Wendell Berry speaks of the Kingdom of God like an economy in a way that totally burns in my soul and speaks to our world situation today. He describes four major principles of the Kingdom of God:
Everything is included. Whether we want to be in it or not, all of creation is a part of the Kingdom of God.
Everything is connected to everything else. The Kingdom of God is orderly. It makes sense. If you change one thing it will always affect everything.
People, with our human limitations, cannot fully comprehend the Kingdom of God. We cannot know all of the creatures in it and we will never know the whole order and pattern it contains.
And then there is the last principle which really complicates things:
Though we can never fully describe the order of the Kingdom of God, there are major penalties for us if we violate that order. Even though we don’t know how things are connected there are limits, and when we go over those limits we always know it.
This makes sense to me in about a million ways. God’s life and love are continually present amidst the messiness of the world today. God’s creation has an order. It makes sense. And we are inextricably connected with God and all that is. But God is also unfathomable mystery. We cannot fit God into a box! We cannot understand the amazing interconnectedness of the cosmos, our relationships and our own inner lives.
But this is where it gets tricky. When we mess up we know it, but we don’t always know how our untidiness came to be. There is an invisible line we cross, sometimes every day, which lets us know that we are not in harmony with God and the rest of the world. For me, this happens when I fall into desolation and I struggle to get out of bed. Or, when I thought we were best friends and then we are not. The hourly news feed is a constant witness to the violation of the order of peace and justice in the world. And then there is our destabilized climate and its increasing chaos—a global wake up call to the violation of the order of the cosmos.
So how is the Kingdom of God like topsoil? In the same article, Wendell Berry describes how the Kingdom of God, which he also calls the Great Economy, is like topsoil. The dirt in which things grow is amazing. It turns death into life. In topsoil, everything is connected to everything else and this tremendous, life-producing balance is maintained … but we are really not quite sure how this happens. We cannot make topsoil. And we cannot make a substitute for it or replicate the complicated, intertwined processes that make it work.
But then, somehow through misuse, we begin to “lose” topsoil. We cross over some invisible line and the miracle of interconnected life stops working. Topsoil is defined as good quality, life-giving dirt and is only preserved by the careful care of farmers. When we violate the order—when we cross that line—we lose the quality of topsoil and it’s difficult to get it back.
The concrete example of topsoil helps me see my own life and interconnectedness to God more clearly. I am a miracle of life. All around me, life is both infinitely precious and a part of me. I am the child in Manchester, England who lost her life in mindless terrorism. I am the Syrian family bombed by coalition forces. I am the forests lost to mindless industrialism and I am the last Giant Ibis. I am the stars, the wind and the precious dirt that grows life. We are all connected. That is what it means to be the Body of Christ. You are the eye, and I am the foot and love binding us forever together. We are the forces of hope. We are the destruction that seems impossible to stop.
Part of what gives me hope is that things are getting better. Contrary to popular opinion today there are fewer wars, less violence and a bigger reduction in crime rates than just a few years ago.
Every death is a tragedy that should be mourned but when we step back from the emotions and look quantitatively at our world today, the good is winning. Hope is having the last word. Our interconnectedness is a gift and I truly believe that today more people are honoring it than ever before. This means that the Kingdom of God—God’s passionate desire for peace, justice and a world ordered by love—is becoming more visible and more possible every day.
Sister Sarah Hennessy is a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration based in La Crosse, Wisconsin. She grew up in North Carolina as an active Quaker and became a Catholic in 2000. For her, Jesus’ messy business includes falling in love with Christ AND with the People of God! Her heart is on fire for the Hispanic community, poetry, playing guitar and accompanying people through birth, death and the living that comes in between. She currently ministers as the perpetual adoration coordinator at St. Rose Convent, as a Mary of the Angels Chapeltour guide, and a volunteer at Franciscan Hospitality House.
Along with many people far and near, I have been terribly disturbed by images from the Syrian war recently. Appropriately disturbed.
Early last week, I felt physically ill while I watched a news story about doctors and hospitals being targeted by airstrikes.
Then, just a few days later, the images of Omran Daqneesh, the five year-old-boy who sat dazed and bloody in an ambulance in Aleppo, stirred compassion, outrage and prayers from many of us.
Here is the disturbing video of Omran being rescued by aid workers:
Since the video and pictures of his rescue went viral Omran’s older brother Ali–along with at least 148 other chilldren of Aleppo just this month–died.
Thousands of miles are between me and the people suffering in Syria. Entering into their experiences through the news, images, and videos is tough. Really though, the turmoil that it surfaces in me is miniscule compared to what makes up their daily life.
