There are times when just being appalled by bigotry isn’t enough, when just opposing racist words is no longer adequate, or only being a critic of hateful and violent rhetoric is morally insufficient. There are times when must find the courage to speak and to act — and to intervene in situations of violence and hate on behalf of those who are being attacked.
This is one of those times.
If it is “leftist propaganda” to talk about the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the immigrant, to talk about justice and love for God and neighbor, to talk about humility and grace — in short, to talk about the gospel of Jesus Christ, then let us do it all the louder. Otherwise, we trade the truth for power. We trade our witness for the respect of the empire.
In the last several days, our country has witnessed and experienced, yet again, the effects of the unresolved issues of racism. We cannot rest complacent, convincing ourselves that everything is and will be all right on its own. That is a lie. The racial divide in the United States is boiling — we see the big cloud that rises over the roaring mountain. If we don’t act, the volcano will eventually explode. Our all-gracious God is calling us to turn from our wrong path.
Above other civic institutions, the church is responsible to do the work of healing. Our nation is desperately in need of healing. The sins of racism, classism, violence, and ideological intransigency are violently shaking and destroying the soul of our nation.
Where are the godly leaders in our country who are ready and willing to strip their souls of religious and ideological allegiances and surrender without fear, to seek the path that the Holy Spirit is eager to show us?
There is a way forward. We know that Jesus the Christ came to show us that way. We need to quit insisting that the way forward is my way. It is not my way — it is Christ’s way. No one Christian leader can claim to speak for God. Neither does God need any one of us to make the way clear — God can speak for God’s self.
There is one condition necessary for us to hear God’s voice: “If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.” (2 Chronicles 7:14.)
Someone once said that change happens by listening and then starting a dialogue with the people who are doing something you don't believe is right. There is no virtue in sticking to our allegiances. Our allegiances should not be to the right or the left or even the center. If we follow Jesus, our allegiances are to repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation. Our life and our only hope are found in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Thomas Merton wrote, “You do not need to know precisely what is happening, or exactly where it is all going. What you need is to recognize the possibilities and challenges offered by the present moment, and to embrace them with courage, faith, and hope.”
The truth is that we do know what is happening, and we know what is going on. Our individual and collective sins are robbing us of our dignity. We, the Christian leaders of this country, can choose to wage war with the weapons of our ideological, denominational, and theological perspectives and convictions. Or we can choose to “recognize the possibilities and challenges offered by the present moment, and to embrace them with courage, faith, and hope.”
Lately, a particular quote has been wending its way around Facebook, popping up in the feeds of the most disparate names on my friends list. It appears written in feminine cursive script or blocky varsity letters or etched under a photo of leaping flames: “May the bridges I burn light the way.”
The words seem significant on Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, when ministers mark a believer’s forehead with a sign of the cross — two simple finger strokes drawn as a reminder of the impermanence of this world and our own mortality. The imposition of ashes is often accompanied by words from Genesis 3:19: Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
Lent is the season of reflection, reevaluation, reconciliation, and — here’s a hundred dollar Christian word — repentance. For many, the word “repent” calls to mind a red-faced TV preacher banging a hammy fist on the podium, or a guy in a sandwich board, standing on a corner yelling through a bullhorn about the fires of hell and the threat of damnation. YOU MUST REPENT!
But repent means, in the most literal sense, to turn in a different direction. It is less about avoiding being struck down by God than embarking on our own particular course-correction.
We must engage in courageous conversations. We need to have them in and amongst our own people—our families and our children, our close friends and allies, and in our racial/ethnic groups. A caucus can be an important thing. Make space for the asking of deep questions and the sharing of even awkward sentiments. Why is this happening? What does it mean? How does it affect my soul? Aren’t we past race yet, and can I do anything about this? How does my faith in God relate to these issues? How can I be a healer?
And we must have these conversations across what might seem to be natural divides. We need to have cross-racial/cross ethnic conversations. In order to do this, we must have relationships. We can’t liberate each other while we are in silos. Multiracial/multiethnic congregations like Middle Collegiate Church are critical to the work of racial reconciliation. If your church is diverse, think of ways to encourage deeper relationships. In our context, we have an ongoing small group called Erasing Racism, in which we are having critical conversations about race. If your context is mono-cultural, find a partner with whom to relate. Create a joint worship celebration or prayer vigil during Advent and have conversation as you break bread. Use questions like: When was the first time I was othered due to my personhood? When have I othered someone else? How can these experiences plant seeds for empathy? How did I learn the story of race and what can I do to change it?
