The Hungry Spirit

Where Your Treasure Is...

Whenever I see a photograph by Sebastião Salgado, I'm reminded of St. Lawrence the Deacon.

The Brazilian photographer is renowned for allowing the gaze of the world's poor to indict and remind the world's wealthy. Third-century martyr St. Lawrence is remembered as an early church accountant. He distributed alms to the poor, but always valued the poor more than the money. Salgado started off as an economist conducting his "almsgiving" through the World Bank, but then took up his camera to create a public, religious narrative of poor people across the world.

I saw my first Salgado photograph hanging in the cramped Cambridge apartment of a friend who was studying to be a Lutheran pastor. The photo was a devastating black and white taken in 1983 as part of Salgado's Terra series on the Landless Workers Movement in Sertão da Ceara, Brazil. In it a man, covered in coal dust, holds his naked year-old child while both stare confidently into the camera. They are framed by a dilapidated doorway, their heads haloed by peeling paint. On the wall behind hangs an oversized poster of an Anglo Jesus gazing on the two with infinite love—and perhaps passivity. It's classic Salgado: cutthroat, compassionate, complex.

In the early '70s, Salgado left the World Bank and wandered through Latin America collecting images for his first book, Other Americas. Later, he worked for 15 months with Doctors Without Borders, photographing in the drought-stricken Sahel region of Africa. Next, in Workers, Salgado followed the effect that the transition from large-scale manual labor to mechanization had on people and their communities. His Exodus project depicted the newly developed migratory class of displaced persons and refugees. Salgado traces the human face, the imago dei, against the background of time, livelihood, and continents.

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Sojourners Magazine August 2007
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Discerning the Spirit of Iraq

How are we, as American Christians, to discern the spirit of the Iraq war present in our churches? When the drumbeat of war started up, our ambiguity about where our true loyalty lay became obvious. American hegemony holds the world captive, while always promising freedom and new life, and it also holds our churches captive. Are we Americans first or is our "citizenship in heaven" (Philippians 3:20)? Is our loyalty to our president and nation first or to the cross of Jesus (Luke 14:27)?

"The discernment of spirits," wrote William Stringfellow in An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land, "refers to the talent to recognize the Word of God in this world in principalities and persons ... transcending the moral reality of death permeating everything."

Most professed Christians in America were insufficiently prepared to distinguish loyalties. Pastors and church leaders had not discipled them in the distinctions between America and the body of Christ, had not taught them the biblical narrative of empire. To the percussive swell, we let our children "go save the world" by joining the Army, the Air Force, National Guard, and Marines. Maybe we were wistful, maybe proud. Mostly we just prayed they'd be safe. But did we tell them that it's not what Jesus would do?

Now our children are coming home from the front lines of the "war on terrorism" in Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantanamo Bay, Pakistan, Israel, Kyrgyzstan, Qatar, Uzbekistan, Ethiopia, and 728 other known U.S. military bases—and they have questions.

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Sojourners Magazine June 2007
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Bewildered Am I

Every once in a while, one becomes profoundly and spiritually bewildered. In the midst of shaping the sandcastle of your life—adding little rooms and windows with a variety of views—you suddenly scoop a little too deep, and brittle-cold sea water rushes in. It covers everything. It dulls all of your neat shovel-cut edges. Glancing up from the quotidian architecture of your life, you confront the awful expanse of the sea: its green water, its endless horizon.

Bewildered. To be led astray, to become lost in pathless places, to be confounded for want of a plain road, says the Oxford English Dictionary. To return to a wild place, become feral, uncultivated, undomesticated. To enter a desert. Not controlled by an outside force. One whose neck is not bowed under a restraint. Bewildered.

Bewilderment is not momentary confusion or uncertainty. It is to become fundamentally displaced. Trauma may bring it on—illness or the death of a parent, companion, or child. Prolonged spiritual practice may bring it on. Accumulated, unattended sorrow may bring it on.

In many religious mystical traditions, bewilderment is seen as a stage of spiritual development. Thomas Merton, Trappist monk and mystic, described one aspect of the experience in this way to his novices: "We get into total bewilderment, we lose our own hearts. They say we are no longer able to get in contact with the best of our own being." All that we thought we knew about ourselves—even all the good things we are and do—vanishes.

Sufi teacher Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan writes in his book In Search of Hidden Treasure, "We came whirling out of nothingness scattering stars like dust. The stars made a circle and in the middle we dance. Turning, and turning it sunders all attachment. Every atom turns bewildered—and it is only God circling [her]self."

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Sojourners Magazine April 2007
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What the Heck is 'Social Justice'?

2007 is a Sabbath Year. Every seventh year, according to biblical tradition, the people of God are invited to observe a “Year of Remission” (Shmita, in Hebrew). It is a year in which land and crops and domesticated animals rest, when creditors refrain from collecting debts, and when the Law of the Lord is read in the hearing of all (marking the completion of the Torah liturgical cycle).