Yet, I am tempted to turn away from loving my neighbor. The challenging truth of suffering and injustice could spiral me into a state of helplessness. What can I do? I am too distant from the pain to be able to help rescue people or offer comfort, food or water. I feel like I have no power or wealth to end the conflict. I could resign, throw my hands up, “I can’t keep up! I can’t handle it!”
I am tempted to turn away from the Gospel of love and mercy, to reject hope and leave it behind me, ignore the suffering of my distant neighbors, and return to enjoying the comforts of my safe and privileged life.
War is ugly and can bring out the worst in us.
Yes, war is ugly, but discipleship necessary.
When it comes to loving our neighbors thousands of miles away, solidarity becomes a demanding spiritual practice. We unite in prayer, enter into relationship, and respond with compassionate actions. We allow ourselves to be disturbed and uncomfortable while we pray and and act, because we know that others are very, very uncomfortable.
Although ending war may be complex and difficult, living the Gospel is really quite simple: every choice is guided by sacrificial love.
So let us pray!
For all the children like Omran and Ali, the children living and dying in war, let us pray. For an end to war and conversion of hearts, let us pray. For peace and an increase of hope among us, let us pray:
A Prayer For The People Of Syria
Almighty eternal God, source of all compassion,
the promise of your mercy and saving help fills our hearts with hope. Hear the cries of the people of Syria; bring healing to those suffering from the violence, and comfort to those mourning the dead. Empower and encourage Syria’s neighbors in their care and welcome for refugees. Convert the hearts of those who have taken up arms, and strengthen the resolve of those committed to peace.
O God of hope and Father of mercy, your Holy Spirit inspires us to look beyond ourselves and our own needs. Inspire leaders to choose peace over violence and to seek reconciliation with enemies. Inspire the Church around the world with compassion for the people of Syria, and fill us with hope for a future of peace built on justice for all. We ask this through Jesus Christ, Prince of Peace and Light of the World, who lives and reigns for ever and ever. Amen.
Let us also offer generous support to organizations who have remained present to the victims of war, even while risking their own safety and security. According to my research (and I am willing to be corrected) these are the best organizations to donate to, in order to assist the people of Aleppo in particular:
Let us join together and devote ourselves to protecting the life and dignity of God’s children everywhere—no matter how long or exhausting the struggle or how deep the heartache. Pope Francis’ wisdom that “our infinite sadness can only be cured by infinite love” can direct us.
No matter how awful the circumstances or how distant our neighbor, love must disturb us and we must keep being the people God has called us to be.
I am afraid this blog post is going to be a terrible, tangled mess: sorry about that. But considering the mess this is all about, a jumble might be the best I can give.
My thoughts are tangled because so much has been stirring within me since last week when I learned about the killings of Alton Sterling (in Louisiana) and Philando Castile (in Minnesota), and then police officers Brent Thompson, Patrick Zamarripa, Michael Krol, Lorne Ahrens, and Michael Smith (in Dallas).
My heart has been heavy with more sadness—too similar to my grief for the 50 people killed in Orlando on June 12th. I’ve been praying prayers of lament and trying to lean on my faith; that love prevails. As a Christian who desires to be an agent of nonviolent social change, I have also felt overwhelmed, helpless, disappointed, doubtful and frustrated—how can these horrific events and lingering tensions lead to healing and peace?
Mostly though, I have been feeling a lot of guilt.
I didn’t ask to be born with this white skin. I never wanted to inherit centuries of stolen privilege and power. I’ve never wanted to be an oppressor and blindly participate in social structures that keep my brothers and sisters of color in poverty, assumed criminals. I’ve never wanted to walk around wearing white privilege every day, but I do.
I understand now (but didn’t before: more about it later) that much of the racial violence flaring up throughout our nation has been centuries in the making. As a nation we’ve never healed our racist wounds and now racism has become an infection, sickening and slowing our chances for unity and peace. The disease of racism has corrupted our economics, communities and ways of relating to one another.
We can’t blame anyone for the racial conflicts but ourselves, as we’ve all contributed to the causes that ignite anger and hate among us; structural racism is real and creating a mess of problems, tangled together and killing our children. When we submit to lies and take a side, when we ignore the suffering of anyone—this is sin and evil staring us down and laughing.
