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GIVING THANKS

Daily we are reminded of the very real forces which threaten to dismantle our democratic way of life, which scapegoat the most vulnerable members of society, which seem to have little to no regard for the preservation of life on our planet. In this climate many of us struggle to keep hope alive and our spirits high. Over the past several years Theology & Peace has been fortunate to encounter a number of inspiring figures who, in the face of adversity, continue to persevere for the good of us all. In this season of gratitude, let’s remember and give thanks for their compassion, their vision and their strength.

FOR SPEAKING TRUTH TO POWER:

kelly-brown-douglas-110x150The Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas is an Episcopal Priest and Canon Theologian at the National Cathedral in Washington D.C. She is the Susan D. Morgan Distinguished Professor of Religion at Goucher College in Baltimore. She is a leader in the field of womanist theology, racial reconciliation and sexuality and the black church. She uses Girard as one of the few white thinkers able to illuminate the experience of the black body. She has authored Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God (2015), What’s Faith Got To Do With It?: Black Bodies/Christian Souls (2005), which explores the black body as the key reality where struggle for black identity, faith and freedom takes place, Sexuality and the Black Church: A Womanist Perspective (1999), and  The Black Christ (1993).

Dr. Angela Sims is Robert B. and Kathleen Rogers Associate Professor in Church and Society, and Associate Professor of Ethics and Black Church Studies at Saint Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, Missouri. She holds a doctorate in Christian Social Ethics from Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia. Principal investigator for an oral history project, Remembering Lynching: Strategies of Resistance and Visions of Justice her research has been supported by the Ford Foundation, the Womanist Scholars Program at the Interdenominational Theological Center, the Louisville Institute, the Wabash Center for Teaching and Learning in Theology and Religion, and the Institute for Oral History at Baylor University. Dr. Sims is the author of Ethical Complications of Lynching: Ida B. Wells’s Interrogation of American Terror (2010), and co-author with F. Douglas Powe, Jr. and Johnny Bernard Hill of Religio-Political Narratives in America From Martin Luther King, Jr. through Jeremiah Wright (2013), and co-editor with Katie Geneva Cannon and Emilie M. Townes of Womanist Theological Ethics: A Reader (2011). A native of Louisiana, Dr. Sims is an ordained National Baptist clergywoman.

Julia RobinsonDr. Julia Robinson Moore teaches courses in African American Religion, Religions of the African Diaspora, and racial violence in America at UNC Charlotte. She uses Girard in her courses, has presented twice at COV&R conferences on the theme of lynching, and is recognized as a significant voice applying mimetic theory in the traumatic area of race in the United States.  Her first book titled, Race, Religion, and the Pulpit: Reverend Robert L. Bradby and the Making of Urban Detroit (2015) explores how Bradby’s church became the catalyst for economic empowerment, community-building, and the formation of an urban African American working class in Detroit. Her second book project, Overcoming Race in the Faith: Black Presbyterians in the New South speaks to the complexities of black and white race relations in the New South through the sacred context of the Presbyterian Church. Her third book project is titled, Corruptions in Christianity: Dismantling Racial and Religious Violence in Global Contexts. This work addresses the complicated and destructive nature of racial and religious violence in Africa, Europe, and the United States. It reveals how various mainstream Protestant organizations have sanctioned state and local violence in name of Christ.

FOR JUSTICE FOR PEOPLE AND POLICE:

Neill Franklin LEAPMajor Neill Franklin (Ret.) is a 34-year veteran of both the Maryland State Police and the Baltimore Police Department who oversaw 17 separate drug task forces and is now Executive Director of Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP), an organization of police, prosecutors, judges and other law enforcement officials who want to end the war on drugs. The Law Enforcement Action Partnership’s mission is to unite and mobilize the voice of law enforcement in support of drug policy and criminal justice reforms that will make communities safer by focusing law enforcement resources on the greatest threats to public safety, promoting alternatives to arrest and incarceration, addressing the root causes of crime, and working toward healing police-community relations. Read more about Neill Franklin here

Christine MummaChristine Mumma teaches at UNC’s School of Law and is Executive Director of the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence (nccai.org), which coordinates the work of North Carolina Law School Innocence Projects, which studies and identifies solutions for causation issues associated with wrongful convictions. Instrumental in fighting for criminal justice reform in North Carolina, Chris has spearheaded legislation on eyewitness identification, the recording of interrogations, preservation of biological evidence, enhanced support for exonerees, and the establishment of the only Innocence Inquiry Commission in the United States. She represented Dwayne Dail, Joseph Abbitt, Greg Taylor, Willie Grimes, Larry Lamb, and Joseph Sledge in their successful post-conviction proceedings.

The Rev. Alexander E. Sharp is Executive Director of Clergy for a New Drug Policy. He has been working on criminal justice issues for 15 years. He served as the founding executive director of Protestants for the Common Good from 1996 through June 2012. He and colleague Walter Boyd joined the early efforts in Illinois to provide a second chance for those seeking to re-build their lives after prison. They were struck by how many individuals, predominantly African American and Hispanic, were incarcerated for low-level drug offenses. They began to challenge the War on Drugs.

FOR PRISON OUTREACH:

Preston Shipp served as an appellate prosecutor in the Tennessee Attorney General’s office. While serving as a religious volunteer and teaching college classes in Tennessee prisons, he became good friends with many people who were incarcerated, one of whom he had actually prosecuted. These relationships caused Preston to wake up to the many injustices that are present in the American system of mass incarceration. Preston felt increasing conflict between his faith in Jesus, who was executed as a criminal, and his role as a prosecutor, which required him to argue for the punishment of people he did not know. Unable to serve two masters, Preston left his career as an appellate prosecutor in 2008. Since then, he has taught in universities and churches, lectured at conferences, and written about the urgent needs for criminal justice reform, a shift in how we regard imprisoned people, and a new vision of justice that seeks healing, transformation, and reconciliation, not merely the infliction of suffering. Preston’s conversion from prosecutor to criminal justice reform advocate has left him convinced that his salvation is bound up with that of his friends behind bars. Preston lives in Nashville with his wife Sherisse and their three children, Lila Joy, Ruby Faith, and Levi.

Rahim Buford is a man of passion and purpose who uses his voice and personal experiences to make a difference in the lives of others – from young people to veteran lawmakers. He is a formerly incarcerated social justice advocate from Nashville, Tennessee. Rahim was paroled in 2015 after being locked up for 26 consecutive calendar years. While in prison, he acquired certifications from numerous educational institutions and became a leader in SALT (Schools for Alternative Learning and Transformation). He received a Presidential scholarship at American Baptist College and loves being in college. Now a consultant organizer for Children’s Defense Fund Nashville Team and ICAN (Incarcerated Children’s Advocacy Network)member. Rahim self-published his book, Save Your Own Life, utilizing simple prose, poetry, reflection and writing exercises for youth battling the “cradle-to-pipeline.” He founded Unheard Voice Outreach to connect with at-risk youth and to assist individuals affected be incarceration. Rahim facilitates critical reading, writing, and dialogue sessions at the Metro juvenile detention center on Thursdays. Watch Rahim’s Story on YouTube

Andrew McKenna PH.D. teaches literature and scripture to prison inmates as a volunteer for Kairos Prison Ministry. Andrew is professor of French language and Literature at Loyola University Chicago and a member of the Anthropoetics editorial board. He is the author of Violence and Difference: Girard, Derrida, and Deconstruction (1992), as well as of numerous articles on Molière, Pascal, Racine, Montesquieu, Baudelaire, Flaubert, Fellini, and critical theory. From 1996 through 2006, he was editor in chief of Contagion: Journal of Violence, Mimesis, and Culture. He is a founding board member of The Raven Foundation and of Imitatio, foundations devoted to research and education in mimetic anthropology.

FOR BUILDING COMMUNITY AT THE MARGINS:

Elder CW Harris is the founder of Intersection of Change (formerly Newborn Holistic Ministries), a community-based nonprofit focused on community development in west Baltimore. The organization is dedicated to providing programs that enrich the economic, social and spiritual lives of those dealing with poverty related issues in the Sandtown-Winchester and surrounding communities.

Work to date has resulted in significant neighborhood revitalization of the 1900 and 2000 blocks of Pennsylvania Avenue through the full renovation of six previously vacant and dilapidated buildings, transformation of 18 vacant lots into community green spaces and meditative gardens, and the creation of a dozen neighborhood murals. Programs by Intersection of Change include:

  • Martha’s Place: A recovery program for women overcoming drug addiction and homelessness that offers both a six-month transitional phase as well as a long-term independent housing phase. The program helps women achieve sobriety while maintaining a job and housing and serves approximately 50 women per year.
  • Jubilee Arts: A comprehensive art program that offers alternative to the dangers of drugs and violence in the community. Jubilee Arts provides art classes (in ceramics, visual arts, dance, and writing) six days a week and cultural activities to both children and adults and serves approximately 1,500 people annually.

CW Harris is the recipient of the 2017 Whitney M. Young, Jr. Award.

Becca Stevens is an author, speaker, Episcopal priest, and social entrepreneur. She is founder and president of Thistle Farms. After experiencing the death of her father and subsequent child abuse when she was 5, Becca longed to open a sanctuary for survivors offering a loving community. In 1997, five women who had experienced trafficking, violence, and addiction were welcomed home. Twenty years later, the organization continues to welcome women with free residence that provide housing, medical care, therapy and education for two years. Residents and graduates earn income through one of four social enterprises. The Global Market of Thistle Farms helps employ more than 1,800 women worldwide, and the national network has more than 40 sister communities. She is author of Love Heals (2017), Letters From the Farm: A Simple Path for a Deeper Spiritual Life (2015), Snake Oil: The Art of Healing and Truth-Telling (2014), The Way of Tea and Justice (2015), and Sanctuary: Unexpected Places Where God Found Me (2005).

Vince BantuVince Bantu is Visiting Professor of Missiology and Director of the City Ministry Initiative at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis. He directs local networks such as the Inter-Minority Dialogue, Minority Scholars of Religion and Theology, and the African American Interfaith Dialogue of St. Louis, and serves as pastor of education at Outpour Evangelical Presbyterian Church in St. Louis. Since 2004 Vince has led conference workshops for the Christian Community Development Association (CCDA).  He has participated in the Emerging Leaders Cohort, and is a founding member and contributing author of CCDA’s Theological Committee.

FOR PEACEMAKING AND RECONCILIATION:

Jonathan Brenneman and Christian Peacemaker Teams. Jonathan is Coordinator, Israel/Palestine Partners in Peacemaking, Mennonite Church USA. He  comes from a long line of Mennonites on his father’s side and a prominent Palestinian Christian family on his mother’s side. He grew up in a small town in Ohio. After attending Huntington University, where he studied History and Philosophy, he worked with Christian Peacemaker Teams Palestine (CPT) Project in Hebron. CPT’s mission is to build partnerships to transform violence and oppression. Jonathan worked on the ground with Palestinian and Israeli peacemakers, and organized in the USA to challenge oppressive Israeli policies. Most recently Jonathan completed a master’s degree in Peace Studies at Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute. That program included a six month internship with Ndifuna Ukwazi in Cape Town South Africa, an organization which advocates for more just land policies. He currently works for Mennonite Church USA, coordinating educational opportunities about Israel-Palestine.

Vern Neufeld Redekop is a Full Professor in the School of Conflict Studies at Saint Paul University, Ottawa. His involvement in training and program development has taken him to Indigenous communities in Canada as well as to Bosnia and Herzegovina, Sudan, Taiwan and other countries. His theoretical and practical insights found expression in
his book, From Violence to Blessing: How anUnderstanding of Deep-Rooted Conflict Can Open Paths to Reconciliation (2002), which included two chapters devoted to mimetic theory and scapegoating respectively and was organized around the concepts of mimetic structures of violence and mimetic structures of blessing. Subsequent research has focused on protest crowds and police, resulting in (with Shirley Paré) Beyond Control: A Mutual Respect Approach to Protest Crowd – Police Relations (2010). Oxford University Press has published Introduction to Conflict Studies: Empirical, Theoretical, and Ethical Dimensions (2012), which he co-authored with Jean-Francois Rioux. He editor with Thomas Ryba of René Girard and Creative Mimesis  (2013) and René Girard and Creative Reconciliation (2014). Current research focuses on Spirituality, Emergent Creativity, and Reconciliation and Community Dialogue processes on Social Reconciliation and Economic Development.