These ancient biblical customs and covenants form the foundation for the Christian concept of social justice. In Christian tradition, particularly Catholic teaching, social justice and social charity form the horizontal axis, and individual justice and individual charity form the vertical axis. All four elements work in harmony for individuals and communities to live out the commandment: Love God and love your neighbor as yourself.

Justice is the moral code that guides a fair and equitable society. When an individual acts on behalf of justice, he or she stands up for what is right. Charity is a basic sense of generosity and goodwill toward others, especially the suffering. Individual charity is when one responds to the more immediate needs of others—volunteering in a women’s shelter, for example.

The goal of social charity and social justice is furthering the common good. Social charity addresses the effects of social sin, while social justice addresses the causes of such sins. Brazilian Catholic Archbishop Hélder Câmara famously said, “When I feed the poor, they call me a saint; when I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.” His phrase indicates the societal pressure to separate charity and justice. The two can not be separated. It would be like taking the heart out of a body—neither would live for long.

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Sojourners Magazine February 2007
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The Demon Drink

I confess that I did a double take. At 65 mph I sidled up to a loaded semi sporting the heavy red and regal gold logo of Budweiser. What surprised me was that the truck was “autowrapped” from headlight to taillight in the three-color desert camouflage pattern of light tan, pale green, and brown. The “King of Beers” was tricked out in battle dress.

It’s not unusual to see overt military presence around my home in Washington, D.C. Anymore, I hardly notice the anti-aircraft missiles mounted on Humvees around the Pentagon and Capitol or the invasion of discreet security cameras and recording devices at strategic downtown intersections or the new Army recruiting office that sprouted up in a previously abandoned storefront on Georgia Avenue. When I see, though, the dozens of men and women with new prosthetic limbs walking the grounds of Walter Reed Army hospital, I still run cold with shame, and pity, and anger at myself—and all of us—for letting this war happen, for letting it go on.

But it was the desert drab Bud truck that snapped me “awake” (as in 1 Thessalonians 5:6). No doubt the design was part of Anheuser-Busch’s “Here’s to the Heroes” campaign to support the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the “For all you do, this Bud’s for you” feel-good attitude is just too much at odds with what we know about Iraq—more than 2,800 American soldiers killed; more than a quarter million Iraqi civilians killed, including as many as 54,000 children; the pornography of torture at Bagram and Abu Ghraib; the rise in soldier divorces and suicides. Will this be accompanied by the pay-per-view execution of Saddam Hussein—hanged by the neck until dead? All I could think was that America has become what, in 17th-century France, was called “a theater of devils” or “a theater of the possessed.” I was haunted by the King of Beers.

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Sojourners Magazine January 2007
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The Habit of Advent

"Advent is the beginning of the end of all in us that is not yet Christ," wrote Trappist monk Thomas Merton. It is the time Christians set aside for spiritual preparation for the birth of Christ celebrated at Christmas. Even as Christmas has become more secular, the Advent season still brings joy and the observance of ancient customs. Christian families find quiet moments lighting candles in the Advent wreath; children use Advent calendars to count the days until Christmas arrives.

Advent is also a pilgrimage. A time of sacred travel. It is a way that we answer what Goethe called "the holy longing." During Advent we will leave the place of our birth to journey to the birthplace of another. It is an invitation to be born again.

"There is great virtue in practicing patience in small things," wrote the 20th- century English mystic and artist Caryll Houselander, "until the habit of Advent returns to us." The disciplines of Advent are ones that teach us to do small things greatly, to do few things but do them well, to love in particular, rather than in general. This habit of small "successes" generates creativity, a sense of well-being, a generosity of spirit rooted in satisfaction. It generates hope.

Christians engaged in social transformation often get discouraged. We are acutely aware of the evils of the world. At times we despair or allow our anger at injustice to be the source of energy in our lives. Sometimes we actually create despair and depression in our lives when we only fight losing battles. It is mandatory that we yoke ourselves to disciplines that generate hope.

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Sojourners Magazine December 2006
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Thou shalt not

The season of Pentecost, according to many liturgical traditions, stretches from Pentecost Sunday—50 days after Easter—all the way to the Feast of Christ the King, which marks the end of the church year. Christians generally regard Pentecost as the birth of the church, marked by the descent of the Holy Spirit that emboldened the hiding disciples to go public with their faith.

In some Jewish traditions, however, the celebration—known as Shavuot—is associated with the covenants God made with Noah post-Flood (Genesis 8-9), Abraham and the Israelites regarding a new homeland (Genesis 15), Moses on Mt. Sinai (Exodus 19-24), and David concerning his kingship (2 Samuel 7). It’s also called the “Feast of Oaths.”