Let me tell you about the time I got re-directed by a Pepsi can.
It happened a few years ago. I’d started rethinking a lot of things about my life — what I wanted to accomplish with it, how God played into all of it — and decided to write my thoughts as I went along.
Eventually I got the idea that I could package my writing into a book that might help others who are going through the same things. Writers fantasize about some day having a best-seller; maybe this would be mine. I wrote and wrote and wrote and stepped back one day and read all of it and realized something.
It was awful.
I’m not so good at this type of writing. Expressing thoughts and feelings is a lot harder than reporting on events. Words are so inadequate. It’s so easy to cross the line between being helpful and being insufferable. At times, I sounded like a pompous ass.
So, what to do?
I went back and rewrote. And rewrote again. I decided to try to make it breezier and more conversational — that’ll do the trick. I read it again and realized that I now sounded like a breezy, pompous ass.
It’s called writer’s block, and it felt like a dead end. Maybe I should wait a few years and try again then. Hit define and delete, give up the struggle and move on. That seemed like the best thing to do. Stop trying to create for now.
I went jogging to mull it over.
It was a beautiful autumn evening with a wonderful, warm breeze out of the south. I’d just finished my jog and was walking around the block to cool down, enjoying the wind on my sweaty face, when a sound got my attention.
Our fearless driver, Jacque, is a security guard. He speaks with an eloquent French accent. His words are few, but every now and then he’ll tell us a pertinent and profound fact as we drive. The tone of his voice perfectly narrates our scenic drive — whether we’re driving along the backroads of Rwanda’s hills, cruising peacefully through Kigali, or chasing elephants.
His story comes out in pieces:
When the genocide hit in 1994, Jacque was in high school studying in Kibeho, a beautiful village known for apparitions of the virgin Mary. He fled for another town to find safety with his family. The first time he’s been back to Kibeho was 20 years later, with us.
His son is now in high school at a boarding school. On our way from Kibeho, we stopped to say hello so that Jacque could give him money. Jacque was beaming with pride when he introduced us to his son.
Jacque also has a 3-year-old daughter — she’s the cutest thing.
When we visited Kigali’s Genocide memorial, Jacque stayed in the car. We found out later that the bodies of his wife’s parents are buried in the mass graves there.
His wife barely escaped death herself. When she was just 9 years old, her village was raided by the interahamwe who savagely hacked apart bodies, her parents’ included. As the genociders were merely Hutu youth who knew little about taking one’s life, victims were left beaten, mutilated, bleeding profusely — left to die. Thinking they had finished the job, the interahamwe threw all of the “dead” Tutsi bodies into a pile and moved on to the next village. She was one of the bodies — broken, but not dead. She was just a little girl — her body thrown into darkness among hundreds of other broken, bloody, and hacked-apart bodies.
When the interahamwe left, her classmate, neighbor, and friend, a Hutu, went back. She couldn’t bear the thought of losing any more of her friends to the blood-stained hands of her tribe members. She went back to dig through the piles of bodies — desperately searching for any semblance of life from the friends she held most dear. There, she found her dear friend, still grasping for breath, clinging to life, refusing to be consumed. In that moment, I can only imagine the overwhelming relief as the pendulum swung from sorrow to joy as they looked into each other’s eyes and identified with each other — literally finding life in death and hope in the midst of pain. Jacque’s wife survived only by the hopeful expectancy of a friend who intentionally went back into the destruction to pull out the life within.
[Editor's note: This article first appeared in our December 2013 issue to commemorate the one year anniversary of the Sandy Hook shooting.]