Whether I like it or not, I participate in the evil of racism every time I enjoy my white privilege. When I feel the tinge of excitement over seeing a “run-down” neighborhood flipped into an area with funky shops and remodeled homes (that’s what gentrification is), I’m ignoring the plight of the poor. When I savor easy access to healthy food and transportation without anger for the lack of attainability my black and brown brothers and sisters have of such beneficial basics, I’m failing to love. And, when I experience nothing but respect and kindness from police officers and assume it’s everyone’s experience, I’m turning away from the Truth.
I had to leave the nearly all-white farming community in Iowa where I grew up in order to learn the ugly truth: racism, as portrayed to me in history class, didn’t end after the civil rights movement. I discovered this in college partly through Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities (which really impacted my life); while studying abroad in South Africa; while serving in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps and witnessing lack of health care for people of color. I first heard about predator police patrolling black neighborhoods from my students at an all-boys African-American high school on Chicago’s south side. The powerful truth in this video mirrors their stories (but be warned: it’s violent and contains offensive language).
It’s taken years of observing, listening and relationship-building to get to my current consciousness; to understand the privilege of my skin color and the complexity of our social sins; to realize that practically every inequality I’ve encountered is an aftereffect of our shared racial wounds; to move beyond white guilt and to white responsibility. I want to share the principles that have guided me as I clumsily deal with my white privilege, hoping to contribute to racial reconciliation.
Please white brothers and sisters, join me in these actions for everyone’s sake. And, brothers and sisters of color; please comment and correct me where I’m mistaken; suggest what we could do to better share this privilege—rightly yours—with you.
1.) Always avoid paternalistic thinking and behavior. Never give people your pity and create projects you think will increase their standard of living without asking what is needed, wanted. (And keep in mind that cultural dynamics may cause people to agree with your ideas no matter what they believe.) Similarly, make sure organizations serving people of color are not managed solely by white people.
2.) Celebrate diversity. Culture is a beautiful gift from God that ought to be understood, reverenced and appreciated. If you serve a culture not your own, it’s necessary to move cautiously yet eagerly to see all the beauty in the difference (especially if you’re a white person).
3.) Listen. While teaching in Chicago, I was frequently the only white person in the room. It was incredibly important for me to ask questions and really listen to the answers. Whenever I didn’t understand something I had to put aside my pride and fear and let my students explain their world to me. I’m sorry for not engaging in this way more often.
4.) Become allies. Any action you can muster to offer the privilege of your well-respected voice, advocacy for peace and healing, is crucial. It can take a lot of courage and skill but is very important to correct racial language, assumptions and attitudes when necessary. (Be aware that the sin of racism can creep into all of us.) Talk about racism even when it’s uncomfortable, donate to organizations of social justice governed by African Americans and ask your elected officials what they’re doing to ensure peace for the people most marginalized—our black and brown brothers and sisters.
5.) Educate yourself and the next generation. Watch the news and pay attention to bias; search for balanced news sources. Ask critical questions, read, study and share information that helps others understand the truth. If you have children under your care, especially white boys, make sure they are learning narratives about humanity that reveal the God-given dignity and equality of all people.
6.) Pray and witness. Now is a time for communal reconciliation and prayer services for peace. Join in a solidarity action or peaceful protest (like this one, recently in Madison). Plan one for your community or hold a prayer service in your Church or home and invite people of color to contribute to the planning, music and dialogue. Remember that reconciliation is God’s work and we are made to be instruments of peace, working for God’s mission. In order to build up God’s reign of love, we must truly love and pray for each other.
It will remain tough and messy, but all of us who are white must act. It’s just as Jesus said: “Much will be required of the person entrusted with much, and still more will be demanded of the person entrusted with more.” (Luke 12:48)
As I wade further into the mess I’m aware that as one of many, I have a lot more to learn. Yet I’ll remain in this struggle and not tire because it’s what we are made for—to be one, arriving together to the time when justice and freedom is known by all on earth as it is in heaven. Through God, by God, and in God’s love, one day we’ll arrive.
Today, this high holy day, at liturgies worldwide, we will know no sacrifice at the banquet table.
Communion will be different, stirring up spiritual hungers to remind us of the pain of our loss, the awfulness of the absence of Christ. On this solemn day, an unusual ritual will file us forward; all of us are all called to reverence the cross.
For me, reverencing the cross is really a ritual of bizarre paradox. All at once, we grieve the death of our beloved Jesus and give thanks for the freedom his death has permitted us. We meditate on his wounds, the lashes, the whip cracks and the cries of anguish and celebrate his non-violent love so freely expressed. And, we kneel in awe and wonder and cry with an awareness that our sin caused his pain.
Ultimately, in the midst of paradox, this is the day for us to acknowledge our sins, simple and complex, which have created crosses for others. We ignored an opportunity to learn about an overwhelming social issue and enter into solidarity when we turned off the bad news. We became part of the crowd that yelled, “CRUCIFY.”
