Spring/Summer 2018 (Vol. 46, Nos. 1 & 2)

Harvard Divinity Bulletin Spring Summer 2018 issue cover

Perspective

Multiple Lenses, Essential Gestures by Wendy McDowell
 

Dialogue

What the Gospels Share with Fanfiction by Jade Sylvan
The desire of the later Gospel writers to take up the pen parallels the contemporary phenomenon of fanfiction.

Making Belief in the Singapore Army by Theophilus Kwek
Ritual spaces and objects in a Singapore Army camp give voice to a deeper hunger.

Religion and the BRCA Mutation by Alexandra Nichipor
Women diagnosed with the “breast cancer genes” share complex stories about the impact of this health crisis on their religious beliefs and practices.

Listen First by Emily Click
We as a society have failed to count the price paid by victims of sexual harassment and assault.

Let Us Create by Natalie Cherie Campbell
Let’s expand what counts as creativity, so we can be creative in accessible, meaningful, powerful ways.
 

Featured

The Liturgy of Home by Terry Tempest Williams
What are the essential gestures that lead us to the sacred actions that can make a change of consciousness and consequence?

Eliminate the Muslim by Ahmed Ragab
The forces of paranoia, progress, and productivity drive the construction and surveillance of Muslim identity in narratives of postcolonial future-making.

Seeing as God Sees by Jonathan L. Walton
Biblical narratives can help us to reimagine what is possible and to pull truth out from its hiding places.

WHO ARE ‘WE’? Talks delivered at the “Symposium on Religious Literacy and Government: Refugee and Immigration Issues.”

Government Innovation in an Era of White Nationalism by Shaun Casey Innovative government programs need a concrete mission, collaboration across sectors, continual learning, and a grasp of local contexts.
Toward a More Radically Inclusive ‘We’ by Diane L. Moore
We must not mask the devastating parts of our history when we claim “we” are a nation of immigrants.
Not All Rosy: Religion and Refugee Resettlement in the U.S. by Melissa Borja
Refugee resettlement has always been contentious in the U.S., but we can learn from past efforts.
Between the Sacred and the Profane: The Border as a Contested Space by Christopher Montoya
The U.S.-Mexico borderlands are seen through a lens of the sacred vs. the profane by many state actors.
Understanding White Evangelical Views on Immigration by Kristin Kobes du Mez
Negative views about immigrants held by white evangelicals have more to do with militaristic masculinity than with Bible-based commitments.

 

In Review

‘Whiteness’ in the Mormon Archive by Seth Perry
Race and the Making of the Mormon People, by Max Perry Mueller, examines the ideology of “white universalism” in the formation of Mormonism.

A Vision for the Future of Environmentalism by Claire Laine
A Q&A with Dan McKanan on his newest book, Eco-Alchemy: Anthroposophy and the History and Future of Environmentalism.

FitzGerald’s Cast of Evangelicals Falls Flat by Curtis J. Evans
Frances FitzGerald’s The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America lacks critical acumen as an interpretive project.

Syllabus: “Hindu Worlds of Art and Culture”
A selected reading list from Diana L. Eck’s course.

POETS ON HYMNS. Seven poets discuss their favorite hymns:

“One Bread, One Body” by Kate Daniels
“The Green Hill Far Away” by Mark Jarman
“Come, My Beloved, to Greet the Bride” by Yehoshua November
“I Love to Tell the Story” by Kathleen Norris
“Jesus Is All the World to Me” by Patricia Jabbeh Wesley
“Great Is Thy Faithfulness” by Kwame Dawes
“Silent Night” by Jason Gray
 

Poetry

With My Father atop Birds Hill by Catherine Stearns

Two Poems by Danez Smith

See also: Past Issue

The Liturgy of Home

Terry Tempest Williams

Aerial view of Bears Ears and Raplee Monocline

Flying across the southern border of Bears Ears Monument, above the Raplee Monocline. Photograph by Fazal Sheikh.

 

O most honored Greening Force,
You who roots in the Sun;
You who lights up, in shining serenity, within a wheel
that earthly excellence fails to comprehend.
You are enfolded
in the weaving of divine mysteries.
You redden like the dawn
and you burn: flame of the Sun.

—Hildegard von Bingen, Causae et Curae1

Home. The Liturgy of Home. It is the seedbed of our Immortality. The bedrock of our theologies. The Sea of Galilee. The Bodhi Tree. The Sacred Grove. Mecca. We bow. We kneel. We pray. Our bodies. The body of the Earth. There is no separation.

Have we forgotten what is essential? Hands on the Earth, we remember where the source of our power lies. We are made of dirt and stardust.

This past year, on the North American continent, we experienced a Solar Eclipse on August 21, 2017. Our family gathered in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, in the Tetons.

From my journal:

Sunrise. I put on my eclipse glasses to witness the full circle of Sun. The eclipse begins at nine – Totality will be reached at 11:33 a.m. lasting approximately two minutes. Now, we wait and watch in ceremony.

Birdcalls – Clark’s nutcrackers, chickadees, and ravens – the prehistoric trumpeting of sandhill cranes.

