Theology

'Now is a Time for Theology to Thrive'

AUG. 9, 2014, is a day I’ll never forget. It was the day that Michael Brown was killed by Ferguson, Mo. police officer Darren Wilson.

For many young people in the United States, especially those of us involved in the Black Lives Matter movement, this was our Sept. 11. We all remember exactly where we were and what we were doing when the news broke of another police-involved killing of an unarmed black citizen.

I was in the final days of a yearlong internship with Sojourners. My fellow interns and I were on our closing retreat in West Virginia. I was on my phone checking my Twitter timeline when I began to see retweets of images: Michael Brown laid out on Canfield Drive with blood still leaking from his bullet wounds. I remember the anger that instantly came over me. “Not another one!” was all I could think.

As the day wore on, I felt frustrated that I was stuck in a retreat house, forced to sit idly by while the grieving community in Ferguson was antagonized by officers in riot gear with police dogs. I knew then that I had to do whatever it would take to join the people in this fight for justice. I never imagined how this movement would change the way I—and many others—actually do theology.

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#UnitedWeFight — Clergy in Ferguson March for Justice

Image via Heather Wilson/Dust and Light Photography

PHOTO ESSAY: On Monday, fifty-seven people were arrested as part of the #UnitedWeFight march and peaceful civil disobedience at the Thomas F. Eagleton U.S. Courthouse. The march was in commemoration of the year-long resistance sparked in #Ferguson by the murder of #MikeBrown.

Together, hundreds of community leaders, activists, organizers, and clergy from the St. Louis, Mo., area and nationwide demanded US Attorney for the Eastern District of Missouri Richard Callahan take immediate action on the findings of the Department of Justice reports. When clergy and activists breached the barricades and sat in front of the building, they were slowly arrested as the St. Louis police arrived in the dozens.

A Behind-the-Scenes Look at Faith in Ferguson

Leah Gunning Francis

Leah Gunning Francis

Young people ignited by injustice, refusing to back down. A nation waking up to the reality of racial disparities. And a church that can no longer remain silent. This, says Eden Theological Seminary professor Leah Francis Gunning, is the real “Ferguson Effect.” As she protested in Ferguson over the past year, Gunning collected interviews from clergy and young organizers. The result is Ferguson and Faith: Sparking Leadership & Awakening Community (Chalice Press, 2015), a behind-the-scenes look at the role of the church in the Black Lives Matter movement. Sojourners interviewed Francis to learn more about the religious community’s role in supporting and sustaining a racial justice movement started by young activists.

Requiem for Mike Brown

Image via /Shutterstock

Over the past year, #blacklivesmatter has taught me that the work of theology is not limited to the hallowed halls of academic institutions or sermonic reflections from prestigious pulpits on Sunday mornings. At community meetings and rallies, I learned new hymns in the form of movement chants. I learned that protest can be a form of prayer. #Blacklivesmatter is more than a hashtag. It is a call for repentance. It is an invitation into a state of prophetic grief and collective lament that does not anesthetize us from our pain but allows us to reconnect to the depths of our humanity by feeling, together, the torment our silence on issues of racial injustice has sown. It is only together that we will be able to actualize the transformation God is calling us to effect in this world.

We Cannot Be Silent

Image via /Shutterstock

In honor of the one-year anniversary of Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Mo., Sojourners asked a variety of faith leaders — Catholics, Baptists, Muslims, agnostics, evangelicals, and humanists — to reflect: How has your faith been challenged, affirmed, or deepened by the Black Lives Matter movement? Has your theology changed? And, most importantly, what are we being called to do? 

Here’s what they said.