As a child in Catholic schools, I prepared for a “good confession” by performing what was called an “examination of conscience.” This primarily consisted of reviewing the Ten Commandments (as summarized in Exodus 20) and keeping a tally of how many I’d broken since my last confession. As a third- grader the sins outlined in the commandments were very exotic—adultery, murder, and of course “coveting your neighbor’s ass.” (I wasn’t sure what it meant, but it was fun to say.) My primary “sin” as a third-grader was a high recidivism rate when it came to failing to honor my father and mother. Despite the rocky start, the regular practice of an examination of conscience stayed with me, deepening and becoming more serious as an adult.

ONE PRACTICE I developed over the years is to write my own “examen,” as the Jesuits call it. I root it in the Ten Commandments, but it’s tailored to hold me more accountable to my peculiar tendencies to stray.

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Sojourners Magazine August 2006
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The Art of Savoring

I’ve had the joy of visiting a small Christian community in California where—amidst the hustle and flow of daily life—everything stops 10 minutes short of sunset. Gathering in the small yard between houses, with celebratory drinks in hand, all faces turn west toward the coastal foothills to savor the setting sun.

Depending on the season, the sky may ignite in Pentecost reds and oranges above the resurrection gold of the chaparral or it may swirl in Advent blues, royal purples, and joyous pinks over hills wrapped in verdant winter green. The ceremony may last only a few minutes or may inaugurate supper, conversation, and a bonfire. Either way, it exemplifies the art of savoring.

“Savor” comes from the Latin word to taste or the ability to detect differences. It is a quality that appeals to the senses; something that is savory is flavorful. Etymologically, savor is related to sapientia or wisdom—sensible, judicious, the ability to discern fine distinction. It harkens to the poetry of Sappho. (“Here roses leave shadows on the ground/ and cold springs bubble through the apple branches.”)

Savoring is antithetical to the consumerist myth, which claims that individuals will be satisfied and successful through buying, owning, and consuming, in quick succession. The art of savoring is strategically discouraged in a capitalist market economy in which labor and land, humans and nature (and the enjoyment thereof) are subordinate to the hungers of the prevailing economic system.

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Sojourners Magazine July 2006
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Happy 100th to the Holy Rollers!

April marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of pentecostalism in a poor black neighborhood in East Los Angeles. Many pentecostals and charismatic Christians trace their spiritual heritage to this Azusa Street revival—when the Holy Spirit was made manifest through ecstatic worship, getting happy, healings, the “suspension in holy silence,” and particularly speaking in tongues. Today, there are more than 600 million pentecostals worldwide. In the United States, pentecostals constitute almost 3 percent of the population, and the numbers are rising.

Historically, Spirit-led religious movements have often sprung up among the marginalized and displaced. For example, a turn-of-the-century Welsh revival flourished in the era following rebellions against British road tolls and enclosure laws. The sanctified tent-meetings in Texas gained force after the awful hurricane that decimated Galveston in 1900. The African-American leadership in the holiness movement was forged in the fire of slavery. Lucy Fallow, a leader of the Texas revivals and later at the Azusa Street Mission, was the niece of Frederick Douglass and one of the first pentecostal missionaries to reach Africa.

The Holy Spirit uprising on Azusa Street was forged in a similar crucible. Chinese workers were rioting over an American trade expansion that weakened the Chinese dynasty and were boycotting American goods in reaction to the Chinese Exclusion Act. Filipino workers in California were siding with their compatriots in the Philippines who were attempting to overthrow American rule. African Americans were filling Los Angeles to escape the lynchings and other violence of the Jim Crow South. And the first major California water war was heating up.

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Sojourners Magazine June 2006
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The Great Silence

Europeans were muting their cell phones and pocketing their iPod earbuds in fall 2005 to sit in Zen-ish quiet for the premier of Philip Gröning’s three-hour documentary Into Great Silence. With almost no dialogue, Silence reveals the life of monks in the Grande Chartreuse monastery hidden in the French Alps, where they have kept their Carthusian monastic rule since 1084 when they were founded by St. Bruno.

Gröning spent several months living in the monastery. The film has no soundtrack—only footsteps, echoes, and Gregorian chants. There are no voice-overs or commentaries. One monk murmurs to a cat. One monk—blind and deaf—speaks briefly about his joy. There is the sound of icicles melting and the rumble of fire in a wood stove.

For almost a thousand years, the Carthusian monastics at Grande Chartreuse have searched for God in solitude, practicing “the habit of the tranquil listening of the heart, which allows God to enter by all path and access,” as it is written in the Statutes. Their lives are an experiment with God’s declaration in Isaiah: “Listen to me in silence” (41:1) and with Jesus, who “rose long before daybreak and went out alone into the wilderness to pray” (Mark 1:35). They order their lives around radical availability to the present moment, like Samuel awake in the night listening for Eli’s call (1 Samuel 3).

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Sojourners Magazine March 2006
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