Sage, buckwheat, aster – goldenrod, paintbrush, and harebells

Cirrus clouds looking like horsetails – still a lingering haze from the fires – the sound of mountain water – Yesterday, in anticipation, I gathered a bouquet of owl feathers found beneath their nest after a short, but brutal windstorm.

9:15 a.m. No change. The sun through the lenses of my glasses is an orange burning in a sky of blue.

Remembering Emerson’s words on circles:The eye is the first circle; the horizon which it forms is the second. Augustine described the nature of God as a circle whose center is everywhere and its circumference nowhere. Consider the circular character of every human action. Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth that around every circle another can be drawn, that there is no end in nature.

Brooke is facing the Tetons. We are listening to summer warblers, white-crowned sparrows, song sparrows, and the relentless trills of ruby-crowned kinglets in the lodgepole pines even as we sit in a clearing.

“The universe is fluid and volatile.”

I feel this force this morning. Unsettled. Disoriented. Disruptive.

The Sun and Moon are crossing paths – the depth and breadth of their shadows cast – and here we are on Earth – watching, witnessing, waiting.

10:27 a.m. The Sun and Moon are dancing. We are leaving our foundations.

The New York Times reported today that because of the Eclipse, the United States will lose 700 million dollars $$ of productivity? What kind of mind equates the two? What is work in the face of awe?

10:35 a.m. Bite by bite the Moon is eclipsing the Sun. The temperature is cooling. A pair of Sandhill Cranes fly over us, so close, wingbeats register as wind.

11:00 a.m. The Sun is approaching crescent shape. My hand is fully shadowing this page as I write. The sounds of insects are intensifying, grasshopper wings become cards close-pinned to bicycle spokes, the humming of bees, dragonflies, crickets singing as though it is late afternoon. Gnats have brought out the violet-green swallows criss-crossing the sky. Warblers are disappearing in the willows; chickadees and robins are roosting in the cottonwoods.

11:20 a.m. A chill is now noticeable, the light is changing, approaching twilight. Less birdsong. Less insects. The Sun in my glasses is a Cosmic Smile – Now, only the sound of water – A stillness has arrived.

11:25 a.m. The Moon is closing the light of the Sun – A flurry of juncos take refuge in sage.

11:27 a.m. A halo of light strikes the land like an electrical current igniting the horizon now a circle.

11:32 a.m. The Sun, now a cradle.

11:35 a.m. The Sun: A burning bone and ember. The temperature drops. TOTALITY strikes. Red-tail Hawk cries out. A twilight of periwinkle blue overtakes us. A collective sigh from all the humans watching, hidden by brush on the flanks of the Tetons. We rise. We look up, each of us worshipping the Cosmic Eye – the dilated pupil black staring down at us. Totality – Total awe – Total joy – Corona: Spikes of light are dancing around the darkened face of the Sun. Nothing I could have imagined. I turn to see the mountains’ response, stars appear above their silhouetted peaks. Venus throbs with a luminary pulse of wonder. Time is ticking through the silences. Deep indigo blue. How long will this last – Please let it last. Light bursts forth, totality is over.

I want more.

The return of light makes me no longer fear death.

This blink of a moment: I could not imagine this in my life. I cannot imagine what will be my death, nor the inexplicable beauty that continues.

We return to our folding chairs in the opening of sage and watch the wholeness of the Sun return.

It is this kind of cosmic beauty, in relationship to Earth, from which we evolve and exist.

♦♦♦
 

Pinecone in a frozen stream

Yosemite National Park. Photo by Jeff Foott.

 

In the beginning was the word – The Word is living, being, spirit, all verdant greening, all creativity. This Word manifests itself in every creature. . . . and manifestation of the Universe.

It is common place. It is common prayer. Are we watching? Are we listening? Hands on the Earth with our eyes raised upward? Are we creating the kind of open space where revelation can occur in the midst of our planetary education, especially here at Harvard Divinity School?

Are we as concerned with Being in the World – as much as we are concerned with Doing in the World? Are we as focused on who we are becoming as what we will become? Are we allowing ourselves to be undone by Beauty?

It was Janet Gyatso who asked me, “What is the morality of Beauty?”

I am still pondering that – She gave me a Buddhist koan.

And as I learned a few weeks ago, what kind of imbalance do I embody when I fall, fracture my nose and suffer a concussion and while laying on a stretcher in the back of the ambulance, alone, the overriding emotion I feel is relief over what I can cancel.

Have you been there?

Thomas Merton reminds us,

There is a pervasive form of contemporary violence to which the idealist . . . .most easily succumbs: activism and overwork. The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything is to succumb to violence. . . . It destroys [our] own inner capacity for peace.2

This is our pathology as “doing” people – Which we are – If we are serious about changing the world, how might we change ourselves?

“The plain fact is that the planet does not need more successful people.” Sarah Kantrowitz shared this David Orr passage with our class “Apocalyptic Grief and Radical Joy” a few weeks ago. “But it does desperately need more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers, and lovers of every kind.” Orr goes on to write:

It needs people who live well in their places. It needs people of moral courage willing to join the fight to make the world habitable and humane. And these qualities have little to do with success as our culture has defined it.3

What are the qualities most needed in this epoch of the Anthropocene, where the press of our species registers as a geologic force?

