Dialogue

Sleeper Awake!

IN THE TITLE song of Aimee Wilson's new album, Unto Us the Sun, the music begins soft and gentle, like a slight shaft of light breaking over the morning horizon. Gradually the song intensifies, both instrumentally and vocally, until it reaches an almost ecstatic crescendo—a musical embodiment of the process she lyrically portrays of the subtleties of nature opening up its unspeakable beauty, a grand chorus of creation praising its Creator. It is also hardly incidental that the song evokes biblical language of resurrection, while both the title and images such as "tender as the shoot" subtly hint at the presence of Christ—not a heavy-handed doctrinal Christ, but the saving incarnation of a loving God.

Wilson is part of a remarkable network of young, spiritually rooted musicians (such as the Psalters) who are fashioning a very new and dynamic musical language of radical faith—a faith that is searching, exploring the edges of experience, probing human hurts and joys as well as divine mysteries and manifestations. Wilson's personal journey has taken her from the hills of her native Tennessee to inner-city Philadelphia. Her songs cover a range of moods, many reflecting her mystical apprehension of God's presence in creation. Other songs, drawing on her experience working with women who have struggled with homelessness and mental illness, convey the power of grace amid human brokenness.

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9mm Golden Calves

BACK IN 1990, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) issued this warning: "The religious community must ... take seriously the risk of idolatry that could result from an unwarranted fascination with guns, which overlooks or ignores the social consequences of their misuse." Two decades later, about 660,000 more Americans have been killed by guns, with a million more injured.

These figures convince me that what was a risk in 1990 has become our reality today: For too many, guns have become idols. They claim divine status; make promises of safety and security they cannot keep; transform people and neighborhoods; create enemies; and require human sacrifice.

Not all gun owners have permitted their guns to become idols or absolutes. In fact, a recent poll shows most gun owners and NRA members, in contrast to public perception, believe personal freedom and public safety are complementary, not contradictory. But those few who hold the microphone at the NRA (the wealthy manufacturers and the gun zealots who do their bidding) have permitted their fascination for guns to supplant God and God's requirements for human community.

An idol's followers boldly claim divine status for it. Former NRA executive Warren Cassidy was clear when he boasted, "You would get a far better understanding [of the NRA] if you approached us as if you were approaching one of the great religions of the world." Not to be outdone, Charlton Heston, during a speech as NRA president, intoned, "Sacred stuff resides in that wooden stock and blued steel—something that gives the most common man [sic] the most uncommon of freedoms, when ordinary hands can possess such an extraordinary instrument that symbolizes the full measure of human dignity and liberty."

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A Call to Conversion

AS LARRY WATSON arrived by charter bus at the Corrections Corporation of America in Nashville, Tenn., apprehension pulsed through his body. An ex-offender, Watson had been at prison facilities before, but never for this reason—and never willingly.

Watson had been incarcerated three different times—in 1978, 1983, and 1990—for distribution of drugs. The last time, he was sentenced to up-to-30 years in jail. He was released on Jan. 14, 1993, after serving 36 months.

Now he found himself on a very different path. Watson and 17 others, mostly ex-offenders, had trekked nearly 700 miles in May 2010 on a pilgrimage from Washington, D.C., to Nashville. As they pulled into the grandiose Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) headquarters, home to the largest private prison company in the United States, a swarm of security officials greeted them. Watson and his fellow sojourners became increasingly mindful of the spirit in which they journeyed.

Their plan was creatively simple: Purchase a share of stock in the Corrections Corporation of America, the behemoth corporation that owned the private prisons where some of the group had been incarcerated. Attend a CCA shareholders’ meeting. Then, as stockholders, tell their personal stories as a way of witnessing to the “spiritual crisis” occurring within the prison industry, while also building relationships with key CCA personnel.

In essence, using their experience from the inside, members of the group planned to tell CCA how to do its job better.

The Corrections Corporation of America board knew that Watson and his companions planned to attend the meeting. The board deployed the armed security guards to greet them. “They went with us step by step into the CCA building,” said Watson. On the way inside, he considered his physical surroundings. “It’s a very nice property. It looks like money.”

