Violence

Taking It to the Streets

AS I ATTENDED seminary in my native Chicago, I heard about one senseless death after another. A six-month-old baby shot multiple times with an assault weapon; a young black girl, with promise and a future, caught in the crossfire—all casualties of gang violence.

This violence is further evidence to me that our theology is needed on the streets. A theology that can impact the crisis facing the black community must be relevant to the black community. Theology can never be disengaged from the history of black people, the “isms” that have oppressed us, and the struggles that have birthed our progress. “Relevancy,” for theology, means moving beyond the academy and the church and into the streets, where it becomes our thinking faith in action.

Does our theology have anything to say to African-American gang girls? The formation of girl gangs is rooted in the numerous social ills affecting many urban African-American communities. By taking our theology to the streets, we can offer African-American gang girls an alternative hope and future. Four theological frameworks can aid in that task.

First, a practical theology—thinking faith in action—that models Jesus’ ministry to the marginalized can reach these girls with the message of God’s compassion, peace, and hope by offering a positive relational sisterhood that can replace gang life.

Second, a public theology that calls for common-sense gun laws and a ban on assault weapons is a Christian ethical imperative that empowers change in public policy and can save the lives of our youth.

Third, our liberation theology is now also a struggle to free the black community from the oppression of violence, and our faith leads us to the liberating task of acting as “interrupters” to the cycles of violence in our communities.

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Forget Swords and Plowshares: Turn Guns Into Guitars

"Disarm" Photo via PedroReyes.net
"Disarm" Photo via PedroReyes.net

Understanding the process of turning an implement of death and violence into a tool for creativity and imagination is one part of the strategy. In doing so, there is hope that participants in such an event will begin to reimagine their own world and how they engage it. After all, true change first begins with imagining the possibility of such transformation.

Further, Reyes hopes to challenge U.S. citizens to consider their relationships with guns, and moreover, the impact that value has on people in other countries. Again, in the NPR story, Reyes explains, “We have to be allowed to ask questions. If you are not allowed to ask questions, you are not free."

 

Moriel Rothman's Spoken Word Poetry

It’s not every day you hear a peacemaker admit to being drawn to violence. But that’s exactly what happens in “Confessions of a Violent Peacemaker” (Sojourners, February 2014), as Moriel Rothman—an Israeli-American resister—writes candidly about his spiritual journey to eschew violence. After nearly a decade of wrestling with his “peacemaker-soldier-student dilemma,” Rothman finds peace with himself by refusing to serve in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). Read more of his story here.

Also, listen to Rothman recite spoken word poetry about his decision to not serve in the IDF.

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Profiles in Courage

Yousef Bashir: Victim of violence, advocate for nonviolence. Photo courtesy of Northeastern University

THE ULTIMATE BRAVERY might well be the courage to forgive one’s enemies and hold on to hope.

Nelson Mandela famously emerged from 27 years in prison as a reconciler and uniter, somehow free from bitterness and hatred. He was able to put into practice Jesus’ call to love our enemies—and thus became the father of the new South Africa.

Far from the upper echelons of power and fame, forgiving our enemies can be a difficult task, since “enemies,” by their very definition, aren’t easy to love. But in places of oppression, occupation, and routine violence, it’s even harder.

Take, for example, the story of a young man named Yousef Bashir. He grew up in the Gaza Strip, near an Israeli settlement known as Kfar Darom. In 2000, Palestinians rose up in protest against the Israeli occupation in what became known as the Second Intifada. In response, Israeli soldiers came to Yousef’s house and told his family to leave.

His father had dedicated his life to teaching Yousef and his brothers “how to coexist with the Israelis,” Yousef explained over lunch in Philadelphia early this winter, and he insisted on staying in their long-time family home. As a result, Yousef said, Israeli soldiers moved into the Bashir family’s house when he was 11 years old. They occupied the house until he was 15.