One of the first qualities we might seek to cultivate is our capacity to listen.

Sue Beatty, a lead biologist at Yosemite National Park offers an example4

To remember why she does her job, two or three times a week Sue walks through the Mariposa Grove, where there are Giant Sequoias 3,000 years old. Imagine what they have lived through and with. But one time when walking through, her normal pattern of thought was disrupted.

What she heard in her heart’s mind was “We are suffering. We are dying. Can you hear us?” She thought, “Am I going mad?” and she started picking up her pace. Again she heard, “We are suffering. We are dying. Can you hear us?” At that point she looked up at the big trees and she heard again, “We are suffering. We are dying. Can you hear us?”

Sue went back to her office, did her work, put it out of her mind, went through the weekend, but when she came back to her office on Monday, she gathered her team together and said, “I want a full analysis, a biological reading of the health of the Mariposa Grove.” Her staff said, “Well, we know they’re under stress. We know that we’re in drought.” And she said, “No, I think it’s deeper than that. I want a full rendering. Core samples, soil samples, hydrology, everything.”

So that’s what they did, and what they found after a year or so of work was that the trees were in fact suffering. They were dying. She did hear them.

What was wrong? A hundred years of millions of people’s feet tamping down their roots.

They could not breathe. The xylem and phloem was not happening. What did they recommend? To move all of the pavement in that grove. That this would no longer be a place of entertainment and recreation, but a place of reverence and restoration. No more trolleys, no more vans, no more cars, no more tourists, but, rather, seekers.

She took her recommendations, scientific and otherwise, to the director of the National Park Service, the superintendent of Yosemite, and it was approved. And for five years, the pavements were removed, the trolleys stopped, the parking lot removed. It is now a place of reverence and restoration, with a sign when you walk into that sacred grove of ancient beings that says, “Can you hear the trees?”

This is a liturgy of home.

Are we listening?

Do we have the strength within ourselves to slow down, reflect, and make the necessary changes personally, structurally, and institutionally to create a reverence of place where the life within us and the life that surrounds us can flourish?

To embrace and embody a “Thunder Perfect Mind.”

Restoration.

This is my prayer for each of us – It is also my prayer for Harvard Divinity School – Here, now, in this building moment – How serious are we?

Can we return to a Liturgy of Home - where the heart has a legitimate place alongside the mind – where time to reflect is as valued and expected as time to read and write – knowledge and wisdom require both. Creativity cannot exist without open space and quietude.

Open space opens minds – open minds open hearts.

We can construct together another way of being.

“There is a real world that is really dying, and we had better think about that,” Marilynne Robinson writes in Mother Country: Britain, the Welfare State and Nuclear Pollution.“My greatest hope, which is a very slender one, is that we will at last find the courage to make ourselves rational and morally autonomous adults, secure enough in the faith that life is good and to be preserved, to recognize the grosser forms of evil and name them and confront them. Who will do it for us?” (236).

We must do it for ourselves.

This is my unceasing prayer.

It begins here.

This is the Liturgy of Home.

♦♦♦
 

My home is in Utah – and it is complicated – Home always is. But it is also my taproot. Where my family lives, where my beliefs were born, where my words are rooted. It is the source of joy and the site of my pain. That is another definition of home. Especially now.

What is beauty if not stillness?
What is stillness if not sight?
What is sight if not an awakening?
What is an awakening if not now?

Like many, I have compartmentalized my state of mind in order to survive. Like most, I have also compartmentalized my state of Utah. It is a violence hidden that we all share. This is the fallout that has entered our bodies; nuclear bombs tested in the desert—Boom! These are uranium tailings left on the edges of our towns where children play—Boom! The war games played and nerve gas stored in the West Desert—Boom! These are the oil and gas lines, frack lines from Vernal to Bonanza in the Uintah Basin—Boom! This is Aneth and Montezuma Creek—the oil patches on Indian lands—Boom! Gut Bears Ears—Boom! Cut Grand Staircase-Escalante in half—Boom! And every other wild place that is easier for me to defend than my own people and species—Boom! The coal and copper mines I watched expand as a child—Huntington and Kennecott—Boom! The oil refineries that foul the air and blacken our lungs in Salt Lake City—Boom! And the latest scar on the landscape, the tar sands mine in the Book Cliffs, closed, now hidden simply by its remoteness—Boom! Add the Cisco Desert where trains stop to settle the radioactive waste they carry on to Blanding—Boom! Move the uranium tailings from Moab to Crescent Junction, then bury it still hot in the alkaline desert, out of sight, out of mind—Boom! See the traces of human indignities on the sands near Topaz Mountain left by the Japanese Internment Camps—Boom!

President Donald J. Trump will try to eviscerate Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante Monuments with his pen and poisonous policies. He just did—Boom! He will stand tall with other white men who for generations have exhumed, looted, and profited from the graves of Ancient Ones. They will tell you, Bears Ears belongs to them—Boom!