'Arriving at Amen' Arrives, For Some

Book cover, 'Arriving at Amen.' Image via arrivingatamen.com

Book cover, 'Arriving at Amen.' Image via arrivingatamen.com

Arriving at Amen, the forthcoming memoir-infused guide to spiritual practices by Leah Libresco, reads like a fantastic series of blog posts combined into a less-spectacular guide for small groups getting their hands dirty with spiritual practices. Oddly, Leah seems to respect her audience a bit too much by assuming that they are as geeky and morally driven as her. This limits Arriving at Amen’s usefulness in the pastoral context, which it seems marketed and designed for — but makes it more interesting for me. 

Leah has a great internet presence — from her blog Unequally Yoked to a new radio show Fights in Good Faith and now reporting and doing analysis for FiveThirtyEight. Leah is, basically, a very liberally well-educated math nerd who turns to religion in the same way that she turns to everything – full-voiced and with the intention to win.

Arriving at Amen riffs on some historic spiritual practices, all billed as Roman Catholic (though I, as a cranky reformed Presbyterian, can still get some mileage out of them) such as the Divine Office, examen, lectio divina, and several others.

Leah has lots of helpful tips here. The Divine Office (a set structure of prayers that I’ve found healthy in my own life) can become a means to organize your time and a way to transition to and from work on your commute. She suggests using the Jesuit daily self-reflection of the examen as way to proactively think about virtues that you can cultivate rather than as another opportunity to spiral into guilt. She even rethinks lectio divina, the practice of meditation on scripture, by suggesting that the reader translate scripture into another language as she does with American Sign Language.

All of this is helpful advice — but it also demonstrates the scattershot nature of Arriving at Amen.

School of Love

WHEN FATHER THOMAS PHILIPPE brought philosopher Jean Vanier on a tour of asylums, institutions, and psychiatric hospitals, Vanier discovered “a whole new world of marginalized people ... hidden away far from the rest of society, so that nobody could be reminded of their existence.” A year after this realization, recounted in The Heart of L’Arche, Vanier founded the first L’Arche community in his new home in France. Vanier shared meals, celebrations, and grievances with Raphael Simi and Philippe Seux, two men who had lived in asylums ever since their parents passed away.

Vanier was inspired by life with these friends, and motivated by a new understanding of Luke 14:12-14: “‘When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.’”

In the words of Vanier, “L’Arche is a school of love.” It is a “family created and sustained by God,” and it is an embodiment of the belief that “each person is unique, precious, and sacred.” In practice, L’Arche is a global network of communities: People living with and without developmental disabilities sharing meals, prayers, work, and advocacy efforts.

Eileen, an artist and a member of the L’Arche community in the Washington, D.C. area, explained to Sojourners that through L’Arche she can explore museums, create and share art, cook and host a pork-chop dinner, or stay in and watch television with friends. She’s learned much over her decades with L’Arche and, she explained, “I teach people how to pray.”

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Beyond the Wheelchair Ramp

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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Coming in From the Cold

JON SOBRINO LAUGHS ever so slightly at my question. His office in the Monseñor Romero Center in San Salvador is a paper cavern, a place where a theological archeologist digging to understand the highs and the lows of liberation movements within the church would find a mother lode of artifacts.

Where is liberation theology going from here under Pope Francis? Sobrino, perhaps one of the most prolific liberation theologians, is thin and thoughtful. He considers his words: Liberation theology is a way of thinking about how a Christian must live—in active, engaged struggle for the flourishing of all life. Liberation is the primary movement of the Holy Spirit. It is the duty of those baptized into the life, death, and ministry of Jesus Christ to live this out, immediately and urgently.

In March 2013, when Argentine Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Sobrino’s fellow Jesuit, became pope, liberation theologians and practitioners took a deep collective breath—what would happen next?

The popes of the 1980s and ’90s had removed all support for the promoters of liberation theology who had lived out the “preferential option for the poor,” born from Vatican II and the 1968 Medellín conference of Latin American bishops. The church’s identification with the poor was a direct strike against the closed oligarchic structures that had strangled the lands and peoples since the European conquest.

The oligarchy, which controlled governments and armies, struck back. The Latin American oligarchic wars created countless liberation Christian martyrs.

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