“Every night the soldiers would come down, gather the whole family, and put us in the living room,” Yousef said. “Then they locked the door—sometimes for days or weeks. I had to ask the soldiers for permission to go to the bathroom and the kitchen. I was imprisoned in my own living room.”

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Confessions of a Violent Peacemaker

What a relief it would be to dwell in [faith] communities where we acknowledge our shadows in a healthy acceptance of ourselves as containers of all the opposites! It may prove beneficial to be forced to face, daily, the humiliating fact that some of us are no less violent than those whose policies we oppose.

—Walter Wink, Engaging the Powers

I AM A conscientious objector, and I am drawn to violence. My attraction to violence is both innate and learned. When something frightens me, my hands clench into fists. When something angers me, I want to inflict pain upon that thing. But a person cannot inflict pain upon a thing, so I seek out those whom I deem responsible for said thing and my desire to inflict pain upon a thing morphs into a desire to do violence to another person. Since I was a child, I have fantasized about using violence to stop what I see as bad and thereby become good.

It is from this point—from these fantasies of righteous violence—that I begin this essay on my journey to principled nonviolence and conscientious objection. This is a story of change and choice, but it is not a story of transformation: I am who I have always been.

In fall 2012, I spent three weeks in Israeli military prison for refusing to enlist in the Israel Defense Forces. (Every Israeli citizen, except for the ultra-Orthodox and Palestinian citizens of Israel, must serve in the military.) My sentence was brief, but the process that brought me to the prison’s gates took almost a decade.

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From the Archives: February 1976

IN TERMS, America has tried to heal itself. The Civil War took place in the 1860s. The civil rights movement took place in the 1960s. From America’s two biggest domestic conflicts emerge three main elements: the first, a group of people, primarily white, the majority and ruling group in society. Let’s call this group the “Land of the Free”; the second, also a group of people, but a minority, primarily black, originally from Africa, the “Other America”; and the third element of our simplified history is the slavery and poverty that divides the first group from the second and which we will call the “Wall.” ...

There are several questions I must ask myself if I am to be a Christian in America today. One that gives me a great sense of urgency is this: “If change only comes after confrontation and violence, what type of confrontation is needed to make the country livable for all people?”

The problems in the Other America are so deep and rooted spiritually as well as educationally, socially, and economically that it will take a supernatural power to deal with them short of violence. That power can only be released through people committed to a love that mobilizes all of their skills, resources, and much of their time and life in the struggle. That power is to be released through the church, “the fullness of God who fills all in all” (Ephesians 1:23).

John Perkins was a Sojourners contributing editor and president of Voice of Calvary when this article appeared.

Image: Hand caught between walls, Vlue / Shutterstock.com

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When the Fighting Stops

MARIE-LOUISE IS a 34-year-old single mother of three living in Bujumbura, the capital of the southeast African nation of Burundi. When she was 15 years old, she joined a rebel movement during the civil war in her country. “Following my demobilization,” she said, “my family welcomed me back warmly, but my neighbors did not think much of me. I still go around with a firearm ... Even my old friends find it hard to trust me. I have been branded because I am a female ex-combatant.”

Around the world, several armed conflicts are showing signs of winding down, at long last—there is renewed hope that the M23 rebel group in the Democratic Republic of Congo will stop fighting; the government and the FARC rebels in Colombia are making progress in negotiations toward peace after 65 years of civil war; the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front have agreed on a pact to end the fighting.

These events bring into focus the tremendous challenge of reintegrating former combatants into society. The process is especially difficult when they have been forced to commit atrocities against their own people. Think of Guatemala, Sierra Leone, and Cambodia, to name just a few.

The unique characteristics of each conflict make generalizations difficult, but in the stabilization and peace-building process, attention must be given to a complex of transitional justice issues, such as truth-telling and accountability for human rights violations. Other important factors include disarmament, the reintegration and rehabilitation of former combatants, security sector reform, economic justice and jobs, gender equality, the impact of the armed conflict on children (including child soldiers), and the political context.