Consider Senator Orrin Hatch’s words regarding the Bears Ears Intertribal Coalition’s support of the Bears Ears National Monument: “The Indians, they don’t fully understand that a lot of the things that they currently take for granted on those lands, they won’t be able to do if it’s made clearly into a monument or a wilderness.” And when he was asked to give examples, the Senator said, “Just take my word for it.” This is a story, a patronizing story, a condescending story. I see politicians and my Mormon people discounting the Tribes once again, calling them “Lamanites,” the rebellious ones against God, dark-skinned, and cursed. That is their story. Racism is a story. The Book of Mormon is a story—Boom!

Environmental racism is the outcome of bad stories. A by-product of poverty. In Utah, yellow cake has dusted the lips of Navajo uranium workers for decades who are now sick or dead—Boom! There is no running water in Westwater, a reservation town adjacent to Blanding. But we are not prejudiced—Boom! If you speak of these oversights, call them cruelties, we as Mormons are seen as having betrayed our roots and our people. These are my people. Boom! This is who I am—Boom! A white woman of privilege born of the Covenant—I am not on the outside but inside. Boom! It is time to look in the mirror and reflect on the histories that are mine, that are ours.

We are being told a treacherous story that says it is an individual’s right, our hallowed state’s right to destroy what is common to us all: the land beneath our feet, the water we drink, and the air we breathe. Our bodies and the body of the state of Utah are being violated. Our eyes are closed. Our mouths are sealed. We refuse to see or say what we know to be true: Utah is a beautiful violence.

The climate is changing. We have a right and responsibility to protect each other. Awareness is our prayer. Beauty will prevail. It is time to heal these lands and each other by calling them what they are—Sacred.

May wing beats of Ravens cross over us in ceremony. May we recognize our need of a collective blessing by Earth. May we ask forgiveness for our wounding of land and spirit. And may our right relationship to life be restored as we work together toward a survival shared. A story is awakening. We are part of something much larger than ourselves, an interconnected whole that stretches upward to the stars.

These are my people. This is my home.

Coyote in the desert is howling in the darkness, calling forth the pack, lifting up the Moon.5

We cannot afford to avert our gaze.

We can choose not to look away – to “stay with the troubles” as Donna Haraway states – We can bear witness to what is being destroyed and sanctify these sites of devastation by our willingness to stand our ground in the places we call home.

We can bear witness not only on behalf of the health and well-being of our species, but all species from plants to animals to rocks and rivers and a sacred grove of trees called Mariposa.

If I am standing on the edge of a uranium tailings pile with dust devils whipping up the waste as though it were merely sediments of sand – how might we ritualize this space and honor its power, dark as it is, numinous as it is, and match the energy it holds with our own as we mark and caretake the sites for future generations, who in turn, will hold it for the future generations beyond theirs.Our protection as a species lies in the stories we choose to pass on.

On those days, when I wonder if I can get out of bed, I am aware of the limits of my imagination. But imaginations shared create collaboration. In collaboration we create community and in community, all things are possible.

♦♦♦
 

Inventory (1945)
Günter Eich

This is my cap,
this is my overcoat,
here is my shave kit
in its linen pouch.

Some field rations:
my dish, my tumbler,
here in the tin-plate
I’ve scratched my name.

Scratched it here with this
precious nail
I keep concealed
from coveting eyes.

In the bread bag I have
a pair of wool socks
and a few things that I
discuss with no one,

and these form a pillow
for my head at night.
Some cardboard lies
between me and the ground.

The pencil’s the thing
I love the most:
By day it writes verses
I make up at night.

This is my notebook,
this my rain gear,
this is my towel,
this is my twine.6

Not long ago, I made a pilgrimage to the Fogg Museum of Art. I found the exhibit, “Inventur—Art in Germany 1943–1955.” I listened to the poet Günter Eich’s voice recite his own Inventory in his own language during the Nazi Regime in World World II.

It created a pause in me, demanding I consider my own inventory from my own place in the Colorado Plateau, now under siege, a war of a different making:

This is my home.
This is my place.
Here is my valley.
An embrace of stone.

Some clouds to follow.
My feet, my boots.
Here I tend shadows.
I’ve traced the dark.

Traced it here with this
Precious water
Kept hidden
From parched minds

In the leather pouch I carry
A glass that magnifies
Things I find and
Discuss with no one.

Disappearing things
That I take to my dreams
Where no one can hurt them

When my eyes are closed.

The pencil’s the thing
I love the most:
By day it writes verses
I make up at night.

This is my knife.
This is my blood.
This is my body.
This is my stand.

Each of us has a home we naturally intuit and comprehend – We may not live in that home, that home may be taken from us, occupied, but it still resides in our memory and imagination, complete with our own inventory that becomes the bedrock of our consciousness.

Environmental issues are economic issues are issues of social justice.

I am haunted by Jorie Graham’s phrase, “the deleted world.”A quick, thoughtless act; a slow intentional act over time. Delete. Gone. Both human and wild.

These three lines from her poem “Fast”:

Each epoch dreams the one to follow.
To dwell is to leave a trace.
I am not what I asked for.7

What might a different kind of power look like, feel like – and can we extend this notion of power beyond our own species?

Not a power over others – but a power with others –

Not a competitive power – but a regenerative and restorative one.