FOR VOICES OF WISDOM & SANITY:

Sereta Richardson is a US Army Veteran and a former Mississippi Police Officer. She is an eloquent speaker on issues of racism, trauma, social justice, and her personal experiences as a veteran and a police officer. She has spoken twice at the Annual Theology & Peace Conference, including in 2016 as a Plenary Presenter on Circle Process. She is a tireless advocate for victims of racial discrimination and violence. At present she is an active voice on social media for the release of Cyntoia Brown, a juvenile victim of sex trafficking sentenced to a life in prison for killing her abuser.

The Raven Foundation was established in January 2007 by co-founders Keith Ross and Suzanne Ross. In addition to the Rosses, the Foundation is staffed by Adam Ericksen, Maura Junius and Lindsey Paris-Lopez.  The Raven Foundation is committed to making religion reasonable, violence unthinkable and peace a possibility by spreading awareness of the transformative power of mimetic theory. Their goal is to foster peaceful individuals and harmonious communities that will reject scapegoating and violence as ways to form identity and achieve real and lasting peace. Their primary outreach is through hosting The Raven ReView blog that provides social commentary on current events, politics, religion, scandals, and popular entertainment. They also hold live events for the public to learn directly from scholars applying mimetic theory to literature, religion, history, psychology or peacemaking. Recently The Raven Foundation celebrated their 10th Anniversary with a workshop, “Hard Times for Truth”.

Brian Robinette, Ph.D. is Associate Professor and Co-director of the Joint MA in Philosophy and Theology at Boston College. He taught at Saint Louis University (2003-2012). He obtained his Ph.D. in Systematic Theology from the University of Notre Dame in 2003. Having twice appeared as a Plenary Speaker at the Annual Theology & Peace Conference, Brian has shared his work integrating mimetic theory with Christian contemplative practice. Distilling the wisdom of the desert monastics and contemporary teachers like Belden Lane and Martin Laird, Brian has described multiple ways contemplative practice loosens mimetic binds, freeing us from rivalry with our neighbors in order that we may truly love them.  He is author of  Grammars of Resurrection: A Christian Theology of Presence and Absence (2009), which won awards from the Catholic Press Association and the College Theology Society, and two pivotal essays: “Contemplative Practice and the Therapy of Mimetic Desire,” in Contagion 24 [2017], and “Deceit, Desire, and the Desert: René Girard’s Mimetic Theory in Conversation with Early Monastic Practice,” in Violence, Transformation, and The Sacred: “They shall be called Children of God” ed. Margaret Pfeil and Tobias L. Winright (2011). He has also published several articles, including on the thought of Thomas Merton, Jean-Luc Marion, Charles Taylor, and René Girard. He lives in Needham, Massachusetts with his wife and two sons.

Brian McLaren is an author, speaker, activist, and public theologian. A former college English teacher and pastor, he is a passionate advocate for “a new kind of Christianity” – just, generous, and working with people of all faiths for the common good. Brian has appeared twice as a plenary speaker at the Annual Theology & Peace Conference, including in 2015 when he presented on Compassionate Economics. He is an Auburn Senior Fellow and a leader in the Convergence Network, through which he is developing an innovative training/mentoring program for pastors, church planters, and lay leaders called Convergence Leadership Project. He works closely with the Center for Progressive Renewal/Convergence, the Wild Goose Festival and the Fair Food Program‘s Faith Working Group. 

There are many more we could identify as sources of hope and inspiration and there are many more who work tirelessly without recognition or reward! Thank you!

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Preston Shipp on Discipleship at the Cross-Section of Faith and Life, Part 1

Preston Shipp delivered the following keynote address at the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America South Carolina Synod Rostered Leaders’ Convocation on October 23-25.

Former Tennessee Appellate Court Prosecutor Preston Shipp

First of all, please accept my deep thanks for inviting me to join you for this gathering. I count it a great honor to be in the company of many good Lutherans here at the 500th anniversary of the publication of the 95 theses.

I like the title that you have chosen for this retreat, Discipleship at the Cross-Section of Faith and Life. The cross is a powerful symbol of sacrifice, and often when Jesus speaks about discipleship, he speaks in terms of taking up the cross. So as I think about the point at which our faith intersects with our “secular” lives, as if any part of life could be secular, I think about what sacrifices are we called to and willing to make at that point. During my first address to you, I would like to simply share how this played out in my own experience, how my discipleship came into conflict with my career choice, and how Jesus screwed up by best-laid plans for myself.

Franciscan priest Richard Rohr writes,

If we are not marginalized ourselves in some way, we normally need to associate with some marginalized group to have an enlightened Gospel perspective and to be converted to compassion.

The United States has an immense population of marginalized people locked away in its prisons. It is the largest prison population in the history of the world, approximately 2.3 million people. As a result of America’s war on drugs, which has been waged over the past four decades and disproportionately against poor people of color, many of these people are serving long sentences for nonviolent crimes. The collateral damage, both emotional and financial, of such mass incarceration to children, spouses, and entire communities cannot be calculated. Poet Adrienne Rich once said that war represents “an absolute failure of imagination,” and I believe the same can be said of our criminal justice policies, not to mention an absolute lack of compassion.

I first became acquainted with people who are imprisoned not from a position of solidarity, but from an antagonistic point of view. I was a prosecutor in the Tennessee Attorney General’s Office. I first knew that I wanted to be a career prosecutor during my junior year of college. I had obtained an internship in the local district attorney’s office, and when I saw the prosecutors in action – giving orders to police officers, negotiating with defense counsel, questioning witnesses, arguing their cases in court, comforting victims and their families – I was sold. Prosecutors were the “good guys,” wearing the white hats, vindicating victims, enforcing the law, making society safe by putting the bad guys in jail. Walter Wink talks about the myth of redemptive violence, and I bought into the myth. These people needed to be punished for what they had done. I distinctly remember one day in particular when I overheard a young prosecutor ask the defense attorney, during a break in the trial of an especially heinous case, how he could defend such a miserable blight to society and sleep at night. How indeed, I wondered. Who wouldn’t want to wear the white hat? I knew which side I wanted to practice on.

So I went to law school solely to become a prosecutor. I took every criminal law, criminal procedure, trial advocacy, and evidence course the law school offered. I spent a summer clerking in the local prosecutor’s office. Every step was calculated to prepare me for my career as a white knight. When I finally accepted a position as an appellate prosecutor in the Tennessee Attorney General’s Office, I felt like I had achieved my dream.
What does an appellate prosecutor do?

Day after day, month after month, year after year, I drafted briefs and made arguments to the court about people I did not know. They had broken the law, and they needed to be punished. Although I knew almost nothing about these people, I was convinced that I was right and they were wrong; I was good and they were bad. Our criminal justice system, like all authorities, thrives on these us-them dichotomies. There are good people and bad people. The people on whose cases I worked were bad people, criminals – murderers, rapists, robbers, thieves. I was one of the good guys, a prosecutor. Other good guys, who were labeled judges, helped decide the cases. Even the people who were most directly affected by crime were labelled victims, and they enjoyed little or no say in how the case was resolved. In these systems, there is a category and label for everyone.

My friend and professor of religion at Belmont University David Dark has this to say about labelling people in his new book:

When I label people, I no longer have to deal with them thoughtfully. I no longer have to feel overwhelmed by their complexity, the lives they live, the dreams they have. I know exactly where they are inside – or forever outside – my field of care, because they’ve been taken care of. The mystery of their existence has been solved and filed away before I’ve had a chance to be moved by them or even begun to catch a glimpse of who they might be. They’ve been neutralized. There’s hardly any action quite so undemanding, so utterly unimaginative, as the affixing of a label. It’s the costliest of mental shortcuts. ~ Life’s Too Short to Pretend You’re Not Religious

This is how the criminal justice system, like all systems, institutions, principalities and powers, tends to operate. And I played along.

Furthermore, because I was primarily responsible for prosecuting appeals, after the trial has already taken place, I had virtually no interaction with the defendants in the cases because they were often already serving their sentences. As a result, they were names without faces, they were a trial transcript that I had to read, a legal brief I had to write, and argument to make, a case to win. All I knew about them was the worst thing they had ever done. In retrospect, I can see what a dangerous position that is for a Christian to be in, called as we are not to judge lest we be judged and to love our neighbors as ourselves, and of course the Lord himself self-identified with prisoners. But I experienced no angst whatsoever. Like a lot of people, I had my life pretty conveniently compartmentalized, with the faith compartment not intersecting with the career compartment. Moreover, I was on the right side after all, helping punish evil deeds. I slept well at night.

All of this began to change for me in the spring of 2007, when my old college history professor Richard Goode called me about teaching the inaugural class in a prison college program. Inspired by the great Baptist minister, civil rights activist, and prison abolitionist Will Campbell, Dr. Goode was launching a program modeled after one that had been started at the Vanderbilt Divinity School by the great restorative justice pioneer, Harmon Wray. Richard’s vision was to take 15 university undergraduates to the Tennessee Prison for Women to study alongside 15 prisoners. Unlike the Vanderbilt program, the inmates would actually be enrolled as Lipscomb students and would be earning college credit toward a degree. And he figured what better class with which to begin than Judicial Process, as the very subject matter named the elephant in the room – half of the class had little to no experience with the criminal justice system, and the other half knew it intimately well, as the system was responsible for their incarceration, the division he hoped in some small way to overcome. And who better to teach it than a young prosecutor who was a bit too sure of himself? Looking back, I suspect Richard knew that it would be me who would learn the most from the experience.

So with fear and trembling, I started teaching my first college class in a prison. We had 15 bright-eyed, rich, spoiled college kids taking a class alongside 15 people that the State had condemned as unworthy to exist in the larger society. The inmates were awfully nervous at first about whether they would be able to do college coursework. For some of them, this was their first college class. Many of them were the first person in their family to attend college. Would they fail and be embarrassed one more time? And they were concerned as to how the traditional students would perceive them. Would they be judgmental upon seeing all of the prison garb? Would they be treated with scorn again as they had been in the past, according to their crime? Those inmates were putting a lot on the line.

The traditional students had their own apprehensions. None of them had ever been inside a prison before. Prisons are designed to be intimidating to insiders and outsiders alike. Those walls serve as much to keep people locked out as they do to keep people locked in. The first time you receive a pat down from a guard is a little nerve racking. Then they had to listen to a volunteer orientation about what do to in the event of an emergency, such as a hostage situation. As we took our seats, the traditional college kids were shaken, to say the least.

So we were all a little on edge that first night. Hoping a little honesty might ease the tension, I asked the class what we were nervous about on our first night. Fortunately for us all, one quick-witted inmate, knowing what the outside students had just gone through during the orientation, quipped, “I’m nervous that one of these college kids is going to take me hostage!” Thanks be to God, she broke the ice, and we began.

It quickly became clear to me that the coursework was just the picture frame, just a context. We could easily have been studying literature or history or anything else. The real work was bringing outside students and inside students into the same room and letting them get to know each other. Richard was using academics to carve out a little space where the lines that divide us, in this case, literal fences and razor wire, didn’t count for as much. He was hoping to build a little “demonstration plot,” for reconciliation, to use Clarence Jordan’s term. After all, if there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, insider nor outsider, if all is one in Christ Jesus and we are all made in the image of God, then those prison uniforms and identification numbers and strip searches and all the rest of the casual indignities, the dehumanizing reminders that prisons use to try and strip people of their dignity and personhood are a form of blasphemy, to use religious language.

Jean Vanier, founder of the L’Arche community, puts it this way,

There exists a gap between the so-called ‘normal’ world and the people who have been pushed aside, put into institutions, excluded from our societies . . . This gap is a place of invitation in which we [are called] to respond . . . the gospel vision . . . is a vision of unity, peace and acceptance. It is a promise that the walls between people and between groups can fall.