We wrongly decided to put our recyclable waste in the bin headed straight for the landfill. We cut wounds right into God’s creation.
We let selfishness consume us and ignored our coworkers in need of God’s mercy. We handed them a crown of thorns.
We didn’t learn to love our hurting, peaceful, Muslim neighbors and reacted to the news of another terrorist attack with cruel assumptions and accusations. We decided we didn’t want to love our enemies. We pounded them with nails of violence and judgment.
We gave into materialism and wasted our wealth on superficial pleasure, cheating on our fasting. A spear of greed pierced our side.
We are part of the picture of Jesus crucified. Rightfully, our hearts are sad and dark on this day.
Let us unite with Jesus on the cross, for his drops of blood reveal our sinful ways.
When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the infant leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, cried out in a loud voice and said, “Most blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me, for at the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the infant in my womb leaped for joy.” –Luke 1:41-44
Gaudete! This is the week of joyful anticipation!!
Just as Jesus and John leaped for joy in the wombs of their holy mothers, we rejoice and leap for joy as we wait for the great things to come, the fulfillment of God’s promises!
Yes, we are aware that we wait in darkness. We are overwhelmed and pained by the intensity of oppression suffered throughout the world, near and far. Children sleep on streets, many people lack adequate shelter and water, bombs are being dropped, refugees are fleeing. Poverty, injustice, and violence are real and serious threats upon the dignity of humanity.
Still, with hope and joy we lovingly labor for a world where God’s reign is known, wherein justice is triumphant.
No matter our circumstances, how can our voices contribute toward the coming fullness of God’s reign? How can we join our voices together and sing a song of reversal that is in harmony with the strength and hope heard in Mary’s song in Luke 1:46-55?
And Mary said:
“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord;
my spirit rejoices in God my savior.
For he has looked upon his handmaid’s lowliness;
behold, from now on will all ages call me blessed.
I recently studied Elizabeth Johnson’s commentary on the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) within her masterful work Truly Our Sister: A Theology of Mary in the Communion of Saints (Continuum, 2003) as part of my graduate studies. This writing encouraged me to remain faithful and hopeful in the midst of the struggle for justice. I was provided a solid footing in information about the requirements for justice.
For example, even though Mary’s song is the longest speech from any woman in the entire New Testament, it is one of several hymns sung by Jewish women; it is parallel in content and structure to what was sung by several prophetesses in the Old Testament. Like their songs, Mary’s song also praises God’s creation of a liberating revolution.
With scholarship and reverence, Johnson details how Mary’s particular circumstances established her as dangerous for anyone who does not embrace God’s reign. God chose Mary, a poor woman, to be the partner in our salvation and she praises God from the depth of her relationship with God; God has preference for those who are economically and spiritually poor.
Mary was an oppressed woman and her song paints a picture of justice; throughout salvation history we understand that God defines justice as reversal. Mary’s voice foreshadows Jesus’ message in the Gospels. Fittingly then, Mary’s song is a “revolutionary song of salvation whose concrete social, economic, and political dimensions cannot be blunted.”
Praise and justice come together; by the life-giving body of the pregnant Mary we know a role model for solidarity with the oppressed. In her message, we can envision a world where all the hungry are fed and all power structures turn upside down.
Mary’s song is a song for everyone, and it is very much music to the ears of people who live in poverty. Yet, Johnson admits, “This message will not appeal to those who are satisfied with the way things are.” She advises that those who are prosperous strengthen their solidarity. I was invigorated for my task of informing those of us who comfortably enjoy privileges about the needs of a hungry humanity, of calling all of us to more mindfulness.
Ultimately, Johnson’s commentary on the Magnificat provides me with a hopeful lens through which I can view the injustices of today. It taught me how to joyfully sing songs of response that glorify and please God, through both word and deed.
By Mary’s partnership we experience the dawning of the Messianic Age. Her song is also a daily prayer that can inform our every-day work of helping God’s justice reign. In the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “This song has none of the sweet, nostalgic, or even playful tones of our Christmas carols. It is instead a hard, strong, inexorable song about collapsing thrones and humbled lords of this world, about the power of God and the powerless of humankind.”
Indeed, as Johnson so clearly articulated, in Mary’s universal song we hear the ultimate Advent hymn—a song of hope to reverse the patterns of suffering prevalent in the world today.
As we leap in joy and wait in hopeful anticipation for the coming of God’s Kingdom fully known, let us join Mary and do the work of establishing God’s justice while this song rings in our hearts!