IN THE YEAR since the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., last Dec. 14, thousands more have died by gun violence, and the NRA seems to stymie sane firearm measures at every turn. How do we stave off despair, hold on to hope, and keep moving forward when the odds feel overwhelming? —The Editors
Bigger Than Politics
What do we say to those who are weary?
by Brian Doyle
WHAT WOULD I SAY to those who are weary of assault rifles mowing down children of all ages, every few months, for as long as we can remember now? Oregon Colorado Wisconsin Pennsylvania Connecticut Texas Massachusetts Minnesota Virginia do I need to go on? I would say that this is bigger than politics. I would say this is about money. I would say Isn’t it interesting that we are the biggest weapons exporter on the planet? I would say that we lie when we say children are the most important things in our society. I would say that the next time a tall oily smarmy confident beautifully suited beautifully coiffed glowing candidate for office says the words family values, someone tosses an assault rifle on the stage with a small note attached to it that reads Is this more important than a kindergarten kid?
We all are Dawn and Mary in our hearts and why we wait until hell and horror are in front of us to unleash our glorious wild defiant courage is a mystery to me.
I would also say, quietly, that this is bigger than rage and anger and snarling at idiots who pretend to hide behind the Constitution. I would say this is also about poor twisted lonely lost bent young men no one paid attention to, no one really cared about. And I would say that people like Dawn Hochsprung and Mary Scherlach, who ran right at the bent twisted kid with the rifle in Newtown, are the flash of hope and genius here. Those are the people I will celebrate on Dec. 14. There are a lot of people like Dawn Hochsprung and Mary Scherlach, may they rest in peace. We all are Dawn and Mary in our hearts and why we wait until hell and horror are in front of us to unleash our glorious wild defiant courage is a mystery to me. But it’s there. And there are a lot of days when I think the whole essence of Christianity, the actual real no kidding reason the skinny Jewish man sparked the most stunning possible revolution in history, is to gently insistently relentlessly edge us away from our savagely violent past into a future where Dawn and Mary are who we are, and you visit guns in museums, and war is a joke, and defiant peace is what we say to each other all blessed day long.
Brian Doyle is the editor of Portland Magazine at the University of Portland (Oregon) and the author most recently of The Thorny Grace of It, a collection of spiritual essays.
An Insanity of Rationality
This spiritual disease thrives on violence and calls it good.
by Joan Chittister, OSB
THERE IS A MADNESS abroad in the land, hiding behind the Constitution, brazenly ignoring the suffering of many who, over the years, have died in its defense, and operating under the banner of rationality. It’s a rare form of spiritual disease that thrives on violence and calls it good.
They want a proper response to violence, they tell us, and, most interesting of all, they insist that only violence can control violence. If “the good guys” have guns, this argument goes, “the bad guys” won’t be able to do any harm.
The hope? The hope lies only in those who refuse to feed this addiction to violence.
This particular insanity of rationality argues that violence is an antidote to violence. Then why do we find scant proof of that anywhere? Why, for instance, hasn’t it worked in Syria, we might ask. And where was the good of it in Iraq, the land of our own misadventures, where the weapons of mass destruction we went to disarm did not even exist and the people who died in the crossfire of that insanity had not harbored bin Laden. So how much peace through violencehave all the good guys on all sides really achieved?
The insanity of rationality says it is only reasonable to arm a population to defend itself against itself. And so, day after day, the level of violence rises around us as hunting rifles and small pistols turn into larger and larger weapons of our private little wars.
Clearly this particular piece of childish logic has yet to quell the gang violence in Chicago. It didn’t even work on an army base in Texas where, we must assume, the place was loaded with legal weapons.
What’s more, it does nothing to save the lives of the good guy’s children, who pick up the good guy’s guns at the age of 2 and 3 and 4 years old and turn them on the good guy fathers who own them.
So the mayhem only increases while white men in business suits insist that their civil rights have been impugned, their right to defend themselves has been taken from them, and more guns, larger guns, insanely damaging guns are the answer. Instead of hiring more police officers, they argue that arming students and teachers themselves, nonprofessionals, will do more to maintain calm and control the damage in situations specifically designed to cause chaos than waiting for security personnel would do.
It is that kind of creeping irrationality that threatens us all.
And in the end, it is a sad commentary on our society. We have now become the most violent country in the world while our industries collapse, our educational system declines, women are denied healthcare, our infrastructure is falling apart, and there’s more money to be made selling drugs in this country than in teaching school. No wonder gun pushers fear for their lives and sell the drug that promises the security it cannot possibly give while the country is becoming more desperate for peace and security by the day.
