THE CHILDHOOD UNDERSTANDING of the familiar tune about climbing Jacob’s ladder needs a reset. The Genesis narratives aren’t just about heaven—they yield epiphanies into the ordinary life of faith. The household of Abraham and Sarah, even in its ancient context, is atypical. In family dynamics, without the miraculous moments, epiphanies subvert our expectations of whom and what God can utilize to reveal the faithfulness of divine promises. Sometimes the testimony is evident in ordinary lives—even ours. You’ve heard it said, “Our greatest weakness is our strength.” The episodes in Jacob’s life provide sufficient demonstrations of how passions both energize and blind us: Passion or anger; leadership or arrogance; emotion or intuition; determination or stubbornness.
Despite Jacob’s inconsistencies, the second half of Genesis encompasses his story, as the son of Isaac, grandson of Abraham. Here we find an unfolding drama. Characters display human nature at its extremes: conniving relatives, loving couples; creative entrepreneurs, dishonest contractors. All, somehow, used by God to form a people with whom the Spirit so evidently abides.
Even when we go our own way, God’s purposes are not thwarted. The challenge for the church in this Pentecost season is to trust that God is planting seeds in good soil—and the seeds that won’t sprout also have a purpose in this garden. Remember that the actions of justice, grace, and faithfulness we practice at home are as much a witness to God as our public proclamations and protests.
“I AM A storyteller,” says Daniel Beaty, “and my purpose in the world is to inspire people to transform pain to power.”
He was first inspired to share his stories when his third-grade teacher showed a videotape of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Now as a writer, actor, singer, teacher, and motivational speaker, his storytelling is expressed in a dizzying array of different forms and outlets. The week in April that Sojourners’ editorial assistant Rebecca Kraybill interviewed him, Beaty was doing daily performances in Los Angeles of a one-person play he wrote on the life of performer and activist Paul Robeson, “The Tallest Tree in the Forest” (in which he plays 40 characters and sings 14 songs) and, during the day, taping for a Ford Foundation-funded documentary on work he does with children of incarcerated parents.
This was just a fortnight after Beaty finished a six-week speaking tour in support of his memoir, Transforming Pain to Power: Unlock Your Unlimited Potential (Penguin-Random House). He’s also the author of a children’s book released in December 2013 by Little, Brown and Company, Knock Knock: My Dad’s Dream for Me, with graphics by award-winning illustrator Bryan Collier, which is an adaptation of a poem Beaty wrote about his experience growing up with an incarcerated father. “Knock knock down the doors that I could not” is one especially poignant line the father in the book writes to the son; it carries a call to healing and liberation that is found in all of Beaty’s work.
Kraybill talked with Beaty about the effects of mass incarceration on families, the power of a “theater sanctuary,” and how the arts call us toward “the capacity to do better.”
A QUESTION ASKED of me 100 times in the last 10 years: Why do you stay in the Catholic Church? How can you stay in a church where thousands of children were raped around the world? Where men in power covered their ears to the screams of children and moved the rapists around from parish to parish so that smiling welcoming parents presented their awed shy children to the rapists like fresh meat? Where women have been marginalized and sidelined for centuries and their incredible creativity diluted and wasted and left to rot? Where power and greed and cowardice so often trumped the very humility and mercy and defiant belief in the primacy of love on which the church was founded and for which it claims to stand today?
Because, I said haltingly, in the beginning, when I was unsure of my honest answer in the face of such rapacious crime and breathtaking lies, because, because ... because how could I quit now? What sort of rat leaves the ship when it is foundering and your fellow passengers need help? Why would I quit now, of all the times to quit? How could I leave the ship in the hands of the men who nearly sank her? How could I abandon the brave honest mothers and priests and nuns and teachers and bishops and dads and monks and children who are the church, who compose the church, who sing the deepest holiest song of the real church?
Because, I said more and more energetically as the years went by, because there are men like my archbishop in my church, men who stood up to lies and crime and accepted the lash of public insult without a word, though the sins were not theirs.
SINCE HIS ELECTION as the 265th successor of St. Peter, Pope Francis has provided a refresher course on Catholic social teaching to the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics. “Catholic social teaching is no longer a secret,” says Jean Hill, director of peace and justice for the diocese of Salt Lake City. “Everything Pope Francis is saying comes from social doctrine and is about social justice.”
Through his various homilies, speeches, and meetings, Francis is “reading the signs of the times” and making practical application to the issues of the day. Some of his most powerful statements to date were made in his first pastoral document, “The Joy of the Gospel,” including this declaration: “I prefer a church which is bruised, hurting, and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a church that is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security.”
Pope Francis is calling the faithful to be more merciful, compassionate, joyful, and centered upon the needs of the poor and vulnerable. He wants a church that sees the human person before the law and one that does not “obsess” about a narrow set of issues, but affirms both human life and human dignity. He invites Catholics to pray, reflect, and embrace the beauty and breadth of Catholic social teaching—a rich tradition that is predicated on the dignity of the human person.
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) defines Catholic social teaching as “a central and essential element of our faith. Its roots are in the Hebrew prophets who announced God’s special love for the poor and called God’s people to a covenant of love and justice.” This teaching is also founded on the life and words of Jesus. It posits that “every human being is created in the image of God and redeemed by Jesus Christ, and therefore is invaluable and worthy of respect as a member of the human family.”
FRANCISCAN BROTHER ROBERT LENTZ is a contradictory blend of traditional and tradition-challenging. That same surprising mix could be said to typify his contemporary approach to the ancient art of iconography.
Brother Robert’s work adorns cathedrals, churches, and homes of many faiths, though his name may not ring a bell, even among his fans.