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Slow Down and Know That I Am God

IN SPRING 1986, a group of Italian activists led by Carlo Petrini launched a protest against the opening of a McDonald’s near the famous Spanish Steps in Rome. This protest marked the origin of the Slow Food movement, which has spread over the last 26 years to more than 150 countries.

Following this Slow Food effort came a host of other Slow movements—Slow Cities, Slow Parenting, Slow Money, and more—that collectively raise opposition to the speed and industrialization of Western culture. Slow movements are beginning to recover what we have lost in our relentless pursuit of efficiency. Many Christians have been challenged by these Slow movements to consider the ways in which our faith has begun to move too fast as we make sacrifices to the gods of efficiency.

This quest has sparked a renewed interest in the joys of sharing life together in local congregations and has intensified into a growing conversation—rather than a movement—called Slow Church. Slowness itself is not a cardinal virtue of Slow Church, but rather a means of resisting the present-day powers of speed in order to be faithful church communities.

The biblical vision of God’s mission in the world is God’s reconciliation of all creation (see, for example, Colossians 1:15-23 and Isaiah 65:17-25). But too often we narrow the scope of our faith and ignore the massive damage that incurs. Some Christians reduce the faith to four easy steps to stay out of hell, others to a set of techniques for growing a large church, and still others to a political ideology (of the Right or the Left). Christianity has also been reduced by some to a feel-good spirituality that has little or no bearing on the rest of our lives or in the public square.

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Beyond 'Superman'

I'VE BEEN INVOLVED in public education for more than 15 years—as an urban public school teacher, a researcher and policy analyst, a teacher trainer, a parent, and an advocate. I never dreamed I’d live to witness such raucous and juicy debates about how to improve our nation’s lowest-performing public schools. Throughout my career, public education garnered the occasional feel-good story about a phenomenal, mythical “inner city teacher” and, more often, the litany of stories about how urban and rural schools are in complete disarray.

But during the last few years—oh my! We’ve witnessed the onslaught of message-laden documentaries such as Waiting for “Superman” and The Lottery, which are celebrated by many and derided as teacher-bashing propaganda by others. The birth of the “education reform” movement has generated such groups as Democrats for Education Reform, Students for Education Reform, and Stand For Children. Again, lauded by many, these groups are vigorously criticized by others because of the way they push against policies, structures, and institutions in public education.

Regardless of what side of the education reform debate we may choose, most Americans agree on one thing: Public schools must improve. The academic achievement gap between wealthy white students and low-income students of color must be eliminated. It’s unconscionable that 50 percent of kids growing up in poverty drop out of high school. How do we allow a system to exist where poor children in the fourth grade are already performing three grade levels behind children in wealthier neighborhoods? What future do we anticipate poor and minority children will have with these academic outcomes?

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Gathering Around the Peace Table

SEVEN AMERICAN women sat at a long rectangular table with 10 pastors from rural communities in Eastern Congo to learn about the pastors’ work of healing and reconciliation. A brilliant World Relief translator moved seamlessly from Swahili to French to English as we jotted notes.

“When Marcel from World Relief first gathered local pastors together, we were suffering,” one pastor said. “But he reminded us that, even in circumstances like these, the church has a crucial role to play. All the victims in our communities are people given to us to care for.”

Local church pastors in the North Kivu region of Congo face personally all the sufferings common to members of their communities: murder of family members by armed militias; rape of mothers, wives, and daughters as a weapon of war; displacement from their homes because of local conflict; an economy based on subsistence farming destroyed when crops are burned or uprooted by marauding rebels.

But their personal suffering doesn’t invalidate their biblical call to “care for the least of these.” Marcel, formerly a local Congolese pastor, works with World Relief Congo to serve local pastors by providing training in leadership, community transformation, trauma healing, and conflict resolution.

The pastors’ first challenge was to create committees representing every denomination and tribe in the region. The committees meet monthly to determine who in the community is most in need—a family with nothing to eat, a widow without shelter, a victim of sexual assault who needs hospital care. Sometimes the most needy are church members; sometimes they aren’t. It doesn’t matter.