We can both reimagine and reawaken “The Liturgy of Home” –

March 18, Santa Cruz Island, The Galapagos Archipelago

Has anyone been face to face with evolution? The other day I was eye to eye with a Galápagos tortoise that had spent three months walking from the top of the volcano down to the sea to lay her eggs at night on the island of Isabela. In the slow, deliberate nature of her world, she upholds 12 million years of perfection. Beauty is the origin of wonder. What enables her to live 18 months without food or water? Does a fast predicated by drought or famine become spiritual? What can we do for the tortoise? Step to the side. Give her the right-of-way. Kneel.8

Even as our hearts break over what we have lost – the last Northern White Rhino – the last Rabbs fringed-limb tree frog – the diminishing herds of elephants, the Everglade Kites soaring over saw grass – and all we stand to lose if we choose to do nothing: Bears Ears – a night sky of stars – quietude – a stand of Ancient Trees in the MacKenzie River Valley in Oregon.

We can do something, each in our own way with the gifts that are ours.

I have a friend named Sandy Lopez, and for decades, Sandy lived in the MacKenzie River Valley outside Finrock, Oregon. They learned that land in their valley was going to be sold, it was private land, and that hundreds of acres were going to be clear-cut.

The community tried to purchase that land in a landtrust – No. The community tried to have the land traded to public, federal lands – No. It was a viewshed. It was a homestead. Hundreds of acres clear-cut.

The only thing Sandy Lopez knew to do was to go up there and witness every tree that was being cut, over months.

Sandy is a book artist, and she came home after this experience and wanted to create something – a document for her community, for her neighbors, for the landowner, and for those who cut the trees – not in a shaming way, but in a loving way to translate what she felt in her own heart.

She knew that the psalm of David, Psalm 23, mattered to her community. She made this psalm of David as a broadside letter press – for each of her neighbors, the landowners, those who did the clear-cut. And then she clear-cut the psalm – to show what that meant to her on the ground – in the world. Translation. She cut out words so that it would read:

“I shall not want . . . down in green pastures . . . waters . . . of righteousness . . .”

And so on. She took the cut out words, put them in a jar – hundreds of words, thousands of words – and took them up into the clear-cut area, and lit them on fire. That was her ceremony. That was her ritual. That was her offering.

What is the essential gesture – gestures – for each of us?

Wildness is the taproot of our consciousness. It is the place where our theologies are born, where we find not only our sense of place, but where an ethic of place evolves.

I belong to a landscape of erosion. What is removed and carried away is as powerful as what remains.

Wind. Water. Time. Deep Time.

The world we have known – the world we know now is eroding before our eyes.

Where is our grief?

Aerial view of graded coal and oil wells

Graded coal and oil wells at the Huntington Power Plant, Utah. In 2016, the Environmental Protection Agency imposed a reduction of 10,000 tons per annum of the haze-forming nitrogen oxide emissions that threaten the wilderness and national parks. In response, the state and the company sued the EPA to block the plan, winning a stay from the court. Photograph: Fazal Sheikh, from Exposure.

 

Where is our love?

If we bring these two hands together in prayer – I believe the world can change. It is already happening. I am not talking about “a cheap hope” as Cornel West calls it. But a hope reimagined and restored.

What are the essential gestures that can lead us to the sacred actions that can make change into a change of consciousness and consequence?

In the beginning was the word – spoken, sang, ecstatic, sorrowful, our blessed questions and longings held as an unceasing prayer –

This is my living faith, an active faith, a faith of verbs: to question, explore, experiment, experience, walk, run, dance, play, eat, love, learn, dare, taste, touch, smell, listen, speak, write, read, draw, provoke, emote, scream, sin, repent, cry, kneel, pray, bow, rise, stand, look, laugh, cajole, create, confront, confound, walk back, walk forward, circle, hide, and seek.

Can we recommit ourselves to not only falling in love with our world again – but continuing to fall in love with this beautiful, broken world, even as our hearts break.

Climate change is upon us, perhaps the gravest danger our species has yet faced, yet many, certainly in this country, continue to view it as a fiction, a conspiracy, something removed from us, outside, not inside. Our survival and the survival of all life on the planet depends on our response. Here. Now. Together.

What are the spiritual implications of climate change? I am so hungry for this conversation. I hold these questions in the name of community – not with answers – but with a plea, and a prayer that we might explore them together, here, now, at Harvard Divinity School, not just with our minds, but our full presence – and the urgency it demands from us with our hearts broken and our collective consciousness awakened to the Beauty and Terror of this moment in time –

This commitment and consciousness to the health of our planet is the moral bedrock from which everything else can be understood with greater understanding in its complexity, multiplicity, and exactitude.

Uncertainty is a given. So is the spiritual imperative of this Great Work. Thomas Berry writes in The Dream of the Earth:

Our challenge is to create a new language, even a new sense of what it is to be human. It is to transcend not only national limitations, but even our species isolation, to enter into the larger community of living species. This brings about a completely new sense of reality and value. (42)

He goes on to say,

The most difficult transition to make is from an anthropocentric to a biocentric norm of progress. If there is to be any true progress, then the entire life community must progress. Any progress of the human at the expense of the larger life community must ultimately lead to a diminishment of human life itself. (165)

How do we bridge a human-centered world with a biocentric one? The essential point is that we know in our bodies something is afoul.