 Elizabeth Johnson, Truly Our Sister (New York: Continuum, 2003), 263-264.
Right now, at this Internet-saturated time in history, screams for help are coming out from the shadows.
As Christians, we can choose to ignore the serious pleas for help and deny the existence of problems. Or, we can we do as Jesus instructs and heed the call coming from the wilderness. Let us study the brightly glaring sign of this time and respond with courageous compassion and advocacy for systemic changes.
There are 27 million people in slavery today, which is more than any other time in human history. Ninety percent of people are trafficked because of the sex industry.
Porn revenue is larger than all combined revenues of all professional football, baseball, and basketball franchises worldwide. U.S. porn revenue exceeds the combined revenues of television broadcasting companies ABC, CBS, & NBC ($6.2 billion). Child pornography generates $3 billion annually.
One million children are forced to work in the sex industry every year. Between 100,000 and 300,000 children in America are at risk for sex trafficking annually.
In the past week, I was blessed to hear Matt Fradd speak at the high school where I minister. He was entertaining and enlightening for the youth about the tough topics of sex and pornography (and made my job of teaching the theology of the body much, much easier. ) I was haunted to learn more facts about this issue that has been disturbing me for several years. For example, I learned that recent scientific study shows that people who are addicted to pornography have significantly smaller brains than those who aren’t. (The scientists aren’t sure if the smaller brains are a result of the addiction or more that those with smaller brains are likely to use porn.) Thanks be to God, Matt has an excellent ministry of sharing God’s healing love and mercy. Plus, his website is full of the support and facts that people need to heal and recover.
His presentation was mainly focused on promoting St. Pope John Paul II’s theology of the body, or helping Catholics connect their theology and faith with their sexual attitudes and behaviors. He was effective at critiquing this sexualized culture and promoting chastity. Plus, my students and colleagues alike were marveling at how gifted he was at talking about uncomfortable topics in an accessible way.
Although Matt’s presentation was a thorough and informative introduction, I left thinking about how the picture he painted was incomplete; our wired society’s increasing addiction to pornography connects to many other systemic problems that he didn’t even mention. Here are some indicators that I’m aware of: I have felt increasingly disturbed to notice more sex shops creeping up at rural exits along major highways and worried about how their presence harms rural communities and families, not to mention the children that see the billboards and shops. I recently watched this documentary online and felt heartbroken for the young teens who were manipulated and then tattooed with the names of the pimps that they are forced to work for.
I became convicted that all children who run away from abusive homes and then end up in the sex industry are everyone’s child; we all have a responsibility to help them. I grieve the many ways that people are objectified and abused when others fail to recognize their sacredness and dignity. I mourn the violations to human dignity that occur on every level.
For certain, the statistics are terrifying. The Church—the Body of Christ, the people of God—is broken and in severe pain. It is time for us to unite and open clinics and heal the wounded, hurting body of humanity. Let us pray and discern and act so that we can be instruments of mercy and redemption.
I am concerned, though, that we aren’t doing enough. And, I beg you to pray with me that we will discern how the Spirit is calling us to respond, pray that we have the graces and courage to act and that we then act with great love and compassion.
As I pray, I think of Mary. I think of her poverty and how she was able to offer her body to God as an instrument for freedom and salvation. I see in her a beautiful sign of hope that we can all partner with God in ways that honor our dignity and worth and build up God’s reign. Let us have hope, from Mary, that these sins and crimes will come to end, that’s God’s victory of peace and justice will be triumphant. Let us live boldly our belief that one day soon all children of God will deeply understand that they are no one’s property.
For every woman, man, or child who has ever been abused and has experienced the darkness of fear and pain, there is a human sign of hope.
Jesus, please care for all victims and perpetrators of violence. May they know healing and strength and may the violence come to an end!
For every person who has ever been bought, branded, and sold as a slave there is hope. In Mary there is proof that you don’t have to suffer in this way for your body is precious and has value and worth. You deserve to be honored as holy, because you are—you are a child of God made in God’s image and likeness.
Mary, pray for us sinners who permit the sex industry and human trafficking to continue today. Guide us, Holy Mother, as we aim to advocate and change the systems that trap people in slavery. Help us protect all children!
I am proud that several sisters in my community have served in El Salvador. In fact, some of them acquainted as friends with the American church women who were martyred in 1980 during the Civil War. The sisters in my community who were in El Salvador were ordered to return to the United States in 1981.
