denial

Holding On and Letting Go

I WAS PRESENT when my uncle died. I didn’t plan to be, but once I understood his end was near it felt right. I had been the flower girl at my aunt and uncle’s wedding, the ritualized beginning of their life together, so witnessing this milestone event of my uncle’s death seemed appropriate. And I wanted to support my aunt, I told myself.

My aunt is my father’s youngest sister. They are the last living siblings from nine brothers and sisters; both their parents are also long gone. My aunt wears this fact like a veil. Sometimes it’s barely noticeable; sometimes it’s the only thing she sees. While my parents’ divorce had kept me apart from my aunt for much of my life, it seemed important, the fury of those old family dramas now covered with dust, to offer my aunt support in her husband’s last days, hours, then moments. She was hardly alone. My aunt has three grown daughters, and my uncle comes from a huge family, most of whom were packed into the hospital room where he died at 2:20 p.m. on Sept. 22, 2013.

My aunt told me she was happy to have me, a representative from her side of her family, present. So I was there. For her, I said.

But to tell the truth, I was there to learn. I have plenty of information about the beginning of life. People in my generation received hours of tutoring, lecturing, indoctrinating, and warning about puberty, childbirth, birth control, and “safe sex.” Although we were actually not given much information about sexuality—I had to learn that on my own. But I knew even less about death.

In those days during my uncle’s passing, I felt the need to understand what some call the great mystery, the last journey, the final frontier. When my uncle died, would there be a bright light, a cold shudder in the room? Would time stop? Speed up? Would angels descend on clouds of harp music? Would there be someone or something to lead him from his physical body when he passed? Where was he going? Was he ready?

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A Watershed Moment

OUR HISTORY IS increasingly hostage to a deep and broad ecological crisis. Stalking us for centuries, it is now upon us in the interlocking catastrophes of climate destruction, habitat degradation, species extinction, and resource exhaustion. Some call it “peak everything.”

“All we have to do to destroy the planet’s climate and biota and leave a ruined world to our children and grandchildren,” concluded environmental policy analyst James Gustave Speth in The Bridge at the Edge of the World, “is to keep doing exactly what we are doing today ... to release greenhouse gases ... impoverish ecosystems and release toxic chemicals at current rates, and the world in the latter part of this century won’t be fit to live in.”

Our Christian faith and practice now unfold either in light of or in spite of this crisis. Our choice is between discipleship and denial.

Two trends among thoughtful Catholics, evangelicals, and other Protestants in North America over the last quarter century are helping awaken us to “response-ability” in the face of these inconvenient truths. One is the spread of contextual theology, which demands both analysis and engagement with social realities around us. The other is how “creation care” has gained broad traction among churches.

But these trends need to be integrated. Contextual approaches have tended to address social, economic, and political issues apart from ecological ones. And environmental theologies are not contextual enough: often too abstract (debating “new cosmologies”), focused on remote symptoms (tropical rain forests or polar ice caps), or merely cosmetic (“greening” congregations through light bulb changes while avoiding controversies such as the Keystone XL pipeline).

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To Move Beyond Denial

Where do we go from here?

From the denial of racism to the naming and facing of racism.

If we are to move forward, we must acknowledge that racism is alive and well in the American psyche. It continues to function as a demonic force with devastating consequences for us all. To be white in America is to benefit from a system of power and privilege whether or not one has ever uttered a racist thought or committed a racist act.

On Scripture: Repairing Our Grief

U.S. soldier mourning, BPTU / Shutterstock.com

U.S. soldier mourning, BPTU / Shutterstock.com

My Uncle Norman fought in Europe during World War II. An artillery observer, he didn’t return with many “heroic” stories to tell. When I was little, he would roll out some souvenirs from the war, and I’d be impressed: German military dress knives and lovely table linens. I don’t recall all of the stories or how these things became his, but I’m pleased to report the table linens were a gift. His war experience was hardly glamorous.

Uncle Norman did tell of one harrowing experience. He and his partner were identified by German artillery, and they experienced exactly the treatment they dished out. Out in front of their own unit, as they always were, they heard a shot go just overhead and explode behind them. Then one fell just short. Placing a shell a bit to the left and one to the right, the Germans had them zeroed in. Uncle Norman’s friend panicked, frozen, stuck to the ground. And in the last minute – as he remembered it – my uncle tackled his partner and carried him to safety. Pretty dramatic stuff for a kid to hear.

When Uncle Norman was much older, he came close to death after gall bladder surgery. That night he experienced profound nightmares, the Lady Macbeth experience of bloody hands he could not cleanse. The next day, he told me a very different story than the ones I’d heard before. I believe I was the first to hear of the time when he called in the coordinates for an intersection across which a significant body of Germans was crossing. For 30 minutes, he said, he watched the effects of the barrage he had targeted. And now, 40 years later, his hands wouldn’t come clean.

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