This was Richard’s attempt to start tearing down a mighty big wall.

It turns out that I didn’t know too much about the criminal justice system at all. I knew how to make an argument in court, I knew about the laws of search and seizure and how Tennessee’s sentencing structure worked, I knew everything I needed to know to do my job. But never before had I contemplated the legitimacy of an adversarial system that seeks only to punish, never to heal. I had never before thought about the ways that our criminal code makes an abstraction out of very concrete harm that people suffer, the ways we push the victims and offenders to the side while legal professionals take center stage, and the ways in which the system preponderates against a true experience of justice, including answering victims’ questions, having offenders apologize and take responsibility for their wrongs and work toward a resolution. The system doles out retribution and calls it justice, and I was complicit in the process.

I learned a lot from those 15 remarkable inmates in that first class. Although many of them had committed terrible, violent crimes, to a person they were all more than their worst moment, as are we all. They were kind, compassionate, articulate, women with the potential to do great good. Although many of them had not been in school in decades, they consistently outperformed the traditional students. They were hungry to learn; they did not take education for granted. They recognized the opportunity that Lipscomb had given them and they were determined to make the most of it. They were diligent and conscientious in their studies. They proved themselves quite up to the task of being university students. They blossomed and grew in confidence. They told their stories. And listening to their stories was the most impactful part of the class.

I was accustomed to reading a defendant’s case in a cold trial transcript. But trials seldom tell the whole story or paint a complete picture. The stories I heard from these women often involved prior abuse at the hands of a spouse or boyfriend, substance abuse, and finally a violent episode. Crime does not occur in a vacuum. Each woman had a heartbreaking story to tell of feeling trapped, hopeless, and desperate. Juries do not hear all of these details. And I was confronted with the realization that had I been in their shoes, I may not have acted any differently. The good/bad, us/them dichotomy was obliterated. I came to see that we are all pretty much the same.

Tennessee Prison for Women

 

As firmly as I had believed in the system as a young prosecutor, I was becoming increasingly convinced that the system was like a broken assembly line. The more I learned about the sheer size of the prison population; the number of people serving long sentences for nonviolent crimes; the way that the system discriminates against people of color at every stage of the process from arrest through sentencing; the way that the system not only fails to rehabilitate offenders, but actually makes it harder for them to move forward and succeed by denying them the right to vote, access to public assistance, and opportunities for education and employment, the more I came to hate the work I was called upon to do every day. How could I write another brief? I felt like I was betraying my new ideals of healing, redemption, forgiveness, mercy, and second chances, all of which should have been my ideals from the beginning, and also betraying my new friends.
I felt a bit like Nicodemus, or even Paul.

I taught in the program again in 2009. By this time, I had become so convinced that the criminal justice system is broken, and I had so come to identify with my new friends in prison, that I had to leave my career as a prosecutor. This had been more than a career decision. It was a discipleship decision. Those old compartments of mine had crumbled. I could no longer hear about redemption on Sunday and serve as an agent of retribution on Monday. I could no longer read Jesus’ instruction to care for prisoners while arguing in favor of imprisoning them. I was a cog in a wheel that was broken, and it was crushing individuals, families, and communities. I could no longer hold my career in tension with what I had come to understand to be a gospel imperative, so I quit my job.

As I started teaching for the second time at the prison, I got to know a young woman named Cyntoia Brown. Cyntoia was one of the brightest students in the program. She was a voracious reader and very enthusiastic about being in college and learning. She had a quick, sarcastic wit. She was also very opinionated and not shy about making her thoughts known. It was great fun having Cyntoia in class. As we got to know each other, we would loan each other books and trade stories. Hers was heartbreaking.

Cyntoia was born to a drug-addicted mother who abused alcohol throughout her entire pregnancy. In a sense, Cyntoia’s well-being was sacrificed in utero to her mother’s alcoholism. As a result, Cyntoia suffered from fetal alcohol syndrome, the effects of which include intellectual disabilities that affect a person’s ability to think rationally and appreciate the consequences of her conduct, as well as neurological, emotional, and behavioral issues. Cyntoia’s birth mother abandoned her as a young child. As a young teenager, Cyntoia began abusing drugs and alcohol herself. She dropped out of school, ran away from home, and lived on the streets of Nashville. After being locked up in a juvenile detention facility for a while, she took up with a pimp who called himself “Cut-throat.” They lived together in a cheap motel room, and would spend the day having sex, drinking, and getting high. The pimp forced Cyntoia into prostitution. Cyntoia was again sacrificed. This time it was her trafficker who sacrificed her sexuality to pay for a motel room and drugs. Violence was at the center of their entire relationship. He physically and sexually abused her himself, and he let his friends abuse her. Cyntoia was sixteen years old.

Cyntoia Brown 2014 Transfer Hearing

One afternoon, having been put out on the street by her pimp, Cyntoia was picked up by a john at a Sonic restaurant. Cyntoia was about to be sacrificed to satiate this man’s lust. The man, a regular church-goer, was forty-three years old. He took her to his house. He showed her his gun collection and bragged about being an excellent marksman. They went to bed together, but Cyntoia tried to keep him from kissing and touching her. Cyntoia, strung out on drugs and having been the victim of several rapes over the preceding two weeks, became afraid. She thought the man would rape or even kill her. Cyntoia, having existed in a culture of violence from the time she was conceived, and having suffered unimaginable violence for months while living on the street and with her abusive trafficker, responded to her fear of more violence with violence of her own. While the man lay naked in bed with his back to Cyntoia, she took from her purse a gun her pimp had given to her for protection and shot the man in the back of the head. She took two of the man’s guns so she would not return to Cut-throat empty-handed and fled. Not long thereafter, Cyntoia was arrested, tried as an adult despite all of the mitigating circumstances, and a jury unanimously convicted her of first degree premeditated murder.

As you might expect, Cyntoia was vilified in the media: sixteen-year-old prostitute guilty of murder. You can imagine the headlines, the names she was called. All of the ways that Cyntoia had been victimized and exploited over the course of her short life – the brain damage from fetal alcohol syndrome, the drug-addicted mother and broken home, the drug and alcohol addiction as a young teenager, the prior victimization, the trauma of being physically and sexually abused, the violence she had suffered most of her life – none of it was taken into account when deciding Cyntoia’s fate. There was no acknowledgement of the many ways that her family, community, and society had failed her every step along the way, failed her right up to the point that she took a man’s life. The criminal justice system placed all of the responsibility and guilt on Cyntoia, labelled her according to the worst thing she had ever done, and gave the automatic sentence for first degree murder in Tennessee, 51 years in prison. She was banished, thrown away as worthless, essentially sacrificed once more to spend the rest of her life atoning for what she had done when she was 16. Society tied a heavy burden onto Cyntoia’s shoulders, and no one lifted a finger to help her. She would not be eligible for parole until she was 67.

As I considered Cyntoia’s tragic story, it seemed to me that she was like a mirror into which we can see some of the worst problems in our society – child abuse, mental illness, addiction, failing educational and juvenile justice systems, rape, modern-day slavery in the form of sex trafficking, gun violence. But when we – the prosecutors, jury members, judges, the whole system – looked at her, we did not confess or repent for the ways we have let so many children slip through the cracks. Instead, we blamed her. We laid all of the guilt and condemnation on her. Up to the point where she retrieved a gun from her purse, Cyntoia was a sympathetic victim. But when she resorted to violence, she became a suitable scapegoat for all of the evil she had endured since before she was born, and she was banished from the society that had failed her so many times before.

Cyntoia’s story put a fine point on my paradigm shift from a law-and-order prosecutor to an advocate for criminal justice reform. Her community had failed her too many times to count. She was a child victim of human trafficking, targeted and forced into the commercial sex trade to acquire food, shelter, and clothing necessary for survival. But the system did not regard her as a victim at all. No attempt was made to help her heal from the years of abuse that led up to her tragic, impulsive decision to resort to deadly violence rather than be victimized one more time. And after all the ways that society had let Cyntoia down, in the end, all it knew to do to her was sacrifice her again, refusing to acknowledge her as a victim, opting instead to throw her away as a wasted life.

By the time I had Cyntoia in class, she had been locked up for five years, and already she was a changed person. She had grown and matured into a funny, caring person who very much wanted another chance to tap into her potential to do good. It made me so angry that the system, the judicial process we were studying in class, had so little regard for the great potential that all people, but especially children have to change and grow and be transformed into something beautiful and wholesome and altogether different from their traumatic past. Giving a 51-year sentence to a sixteen-year-old girl constituted a complete failure on the part of society to imagine a better future, to trust that people can and do change, to be faithful to what we claim to believe about redemption. The system pays lip service to rehabilitation, but Cyntoia’s case shows that the system’s goal is vengeance, punishment, the infliction of suffering. It treats people as disposable and hopeless. It is a betrayal of our best values – compassion, forgiveness, redemption, second chances. As the quote often attributed to Dorothy Day goes, I was fed up with the “filthy, rotten system.”

But one day, I got the mail at my house. In it was an envelope from the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals. This was not uncommon, as I continued to receive court opinions from cases where I had served as the prosecutor even though I had left my position months earlier. But when I started to read the opinion, the defendant’s name stopped me cold: Cyntoia Brown. Without realizing it, I had prosecuted Cyntoia’s case on appeal. I had argued that she was properly tried as an adult when she was only sixteen years old. I had argued that the evidence against her was properly admitted and that the evidence was sufficient to support her conviction for first degree murder and the resulting sentence of 51 years in prison.

I was stunned. How could I have missed her name on my class roster? How could I have failed to notice that one of the students in my class was the defendant in one of my cases? But as I said earlier, the defendants in my cases weren’t real people to me. They were court records I had to read, briefs I had to write, arguments I had to make. The possibility of me ever bumping into one of these people was so remote that I didn’t give it any consideration. So the notion that the Cyntoia in my class each week, my outspoken friend and student, was the Cyntoia Brown on whose case I worked, never entered my mind. I felt horrible. It was brought home to me in an awful way that I had been a part of the filthy, rotten system, the system that knows only how to punish, never how to heal. With the terrible power of the State behind me, I had taken a stand against a child, a child who never had a chance, and I argued that what needed to happen to her was for her to spend the rest of her life in prison. What had I been thinking? Why was I ever comfortable making arguments about people I didn’t know? How many other arguments had I made which, had I been afforded the opportunity to know the person, I would not have felt comfortable making? Why was I ever willing to make such arguments about people I had not met, whose story I never heard? What happened to judge not, lest ye be judged, to be compassionate as your Father is compassionate, that what I do to the least, to the most vulnerable, I do to the Lord?

I had failed. I had betrayed and denied what is best about my faith. And I had let Cyntoia down. I didn’t know how I would face her because I knew she would also receive a copy of the opinion and would see that I had argued against her on behalf of the State. I assumed she would hate me. I was afraid she would drop out of the college program. The principality and power that is the American criminal justice system had pitted me against this girl, and I had unquestioningly gone along with it. She and I stood on opposite sides of a vast chasm. I still wore the label of prosecutor, and she was the defendant. Not only was her worst moment laid bare, but I had been an agent of retribution in a system that knows only how to condemn and punish, never to heal and reconcile.

Wednesday night rolled around, and I went to the prison for class. Cyntoia was there, but we didn’t speak as we usually did. During a break I approached her and asked if she was okay. She told me she was. I apologized for the part that I played in her case. I didn’t make any excuses; I just told her how sorry I was that I had ever allowed myself to be in the position of making arguments against people I did not even know. Cyntoia, in a moment that beautifully crystallized the wonderful person she had become, graciously accepted my apology. She told me that she understood that I was only doing my job, that I did not know her, that I had changed my mind about being a prosecutor and left that career. She said everything she could have said, but it didn’t help much. She was clearly hurt and disappointed. More than that, she was intensely vulnerable. She knew that I was familiar with her crime. Without her consent, I had received terrible information about her, and it was like a wound being reopened. All of the awful, degrading things that had been said about her in the press came rushing back. Her past had followed her into the haven of the college program.