Antona Schedlo, FSPA, returned to El Salvador in 1988 and worked in the war zone until the war ended. Then she worked in another part of the country during until 2010 when she moved back to our motherhouse in La Crosse for health reasons. When Sister Antona left El Salvador she promised the people there that she would return when Archbishop Oscar Romero was beatified. Thanks be to God, this event occurred just about a month ago on May 23rd! I asked Sister Antona some questions about her experience.
How long did you live and minister in El Salvador? What was your main ministry during that time? I worked there 31 years as a pastoral minister and usually in a parish where the pastor came only on Sunday to celebrate Mass. I had to be jack-of-all-trades: constructor, counselor, nurse, catechist, organizer, church minister, friend, visitor, cleaner, teacher and at times, referee. Name it–I probably have done it. Had youth groups, children groups, Bible groups, AA groups, construction groups. Never a dull minute and never a bored day.
What do you love about El Salvador and the Salvadorian people?
El Salvador is a beautiful small green country. The people are warm, friendly, accepting and hardworking. With all that has happened in the country the last 40 years they still have hope and are working for a peaceful, equitable and just country.
What should we all know about Blessed Oscar Romero? Everyone should know Blessed Romero had great compassion for the poor and did all in his power–even his life–so they could have a fruitful, just, respectable life.
How does he inspire you personally?
Personally, his brave, outspoken way of giving voice to those who had no voice was an inspiration to me to do what I needed to do to help and be in solidarity with the people of El Salvador.
What was your experience returning to El Salvador to attend the beautification of Blessed Oscar Romero?
It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience to be at the beatification ceremony with those thousands enthusiastic people who loved and respected Blessed Romero and are, in crowds of hundreds of thousands, celebrating their unity and gratefulness to him.
Is there anything else you want to tell us about El Salvador and Blessed Oscar Romero? Yes, we all need to pray to him to work a miracle and bring peace to El Salvador by ending the violence due to the gangs and turn El Salvador into a peaceful, loving, just country.
I have asked my good friend and occasional Messy Jesus Business contributor, Amy Nee-Walker, to share her perspective on the recent events in Baltimore for our readers this week. Amy and her husband Ted presently live in the Jonah House community in Baltimore with their one-year-old son. Here are her responses to my questions.
What would you want young people to learn from the events in Baltimore in the past week?
“Observe without judgment” is a phrase commonly used in meditation. One is asked to observe–while withholding judgment–his or her own self: thoughts that run through the mind, sensations being experienced within the body, feelings rising to the surface. It is only through observing without judgment that we can begin to have a truer, fuller sense of what is happening and attain a state of peace and wholeness in body, mind and spirit.
I would like for myself, and others–young, old and in-between–to take hold of this concept and to extend it beyond the self. What I want people to learn about what has been unfolding this past week in Baltimore is not exact. I am still in the process of trying to understand and sort it out and respond appropriately myself. But I think, if nothing else, I want people to look and to listen and to do this without judgment. I want people to learn to not just perceive what is happening but also to seek to discover why it is happening; not stopping at the easy answer that some news outlet, or peer, or even parent, is waiting to feed you. If you can begin by observing without judgment, you will learn to ask questions that don’t have assumed answers already attached.
In terms of asking the deeper question, I would also like to share some words from Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech. Words that my husband Ted and I were recently reminded of and have continued to contemplate as events unfold:
As I have walked among the desperate, rejected, and angry young men, I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action. But they asked, and rightly so, “What about Vietnam?” They asked if our own nation wasn’t using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government. For the sake of those boys, for the sake of this government, for the sake of the hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence, I cannot be silent…
… I am convinced that if we are to get on to the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.
It is my view that these triplets of racism, materialism and militarism are the deep and wide-reaching roots that are fueling violence, not just here in Baltimore but throughout the country and the world. That is something I would like people to examine in their own lives and communities as I intend to examine it in my own.
What do you think the rest of the world doesn’t know about Baltimore?
Having lived only a year and a half in this city, there’s a lot that I don’t know about Baltimore! Living here has been a continual educational journey. This is a city with a very complicated past and present. I wonder whether the rest of the world knows that preceding the death of Freddie Gray, the Baltimore City Police Commissioner and the Department of Justice were in the midst of an investigation of the Baltimore City Police Department. In 2014, The Baltimore Sun released a long-researched exposé outlining cases of police brutality in Baltimore. Attorney Bill Quigley sums up that report well in two sentences. “Over $5.7 million has been paid out by Baltimore since 2011 in over 100 police brutality lawsuits. Victims of severe police brutality were mostly people of color and included a pregnant woman, a 65-year-old church deacon, children, and an 87-year-old grandmother.”
