Why Speaking 'On Behalf' of Others Can Hurt The People You're Trying to Help

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I was at a retreat recently with a facilitator who is known for pushing the envelope a bit regarding Roman Catholic Church teaching. The question posited throughout the weekend: Whom should we accept as brothers and sisters in faith?

During the retreat someone asked the facilitator how we should approach ministry in our churches in regard to the gay and lesbian community. A fellow retreatant replied, “Invite us to speak for ourselves.”

Who better to speak on challenging topics than those who are living inside the issue?

Inequality as a Religious Test

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A commitment to interfaith dialogue is important, but not simply for its own sake or to admire each other’s diversity. Interfaith dialogue should be in service of these three goals, especially for the sake of those who are the most vulnerable in our society and around the world — exactly who our faith traditions agree we should be most concerned about.

This will be the true test of a moral global economy. We convene our religions to celebrate diversity. Can we also convene our religions to help end extreme poverty by 2030 — and end shameful poverty in the United States? That would certainly be a goal worthy of a Parliament of World Religions.

Why I Still Believe in the Christian Internet

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I think the reason why the Christian Internet is so exasperating is because it is filled with so many people. Sensational click baits trend because we love juicy scandals. We share angry articles and judgmental pieces because it satisfies our human desires to point fingers and be in the right. The Internet has exposed the basest of our human fears and aired out our dirtiest laundry with the lure of anonymity and protection from our screens. 

The Christian Internet is all of us with our mess, our flaws, our brokenness, our hurts, our mistakes, and our pains. Which means that as hard as it is for us to see through the hazy noise pollution, behind every instigator of a mean meme is a person made in the image of God. And as long as I believe that is true, you can’t pry me away from the Christian Internet because I am not about to miss the astounding beauty that is sure to rise from the squabbling ashes. 

How to Have Hard Conversations

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Without a commitment to having hard conversations, and without healthy outlets for them, disagreements can be terrifying. They can seem like the end of the world, especially in the rarified atmosphere of our churches.

Unfortunately, Christians often deal with disagreements in their congregations in one of a handful of ways. We might disagree only in public, or only in denominational forums; we might talk only to our pastor, or only to the people who agree with us; we might let our money do the talking for us; we might not say anything at all; or we might split — leave, get kicked out, break fellowship.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. We can create a culture of rich dialogue, even around our disagreements. We can cultivate community conversations marked by gracious space and spacious grace. This unity is possible because we are bound by a covenant 

Beyond the Wheelchair Ramp

Baloncici / Shutterstock

Baloncini / Shutterstock

RECENTLY, THE CATHOLIC CHURCH moved toward beatifying Archbishop Óscar Romero, who was martyred while presiding at a Mass in El Salvador in 1980. Romero preached that, for the love of God, soldiers and paramilitary forces must stop murdering their brothers and sisters—and he paid with his life. Many have since honored his witness during El Salvador’s civil war as “a voice for the voiceless.” Without a doubt, more of us should take on that mantle.

And yet. Sometimes we are notcalled to be a voice for the voiceless. Sometimes we are called to listen carefully and discover the voices in our midst. Sometimes we are called to consider whether weare the ones preventing voices from being heard.

We are almost 25 years beyond the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and while access is still not all it should be, we need to move beyond the wheelchair ramp. We need to listen to those living with disabilities—as fully human, as fallen and holy, as friends of Christ, as people with abilities, as disciples on the Way.

What is disability? This simple question is not easily answered. There are people living with impairments, a loss of expected physiological form or function. A person missing a leg. A person whose optic nerve did not develop correctly. A person who has sustained a brain injury. The disability refers to the consequences of an impairment: loss of walking, blindness, memory issues. Handicap, in turn, refers to the societal disadvantage resulting from an impairment.

But when talking to people living with disabilities, those clear-cut categories become muddy. Some embrace the term “disability” as a simple aspect of who they are, a way of describing their lives and advocating for societal change. Others reject the term, saying they perceive no negative consequences from their impairments, only positives. Others fear the term and simply do not use it.

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The Play's the Thing

WHEN I FIRST arrived in a western district of Georgia, on the shores of the Black Sea, in 2004, I met a group of young people walking along the muddy dirt road to school. They were walking slowly, linking arms and talking and laughing together. Like teenagers anywhere, the young people were happy to talk about their own lives: tensions with parents, boredom at school, friends, and anticipation of the future.

The girls that I spoke with also mentioned their fears of being abducted for marriage.

Surprisingly, in this modern era, the abduction of girls for marriage was still considered common and acceptable. In rural Georgia, if a young man fancied a young woman, he arranged with his friends to have her abducted as she walked home from school. If she was held overnight away from her home (and often raped), her chaste reputation was lost, and she had no choice but to leave school, marry him, and move in with his family. Honor demanded it.

In rural Georgian high schools, rumors flew about who was about to be kidnapped, or who was thinking of kidnapping someone. Boys thought it was romantic and a test of bravery and manhood. Almost all the boys we spoke with said they would help a friend abduct a girl if requested, and many said they felt pressured by their friends to abduct girls. It was seen as a way of proving yourself a man, a true Georgian man.

Most girls were afraid of being abducted, but some girls I spoke with had mixed feelings, wondering if they could manage to elope with their boyfriends using a traditional kidnapping story as the cover to overcome their parents’ disapproval.

Parents also commented on the problem. One mother of a teenage girl said, “When I was in school, kidnapping girls for marriage was a big problem. In order to be a ‘real man’ and demonstrate his bravery, a boy had to kidnap a girl. But girls did not think kidnapping was romantic. They saw it for what it was—violence.”

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A Republican, a Democrat, and a Buddhist Walk into a Room …

Dialogue illustration, Kubko / Shutterstock.com

Dialogue illustration, Kubko / Shutterstock.com

An historic event took place recently in the seaside town of Belfast, Maine. Ten people of vastly different political persuasions — Libertarians, Tea Party Republicans, Democrats, and Progressives — sat in a circle, had a civil dialogue about their hopes and fears for America, and discovered their common ground. Their experience is a model of the local dialogues we so desperately need to build bridges across the political divide.

And yes, one of the 10 is a Buddhist. Judith Simpson, a practicing Buddhist, facilitated the conversation. Judith is an organizational development consultant who has worked with the likes of Eastman Kodak and Corning. She facilitates using a group process called Dialogue. Judith now plies her skills in restorative justice. Dorothy Odell organized the event. She has worked in education as a teacher and as a member of the Belfast School Board. Both reside in Belfast.

“I’ve gotten upset with the media fanning the flames of the story that we’re a polarized nation,” said Dorothy. Judith agreed. Together, they decided to do something about it.