In II Corinthians 5, St. Paul writes that we are ministers of reconciliation. We no longer regard anyone from a human point of view. But those human categories do not pass away easily. The labels that are placed on us dictate how society views us and the value it places on us. I was not sure Cyntoia and I would ever be able to move beyond the human categories that had defined us against each other. But as Chad Myers writes, “Divine realities are waiting to be realized in our lives.”

So Cyntoia and I went back to class. We resumed our discussion of judicial process and our critique of an adversarial system that defines justice in terms of punishment. Together we read Hoard Zehr’s Changing Lenses, and we imagined a system that sought transformation and healing for victims and offenders, not merely to inflict more suffering. Cyntoia remained active in the class and as adamant as ever that the way things are is not the way they have to be.

At the end of our semester, we had a celebration, which has become something of a tradition. During the party, Cyntoia and I found time to talk. I confessed that it was hard for me to reconcile the person I knew her to be now with what I had read about her in the court record. She explained to me more of her story, her context, and her upbringing. She filled me in on the details of the life she was caught up in and the terrible circumstances she had endured since she was a child. These details were not contained in the trial transcript, and were never presented to the jury that found her guilty. I came to see that had I been in Cyntoia’s position, I might have made the same choices. But Cyntoia refused to allow the label that society placed on her when she was sixteen years old to define her, and she likewise refused to define me by the role I used to play in the criminal justice system and in her case.

To experience reconciliation, Cyntoia and I had to step outside of the adversarial, retributive system that pitted us against each other. In that system, we both wore labels, prosecutor and defendant. Such human categories serve only to divide and dehumanize people. To be reconciled, Cyntoia and I had to no longer regard each other from a human point of view. We had to let the old things pass away in order for there to be a new creation, a reconciled relationship. I had to repent and ask for Cyntoia’s forgiveness and experience a kind of conversion. Cyntoia had to be willing to see me as a person and not as the role I had played in her case. We had to realize that she and I are the same.

I witnessed my good friend Rahim Buford come to a similarly profound realization on Easter Sunday, 2016. I met Rahim while I was teaching a class at the main maximum security prison for men in Nashville. Rahim was serving a thirty-year sentence for first degree felony murder. When he was seventeen years old, he was poor and living in a bad part of town. He procured a gun, which was just something young men in his position did. He used the gun to rob a restaurant. The person behind the cash register was not moving fast enough, so Rahim fired a shot at the floor to scare him. The bullet, however, ricocheted off the floor, struck the man, and killed him. By the time I had Rahim in class, he had been locked up for 25 years.

Preston Shipp and Rahim Buford at Lipscomb University

After our class concluded, Rahim came up for parole, and he asked me to be there to support him. Rahim was released in the spring of 2015. And he was eager to make a difference. He started working with the Children’s Defense Fund, talking to at-risk youth and trying to interrupt what has been called the cradle-to-prison pipeline. One day he called me and expressed an interest in going with me to the prison where I help conduct church services. This prison is out in the sticks about an hour west of Nashville. I told him I would give it a shot, though I didn’t think they’d let someone visit who had so recently been released from prison. For whatever reason, Rahim’s visitor memo was approved by the chaplain. So on my birthday, March 27, 2016, which happened to be Easter, Rahim and I went to the prison. It was his first time to go back to a prison since he was released, and this prison happened to be the place where he served the first eleven years of his sentence. He was understandably a bit apprehensive, not knowing what to expect or how he would react.

Rahim Buford at Gate

When we arrived, Rahim looked like someone returning to a dream. As we walked from my car to the prison, he simply said, “I used to live here.” As we waited at checkpoint, he mentioned that he used to wonder where his family waited before they were admitted into the prison on visitation days. Now he was sitting in the spot he had tried to imagine for eleven years. As we walked across the compound to the chapel, he showed me where he used to jog on the yard for exercise. He saw two men with whom he had served time, and they hugged him, almost in disbelief that he had returned to visit them. So few do. When we entered the chapel, he saw three more men that he knew.

During our service, we did many of the same things that had occurred in church buildings across the world that morning: we sang songs of praise, we shared the Eucharist, and we read the gospel account of Mary Magdalene discovering the empty tomb. Rahim even preached a powerful sermon about all people being made in the image of God and being God’s children. This is our truest identity, the very core of who we are. God’s power is at work in all of us, Rahim said, and we can have new life as a result of that power. Heads nodded. “Amens” were offered. In his homily, Rahim drew from his experience as a captive to encourage these men, who were still in a sense “entombed,” with the good news that prison and death would not have the final word.

Many of the men came up to Rahim after the service to thank him for returning to that dark place to offer a word of hope. One man stood out. In 1996, while Rahim was still serving time at the prison we were visiting, Rahim’s brother, who was also incarcerated there, had a conflict with a member of a gang. As a result, the gang targeted both the brother and Rahim, though Rahim had nothing to do with the controversy. One day, one of the gang members confronted Rahim, two other gang members jumped Rahim from behind, and a fight ensued. Thankfully, Rahim was not seriously hurt, but all of them were sent to solitary confinement. When they were released back into the general population, everyone understood that Rahim had been wrongfully targeted and assaulted, and he was entitled to vengeance. To keep the situation from escalating, however, a rival gang mediated the dispute, and determined that Rahim was entitled to compensation in the form of cocaine. As he relayed this story to me, Rahim admitted, “I haven’t always been a good person.” Once the restitution was made, Rahim and the gang dropped the issue.

Sharing his life experiences Rahim works tirelessly to steer youth away from crime life, drug abuse, and destructive behaviors.

Twenty years later, on Easter Sunday, one of the gang members who jumped Rahim just happened to attend our church service. After Rahim’s homily on new life, the man came forward to Rahim. Rahim recognized the man immediately. The man hung his head and apologized for acting violently against him. Rahim, embodying his lesson on the power of God at work in dark, death-dealing places, forgave the man, and they hugged. This Easter evening, Rahim’s word became flesh, as resurrection broke through in the form of an apology, forgiveness, and reconciliation. Easter happened.

Henri Nouwen wrote,

We become neighbours when we are willing to cross the road for one another. There is so much separation and segregation: between black people and white people, between gay people and straight people, between young people and old people, between sick people and healthy people, between prisoners and free people, between Jews and Gentiles, Muslims and Christians, Protestants and Catholics, Greek Catholics and Latin Catholics . . . To become neighbours is to bridge the gap between people . . . Only when we have the courage to cross the street and look in one another’s eyes can we see there that we are children of the same God and members of the same human family.

This is the invitation – to regard each other as neighbours. To cross the road for one another. To allow the image of God in me to recognize the image of God in you, despite any other difference between us. You don’t get much more different than a prosecutor and a prisoner. But I can say without hesitation that I have learned more about the nature of God and the gospel of love, peace, justice, and reconciliation from people in prison than in 40 years of going to church buildings and seventeen years of religious education.

In my own experience, the cross-section of faith and life is prisons. It is among people in prison that I have most fully encountered the Spirit of the living God. My salvation, it turns out, is bound up with that of people like Cyntoia and Rahim and so many more.

Following the shooting at the church in Charleston, South Carolina, President Obama delivered the eulogy for Clementa Pinckney. President Obama said, “[J]ustice grows out of recognition of ourselves in each other.” This kind of justice, a justice that affirms that we are all neighbors, is not available in our courtrooms. True justice, biblical justice, the justice that prophets through the ages have longed to roll down like waters, this kind of justice “grows out of recognition of ourselves in each other.

Cyntoia and I needed an experience of justice, to recognize ourselves in each other, despite the way the system had pitted us against each other. Rahim and his attacker needed an experience of justice, to recognize themselves in each other, despite the violence and animosity that had once divided them. This kind of justice is at the core of the gospel. It is where our faith connects with our daily life. Jean Vanier writes,

The Word became flesh to bring people together, to break down the walls of fear and hatred that separate people. That’s the vision of the incarnation. . . . Jesus came to change a world in which those at the top have privilege, power, prestige, and money while those at the bottom are seen as useless. . . . [O]ur deep need is to meet those on the other side of the wall, to discover their gifts, to appreciate them[.]

And when it happens, it is breathtaking. I am convinced that this is the way of God’s peaceable kingdom. This is the kingdom come – to be reconciled to and experience solidarity with the other, the one who is overlooked, pushed aside, discarded, scapegoated.

Transformed people transforming the world, not settling for the narrative of offense and retribution, not willing for any to perish under the unfair weight of labels or be sacrificed to a spirit of institutionalized vengeance, not being guided by fear or a tendency toward self-preservation but by God’s Spirit of Love. Recognizing our common humanity and dignity as bearers of the divine image, may the church make known to the principalities and powers the manifold wisdom of God. Amen. Thank you.

Where are they today? 

Inmate Cyntoia Brown delivers a commencement address before receiving her associate degree from Lipscomb. Photo by Ricky Rogers /The Tennessean.

Cyntoia Brown continues to serve out her 51 year sentence. Since 2004, Cyntoia has been working diligently to make amends for her crime.  Today, Cyntoia is an incredibly intelligent, compassionate, and resilient young woman.  She recently graduated with an Associates of Arts degree with a GPA of 4.0 from Lipscomb University’s LIFE Program (Lipscomb Initiative For Education), and she will soon earn her Bachelor’s degree from Lipscomb. As she has progressed in her rehabilitation, Cyntoia has served as a beacon of light in the prison environment.  She has helped other inmates earn their GEDs, worked in various meaningful jobs, and encouraged those around her to be their best selves.  She has maintained meaningful relationships with positive mentors in the community, many of whom feel that they have become better people through their friendship with Cyntoia.

The documentary on Cyntoia’s life has been used in educational curricula across the country to teach students in Criminal Justice, Sociology, and other disciplines about Adverse Childhood Experiences, childhood trauma, and the devastating effects of human trafficking of juveniles.  Cyntoia has served as a consultant for the Juvenile Court Master Plan in Davidson County, Tennessee, helping design a trauma-informed juvenile detention facility that will ensure safety of the community and youth by identifying design flaws that can cause juvenile facilities to be vulnerable to the introduction of contraband and abuse of juvenile detainees.  She is currently working on a Capstone Project at Lipscomb University on the issue of human trafficking, where she is further using her personal experiences to increase human understanding of the plight of juvenile runaways and trafficking victims.  She corresponds with people from around the world who wish to understand how they can use her story to keep others from meeting similar fates.

In 2010,  attorneys Charles Bone and Houston Gordon took on Cyntoia’s case pro bono after watching a documentary on Cyntoia’s story called “Me Facing Life” https://www.youtube.com/ watch?v=DKSx205bqPo. Since then, a team of lawyers have been fighting tirelessly for Cyntoia’s freedom. We ask that you join us in pursuing freedom for Cyntoia. You can find more information on Cyntoia’s case in the following Nashville Scene article: http://www. nashvillescene.com/news/ article/13037415/for-a-teens- impulsive-unthinkable-act- cyntoia-brown-got-an-adults- life-sentence-was-justice- served.

Rahim Buford is a man of passion and purpose who uses his voice and personal experiences to make a difference in the lives of others – from young people to veteran lawmakers. He is a formerly incarcerated social justice advocate from Nashville, Tennessee. Rahim was paroled in 2015 after being locked up for 26 consecutive calendar years. While in prison, he acquired certifications from numerous educational institutions and became a leader in SALT (Schools for Alternative Learning and Transformation). He received a Presidential scholarship at American Baptist College and loves being in college. Now a consultant organizer for Children’s Defense Fund Nashville Team and ICAN (Incarcerated Children’s Advocacy Network) member. Rahim self-published his book, Save Your Own Life, utilizing simple prose, poetry, reflection and writing exercises for youth battling the “cradle-to-pipeline.” He founded Unheard Voice Outreach to connect with at-risk youth and to assist individuals affected be incarceration. Rahim facilitates critical reading, writing, and dialogue sessions at the Metro juvenile detention center on Thursdays. Watch Rahim’s Story on YouTube

Preston Shipp serves on the board of Theology & Peace. In 2016 he delivered an eloquent and moving presentation at the Theology & Peace Conference, “People & Policing: Compassion for Our Violence.” Unable to serve two masters, Preston left his career as an appellate prosecutor in 2008. Since then, he has taught in universities and churches, lectured at conferences, and written about the urgent needs for criminal justice reform, a shift in how we regard imprisoned people, and a new vision of justice that seeks healing, transformation, and reconciliation, not merely the infliction of suffering. Preston’s conversion from prosecutor to criminal justice reform advocate has left him convinced that his salvation is bound up with that of his friends behind bars. He lives in Nashville with his wife Sherisse and their three children, Lila Joy, Ruby Faith, and Levi.