If one species is at risk, all species are at risk. If one species vanishes, a part of ourselves disappears alongside it. We are all made of stardust.

Body – Earth – No separation.

Finding beauty in our broken world is creating beauty in the world we find – each in our own way, each in our own time, with the gifts that are ours together.

How do we create a language that opens hearts rather than closes them? And how do we interweave the revelations of science with the emotional truths of the arts and humanities into a cross-disciplinary conversation that elevates both? Call it “The Constellation Project.”

Can we rise to this moment together – Especially, here at the Divinity School – and create this Liturgy of Home called a Reverence for Earth as the bedrock of our curriculum and concern. This is not just an ecological issue or a political issue, but a spiritual one. We, here, now – can take this lead.

Can we cultivate a different kind of intelligence nimble enough to be able to listen to a language beyond human and fully embrace a litany and liturgy of home. And expand our inventory of care and ministry to include the Earth.

If we don’t – then, everything else we do is simply addressing a symptom, not the source of our pain – The pain of our separation of Nature, even our own, Divine Nature. We are talking about Creation. We are not just addressing the extinction of species – but the birth of species – the evolving miracle and marvel of life emerging.

These are not easy times – What are we to do?

There are clues in the desert – Desert strategies are helpful: In times of drought, pull your resources inward; when water is scarce, find moisture in seeds; to stay strong and supple, find a taproot down deep; run when required; hide when necessary; when hot go underground; do not fear darkness, it’s where one comes alive.

Last fall, I had the privilege of taking Stephanie Paulsell’s class on Contemplative Prayer. One of the images from that class that has stayed with me is the gesture of a human being with arms outstretched overhead – Stephanie explored with us the text “The Way of the Pilgrim” and we learned that this, too, is a gesture of prayer and supplication.

In the grove at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences behind the Center for the Study of World Religions, there is a tree in this gesture – with two large branches rising upward from the central trunk. I visit this tree often for guidance, joy, and companionship. It is also the site of my prayers. This tree is a Maple. I sought this Tree’s counsel today.

I took offerings and laid them at the Tree’s roots. I listened. What I heard in my heart was so simple:

“Our roots are your roots.” These five words.

Our drive for immortality as a species is a creation story – All cultures have them. It’s what makes us human. But, if we are evolving to a different story, one of interdependence rather than independence, do we have the courage to see our supremacy as a species for what it is – a lack of generosity and empathy on behalf of Other – as a failure of faith in the majesty of Creation, itself.

Is Earth not enough?

Can we come to see eternal life as a covenant of care for all life on this self-correcting, self-sustaining planet we call home – and offer up our shared humanity – animality with all species – plants and animals, fungi and rot, all manner of wonders who inhabit forests, rivers, oceans, mountains, deserts, and cities, by our side?

Not man apart from nature – writes Robinson Jeffers – but a part of nature. Seeing the world whole, even holy.

A few weeks ago, Judith Butler spoke of an antidote to violence that supports “the pacifists drive” – an antidote that may be found in what she termed “the organic world.”

There is a peace that resides in the beauty and harmony of Earth – interconnected and interrelated. For me, this is more than immortality, this is the throbbing, pulsating truth of life. We can see it, touch it, taste it, hear it, smell it – all around us, every day, everywhere.

This does not require belief, it requires engagement.

May Earth be our common place, our common prayer in all its diversity, complexity, and uncertainty.

If there is to be such a thing as immortality, let it be in the record of the life that has preceded us, the life that sustains us now, and the life that will survive us.

The resilience of prairies plowed under to rise again; the vantage point of mountains though removed for coal; the memory of dragonflies in times of drought; the fluid horizon of the seas, the Ancient Ones singing in the desert long after they are gone – the Earth rises again and again with the plethora of cultures rooted in the soil and soul of our geographies. This is our history. This is our future.

There is only one moment in time
When it is essential to awaken
That moment is now.
– Buddha

Our roots are your roots – Our voices are your voices – Can you hear us? In stillness and in reverence, may we now contemplate a Liturgy of Home – here, now, together.

Coyotes are howling in the desert sage of red rocks and ravens.

[Soundscape from Canyonlands National Park]9

 

Notes:

  1. Thank you to Jiaying Ding, who began the Ingersoll Lecture with this exquisite song by Hildegard von Bingen heralding Spring – the turning, the greening – evoked, invoked – finally. Hildegard believed that “viriditas” was the vitality and vigor inherent in Creation.
  2. Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (Image, 1968), 73.
  3. David W. Orr, “What Is Education For?” in Earth in Mind: On Education, Environment, and the Human Project, 2nd ed., rev. (Island Press, 2004), 11.
  4. Sue Beatty told Brooke and me this story when we were at Yosemite on the bicentennial of the National Park Service in 2016.
  5. Taken from “Boom!” in Exposure, a forthcoming collaboration between the artist Fazal Sheikh and Terry Tempest Williams.
  6. Günter Eich, “Inventory,” trans. Joshua Mehigan, Poetry (April 2009), www.poetryfoundation.org.
  7. Jorie Graham, “Fast,” in From the New World: Poems 1976–2014 (Ecco, 2015), 352.
  8. Terry Tempest Williams, “Galapagos Journal: Tracing Darwin’s Footsteps,” Audubon (November-December 2014).
  9. Thanks to the curation of Tim Gallati and the gifts of Gordon Hempton, we ended the lecture with a soundscape from Canyonlands National Park that persists – insists – that life is strong – even in the midst of oil and gas development. The Canyonlands soundscape carried us home to Satigata – through the generosity of HDS’s own Chris Berlin – which served as the benediction of the Ingersoll Lecture.
 