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VIDEO: The Poet of Poverty

As Andrea Ferich writes in “Digging” in the December 2013 issue, Camden, N.J. is a city of poverty and violence, with more than 40 murders taking place in one neighborhood in the last half-century.

Yet Camden is also a place where “we find our way toward beauty amidst the violence,” Ferich writes. At Sacred Heart Church in Camden, Father Michael Doyle pursues that beauty through poetry and prose. For years he has documented the despair and hope of Camden in monthly letters to friends.

“Poet of Poverty,” a 2008 film, journeys with Camden through the Father’s letters. In this excerpt, Martin Sheen reads the Father’s poem “The Dolphins Danced on Arlington.”

Poet of Poverty from Greenroom Productions on Vimeo.

Seven children were splashing in cascading water like shining wet dolphins in the sun. Somehow, they had hauled a discarded hot tub from Adventure Spas on Chelton Avenue, opened a fire hydrant and the powerful pressure sent the water upward on an old sheet of plywood into the tub and sent the children into ecstasies of delight in spite of all the awful misery around them…Nothing could daunt the wild surge of their young lives and hopes. What is it about hope! Does its real inspiration only rise out of the tragic emptiness to take its pure and unsupported stand against all odds?

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Digging

Monsignor Michael Doyle of Sacred Heart Church in Camden, N.J.

OUR BODIES AND the land are one. Move the earth with your body, dance on it, farm in it, play with it; our final return to it is sacred. The soil is made of clay, like you and me—hydrocarbon molecules, layers of geological and muscular formations, alive. The soil, mountains, and valleys are layered with time like our layered muscle tissue. We dance on the earth in the face of death, for the healing of ourselves and the healing of the land, connected as farmers, dancers, painters, musicians, and lovers of the goodness of the good green earth moving through lament. Our bodies and the earth are one and their healing and grieving are interconnected.

January 2011, around the corner from my house, Anjaneah Williams was murdered, across the street from Sacred Heart Church, pierced in the side, at 2 p.m., walking out from a sandwich shop. It was a Thursday. She died six hours later at Cooper Hospital in the arms of her mother, before the children who deeply loved her. One of the gunman’s stray bullets shot across the street through the stained glass at Sacred Heart. Anjaneah’s death reverberated in the air, an exploding, echoing canyon; a screaming mother in a vacuum, unheard and deafening. Her murder was one of 40 in the neighborhood in the near half-century since the shipyard closed. Forty people on the sidewalks, on the lots where houses once stood, in a neighborhood with 28 known environmentally contaminated sites.

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Grief, Courage, and Perseverance

swatchandsoda / Shutterstock
swatchandsoda / Shutterstock

[Editor's note: This article first appeared in our December 2013 issue to commemorate the one year anniversary of the Sandy Hook shooting.]

IN THE YEAR since the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., last Dec. 14, thousands more have died by gun violence, and the NRA seems to stymie sane firearm measures at every turn. How do we stave off despair, hold on to hope, and keep moving forward when the odds feel overwhelming? —The Editors

Bigger Than Politics
What do we say to those who are weary?
       

by Brian Doyle

WHAT WOULD I SAY to those who are weary of assault rifles mowing down children of all ages, every few months, for as long as we can remember now? Oregon Colorado Wisconsin Pennsylvania Connecticut Texas Massachusetts Minnesota Virginia do I need to go on? I would say that this is bigger than politics. I would say this is about money. I would say Isn’t it interesting that we are the biggest weapons exporter on the planet? I would say that we lie when we say children are the most important things in our society. I would say that the next time a tall oily smarmy confident beautifully suited beautifully coiffed glowing candidate for office says the words family values, someone tosses an assault rifle on the stage with a small note attached to it that reads Is this more important than a kindergarten kid?

We all are Dawn and Mary in our hearts and why we wait until hell and horror are in front of us to unleash our glorious wild defiant courage is a mystery to me.