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The Smallest Huge Translation Mistake in the Bible

Creating Two Distinct ‘Sheep and Goat’ Parables

In 2017 the title of my sermon for Christ the King Sunday (Nov. 26) is “The Smallest Huge Translation Mistake in the Bible: Creating Two Distinct ‘Sheep and Goat’ Parables,” stemming from the translation of one small word in Matthew 25:32:

All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people/them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats….

The small word at issue is autous, simply the pronoun them. The older King James and Revised Standard Versions correctly render it as “them.” But newer translations, such as the NRSV and NIV, change the meaning of the parable by rendering it as “people” — in other words, by interpreting the them as “people.” But the clear referent of them in this sentence is the subject of the first clause, “all the nations.” This may seem a small translation decision, but I propose that it has huge implications for interpreting this parable. It changes the major action from sorting nations to sorting people, directing us to imagine it as a sorting of individuals instead of a sorting of whole communities of people, ethnē, “nations.”

This seemingly small translation decision then allows or enables the Christendom eschatology of focusing on the fate of individuals in the afterlife. So instead of a parable that judges the politics and economics of empires, we get a parable that supports empires by playing the same games of sorting people into us vs. them. We get a parable that follows up the imperial, transactional practice of rewarding friends and punishing enemies with a Jesus the King who does the same thing in the afterlife. The sacred violence of empires on earth gets repeated and justified by Jesus/God for an eternity in heaven.

And I submit to you that the choice of “people” for autous greatly enables such an imperialistic reading. Yes, there is a tension with typical imperialism that Jesus’ criterion for sorting brings: the ultimate sorting into an eternal fate of heaven or hell is done on the basis of caring for the least in Jesus’ family. But the tension between imperialistic power and Jesus’ anti-imperialistic Gospel has generally melted away in light of the individualism allowed by changing the referent of autous from “all the nations” to “people.” The parable of judgment can be reduced to a matter of individuals being free to choose charitable action in order to feel better about their fate in the afterlife.

But what if Jesus’ mission as the “Son of Man,” the New Human Being of Daniel 7, is an anti-imperialistic mission of judging the systemic violence of the politics and economics of empires? What if his mission favors the least powerful in Jesus the King’s family rather than the most powerful in the imperial family? What if it is about transforming nations towards justice and not just the choice of individuals to pursue charity? Then this passage must be read as a sorting of nations, not a sorting of people — as a sorting of communities of people at the very least, and not simply people as individuals.

Zahnd_A Farewell to MarsSince Brian Zahnd’s A Farewell to Mars in 2014, I’ve come to see this passage as the quintessential Gospel passage on “Apocalypse,” a revelation of God’s judgment on sacralized collective human violence — that is, the systemic violence of empires and modern militaristic nations whose economics are basically about extracting resources from any nation or ‘people’ who can be overpowered. Zahnd has been a reader of Mimetic Theory and understands, first of all, that the violence is never God’s. The revelation is about God helping us to see and understand the consequences of our human violence.

How do we measure and evaluate the consequences of human violence? Given Zahnd’s reading of this judgment passage, the answer is that God is revealing the divine plan that Creation has essentially been structured “since the foundation of the world” to yield blessing when all the least are cared for. Conversely, when the least are sacrificed instead of cared for, the result is a violence that envelopes even those in power — human beings who mistakenly see power as manipulating violence toward others and away from themselves. Human brokers of power are playing with fire in doing so. Creation has been structured by God to work best for everyone, “all the nations,” when the most vulnerable are attended to instead of the least vulnerable. (This is also a reality at the origins of our species since human infants are born the most vulnerable of all creatures; it takes years for human beings to mature enough to leave the nest. Is this another argument in favor of expanded roles for women, since mothers seem to know this more experientially?) Human beings can continue to behave otherwise. We can continue to operate with a power that favors the center rather than the margins. But it will prove to be as futile as spitting into the wind. God in Jesus the Messiah is revealing a Creation that favors the margins rather than the center. “Blessed are the poor in spirit….”

Matthew 25:31-46 thus reveals the key to human flourishing (with the rest of Creation still waiting for the children of God to get our act together — Rom. 8:19-23): communities that tend to the least will flourish, while communities (“nations”) that neglect the least will be playing with the fire of their own systemic violence. This has been true since the foundation of the world.

But there have been various blockages. The primary blinder/earplug has been culture based in Sacred Violence, epitomized by empires and modern militaristic nations, which structure human community to privilege the center, sacrificing those on the margins. Mimetic Theory helps us to be clear about the unveiling of that sin of our human origins — revealing things hidden since the foundation of the world.

Zahnd’s reading of Matthew 5:31-46 has rocked my world because it helps us to be more clear about another blinder/earplug to God’s revelation of human flourishing. And I propose that this second blockage has come about as an unintended consequence of the first unveiling. For the latter begins with forgiven and repentant individuals experiencing conversion — namely, a gradual ability to step out of cultures of Sacred Violence into cultures of compassion and forgiveness. But the ‘unintended consequence’ has become Individualism, an undue emphasis on salvation around conversion of individuals at the expense of meaningfully experiencing the transformation of homo sapiens in our cultural and institutional dimensions. The New Human Being gathers the nations for judgment, not just individuals.

The seemingly small but huge translation error of autous bears witness to this blockage due to Individualism. Readers ignore the gathering of the “nations,” in favor of making it be a sorting of “people.” For conservative evangelicals, it is read as the final sorting into heaven and hell between believers and unbelievers, respectively — despite the fact that the stated measure for sorting has nothing to do with believing. For “mainline” Christians it is read as the justification to compel charity. But both readings leave “nations” off the hook. I believe this to be a symptom of the first dimension of human conversion of individuals that has led to a distortion into Individualism — often then supported by a politics of Libertarianism.

Zahnd’s reading can provide the beginning of an antidote, helping to begin the unveiling of God’s healing salvation on the level of human institutions and cultures. God in Jesus the Messiah is healing our systemic violence that neglects or sacrifices the vulnerable. The cross and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah has begun an unveiling of a human flourishing through a conversion of human cultures (the advent of God’s Kingdom!) from privileging the most powerful to a compassionate caring for the least powerful. And we will need to consider how this conversion goes well beyond individual charity to a transformation of what truly makes for successful, flourishing nations. It will require following a completely different King. It will deeply involve the politics and economics of communities, “nations,” in history.

See much more on this under the Gospel Reading on my webpage Christ the King A, beginning with an alternate translation of the entire Gospel and its explanation. Let me conclude these opening remarks with a brief preview of Zahnd’s own words:

So how does Jesus judge or evaluate nations? What criteria does he use? When we evaluate nations, we tend to do so on the basis of wealth and power — Gross Domestic Product, standard of living, strength of the economy, strength of the military. But this is not the criterion Jesus uses to judge the nations as he sits upon his glorious throne. Jesus judges nations on how well they care for four kinds of people:

The Poor. I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink . . . I was naked and you gave me clothing.

The Sick. I was sick and you took care of me.

The Immigrant. I was a stranger and you welcomed me.

The Prisoner. I was in prison and you visited me. (Matt. 25:35-36) (p. 165)

One final thought as an illustration of what I think is at stake: in 2017 President Trump and the Republican Congress are offering a Tax Cut bill. How do we measure this bill in light of a revelation of a divine economics built-in to the Creation that favors the least in God’s family? We can once again opt for a politics and economics that favors the already powerful, but this parable suggests that that will eventually result in a ‘time of punishment’ when we suffer the fiery consequences of our own systemic violence.

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The World of Grace: An Invitation into a Spirituality for the Second Half of Life

Rohr - Falling Upward[This blog provides the Opening Comments for my lectionary webpage on Proper 20A, prompted by the texts of Jonah 3:10-4:11 and Matthew 20:1-16, the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard.]

One of the most important books I’ve ever read is Richard Rohr‘s Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life. It did nothing less than articulate my own spiritual journey. Ever since my teenage years, I could not be satisfied with the God whom I was being taught. I considered myself “agnostic” in my late teens, early twenties. I was like Ivan Karamazov in Dostoevsky‘s The Brothers Karamazov — an intellectual who couldn’t make sense of the suffering in the world. So when I decided to go to seminary at about age 24, it was not just a vocational calling. The decision was also about needing to see if I could begin to encounter a new God. I sought to be more like Alyosha Karamazov, on a spiritual journey with guides like Father Zosima. In growing up, I had already experienced gracious pastors and my own father who encouraged my spiritual questioning and planted the seeds for a new encounter.

At the seminary and in my subsequent career as a parish pastor, I gradually began to encounter a different God than the one we are taught. The first pivotal guide was Jürgen Moltmann, especially his The Crucified God. Even the book description on the cover expresses my main issue:

Moltmann proposes that suffering is not a problem to be solved but instead that suffering is an aspect of God’s very being: God is love, and love invariably involves suffering.

While reading and studying theologians like Moltmann was important, even more so have been the countless parishioners over the years who have given me the privilege of sharing their lived lives with them — from the moments of great joy and celebration to the moments of great sorrow and suffering. How does one encounter God in all the moments of lived life?

Reading Rohr‘s Falling Upward when it was published in 2011, and sharing it with a Bible study group shortly thereafter, put new words with my own lived spiritual journey. His thesis is that the human journey of lived life generally encounters two quite different Gods connected with the notion of ‘two halves of life.’

There is much evidence on several levels that there are at least two major tasks to human life. The first task is to build a strong “container” or identity; the second is to find the contents that the container was meant to hold. The first task we take for granted as the very purpose of life, which does not mean we do it well. The second task, I am told, is more encountered than sought; few arrive at it with much preplanning, purpose, or passion. So you might wonder if there is much point in providing a guide to the territory ahead of time. Yet that is exactly why we must. It is vitally important to know what is coming and being offered to all of us. (Falling Upward, xiii)

So the first half is about constructing, with a lot of help from one’s culture, a safe container. It involves the legal structuring in a culture and the personal stories that shape our self-understanding.

I cannot think of a culture in human history, before the present postmodern era, that did not value law, tradition, custom, authority, boundaries, and morality of some clear sort. These containers give us the necessary security, continuity, predictability, impulse control, and ego structure that we need, before the chaos of real life shows up. Healthily conservative people tend to grow up more naturally and more happily than those who receive only free-form, “build it yourself’ worldviews, in my studied opinion.

Here is my conviction: without law in some form, and also without butting up against that law, we cannot move forward easily and naturally. (25)

An important word in the above description is “necessary.” Human beings fail to thrive without a healthy experience in building a safe container. And part of the safety and goodness in this container is having a transcendent guarantor: a God who presides over, justifies, and gives secure structure to the edifice.

But since this is only the first basic stage of becoming human, it bears the imprint of its beginning: a dualistic structure from the ‘original dualisms’: me-other of the forming ego, and us-them of the structuring culture. From these derive all the other many dualisms that give meaning to the container built in the first half of life: good-evil, clean-uncleanfair-unfair (or just-unjust), successful-unsuccessful, rich-poor, deserving-undeserving, blessing-curse, reward-punishment, et al. This is the “way of the world” that all young people must learn in growing up. And the God who presides over it is the ultimate creator and arbiter of all these dualisms.

So what happens to prompt movement into a second half of life? Life happens. And among the lived moments are always moments that challenge the basic structure of the container’s dualisms — moments that especially challenge the fair-unfair assumption — both positively at moments of wondrous grace but also negatively at moments of suffering undeserved evil. The latter moments often raise up shouts of, “Life is unfair!”

