mother! is a disturbing portrait of God that says nothing good about God's followers. Immediately after watching the visitors kill her child, mother hears Him say that these people must be forgiven — that they didn’t mean to do it, that they only want to be close to Him. The Christian theory of redemption is supposedly one of forgiveness and sacrifice, predicated on Christ’s death and resurrection, but the death of this child doesn’t read at all triumphant. From the mother's point of view, the visitors were never supposed to be in the house in the first place — if they hadn’t intruded on her life, they wouldn’t need forgiveness for killing her child.
For the brilliant theologians who teach and research at seminaries or divinity schools, part of their work is training the next generation of future pastors for church leadership. Catholic and many Protestant church leaders have received a thorough theological education (though not all). They possess Masters and Doctoral degrees that solidify their ability to grasp the tenets of theology. But for those theologians interested in changing the world for the better, they must offer work that is easily understood by the masses, especially the marginalized population they are seeking to assist.
I’m not here to argue about whether Paul’s point is a good one — by all accounts, he does a fine job telling the biblical story in a way his gentile listeners can understand. I, like Paul, am a Christ-follower. I’ve already bought what he’s selling. I’m asking about the way he makes his point — I’m pushing back against the notion that Christianity is an idea that can and should be argued in the public square.
Restoration and reconciliation with God is the ultimate goal. It is the incarnate Jesus who provides the way back for humanity to be restored and reconciled to God. This is the essence of the Christian faith.
We are steeped in a culture that celebrates endless work and the denial of one’s own health. Christian faith leadership demands a counter-witness. Ministry life should reflect a theology of service and commitment both to God and other people, but it should also embody healthy balance and spiritual sustainability for the long work of learning faith and reflecting God’s grace to a world hungry for it.
FRANTICALLY GRABBING last-minute items, I rush out the door to get my middle-school son to his pregame warm-up. “Oh, don’t rush; it will only take us 25 minutes to get there,” says my son. Surprised, I question where he got that information. Looking up from his phone, he replies, “Google sent a notification on my phone since my calendar has the game with location.” With some marvel in his tone, he remarks, “Every morning Google Assistant tells me how long it will take the bus to get to school.”
Humans have always shared information with each other, but the advance of digital media altered the time and geographic constraints that once shaped our historical patterns of communication. This transition ended the “Gutenberg era,” a period of human communication marked by a dependency on print, authorship, and fixity, and launched us into an era of communication marked by openness, collaboration, and easy access to information.
Despite the rapid pace at which we churn through this information, our new communication styles are also shaped, paradoxically, by permanence. Every share, post, or comment is archived, creating an online trove of information that identifies every person and their connections: where we get our news, what we look like, what sports team or social causes we support, who “likes” our church on Facebook, and, in my son’s case, our current whereabouts, our travel route, and destination points.
The internet is forever
In the world of digital ethics, the “endless memory of the internet” has recently attracted a lot of attention. How do we live in a world that increasingly does not forget?
The study comes in the same year that Larycia Hawkins — Wheaton College’s first black, female professor to receive tenure — parted ways with the evangelical flagship school after she posted on Facebook that both Christians and Muslims worship the “same God.” The controversy stirred fresh debate among evangelicals about whether all religions worship the same God, and whether God accepts the worship of all religions.
WHO IS THIS JESUS who rattles my cage and rumbles through the history of my life? This contradictory figure who proves an embarrassment and stumbling block to my mind, but who won’t go away? This man who brings awe and tears to my eyes, who makes me want to resist authority when it’s wrong, who points me to a God who works from the underside of every system of power?
Who is this Jesus? Disturbing teacher of the gospels, comfortable with children and irritating to scholars, unsettling people by his enigmatic stories. Dancing member of the Holy Trinity, looking out from a stunning Russian icon. Object of saccharine devotion in the Sacred Heart of Catholic spirituality, the “Jesus and me” sentimentality of evangelical piety, the unbridled passion of 17th-century metaphysical poets.
He’s the first-century Jewish rabbi of the Jesus Seminar, calling for justice and inclusivity, making no ethereal claims about his own divinity. He’s the Jesus of Jelaluddin Rumi, who wants to be born in the mystical experience of every soul. The Cosmic Christ who weaves his spirit through the fabric of the natural world, causing all things to scintillate with the sacramental, Christic presence of the divine.
He wanders in and out of my reading of Bernard of Clairvaux, Marcus Borg, Dorothy Day, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, and John Shelby Spong. Each with a finger on the mystery of this figure who pulses back and forth in my life: “Jesus, lover of my soul.” “He walks with me and he talks with me and he tells me I am his own.” “Jesus, the very thought of thee.”