In June 2012, I took my second trip to Eastern Congo. I had met many of the pastors on my first trip to Congo in 2009 and was amazed by the progress they had made in just three years.

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A Dialogue about Dialogue

It is difficult to discuss "hard topics" with people with whom I disagree.

When someone supports a political candidate whom I resist, holds to a theological understanding that I find confusing, or when I hear opposing points on climate change, poverty, global economics, human sexuality, etc., it is challenging to listen with a genuinely open ear. 

However, what I have found is that, even if I feel passionate about a particular point of view, when I am able to open up and genuinely listen to others, great things take place throughout the exchange. Through honest and open interaction, an increased level of mutual respect and understanding is achieved, we learn to understand why things are perceived the way they are, and the overall strength of the relationship grows. 

In our current North American climate of political polarization, religious division, and socio-economic seclusion, it is time to have more dialogue on — among other things — dialogue. 

A friend of mine once said, “a true and genuine dialogue only takes place when each person is willing to be ‘converted’ to the other side of the argument.” At first I was skeptical of this remark, as I wondered how I could ever open myself up to being “converted” on certain topics about which I felt strongly. But now I am beginning to see the wisdom in such a statement.

Retelling the Story

North Park University might be the only evangelical college in the country with a school-sanctioned student group that includes the word “queer” in its name. Like many other evangelical schools, North Park has had unofficial clubs or informal meetings of students to talk about issues of sexuality, but two years ago a proposal was accepted by the student senate to make “Queers and Allies,” or Q&A, an official student club. The core leadership team is small, but events often attract between 35 and 75 students to hear various perspectives and discuss topics ranging from interpretations of scripture to “queer history” and understandings of gay identity.

There has been no public opposition to the club’s existence, says Rick Sindt, one of the group’s student founders and leaders. “The overall atmosphere is ambiguous,” Sindt says. “There are institutional policies in place that hinder faculty from being out or even vocal.” But still, he says, encouragement both on campus and from alumni has been “abundant.”

North Park upholds the teachings of its sponsoring denomination, the Evangelical Covenant Church, which prohibits the ordination of openly gay clergy and does not allow for its pastors to perform same-sex weddings, unions, or blessings. Still, Sindt, who is gay, is actively involved in campus ministries and the spiritual life of the college. He recently gave his testimony at a chapel service and traveled to India for a service and mission trip. While it has been hard for him to find a church home, he remains dedicated to his faith.

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Changes in Attitude

DURING STEVE SLAGG’S freshman year at Wheaton College in Illinois, a gay-rights advocacy group called Soulforce announced that it was embarking on a nationwide bus tour of conservative Christian colleges that had campus policies against homosexuality to facilitate some of the first open conversations about lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people. Wheaton College was one of their stops.

“We were talking a lot on campus about Soulforce and what we were going to do about them,” remembers Slagg about the spring 2006 tour. “It felt like nobody was really aware of the fact that there were people in this community who were gay.”

So Slagg decided to come out. He started with friends and classmates, but he also spoke with campus groups, and he held a meeting on his dormitory floor. He was interviewed in the campus paper, The Record, under the headline “Gay at Wheaton,” and numerous classmates approached him for private coffeehouse conversations around campus.

The pressure and attention grew to be too much, and Slagg quickly receded into normal campus life.

But during Slagg’s senior year, after feeling as though the conversations around homosexuality on campus had not changed, he wrote an essay for a new campus literary journal, The Pub, about being gay at Wheaton. “We exist,” he declared. “The most harmful and pervasive lie I’ve encountered at Wheaton has been that homosexual students either don’t exist at Wheaton or aren’t worth considering. Outrageously enough, I believed this lie for most of my freshman year.”

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Key LGBT Resources for Christians

As illustrated in "Changes in Attitude" and "Retelling the Story" in the July 2012 issue of Sojourners, the conversation of Christianity and homosexuality is deepening beyond the culture wars. A number of valuable resources have emerged that appeal to a variety of audiences and viewpoints. While this is not an exhaustive list, below are a few books, resources, and blogs worth exploring.

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