digital access to Sojourners articles for as little as $2.95, please subscribe now. Your subscription allows us to pay authors fairly for their terrific work!
Subscribe Now!

A Peculiar Hope

Image via Johan Bergström-Allen / Archbishop Romero Trust

In 2005, on a spring trip to El Salvador, I wasn’t expecting to find Easter. It’s definitely a “Good Friday” kind of country, one that has carried the cross for a long time. However, on Easter morning I found myself heading up a gravel road into the mountains of Morazán near the Honduran border, to the site of the El Mozote massacre.

In December 1981, soldiers of the Salvadoran army’s elite, School of the Americas-trained Atlacatl Battalion surrounded the village of El Mozote and murdered more than 900 men, women, and children. “As far as is known,” wrote Alma Guillermoprieto, who broke the El Mozote story in The Washington Post, “this was the single largest massacre to take place in this hemisphere in modern times.”

As we drove past the Rio Sapo and into the village, a few children approached the car. They were eager to show us the memorials and take us to the pits where the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Unit had unearthed bodies and bone fragments with strips of cloth still attached. Especially they wanted to show us the plaque placed over the mass grave of 140 children and take us through the rose garden planted in their memory. There is also a rough curved stone wall, not too far from the church, on which the names of the dead are written. It’s watched over by the iron silhouette of a family.

There was nothing, I was convinced, of resurrection in this place. It was 100 percent Good Friday crucifixion, unmerited suffering brought on by the sins of the world. I was tempted to ignore the Sunday scripture readings while in that place and only focus on Christ’s passion. But something told me to trust a little more in Easter.

Read the Full Article

Sojourners Magazine April 2008
​You've reached the end of our free magazine preview. For full digital access to Sojourners articles for as little as $2.95, please subscribe now. Your subscription allows us to pay authors fairly for their terrific work!
Subscribe Now!

All's Quiet on the God Front

As a child, I was terrified of Good Friday and Holy Sat­urday. I dreaded those hours of “time out of time” that stretched between 3 p.m. on Friday when Jesus officially died on the cross and Jesus’ resurrection, with a clap of alleluias, on Easter morning. It was in those in-between hours that God was dead—and we were alone in the world.

Suddenly, there was no spiritual safety net. Chaos ruled the world and we were defenseless against it. The isolation was nearly unbearable. As an adult, I learned theological mind-tricks to protect me from this fear of God’s ultimate abandonment. But I confess, sometimes when I wake at 3 a.m., all I hear in the universe is emptiness.

Recently, a priest friend said that in all his 70-plus years of prayerful discernment, he’s rarely had a heavenly answer. “God’s mostly silent,” he said. I don’t think he meant absent per se; just not prone to conversation or helpful hints on the best next step. God is just very, very quiet.

This is a man who’s given his whole life—every moment—to God for more than 50 years. He’s done tremendous work among the poor. He’s made genuine sacrifices in his personal life. He prays every morning and every night (unless there’s a baseball game on). How come God doesn’t talk to him? Why is God silent?

Mother Teresa, in her diaries released last year, also writes about God’s silence—more particularly God’s absence. In a letter to her archbishop, Teresa begs, “Please pray especially for me that I may not spoil [Jesus’] work and that Our Lord may show Himself—for there is such a terrible darkness within me, as if everything was dead.” This great emptiness started when she began her ministry with the destitute and dying in Calcutta.

Read the Full Article

Sojourners Magazine March 2008
​You've reached the end of our free magazine preview. For full digital access to Sojourners articles for as little as $2.95, please subscribe now. Your subscription allows us to pay authors fairly for their terrific work!
Subscribe Now!

On Becoming a Christian

He’s not an official Catholic saint yet, but in October the Church beatified Nazi resister Franz Jagerstatter at the cathedral in Linz, Austria—thus taking the second of three steps toward official canonization or sainthood.

As writer and activist Jeanie Wylie said, “We smile to think of the saints of God in all times who have listened in the night and done whatever they could to show us the love of God.” In this liturgical season where we are steeped in images of Christ putting on our humanness and as we prepare for the slow cavalcade of Lent, I’m drawn to Jager­statter’s story, to what happened when he “listened in the night.”

Franz Jagerstatter, born in 1907, lived in St. Radegund, Austria, only a few miles from Hitler’s birthplace in Braunau. Jagerstatter’s parents were too poor for a marriage ceremony. At age 27 Franz considered entering a Catholic monastery as a lay brother, but was advised against it by his parish priest who thought Franz should take over the family farm and care for his mother.