God will himself one day hold all humans, and all human governments, to account, but the church has the responsibility in the present to speak words of truth and judgment in advance of that final holding-to-account. This is where John 16 comes in — the Spirit will hold the world accountable on the issues of sin, righteousness, and judgment. And the way the Spirit will do that is through God’s people following the example of Jesus in John 18 and 19, and speaking the truth to power.
All of my favorite theologians are dying. David Bowie. Alan Rickman. A couple of years ago it was Pete Seeger. It is as if all my favorite theologians are moving on.
Please take me seriously as I say this. It has been a grief-striking week. Just like when Robin Williams passed, there is this void in my life, in my way of knowing God.
One of the most common criticisms of faith I have heard is this: if there is an all-powerful and loving God somewhere out there, why does this God allow horrible things to happen? In a world where there has always been war, sexual violence, starvation and murder, where is this omnipotent God? Why does he allow these things to happen? Where is she when people suffer injustice?
The Bible gives us plenty of examples of the abuses of the faithful, sometimes even at God's own hand (like in the book of Job). We read of the systemic oppression of the Jewish people and the early Christian church. Through this, God's people were always able to remain steadfast in their faith. Forming a defense of faith in God in the face of realized evil is known as theodicy.
So: In a nation where Blacks have been enslaved, lynched, and raped because of their race, and in time where people must declare that “black lives matter,” how do black Americans form their own theodicy to justify this violence, abuse, and systemic oppression?
And is it necessary to do so?
Two years ago I sat in a room crowded with 300 angry people and 700 more outside shouting, as I nervously whispered, “I’ve never been in a room where I’ve felt so much white Christian rage.” My colleague, a pastor from Pulaski, Tenn., nodded as I straightened up in my chair.
The crowd had come from surrounding states to this small community forum in Manchester, Tenn. They came to protest the forum’s concern for hate crimes against Muslims. National Islamophobic groups had bussed protestors in from hundreds of miles away, carrying messages and signs based on an ideology — some might say, theology — of bigotry. And they were truly angry, flashing their handguns and shouting down panelists. This was in the summer of 2013, but the memory still reminds me, why I moved to Tennessee to work on an interfaith public education effort to end anti-Muslim sentiment.
To be clear, these weren’t people who wanted to discuss the complexities of interfaith engagement while holding true to our particular faith claims. There are many people in this country who want to talk, for instance, about what interfaith relations mean for evangelism, or why a small number of Muslims today are turning to terrorism, without generalizing the Muslim community or wanting to see harm done to them. These were not the people at the forum, however. One thing alone had brought them to Manchester: fear.
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.
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.
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.
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.
EVEN AS SOUTHERN states—and GOP candidates—jumped through hoops to distance themselves from the Confederate flag, a backlash erupted among those claiming the flag was merely a symbol of “heritage.” Battle-flag waving Southerners (and Confederacy sympathizers) seemed to leap at the opportunity to wave their banner high.
But what about the rest of us? One of the most profound statements I’ve heard recently came from Rev. Jin Kim, founding pastor of Church of All Nations in Minnesota. This Korean-born pastor stood at the podium of the Sojourners Summit and said with conviction: “I am a white supremacist.”
How can this man, a person of color who’s dedicated his life to ethnic and cultural reconciliation, be a white supremacist? The same way any of us can. After all, at its heart white supremacy is not about white hoods, battle flags, and burning crosses. Those symbols are what we call explicit bias. People know when they are practicing it.
But most often white supremacy is about implicit bias that favors whiteness. It’s about the unconscious associations we make in our minds before we even know we’ve done it. White? Rich. Black? Poor. White? Good. Black? Bad. White? Trustworthy. Black? Scary. You get the idea.
These are the unconscious biases that shape the way we order our lives; the communities we live in, the places we shop, the churches we attend, the leadership from others we accept (or reject), and the policies we support (or don’t).
It’s not hard to fume at the thought of the killer of Mother Emanuel’s Nine. And it feels good to click “like” and share posts calling for the removal of Confederate flags.
But if we stop there, bias beats us. It is the unconscious biases of the masses that keep us from moving forward, not the explicit biases of the few. So, check out this tongue-in-cheek list of four easy ways to be a white supremacist (regardless of your own race).
1. Plan a conference on church planting with a speaker lineup so white it would make Honey Boo Boo blush. And if you want to increase your “diversity,” have one speaker of color (even if he is from India), an Asian emcee, and maybe a black worship leader.
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.
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.