Terry Tempest Williams is the 2017–19 writer-in-residence at Harvard Divinity School. A conservationist and fierce advocate for freedom of speech, she is the author of over 17 books. Among them are the environmental literature classic, Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place (Pantheon Books, 1991), The Open Space of Democracy (Orion, 2004), When Women Were Birds (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2012), and The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks (Sarah Crichton Books, 2016). This is an edited version of the Ingersoll Lecture on Immortality that she delivered at HDS on April 12, 2018. Watch the video online at bulletin.hds.harvard.edu.

Please follow our Commentary Guidelines when engaging in discussion on this site.

See also: Nature

A Vision for the Future of Environmentalism

An interview with Dan McKanan

In Review | Books Eco-Alchemy: Anthroposophy and the History and Future of Environmentalism, by Dan McKanan. University of California Press, 312 pages, $29.95 paperback.
 

Dan McKanan
Dan McKanan. Photo by Justin Knight.

Dan McKanan is the Ralph Waldo Emerson Unitarian Universalist Association Senior Lecturer in Divinity at Harvard Divinity School. In his new book, Eco-Alchemy, he constructs a history of environmental initiatives originating in anthroposophical spirituality, including biodynamic farming, the Waldorf school system, Camphill intentional communities, and green banking. HDS student Claire Laine met with McKanan to discuss the book and what inspired him to write it.

For people unfamiliar with anthroposophy, how would you introduce it?

My standard synopsis of anthroposophy goes like this. The Theosophical Society was created in the late nineteenth century by Westerners seeking Eastern wisdom. The Anthroposophical Society was created in the early twentieth century by theosophists who wanted to take a new look at Western wisdom, particularly at some of the hidden currents of the Western tradition. These currents include alchemy, astrology, the seasonal festivals of Western Europe, and ancient traditions of the planetary spheres and bodily humors. Scholars often lump these currents together under the label “Western esotericism.” So anthroposophy is a rich mix of Western esotericism with seemingly Eastern ideas about karma and reincarnation, along with a healthy dose of Christian liturgy and a distinctive Christology.

What I add to that synopsis is that, among the dozens of spiritual movements that grew out of theosophy and are still thriving in many places today, anthroposophy was distinctive in the extent to which students of Rudolf Steiner wanted to apply spiritual wisdom to practical problems in the world—problems having to do with education, economics, agriculture, medicine, and with care for people with disabilities. Anthroposophists create farms and social enterprises, develop new systems of banking, and run schools, rather than simply talking about the spiritual teachings that inspire them.

What can you tell us about the founder of anthroposophy, Rudolf Steiner?

Rudolf Steiner was the son of an Austrian railroad official and was born in 1861 in what is now Croatia. Though he was always fascinated by philosophy, his family wanted him to be a scientist or engineer, so they sent him to technical rather than humanistic schools—in effect, to MIT rather than Harvard. Throughout his childhood and adolescence, he had encounters with mysterious teachers and spiritual experiences that did not fit into the scientific worldview.

He found his first professional niche as the editor of a collection of scientific writings by the German poet Goethe. Goethe was one of the first people to formulate the idea of evolution: he said that all plants had descended from a single Urpflanze, or original plant. He even claimed to be able to see the Urpflanze when he looked at ordinary plants. This approach helped Steiner make sense of his own experiences, and “Goethean science” remains an important part of anthroposophical environmentalism. Steiner began speaking more openly about experiences that he described as clairvoyant when he joined the Theosophical Society, and then he broke with that organization in order to put more emphasis on Christian forms of esotericism.

In discussing anthroposophy’s gifts to environmentalism, you describe “appropriate anthropocentrism.” How might anthroposophy help us reconsider the relationship between the human and the natural worlds?

Anthroposophy means “wisdom of the human,” and the anthroposophical emphasis on the human is one of the things that can create a block for a lot of environmentalists. Many environmentalists would say humans are animals, full stop. We are no more special or dignified than any other animal. And if you feel that way, it’s hard to get your head around Rudolf Steiner’s claim that there is a qualitative distinction between humans and animals as significant as the qualitative distinction between animals and plants, or the qualitative distinction between plants and minerals.

But what that qualitative distinction persistently allows students of anthroposophy to do is to say that it is in the nature of human beings to live in harmony with other creatures. This is part of the reason that agriculture, rather than wilderness preservation, is at the heart of anthroposophical environmentalism. This agricultural emphasis appeals to me because there are huge problems with a kind of environmentalism that puts wilderness preservation at the center.