For those who wonder why there is so much tension between protesters and police, I hope this shines some light. For those who think the only reason someone might resist arrest is because they are a criminal, I hope this helps them begin to realize there are times when people evade police not because they are afraid of getting caught in wrongdoing, but because they are afraid for their life.
But I also think the world does not know enough about the positive, creative ways that people are trying to take back their streets from the rioters who trashed them, the wayward pockets of police who torment them and the political leaders who frankly didn’t seem to give a damn about this particular neighborhood until it hit national news. First of all, most of those taking action are advocating for peace and collaboration–some who want to have the opportunity to mourn and grieve for the loss of their friend, son, and brother–Freddie Gray. And there are many who want to both confront the oppression they have experienced for generations as well as show there is more to this city, and more to these neglected neighborhoods, than crime and destitution.
What do you love about Baltimore?
One of the things I love about Baltimore is how easily identifiable it is as a city, it is itself and nowhere else (unless you go to the inner harbor which, sadly, has become a cookie-cutter middle class shopping district with the usual chain stores and restaurants). The city strikes an awkward balance between crowded row houses and expansive green parks and forest space. It is teaming with locally-owned businesses, a love of fried fish and crabs, pockets of incredible historical sites that include civil war memorials as well as the birth places of Billie Holiday and Edgar Allen Poe. And there are many community-based initiatives from planting trees and community gardens, to providing after-school activities, to street festivals and art fairs.
But more than that, I have been so moved by the hospitality, kindness and humor of the people we have encountered. We help with food distribution for those needing grocery supplements, and though the people come here in deep need they also come with great patience as we bumble our way through the long line of recipients. They come with a generous interest in us and a concern for one another; sharing when they’ve been given more than they need, bringing things back for neighbors and friends who couldn’t make it down themselves due to illness or other impediments.
When I was pregnant with my son, Eli, we were on WIC; a food assistance program for pregnant mothers and infants. It is a wonderful program but can be complicated when it comes to shopping. More than once a long line would form behind me as the cashier examined my grocery selection and compared it to the approved items on the WIC check. I would turn to the line that had formed behind me, mostly women, all African-American, blushing and apologizing. Not once did I get a rude or impatient comment; more often I would hear, “that’s all right Honey, we’ve all been there.” Similarly, when we started going to a local church where we turned out to be the only white people, we were afraid of being seen as interlopers. Instead, we were quickly and warmly embraced, invited to events and meetings and welcomed to return. Since his birth, our son has been cooed over and doted on wherever we go, even when he tackles the other children with his overly-enthusiastic hugs and kisses. “Don’t worry about that,” one mother said to me. “That just shows he’s loved and loving.”
These are not aspects of Baltimore likely to be recognized by folks who drop by the Inner Harbor for seafood, or who have formed all their ideas of the west side of the city (where we live) through watching The Wire, but to a young mother and new folks in town, it means the world.
What’s the story the media isn’t covering?
I think we can agree that the media loves bad news. For some reason, bad news is what gets a majority of us to tune in. Because of that, most of the reports on what’s happening in Baltimore, beginning with Saturday’s largely peaceful demonstration, flash images of smashed cars, burning buildings, looting stores. In fact, when everything is calm or when groups are gathering for prayer or just standing and talking, even “live” reports will flash back to images from earlier in the week that are more dramatic and scintillating. I don’t want to indicate that the damage done has not been real and impactful. Many of the people who came to our food pantry the day after Monday’s riots were saddened and frustrated by the damage done to their streets and businesses. One man commented that he doesn’t know where he will get his elderly mother’s medication now that all the nearby CVS stores have been looted and subsequently closed. Another said he lost his job, one of the few available in this area, because the building was burned down A friend reports that in their zip code, unemployment is at 50 percent (8.4 percent city wide). Several of the men commented that they didn’t leave their houses, not because they were afraid they would get hurt in the riot, but because they were afraid of being accused of participating in it just by stepping outside.
But there is so much more happening! Because schools were closed, the high school drumline (which we hear practicing almost daily from our house) marched through the streets with the school’s cheerleaders dancing before them. Churches held outdoor prayer services (some in front of their own buildings, others surrounding those places that had been burned down), seeking to bring healing to a traumatized space. Local clergy are meeting with local gangs, discussing ways of reaching out to the community and beginning to work together to seek not just calm but real enduring peace. Throughout the week our local Josephite church, Peter Claver, has been a hub for organizing–to meet the needs of people lacking food or other resources, to help with neighborhood clean up and to engage in the more long-term work of confronting social structures which are precariously imbalanced.