But describe his icons of Martin Luther King Jr. or César Chávez, his portrayals of Jesus as black, Korean, and Navajo, and his non-Christian subjects including Mohandas Gandhi and the Sufi mystic Rumi, and the response may be “Oh, yes! I have one of those.”
Icons—religious paintings used as aids in Christian prayer—have been called a “doorway into the kingdom of heaven.” Brother Robert’s icons are striking, often for the contemporary twists in classically structured images, such as the army canteen held by St. Toribio Romo, a 20th century Mexican priest who is revered as the patron of migrants crossing the border. His Chávez image carries a copy of the Constitution and wears a sweatshirt with the United Farmworkers logo. “Icons may contain anachronisms,” he said, “when there is a great truth at stake.”
Brother Robert’s work—and his life—seem often to focus on such anachronisms in pursuit of truth. At 67, he is a Roman Catholic Franciscan brother in the New York-based Holy Name Province, living and working in a studio created for him in the order’s seminary near Washington, D.C. A religious brother is not a priest, though he lives by the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience and dedicates his life to charitable service. It’s Brother Robert’s second stretch as a Franciscan, the order founded by St. Francis of Assisi. But it’s his third stint in religious life, having also come close to ordination as a priest in the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia.
THE SHOOTINGS THAT took three lives this spring at a Jewish community center and retirement complex in Kansas are a reminder that deadly strains of what is usually called “anti-Semitism” remain with us. The fact that the shooter was a deranged white supremacist should not prevent us from coming to terms with the roots and survival of Jew-hatred in our culture.
Anti-Semitism is a made-up word that itself gives clues to the history of Jew-hatred in our civilization. The term was coined by German journalist Wilhelm Marr in 1879, one of a number of Jew-haters who were turning longstanding European Christian hatred of Jews into something modern and racial. The “Jewish problem,” therefore, became the “fact” that there was a racial group, the “Semites,” who were a mortal threat to another racial group, the “Aryans,” and therefore needed to be removed from Aryan societies. All right-thinking Germans/Europeans/Aryans, the argument went, needed to unite to combat the Semites through a scientific antisemitismus. The term is usually written “anti-Semitism” in English, but that usage profoundly reinforces the racist myth that there is a race of “Semites” needing to be opposed by “anti-Semites.” The term Jew-hatred is better because it refuses to participate in this mythology.
Modern racialized Jew-hatred flowed into the 20th century and crystallized most disastrously in Nazi Germany. There, over 12 terrible years, the 19th century anti-Jewish program was enacted, and then exceeded. Jews were to be “eliminated” from among the “Aryans,” a program that became annihilation after 1939, with 6 million Jews murdered.
I HEAR A STIRRING, a rumbling. An awakening. Sometimes the sound is so faint, I worry it’s my imagination, my optimism getting the best of me. I pause, listen, and wait. Here it comes again. I want to rush to my window, fling it open, stick my head way out, and look around. Is it happening? For real this time? Is the sleeping giant finally waking up?
God knows we’ve slept too long.
Many of us—myself included—slept through a revolution. Actually, it was a counterrevolution that has blown back much of the progress that so many racial justice advocates risked their lives for. This counterrevolution occurred with barely a whimper of protest, even as a war was declared, one that purported to be aimed at “drugs.”
Really, the war took aim at people—overwhelmingly poor people and people of color—who were taken prisoner en masse and then relegated to a permanent, second-class status, stripped of basic civil and human rights such as the right to vote, the right to serve on juries, and the right to be free from legal discrimination in employment, housing, and access to education and public benefits. Branded “criminals” or “felons,” millions of people discovered that the very rights supposedly won in the civil rights movement no longer applied to them.
MY DEAR FRIEND Glen Stassen passed away on April 26. Glen was a key ally, a kindred spirit, and a deeply respected member of the Sojourners board. In my view, Glen was the most important Christian ethicist of his time because he taught us what it means to follow Jesus.
Many years ago a tall, thin, and very bright young man came to visit Sojourners community in Washington, D.C. He told us he was an ethics professor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and that he wanted to live with us and volunteer serving the poor. Glen stayed in one of our households and served on our food line, distributing bags of groceries to low-income families just 20 blocks from the White House. From my first conversation with him to the last, Glen Stassen never stopped talking about Jesus—and how Christians must not just believe in Christ in word but also follow him in deed. His most influential book, Kingdom Ethics, co-authored with David P. Gushee, was also the passion of his life and work.
Before Glen became a professor, he had a promising career in nuclear physics. He loved his work, but he was not willing to work in weapons development so he left to attend seminary and become a biblical scholar. Eventually, Glen formulated a powerful vision of “just peacemaking.” Using the creative and critical practices of conflict resolution, Glen’s framework guides us toward effective and faithful actions to both prevent and end wars.
In everything he did, Glen sought to bring Christian ethics to public life. Working with Glen on the Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign, I quickly discovered that he was not just an ethics theorist but a gifted practitioner who knew how to mobilize movements and change public policy. As a true disciple of Jesus, Glen wanted to change the world.
Can you imagine sitting in a public space and all of a sudden everyone around you starts to speak in a different language? And yet somehow you still understand them? Can you imagine the cacophony of sounds this event would cause? Can you envision the power it would take to make this astonishing moment happen?
Is it a miracle? Possession? Paranormal activity? It likely would freak you out.
This moment actually happens more often than we think. A glimpse of this cacophony of sounds can be found in our everyday lives. We hear loud voices coming through network and cable news shows, on Twitter and Facebook, and through other social media outlets. We hear rising decibels of chatter around social justice issues — from the right and from the left — about issues as diverse as abortion, same-sex marriage, income inequality, biblical obedience, or defining traditional values. We hear the noise. At times, it is almost deafening. The voices seem to fly past each other so fast that neither side seems to be listening to the other at all.
But then there are moments when we all come together to speak for one common purpose.