I would also say, quietly, that this is bigger than rage and anger and snarling at idiots who pretend to hide behind the Constitution. I would say this is also about poor twisted lonely lost bent young men no one paid attention to, no one really cared about. And I would say that people like Dawn Hochsprung and Mary Scherlach, who ran right at the bent twisted kid with the rifle in Newtown, are the flash of hope and genius here. Those are the people I will celebrate on Dec. 14. There are a lot of people like Dawn Hochsprung and Mary Scherlach, may they rest in peace. We all are Dawn and Mary in our hearts and why we wait until hell and horror are in front of us to unleash our glorious wild defiant courage is a mystery to me. But it’s there. And there are a lot of days when I think the whole essence of Christianity, the actual real no kidding reason the skinny Jewish man sparked the most stunning possible revolution in history, is to gently insistently relentlessly edge us away from our savagely violent past into a future where Dawn and Mary are who we are, and you visit guns in museums, and war is a joke, and defiant peace is what we say to each other all blessed day long.

Brian Doyle is the editor of Portland Magazine at the University of Portland (Oregon) and the author most recently of The Thorny Grace of It, a collection of spiritual essays.

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An Insanity of Rationality
This spiritual disease thrives on violence and calls it good.
     

by Joan Chittister, OSB

THERE IS A MADNESS abroad in the land, hiding behind the Constitution, brazenly ignoring the suffering of many who, over the years, have died in its defense, and operating under the banner of rationality. It’s a rare form of spiritual disease that thrives on violence and calls it good.

They want a proper response to violence, they tell us, and, most interesting of all, they insist that only violence can control violence. If “the good guys” have guns, this argument goes, “the bad guys” won’t be able to do any harm.

The hope? The hope lies only in those who refuse to feed this addiction to violence.

This particular insanity of rationality argues that violence is an antidote to violence. Then why do we find scant proof of that anywhere? Why, for instance, hasn’t it worked in Syria, we might ask. And where was the good of it in Iraq, the land of our own misadventures, where the weapons of mass destruction we went to disarm did not even exist and the people who died in the crossfire of that insanity had not harbored bin Laden. So how much peace through violencehave all the good guys on all sides really achieved?

The insanity of rationality says it is only reasonable to arm a population to defend itself against itself. And so, day after day, the level of violence rises around us as hunting rifles and small pistols turn into larger and larger weapons of our private little wars.

Clearly this particular piece of childish logic has yet to quell the gang violence in Chicago. It didn’t even work on an army base in Texas where, we must assume, the place was loaded with legal weapons.

What’s more, it does nothing to save the lives of the good guy’s children, who pick up the good guy’s guns at the age of 2 and 3 and 4 years old and turn them on the good guy fathers who own them.

So the mayhem only increases while white men in business suits insist that their civil rights have been impugned, their right to defend themselves has been taken from them, and more guns, larger guns, insanely damaging guns are the answer. Instead of hiring more police officers, they argue that arming students and teachers themselves, nonprofessionals, will do more to maintain calm and control the damage in situations specifically designed to cause chaos than waiting for security personnel would do.

It is that kind of creeping irrationality that threatens us all.

And in the end, it is a sad commentary on our society. We have now become the most violent country in the world while our industries collapse, our educational system declines, women are denied healthcare, our infrastructure is falling apart, and there’s more money to be made selling drugs in this country than in teaching school. No wonder gun pushers fear for their lives and sell the drug that promises the security it cannot possibly give while the country is becoming more desperate for peace and security by the day.

The hope? The hope lies only in those who refuse to feed this addiction to violence. These are they who remember again that we follow the one who said “Peter, put away your sword” when it was his own life that was at stake.

The hope is you and me. Or not.

Joan Chittister, OSB, a Sojourners contributing editor, is executive director of Benetvision, author of 47 books, and co-chair of the Global Peace Initiative of Women.

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