The hope? The hope lies only in those who refuse to feed this addiction to violence. These are they who remember again that we follow the one who said “Peter, put away your sword” when it was his own life that was at stake.
The hope is you and me. Or not.
Joan Chittister, OSB, a Sojourners contributing editor, is executive director of Benetvision, author of 47 books, and co-chair of the Global Peace Initiative of Women.
Sharing stories of my own mother and the ways she taught and encouraged me feels like the best way to honor her on Mother's Day. To this day when I am thinking of expressing an uncharitable thought I can hear her voice “If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything.”
Although this may sound like a cliché, it is a teaching that I am relearning once again in a class called “Wisdom of the Desert” and finding that my mother's sensibilities had many similarities to that of the early Christian Desert Fathers and Mothers. Gratitude and hospitality, two huge teachings of the desert monks, were also lessons I learned from my mother.
Jeremy Lin has been all the hype this week, but in case you’re still not familiar with him, or are still navigating the waters, we’ve rounded up some of the best coverage of Lin and his faith from the past week. But before diving in, you can read a bit of Lin’s background story and see how he compares to the popular Christian athlete Tim Tebow, in Sojourners’ assistant’s Joshua Witchger and James Colten’s article “The Lin-carnation of Tim Tebow?” And for a little exploration on crafting our own heroes, see God’s Politics contributor Christian Piatt’s “Jeremy Lin and Messiah Formula.”
To me, "unexpected" is at the heart of how I understand grace. It is the unearnable gift, the divine reversal and sacred surprise, the still small voice that drowns out the din of the maddening crowd, the little bit extra that my Cajun friends call lagniappe, the very thing we "deserve" the least but get anyway. From God. From the One who created the world and the audacious, indescribably power of love.
Taking a cue from Nell, here are just a few of the unexpected blessings I am grateful for today:
For God's fingerprints that cover every inch of our world, seen and unseen. And for the moments where I can almost make out the holy whirls imprinted in the sky, the ocean, the sunlight, and on the faces and stories of each of us.
For the generosity and selflessness I see so vividly — all around me, all the time — even in these lean, nervous days. I saw it in Zuccotti Park, where strangers prepared and served food to other strangers. I saw it in the sober faces and strong arms of the men who helped 84-year-old Dorli Rainey to safety after she was pepper-sprayed at an Occupy rally in Seattle. I heard it in the prayers lifted at the White House, at North Park University in Chicago, and in the basement of a church in Spanish Harlem where kind, mighty souls formed Human Circles of Protection last week and stood in solidarity with the poor, the vulnerable, and the least of those among us. I watched it on display at border crossings, immigration rallies, refugee camps in the Horn of Africa, and at a glass blower's studio in my hometown of Laguna Beach where strangers arrived with shovels and wheelbarrows to help dig out an artist and his artwork from the muddy ravages of a flash flood. I saw it in the fresh coat of paint on the front steps of my elderly parents' home in Connecticut that my cousins had applied for them with great care and kindness when my brother and I couldn't be there to do it.
Rainey is quite a woman. Reared in Nazi-era Germany, she is well known around her adopted city of Seattle for her years of social justice activism. According to the Post-Intelligencer, Rainey even ran for mayor briefly in 2009, and was on her way to attend a city transportation department meeting when, as she was changing buses, she heard a swarm of helicopters over head, figured there was an Occupy demonstration near by and went to investigate.
Whether you agree with the ideology of the Occupy movement or not, Rainey is an inspiration. In an interview last week with Keith Olbermann, the octogenarian activist said that she was energized by the pepper spraying incident and went on to give a shout out to the late Roman Catholic nun, Jackie Hudson (also a life-long peace activist who was arrested several times for protesting at nuclear arms sites), for inspiring her to keep fighting the good fight, even in the winter years of her life.
Rainey recalled Hudson's words of inspiration: "Whatever you do, take one more step out of your comfort zone."
In case you missed it...
In an OpEd titled, "What the Costumes Reveal," New York Times columnist Joe Nocera wrote about a Halloween office party thrown by the N.Y. law firm of Steven J. Baum, an outfit that specializes in real estate foreclosures -- a "foreclosure mill," if you will -- where, apparently, employees came costumed as homeless and foreclosed-upon families.