Such moments also call God into question as the arbiter of fair and unfair. And so the work of the second half of life begins, seeking a new spirituality — and perhaps a new encounter with God that helps to begin to make sense out of life as lived. It doesn’t do away with the container from the first half of life. But it makes sense differently of the dualisms. It begins to experience them within a unity of all that is. And the experience of God changes, too, from that of keeper of the dualisms to that of unifier. And as we gleaned from a theologian like Moltmann above, the suffering is not a problem to be solved but something we experience in the unity of God. Suffering is part of God. But so is joy. In God’s unifying presence, suffering and joy can be held together in love.

Above all, in the second half of life we come to experience life as neither fair nor unfair. Life simply is. “It is what it is.” And when we are most fortunate, that “isness” is . . . Grace, gift.

So why these deep ponderings on the occasion of this text from Matthew — or the story of Jonah, for that matter? I believe that the parables of the past two Sundays (including Jonah) are basically invitations into a spirituality for the second half of life. As I reflected last week, the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant is more than a conventional story of crime and punishment. The servant has been given the gracious version of challenging life’s fairness; he has undeservedly, by this world’s standards, been forgiven an unpayable debt. As such, he is invited into a world of Grace, where debts are no longer kept. When he continues to keep a relatively small, payable debt with his fellow servant, he doesn’t simply get punished for a wrong-doing. He steps out of the world of Grace offered to him and back into the world of debt-keeping, where slavery or jail cells await those who can’t keep their debts.

This week’s Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard offers us a similar and even more straightforward invitation into a whole new world of Grace, a world beyond the rules of fairness we were taught to a world of overflowing generosity.

But how does this spirituality for the second half of life work for the moments of painful loss and suffering? To be honest, I can’t say I’ve ‘arrived’ yet at the fullness of living in a world of such grace so that not even moments of great personal loss could extinguish the grace. I only glimpse it and hope that I will be far enough along on this journey to survive life’s greatest losses. And even if I’m not yet far enough along, I have experienced deeply enough the Crucified God in Christ to trust that God will be present with me in my times of greatest suffering, and then can help lead me out on the other side. “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff — they comfort me.”

Rohr-Darcy - A Spirituality for the Two Halves of LifeOne story has become quintessential for me in my own spiritual journey. Richard Rohr, shortly after releasing the book, held a conference on “A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life.” And he invited speaker Paula D’Arcy to co-lead with him, whose personal story very much adds the dimension of facing life’s greatest losses. When she was 27, and pregnant with her second child, her husband and first child were killed in an accident caused by a drunk driver. Paula tells many stories of being shaken out of the good and necessary spirituality in the first half of her life but then also the long journey into a spirituality for the second half of her life.

But it is a story that she tells about her friend Susan that stays with me. It is at a time when they are both older. Paula has finally moved through her darkness into a mature spirituality of Grace. Susan has also moved on from the first half of her life, having coped with a divorce from an evangelical Christian and then finding new life in marrying a Jewish man. Paula happened to be visiting Susan (they no longer lived in the same town) when Susan received the same terrible news that had rocked Paula’s world: Susan’s 22 year-old son Mark, on his way home from college, had been hit by a drunk driver and killed. Paula accompanied her friend to the hospital but initially gave her the privacy of going into the Emergency Room alone to be with her son’s dead body. After a long time, Susan called for her friend to join her, gently saying to her when she arrived,

“Please tell me the truth. He never was really mine, was he?”

Paula answered simply, “Susan, none of them are ours. It’s all gift.”

“If that is true, then he can’t be taken from me. If he was gift, then at this moment I will give him back.” And Susan took Paula’s hand and one of her son’s hands, raised her eyes to the heavens, and prayed, “God, before me is the greatest gift you ever gave me. And now I give it back. Thank you. Thank you for all these years.”

I don’t know if I could pray such a prayer in a similar situation. But I believe that this is what it looks like to live in the world of Grace, where times of sorrow are held together with times of joy and love. It is a world in which all law is fulfilled in the deep and wondrous mystery of Love.

[This blog provides the Opening Comments for my lectionary webpage on Proper 20A. For more those texts, go to Proper 20A]

One of the most important books I’ve ever read is Richard Rohr‘s Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life. It did nothing less than articulate my own spiritual journey. Ever since my teenage years, I could not be satisfied with the God whom I was being taught. I considered myself “agnostic” in my late teens, early twenties. I was like Ivan Karamazov in Dostoevsky‘s The Brothers Karamazov — an intellectual who couldn’t make sense of the suffering in the world. So when I decided to go to seminary at about age 24, it was not just a vocational calling. The decision was also about needing to see if I could begin to encounter a new God. I sought to be more like Alyosha Karamazov, on a spiritual journey with guides like Father Zosima. In growing up, I had already experienced gracious pastors and my own father who encouraged my spiritual questioning and planted the seeds for a new encounter.

At the seminary and in my subsequent career as a parish pastor, I gradually began to encounter a different God than the one we are taught. The first pivotal guide was Jürgen Moltmann, especially his The Crucified God. Even the book description on the cover expresses my main issue:

Moltmann proposes that suffering is not a problem to be solved but instead that suffering is an aspect of God’s very being: God is love, and love invariably involves suffering.

While reading and studying theologians like Moltmann was important, even more so have been the countless parishioners over the years who have given me the privilege of sharing their lived lives with them — from the moments of great joy and celebration to the moments of great sorrow and suffering. How does one encounter God in the all the moments of lived life?

Reading Rohr‘s Falling Upward, when it was published in 2011, and sharing it with a Bible study group shortly thereafter, put new words with my own lived spiritual journey. His thesis is that the human journey of lived life generally encounters two quite different Gods connected with the notion of ‘two halves of life.’

There is much evidence on several levels that there are at least two major tasks to human life. The first task is to build a strong “container” or identity; the second is to find the contents that the container was meant to hold. The first task we take for granted as the very purpose of life, which does not mean we do it well. The second task, I am told, is more encountered than sought; few arrive at it with much preplanning, purpose, or passion. So you might wonder if there is much point in providing a guide to the territory ahead of time. Yet that is exactly why we must. It is vitally important to know what is coming and being offered to all of us. (Falling Upward, xiii)

So the first half is about constructing, with a lot of help from one’s culture, a safe container. It involves the legal structuring in a culture and the stories that shape our self-understanding.

I cannot think of a culture in human history, before the present postmodern era, that did not value law, tradition, custom, authority, boundaries, and morality of some clear sort. These containers give us the necessary security, continuity, predictability, impulse control, and ego structure that we need, before the chaos of real life shows up. Healthily conservative people tend to grow up more naturally and more happily than those who receive only free-form, “build it yourself’ worldviews, in my studied opinion.

Here is my conviction: without law in some form, and also without butting up against that law, we cannot move forward easily and naturally. (25)

An important word in the above description is “necessary.” Human beings fail to thrive without a healthy experience in building a safe container. And part of the safety and goodness in this container is having a transcendent guarantor: a God who presides over, justifies, and gives secure structure to the edifice.

But since this is only the first basic stage of becoming human, it bears the imprint of its beginning: a dualistic structure from the first original dualisms: me-other of the forming ego, and us-them of the structuring culture. From these derive all the other many dualisms that give meaning to the container built in the first half of life: good-evil, clean-uncleanfair-unfair (or just-unjust), successful-unsuccessful, rich-poor, deserving-undeserving, blessing-curse, reward-punishment, et al. This is the “way of the world” that all young people must learn in growing up. And the God who presides over it is the ultimate creator and arbiter of all these dualisms.

So what happens to prompt movement to a second half of life? Life happens. And among the lived moments are always moments that challenge the basic structure of the container’s dualisms — moments that especially challenge the fair-unfair assumption, both positively at moments of wondrous grace and negatively at moments of suffering undeserved evil. Moments, in short, of shouting out, “Life is unfair!”

Such moments also call God into question as the arbiter of fair and unfair. And so the work of the second half of life begins, seeking a new spirituality — and perhaps a new encounter with God that helps to begin to make sense out of life as lived. It doesn’t do away with the container from the first half of life. But it makes sense differently of those dualisms. It begins to experience them within a unity of all that is. And the experience of God changes, too, from that of keeper of the dualisms to that of unifier. And as we gleaned from a theologian like Moltmann above, the suffering is not a problem to be solved but something we experience in the unity of God. Suffering is part of God. But so is joy. In God’s unifying presence, suffering and joy can be held together.

Above all, in the second half of life we come to experience life as neither fair nor unfair. Life simply is. “It is what it is.” And when we are most fortunate, that “isness” is . . . Grace, gift.

So why these deep ponderings on the occasion of this text from Matthew — or the story of Jonah, for that matter? I believe that the parables of the past two Sundays (including Jonah) are basically invitations into a spirituality for the second half of life. As I reflected last week, the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant is more than a conventional story of crime and punishment. The servant has been given the gracious version of challenging life’s fairness; he has undeservedly, by this world’s standards, been forgiven an unpayable debt. As such, he is invited into a world of Grace, where debts are no longer kept. When he continues to keep a relatively small, payable debt with his fellow servant, he doesn’t simply get punished for a wrong-doing. He steps out of the world of Grace offered to him and back into the world of debt-keeping, where slavery or jail cells await those who can’t keep their debts.

This week’s Parable of the Vineyard Workers gives us a similar invitation into a whole new world of Grace, a world beyond the rules of fairness we were taught to a world of overflowing generosity.

But how does this spirituality for the second half of life work for the moments of painful loss and suffering? To be honest, I can’t say I’ve ‘arrived’ yet at the fullness of living in a world of such grace such that not even moments of great personal loss can extinguish the grace. I only glimpse it and hope that I will be far enough along on this journey to survive life’s greatest losses. And even if I’m not yet far enough along, I have experienced the Crucified God in Christ deeply enough to trust that God will be present with me in my times of greatest suffering, and then can help to bring me out on the other side. “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff — they comfort me.”

One story has become quintessential for me in my own spiritual journey. Richard Rohr, shortly after releasing the book, held a conference on “A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life,” and he invited speaker Paula D’Arcy to lead with him, whose personal story very much adds the dimension of facing life’s greatest losses. When she was 27, and pregnant with her second child, her husband and first child were killed in an accident with a drunk driver. Paula tells many stories of being shaken out of the good and necessary spirituality in the first half of her life but then also the long journey into a spirituality for the second half of her life.

But it is a story that she tells about her friend Susan that stays with me. It is at a time when they are both older. Paula has finally moved through her darkness into a mature spirituality of Grace. Susan has also moved on from the first half of her life, coping with a divorce from an evangelical Christian and then finding new life in marrying a Jewish man. Paula happened to be visiting Susan (they no longer lived in the same town) when Susan received the same terrible news that had rocked Paul’s world: Susan’s 22 year-old son Mark, on his way home from college, had been hit by a drunk driver and killed. Paula accompanied her friend to the hospital but initially gave her the privacy of going in the Emergency Room alone to be with her son’s dead body. After a long time, Susan called for her friend to join her, gently saying to her when she arrived,

“Please tell me the truth. He never was really mine, was he?”

She had had the experience of owning things and deserving things. Paula answered, “Susan, none of them are ours. It’s all gift.”

“If that is true, then he can’t be taken from me. If he was gift, then at this moment I will give him back.” And Susan took Paula’s hand and one of her son’s hands, raised her eyes to the heavens, and prayed, “God, before me is the greatest gift you ever gave me. And now I give it back. Thank you. Thank you for all these years.”

I don’t know if I could pray such a prayer in a similar situation. But I believe that this is what it looks like to live in the world of Grace, where times of sorrow are held together with times of joy and love. It is a world in which all law is fulfilled in Love.

One of the most important books I’ve ever read is Richard Rohr‘s Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life. It did nothing less than articulate my own spiritual journey. Ever since my teenage years, I could not be satisfied with the God whom I was being taught. I considered myself “agnostic” in my late teens, early twenties. I was like Ivan Karamazov in Dostoevsky‘s The Brothers Karamazov — an intellectual who couldn’t make sense of the suffering in the world. So when I decided to go to seminary at about age 24, it was not just a vocational calling. The decision was also about needing to see if I could begin to encounter a new God. I sought to be more like Alyosha Karamazov, on a spiritual journey with guides like Father Zosima. In growing up, I had already experienced gracious pastors and my own father who encouraged my spiritual questioning and planted the seeds for a new encounter.