In 1936, Franz married Franziska Schwaninger and, by all accounts, his life changed dramatically for the better. In reflecting on their marriage, Franziska recalled, “We helped one another go forward in faith.” Franz himself said, “I could never have imagined that being married could be so wonderful.”

In 1938, Nazi Germany “unified” Austria. The German-controlled Austrian Nazi Party held a rigged plebiscite to approve the unification. It passed with 99.73 percent support. The public humiliation and arrest of Jews began almost immediately. Hitler commented on the annexation of Austria, “Not as tyrants have we come, but as liberators.”

Read the Full Article

Sojourners Magazine February 2008
​You've reached the end of our free magazine preview. For full digital access to Sojourners articles for as little as $2.95, please subscribe now. Your subscription allows us to pay authors fairly for their terrific work!
Subscribe Now!

On Becoming a Christian

During Lent, we think about the saints who listened in the night.

Read the Full Article

Sojourners Magazine January 2008
​You've reached the end of our free magazine preview. For full digital access to Sojourners articles for as little as $2.95, please subscribe now. Your subscription allows us to pay authors fairly for their terrific work!
Subscribe Now!

Untimely Pregnant

For many years I wore a necklace with a holy medal that depicted “The Visitation” of Mary and Elizabeth (Luke 1:39-45). I bought the medal at the Church of the Visitation on a pilgrimage to Israel and Palestine in the mid-1980s. Tradition says the church is built on the site of Elizabeth and Zechariah’s home. A natural spring bubbles up in “Mary’s grotto” and brightly colored tiles, with a translation of the Magnificat in more than 40 languages, line the courtyard. The view of the Judean hills and valleys is magnificent. Sadly, the Palestinian population of the town largely has been displaced.

Sitting in the shade of that courtyard brought the story of Mary and Elizabeth alive in a way I’d never known before. It’s a story that has provoked me and encouraged me ever since.

Mary is a variant of Miriam. Miriam was one of the three primary leaders of the exodus, along with Aaron and her brother Moses. She was a prophet. Both Mary and Miriam’s names carry the echoes of the word “bitter” (see Ruth 1:20) for the bitterness that was pressed down on the people in the time of Pharaoh and in the time of the Roman occupation of Israel and destruction of the Temple. In some translations Mary or Maryam’s name is “sea of bitterness.”

The story of Maryam, in Luke’s narrative, mirrors the crisis that caused Moses to flee Egypt. In Exodus 2:12, Moses murders an Egyptian soldier. It’s premeditated, and it’s an act of treason against Pharaoh. He “flees” (2:15) from his death sentence to the land of Midian.

Read the Full Article

Sojourners Magazine January 2008
​You've reached the end of our free magazine preview. For full digital access to Sojourners articles for as little as $2.95, please subscribe now. Your subscription allows us to pay authors fairly for their terrific work!
Subscribe Now!

'To Live Is to Praise'

Now we are in the season of storms. Supercells tower above the urban architecture. They vault and layer, striate and swirl. Below, neighbors cuddle beneath Speedy Liquor's faded green awning, laughing. Others stand silently in the clear box of the bus stop shelter studying the sky. From my second floor office window, I see both the upper and lower worlds.

I've always been excited by storms. In California's central valley where I grew up, thunderstorms were rare. Instead, we got the slow, steady, soaking rains that performed a reverse alchemy by turning our golden hills to fertile green.

I learned about real storms in south Arkansas, where I spent many summers. I learned to watch for the perilous violet-jade clouds with v-shaped mammatus; how to lie in a ditch if I saw a funnel cloud; how to barricade myself in the interior bathroom in the event of a full-on lightning storm, hurricane, or tornado.

One night in the summer of 1985, I found myself stretched out in a beat-up rowboat tied to a dilapidated pier on the Sea of Galilee. Just past midnight the stars began to disappear and I was caught in a full-fledged squall. Lightning shot directly to the ground. The storm's outburst turned the lake surface into liquid insurrection. Its speed and ferocity are something I will never forget.

I love the truth of lightning. I love the beauty of rain clouds and thunder. I love how their nearness makes my heart pound. Leben ist loben, say the Germans; to live is to praise.

Read the Full Article

Sojourners Magazine September/October 2007
​You've reached the end of our free magazine preview. For full digital access to Sojourners articles for as little as $2.95, please subscribe now. Your subscription allows us to pay authors fairly for their terrific work!
Subscribe Now!

Pages

Subscribe