How has living the Gospel been a messy experience for you in the last week of your life?
Probably that hardest thing for me living in the midst of Baltimore’s present turmoil has been fielding the reactions of those who live outside of it. I guess that belies my privilege in that, because I have a car, I am not cut off from access to food, toiletries, or medications when drug stores and convenience stores in the neighborhood are burnt down. And frankly, because I am white, I am not afraid of being falsely accused of participating in destructive actions or being badgered or beaten by law enforcement.
What I do struggle with (as someone with a network of friends and family who have widely disparate takes on world events as well as philosophies of right living) is trying to bring a balanced perspective and to reveal what may otherwise go unseen. I think those who very sincerely and understandably want to be on the side of the oppressed are quick to rationalize and validate any actions. This is also true of certain forms of violence (such as property destruction)– long-suppressed reactions from people who have experienced many painful forms of violence throughout their entire life–even the lives of the generations preceding them. On the other hand, there are those who want, without question, to dismiss and criticize any behavior that is disruptive, uncomfortable or that defies their sense of what is appropriate. They are quick to have a scathing review of unruly protesters yet are ready to ignore the economic and social violence that has been far more enduring and harmful to peoples’ lives.
I find myself truly challenged to live my own exhortation to “observe without judgment.” I am challenged to observe what is happening on the streets, first with curiosity and compassion, before slipping into criticism and assumptions whether I am observing protesters, police or politicians. I am also, and perhaps all the more so, challenged to observe the comments and viewpoints of others that are pouring in with patience and humility, looking to the Spirit to help form my response and not simply relying on my reactive feelings. This is a struggle for me as I feel very deeply the turmoil of my community (even as I am aware of my own status as somewhat of an outsider); tucked away in this 22 acre-cemetery of which we are stewards, where the sounds of helicopters and sirens compete with the song of birds enjoying the shade of our blossoming apple trees.
I am coming to a point where I find the need to quiet my own roiling thoughts and emotions, my fast-forming opinions and judgments. Coming to a place of inner stillness, I ask myself to imagine “Where is Jesus in all of this?” With that question, lines of police in riot gear melt away, a disinterested mayor takes the backseat, burning buildings fizzle out. With the question comes tears: tears of a devastated mother who lost her only son, a mother who is representative of many and yet who is deeply immersed in her own very real and individual loss; tears of Jesus as he holds her grief-stricken body in his own wounded arms and mourns a multitude of violent deaths and broken hearts and the loss of even one precious child.
I have started watching an Australian cop show, a drama called Rush, in which the main focus is on de-escalation. The officers are gifted at negotiation and always use the least force possible. They use Tasers and beanbag guns instead of real pistols. If the team of officers is chasing a car with teenagers in it, they tell everyone to back off and follow slowly to reduce the potential for an accident. Hands are clasped with simple plastic tags, and tear gas is used to diffuse a violent situation quietly without hurting anyone.
I just watched the season finale. Usually, in American crime dramas, the season finale includes a massive explosion or hostage situation with multiple deaths, leaving you and your favorite characters hanging in suspense. On Rush, the big drama was a ballistics report. One of the officers had mistakenly killed a bystander in a dangerous situation, and they didn’t know who had done it. It was only the second time in 35 episodes that anyone had actually been killed. The whole squad was saddened, withdrawn, and visibly shaken by the death. When Dawson finally tells Stella that her gun had fired the shot, she breaks down crying and responds “I killed someone. How do you get over that? Well, you don’t, do you.”
I feel like I have a plank in my own eye. Why are these story lines so surprising to me? They treat officers as human beings, with reasonable reactions and emotions. They portray violence and death as real tragedies to be avoided at all cost; not as fodder for another night’s titillating entertainment. What amazes me most is simply seeing a portrayal of police officers who take every measure to limit the use of force, and are saddened profoundly by any act of violence. This is not what I see in American media or even on the nightly news. Violence is gory, graphic, and glorified. The body count and the emotional aftermath are passed over quickly in the rush towards a climactic finish of utter destruction. The shows we watch, the games we play, and the streets of our home towns are increasingly violent. Recent events emphasize our militarized police force, the very real threat of terrorists, and armed conflict on a global scale.
This violent reality is what we see every day—our center, the very ground we stand on. The person in Jesus’ parable does not see the plank in her own eye. I wonder if it gets harder to see with a log in your eye, or if you just get so accustomed to the view that the whole world just has a plank-sized hole in it. Watching this Australian show is like seeing the world from a less militarized, more emotional perspective.