At the seminary and in my subsequent career as a parish pastor, I gradually began to encounter a different God than the one we are taught. The first pivotal guide was Jürgen Moltmann, especially his The Crucified God. Even the book description on the cover expresses my main issue:

Moltmann proposes that suffering is not a problem to be solved but instead that suffering is an aspect of God’s very being: God is love, and love invariably involves suffering.

While reading and studying theologians like Moltmann was important, even more so have been the countless parishioners over the years who have given me the privilege of sharing their lived lives with them — from the moments of great joy and celebration to the moments of great sorrow and suffering. How does one encounter God in the all the moments of lived life?

Reading Rohr‘s Falling Upward, when it was published in 2011, and sharing it with a Bible study group shortly thereafter, put new words with my own lived spiritual journey. His thesis is that the human journey of lived life generally encounters two quite different Gods connected with the notion of ‘two halves of life.’

There is much evidence on several levels that there are at least two major tasks to human life. The first task is to build a strong “container” or identity; the second is to find the contents that the container was meant to hold. The first task we take for granted as the very purpose of life, which does not mean we do it well. The second task, I am told, is more encountered than sought; few arrive at it with much preplanning, purpose, or passion. So you might wonder if there is much point in providing a guide to the territory ahead of time. Yet that is exactly why we must. It is vitally important to know what is coming and being offered to all of us. (Falling Upward, xiii)

So the first half is about constructing, with a lot of help from one’s culture, a safe container. It involves the legal structuring in a culture and the stories that shape our self-understanding.

I cannot think of a culture in human history, before the present postmodern era, that did not value law, tradition, custom, authority, boundaries, and morality of some clear sort. These containers give us the necessary security, continuity, predictability, impulse control, and ego structure that we need, before the chaos of real life shows up. Healthily conservative people tend to grow up more naturally and more happily than those who receive only free-form, “build it yourself’ worldviews, in my studied opinion.

Here is my conviction: without law in some form, and also without butting up against that law, we cannot move forward easily and naturally. (25)

An important word in the above description is “necessary.” Human beings fail to thrive without a healthy experience in building a safe container. And part of the safety and goodness in this container is having a transcendent guarantor: a God who presides over, justifies, and gives secure structure to the edifice.

But since this is only the first basic stage of becoming human, it bears the imprint of its beginning: a dualistic structure from the first original dualisms: me-other of the forming ego, and us-them of the structuring culture. From these derive all the other many dualisms that give meaning to the container built in the first half of life: good-evil, clean-uncleanfair-unfair (or just-unjust), successful-unsuccessful, rich-poor, deserving-undeserving, blessing-curse, reward-punishment, et al. This is the “way of the world” that all young people must learn in growing up. And the God who presides over it is the ultimate creator and arbiter of all these dualisms.

So what happens to prompt movement to a second half of life? Life happens. And among the lived moments are always moments that challenge the basic structure of the container’s dualisms — moments that especially challenge the fair-unfair assumption, both positively at moments of wondrous grace and negatively at moments of suffering undeserved evil. Moments, in short, of shouting out, “Life is unfair!”

Such moments also call God into question as the arbiter of fair and unfair. And so the work of the second half of life begins, seeking a new spirituality — and perhaps a new encounter with God that helps to begin to make sense out of life as lived. It doesn’t do away with the container from the first half of life. But it makes sense differently of those dualisms. It begins to experience them within a unity of all that is. And the experience of God changes, too, from that of keeper of the dualisms to that of unifier. And as we gleaned from a theologian like Moltmann above, the suffering is not a problem to be solved but something we experience in the unity of God. Suffering is part of God. But so is joy. In God’s unifying presence, suffering and joy can be held together.

Above all, in the second half of life we come to experience life as neither fair nor unfair. Life simply is. “It is what it is.” And when we are most fortunate, that “isness” is . . . Grace, gift.

So why these deep ponderings on the occasion of this text from Matthew — or the story of Jonah, for that matter? I believe that the parables of the past two Sundays (including Jonah) are basically invitations into a spirituality for the second half of life. As I reflected last week, the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant is more than a conventional story of crime and punishment. The servant has been given the gracious version of challenging life’s fairness; he has undeservedly, by this world’s standards, been forgiven an unpayable debt. As such, he is invited into a world of Grace, where debts are no longer kept. When he continues to keep a relatively small, payable debt with his fellow servant, he doesn’t simply get punished for a wrong-doing. He steps out of the world of Grace offered to him and back into the world of debt-keeping, where slavery or jail cells await those who can’t keep their debts.

This week’s Parable of the Vineyard Workers gives us a similar invitation into a whole new world of Grace, a world beyond the rules of fairness we were taught to a world of overflowing generosity.

But how does this spirituality for the second half of life work for the moments of painful loss and suffering? To be honest, I can’t say I’ve ‘arrived’ yet at the fullness of living in a world of such grace such that not even moments of great personal loss can extinguish the grace. I only glimpse it and hope that I will be far enough along on this journey to survive life’s greatest losses. And even if I’m not yet far enough along, I have experienced the Crucified God in Christ deeply enough to trust that God will be present with me in my times of greatest suffering, and then can help to bring me out on the other side. “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff — they comfort me.”

One story has become quintessential for me in my own spiritual journey. Richard Rohr, shortly after releasing the book, held a conference on “A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life,” and he invited speaker Paula D’Arcy to lead with him, whose personal story very much adds the dimension of facing life’s greatest losses. When she was 27, and pregnant with her second child, her husband and first child were killed in an accident with a drunk driver. Paula tells many stories of being shaken out of the good and necessary spirituality in the first half of her life but then also the long journey into a spirituality for the second half of her life.

But it is a story that she tells about her friend Susan that stays with me. It is at a time when they are both older. Paula has finally moved through her darkness into a mature spirituality of Grace. Susan has also moved on from the first half of her life, coping with a divorce from an evangelical Christian and then finding new life in marrying a Jewish man. Paula happened to be visiting Susan (they no longer lived in the same town) when Susan received the same terrible news that had rocked Paul’s world: Susan’s 22 year-old son Mark, on his way home from college, had been hit by a drunk driver and killed. Paula accompanied her friend to the hospital but initially gave her the privacy of going in the Emergency Room alone to be with her son’s dead body. After a long time, Susan called for her friend to join her, gently saying to her when she arrived,

“Please tell me the truth. He never was really mine, was he?”

She had had the experience of owning things and deserving things. Paula answered, “Susan, none of them are ours. It’s all gift.”

“If that is true, then he can’t be taken from me. If he was gift, then at this moment I will give him back.” And Susan took Paula’s hand and one of her son’s hands, raised her eyes to the heavens, and prayed, “God, before me is the greatest gift you ever gave me. And now I give it back. Thank you. Thank you for all these years.”

I don’t know if I could pray such a prayer in a similar situation. But I believe that this is what it looks like to live in the world of Grace, where times of sorrow are held together with times of joy and love. It is a world in which all law is fulfilled in Love.

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Report on the 2017 Theology & Peace Conference: Embracing We-Centricity

Article featured in the COV&R Bulletin (Now available with free and open online access!)

I’m not okay. When you ask me in passing how I am, I may answer ‘fine’… We all answer with the same line, ‘I’m fine. How are you?’ But none of us are okay. On 9/11, the American people experienced a massive trauma. We are suffering from a form of collective PTSD we have yet to address. We are not okay.
~ Sereta Richardson

Last May, Theology & Peace held our tenth anniversary conference: “Embracing We-Centricity: Practices that Nurture the Common Good.” Our theme was inspired in part by Vittorio Gallese’s use of the term “we-centricity” to describe our inherent openness to the other:

“Every time we relate to other people, we automatically inhabit a we-centric space, within which we exploit a series of implicit certainties about the other. This implicit and pre-theoretical, but at the same time contentful state enables us to directly understand what the other person is doing, why he or she is doing it, and how he or she feels about a specific situation.” (“The Two Sides of Mimesis,” Mimesis and Science, 100)

While mimetic theory helps explain our interconnectedness, it more importantly reveals why “we-centricity” is also problematic, why the “common good” has historically been a bad thing for those who have been victimized and excluded. Beginning with our 2013 conference, “Lynching, Scapegoating & Actual Innocence,” Theology & Peace has examined the history of racism, the inherited trauma of slavery and lynching, and the continued destruction to black communities unleashed by the War on Drugs. With the mass incarceration of black men, the American people are engaging in scapegoating on a horrific scale. As pastors, theologians and activists, our goal is to educate our faith communities on the sacrificial foundations which structure our corporate life. And going beyond diagnosis, we seek practical models for nonviolent action that subvert the deep structures of racism, that interrupt the negative rhetoric directed against immigrants, Muslims, and LGBTQ persons, and that de-escalate mimetic contagion before it sweeps us up in its wake.

A year ago, at this time, the board of Theology & Peace recognized that whatever the results of the U.S. presidential election, the American people would be deeply divided. Sick with rivalry and self-righteous contempt on all sides, our public discourse has been reduced to a circus of model-obstacle relationships. The language of universal rights is stifled by a growing rhetoric of hate and resentment. We do not have to accept this as the new normal. René Girard bequeathed us the tools not only to parse the mimetic dynamics fueling the rise of populism and “the age of anger,” but to set the stage for a new era of political and social engagement.

At this year’s Theology & Peace conference, we engaged spiritual practices which, repeated over time, can transform our habitual ways of being together. Drawing on a variety of faith traditions, our speakers provided us with tangible tools not only for building our resistance to the unconscious dynamics responsible for scapegoating, but for creating compassionate spaces for healing our individual and collective trauma.

Sister Rose Pacatte led us in “Watching Film as a Spiritual Practice,” an adaptation of lectio divina, the ancient monastic practice of receptivity to the power of scripture. Together we watched the film The Visitor about a man who arrives home to discover illegal immigrants camped out in his NYC apartment. Sr. Rose asked that we identify with a character in the film—that we reflect on a scene in movie which seemed to “choose us” and share with others the ways the film touched our hearts. Our ego-centric engagement with the film was suspended just enough that we found ourselves impacted in unexpected ways.

Theology & Peace board member Sereta Richardson presented on Circle Processes. A black woman, a single mother, a veteran, and a former police officer, Sereta recounted with unusual eloquence and honesty the pain of a life marked by trauma and PTSD. She described the release that comes with sharing with others around the circle the suffering that each of us has bottled up inside. Delivering the words quoted above, she warned us. As long as 9/11 and its unprocessed pain remains bottled up in the American people, our collective PTSD poses a threat to ourselves and to the rest of the world, too often seeking release by targeting others in our midst. Inviting us to join her in a circle process, Sereta asked that those who were willing vocalize what they’re most afraid of. As we went around the room, we could feel our shared space shift from fear to compassion.

Boston College theologian Brian D. Robinette shared his work integrating mimetic theory with Christian contemplative practice. Distilling the wisdom of the desert monastics and contemporary teachers like Belden Lane and Martin Laird, Brian described multiple ways contemplative practice loosens mimetic binds, freeing us from rivalry with our neighbors in order that we may truly love them. Turning the gaze inward, we come to recognize the many borrowed desires within us! In the “practice of stillness,” we don’t judge those desires or afflicted emotions, we just take notice, “this is what envy feels like,” and without commentary we simply let them go. Stepping back from the many mimetic hooks we encounter on a daily basis, we quietly observe their passage down the stream of conscious awareness. Over time, the contemplative learns “to become creatively ‘indifferent’ (or ‘non-reactive’) to the riot of mimetic comparisons”. Brian offered us this image: “we can become dispassionate witness to the thoughts and desires streaming though us, as though watching particles swirling in a snow globe.” (See his article, “Contemplative Practice and the Therapy of Mimetic Desire,” Contagion 24 [2017], pp. 73-100, quotations from pp. 87 and 89.)

Role Playing

Jonathan Brenneman, Coordinator for Israel/Palestine Partners in Peacemaking, Mennonite Church USA, presented on “The Spiritual Practice of Nonviolent Direct Action.” A member of Christian Peacemaking Teams (CPT), he stood with victims of aggression in Hebron (Palestine), at Standing Rock, and in South Africa. Jonathan shared faith-based strategies focused on de-escalating conflict and improving conditions for victims of oppression and violence. Following the poet Joy Harjo, Jonathan emphasized that we treat the enemy as worthy of engagement. Do not demonize the oppressors, but view them as mistaken. Include them in solutions understood as correction rather than victory. Jonathan described a critical moment in Hebron when the checkpoints closed suddenly, making it difficult for Palestinian school children to return home. CPT utilized their training to engage the soldiers as part of the solution rather than treating them as enemies worthy only of hate. Jonathan concluded by engaging us in role play between the victim, the aggressor, and active bystanders able to disrupt the status quo. He equipped us with an extensive list of best practices: “feel the discomfort, assess what’s happening, be aware of how many people are around, be aware of exists.…” (The entire list is on our website.) The final word: “Remember that the aggressor is loved by God and wants to act positively.” Jonathan quoted Thomas Merton: “The tactic of nonviolence is a tactic of love that seeks the salvation and redemption of the opponent, not his castigation, humiliation, and defeat” (Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander [Image, 1968] 86).

Elder CW Harris, founder of Intersection of Change (formerly Newborn Holistic Ministries), led an ecumenical worship service honoring his mentor, Gordon Cosby, founder of Church of the Savior in Washington, DC. His sermon described how he, a young black man, was “seized by a great affection.” Cosby introduced him not only to mimetic theory, but to a communal faith life shared with the victim—the homeless, junkies, ex-convicts. Cosby’s witness helped CW rise above anger and resentment, the collective response of many young blacks to the crushing reality of racism. Today CW continues to share that communal life in his community, Sandtown, Baltimore, a neighborhood ravaged by race riots in the ’60s and more recently by the War on the Drugs. Since the death of Freddie Gray, Sandtown has been at the center of the conflict between police and people of color. In the midst of the crisis, CW, building on the positive models he received from Gordon Cosby, has worked tirelessly to de-escalate the violence.

With recent events in Charlottesville, these are practices and models we sorely need.

Where do go from here? In our final conference session all those in attendance agreed we would create an online resource for those interested in cultivating the spiritual practices presented at the conference. We also invite you to join our Facebook page and participate on our Facebook discussion page. Please go to our website and consider becoming a member and/or making a donation.

Join us next year:
2018 Theology & Peace Conference
“Accepting the Invitation to the Beloved Community”
Monday, May 21 – Thursday, May 24, 2018
Hosted by American Baptist College, Nashville, Tennessee

Speakers include:
Dr. Forrest E. Harris, President of American Baptist College
The Rev. Dr. Thee Smith, EmoryUniversity
 Becca Stevens, Founder of Thistle Farms

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Hochschild’s “Stranger in Their Own Land,” Trumpism, and Mimetic Theory, Part 2

In Part 1, the authoritarian, ‘Strong Man’ assault on reason and truth was posed as a crisis of our age that urges a depth of analysis that anthropology provides. Arlie Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land was offered as a sociological study that helps bridge the way to anthropology. In Part 2, in fact, we will soon see that Hochschild herself reaches a point of anthropological analysis. She begins with the personal stories of people in Lake Charles, LA, and moves to their “deep stories” of being made to feel like strangers in their own land, especially by northern white elites. And that brings us to Trumpism, the phenomenon of Donald Trump’s attempts at a Strong Man presidency.

And so into the 150-year history of southern resentment of northern elites stepped Donald J. Trump, promising that they would no longer feel like strangers in their own land (Ch. 15). Hochschild writes:

All this was part of the “deep story.” In that story, strangers step ahead of you in line, making you anxious, resentful, and afraid. A president [Obama] allies with the line cutters, making you feel distrustful, betrayed. A person ahead of you in line insults you as an ignorant redneck, making you feel humiliated and mad. Economically, culturally, demographically, politically, you are suddenly a stranger in your own land. The whole context of Louisiana — its companies, its government, its church and media — reinforces that deep story. So this — the deep story — was in place before the match was struck. (222) …

[Trump’s] supporters have been in mourning for a lost way of life. Many have become discouraged, others depressed. They yearn to feel pride but instead have felt shame. Their land no longer feels their own. Joined together with others like themselves, they now feel hopeful, joyous, elated. The man who expressed amazement, arms upheld — “to be in the presence of such a man!” — seemed in a state of rapture. As if magically lifted, they are no longer strangers in their own land. (225)

Girard - The ScapegoatAnd this is precisely the moment that Hochschild herself goes to an anthropological depth, citing Emile Durkheim — and if one happens to check the endnotes (page 307), an added citation to René Girard, The Scapegoat! She writes about Trumpism as if herself a Mimetic Theorist:

“Collective effervescence,” as the French sociologist Emile Durkheim called it in The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, is a state of emotional excitation felt by those who join with others they take to be fellow members of a moral or biological tribe. They gather to affirm their unity and, united, they feel secure and respected. While Durkheim was studying religions rites among indigenous tribes in Australia and elsewhere, much of what he observed could be applied to the [Trump] rally at the Lakefront Airport, as well as many others like it. People gather around what Durkheim calls a “totem” — a symbol such as a cross or a flag. Leaders associate themselves with the totem and charismatic leaders can become totems themselves. The function of the totem is to unify worshippers. Seen through Durkheim’s eyes, the real function of the excited gathering around Donald Trump is to unify all the white, evangelical enthusiasts who fear that those “cutting ahead in line” are about to become a terrible, strange, new America. The source of the awe and excitement isn’t simply Trump himself; it is the unity of the great crowd of strangers gathered around him. If the rally itself could speak, it would say, “We are a majority!” Added to that is a potent promise — to be lifted up from bitterness, despair, depression. The “movement,” as Trump has increasingly called his campaign, acts as a great antidepressant. Like other leaders promising rescue, Trump evokes a moral consciousness. But what he gives participants, emotionally speaking, is an ecstatic high. …

One way of reinforcing this “high” of a united brother- and sisterhood of believers is to revile and expel members of out groups. In his speeches, Trump has spoken of “something within Islam which hates Christians,” and of his intention to ban all Muslims from entering the country. He has spoken of expelling all undocumented people of Mexican origin. And only reluctantly and in truculent tones (“I repudiate, okay?”) did he repudiate the notorious Louisiana KKK grand wizard, David Duke, thus signaling blacks as members of an out group. In nearly every rally, Trump points out a protestor, sometimes demonizing them and calling for their expulsion. (One protestor was even falsely depicted by his campaign as a member of ISIS.) Such scapegoating reinforces the joyous unity of the gathering. The act of casting out the “bad one” helps fans unite in a shared sense of being the “good ones,” the majority, no longer strangers in their own land. (225-26)

In short the Reality TV star, whose genre features a weekly expulsion, has found a way to tap into the same culture of resentment of the millions who watch such shows, and to integrate it into the real-life venue of national politics. Should we count this as an amazing feat? Or simply the inevitable outcome of a culture that is reverting back to a more primitive tribalism such that it consumes expulsion of the Other as entertainment?

I believe that we won’t begin to find answers, much less solutions, to our crisis (surely, a “mimetic crisis”), unless we reach the anthropological depth of understanding revealed in the anthropology of the Christian revelation — especially as brought into the modern scientific framework via René Girard’s Mimetic Theory.

First of all, MT makes it clear that rationality is not the core of being human; mimetic desire is. Hochschild seems to offer emotions as more central to being human, which is closer to the truth than reason. But neuroscience is also helping to paint the portrait of healthy human beings achieving an integration of reasoning and emoting toward intentions that are shared with other human beings (intention being the more scientific word for desire). Shared intentions. Mimetic desire. Our brains themselves appear to be constructed for such healthy integration, not simply as individual brains but as minds linked together into a social network by mirror neurons. (See, for example, the work of Daniel Siegle, who names his findings as the “Neurobiology of We.” There is also growing literature on the connection between mimetic desire and mirror neurons; see Mimesis and Science: Empirical Research on Imitation and the Mimetic Theory of Culture and Religion, ed. by Scott Garrels.)

But to fully make the connection to the Christian revelation, let us choose a text which Girard wrote about early on (The Scapegoat, ch. 14, “Satan Divided Against Himself”), a sort of mini-anthropology that happens to also include a Strong Man:

When Jesus’ family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.” And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered. Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin….” (Mark 3:21-29)

Jesus indicates that binding the Strong Man cannot begin without correctly understanding the parabolic truth of “Satan casting out Satan.” The so-called Strong Man of today — Nietzsche’s Übermensch, Ayn Rand’s warmed-over version of Nietzschean philosophy popularized in the Tea Party version of the Überindividualist pursuing ‘objectivist’ rational self-interest, and arguably not too far off from Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom (whose version of capitalism Friedman and his Chicago economists actually implemented in the aftermath of Strong Man Pinochet’s 1973 military coup in Chilé) — all these manifestations of Strong Man philosophy continue to base attempts at iron-fisted Rule by getting the crowds to go along with fear of the Other, convincing them that they are on the side of the gods in casting out the satanic evil-doers.

Hope of binding the Strong Man, on the other hand, continues to begin with Jesus’ anthropological insight that such casting out of other human beings is never on the side of the true God who created the entire human household. Casting out the perceived satanic one(s) is actually satanic work itself. It is ‘Satan casting out Satan,’ not the gods casting out evildoers. It is the age-old structuring element of human anthropology which results in the continual divisions within the human household. It is as old as ancient tribalism.

And how can one begin to plunder that Strong Man’s house? Through the Holy Spirit of forgiveness (Mark 3:28-29). Through acceptance of each person — even the Strong Man himself — as a child in the Creator God’s household. A binding of the Strong Man’s violence, then, can only come through nonviolent engagement of the ‘Satan casting out Satan’-dynamic of human cultures. Jesus himself begins this movement on the Cross, letting himself be cast out as a satanic blasphemer against both Yahweh and Caesar, the Son of the gods.

Surrounding this passage are snippets about true family. Jesus’ own family perceive him as “out of his mind.” The follow-up to his parabolic anthropology is this response to news that his family is outside asking for him: “And looking at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother’” (Mark 3:34-35). Shared intentions. God-aligned mimetic desire.

How does one achieve such shared intentions with God? A life of prayer. On the night of his being handed over into the machinery of Satan casting out Satan, Jesus prays in the garden, “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want” (Mark 14:36). He teaches all disciples to pray, “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt 6:9-10).

And Jesus also stresses the role of forgiveness in prayer: “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matt 6:12). Or, “Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses” (Mark 11:25). Such forgiveness-centered prayer is the key to undoing the line-place-keeping “deep story” that was apparently common in Jesus day, too. Because when Jesus teaches his disciples about true discipleship, he consistently says things like, “But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first” (Mark 10:31). Or, “…whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:43-45). And a saying accompanied by a prophetic action:

He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” (Mark 9:35-37)

By placing a child in their midst, Jesus has turned our most common human “deep story” metaphor from line-place-keeping into a circle of friendship. Forgiveness is a willingness to give up one’s place in line for one who is more vulnerable. Forgiveness is not an allowing of the Strong Man to take a place at the head of the line, at the expense of the vulnerable. Such behavior is precisely what Jesus came to prophetically confront and expose. But neither is it a violent intervention. It is a nonviolent engagement that challenges our human castings out as satanic, offering inclusion into God’s family, where the most vulnerable have center-stage.

As I did in a blog earlier this year, I bring things back to our American context and give the last word to Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II:

A nonviolent struggle has two possible ends: winning the opposition as friends or giving up the battle. Though our coalition included the full spectrum of North Carolina’s diversity, we had come to recognize a common vision for our future in the history of the South’s antiracist freedom movement. Our relationships with one another were not simply transactional — a means to achieve our various organization’s goals. They had become transformational, lifting each of us to a new understanding of our interconnectedness as human beings and living members of one family. None of us would be free until all of us were free. (The Third Reconstruction, pp. 94-95)

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