Certainly, in the United States, the wildernesses that are preserved by the federal government became wilderness by virtue of the forced killing and expulsion of their indigenous inhabitants, who had, in most cases, been living on that land in ways that did not pose a significant threat to other creatures and ecosystems.

The other problem with wilderness-oriented environmentalism is that it can create an almost anything-goes attitude toward all of the spaces that haven’t been designated as wilderness. Anthroposophists believe agricultural spaces can be hospitable spaces for wild nature, and if we are going to turn back the crisis of biodiversity—the mass extinction of species—we have to make changes in how we deal with agricultural spaces as well as changes in how we deal with wilderness spaces.

What does the qualitative distinction between humans and animals look like for Steiner? Is it a hierarchical relationship?

This is something that many students of Steiner are wrestling with today. Steiner definitely portrayed humans as a step above animals on the evolutionary ladder, but he put as much emphasis on our relatedness as on our differences. Only humans, he taught, have individual souls, and, as such, we have a special responsibility to foster the ongoing evolution of animals, plants, and even minerals. Students of Steiner don’t like to see humans “reduced” to the level of animals, but similarly they protest when animals are reduced to the level of plants by being raised in cages where they cannot move, or when plants are reduced to the level of minerals by being grown with synthetic fertilizers.

Biodynamic farms often receive the very highest ratings by organizations committed to animal welfare. That may be because other people committed to animal welfare shun animal agriculture altogether. But that’s not necessarily a solution: A field of organic soybeans that is plowed over every year is not as hospitable an environment for wild animals as a biodynamic pasture. In any case, some students of Steiner are now questioning the sharp boundary between humans and animals. Douglas Sloan’s book, The Redemption of the Animals: Their Evolution, Their Inner Life, and Our Future Together, is the latest word on this topic, and it puts Steiner into dialogue with animal rights activists and recent research on animal capabilities.

Your chapter titles, such as “Roots,” “Branches,” and “Flowers,” reflect the organic quality of the subject matter. Why did you structure the book this way?

One of the main themes in both anthroposophy and kindred spiritual traditions is the idea of correspondences between earth and heaven, macrocosm and microcosm. I first learned that there was such a thing in the world as anthroposophy when I read the newsletter that I received from the community-supported agriculture farm Angelic Organics, in which I had a share when I was a doctoral student in Chicago.

One thing that caught my attention in the newsletter was the idea that every organ of a plant corresponds to an organ in the human being, but that in order to understand these correspondences, you have to see that the plant is the human being turned upside down. In coming up with chapter titles, I wanted to honor that way of thinking—that the parts of the plant can provide a template for understanding other things—by using it to structure my argument.

This is something that I find enormously appealing about anthroposophy: it tries to provide a picture of the world in human-scale terms. Students of Steiner are quite willing to use the classic Aristotelian elements (earth, water, fire, and air) to talk about the natural world. You cannot walk into a garden and use the Periodic Table of Elements to understand what you experience in that garden, whereas earth, water, fire, and air allow you to have that experience in the garden. This helps you to think of yourself as belonging there. There is a real concern that if we lose familiar language for the natural world, we lose an allegiance to the natural world.

You emphasize anthroposophists’ holistic view of the world. How does this manifest?

Goethe said that if you want to understand a plant, you shouldn’t isolate it in a laboratory and study just one aspect of its existence. Instead, you should keep it in its natural environment and observe it from as many perspectives as possible. And Steiner urged farmers to “summon all of the universe into our counsels”! These bits of advice contrast with mainstream scientific method, which emphasizes falsification.

Mainstream science discards any idea that cannot be proven in a double-blind experiment, while Goethean science and anthroposophy seek to honor all experiences. This means that they draw freely on astrology, alchemy, and homeopathy—all traditions rejected by mainstream science. The price of this is that they perhaps embrace some practices that truly are nonsense. But the benefit is that they make connections that others would not have thought of. Biodynamic farmers assume that a healthy farm is connected to a healthy economic community, and that is why they, along with Waldorf teachers, created the world’s largest “green banks.” Camphillers, similarly, seek to create villages that are empowering for persons with intellectual disabilities as well as healthy for plants and animals.

Readers may be surprised by the history of the various political alliances that anthroposophists and environmentalists have created in the 20th century. How are you thinking about this material now, in our current political climate?

The book that I wrote before this, Prophetic Encounters: Religion and the American Radical Tradition, is a history of religion and the left in the United States, written from the perspective of my own commitment to the range of causes that would conventionally be considered part of the left, such as socialism, feminism, and antiracism. Though I am also an environmentalist, I was never quite convinced that environmentalism fit comfortably in the paradigm of the left, because the left is mostly about liberation, and environmentalism is mostly about preservation.

As I worked on this book, my challenge was to honor my own perspective as a leftist who thinks that there is a great deal of compatibility between a leftist vision and an environmentalist vision, but also to tell an authentic story of a strand of environmentalism that, at its core, is neither left nor right but doing something quite different.

A significant chunk of the scholarly work on anthroposophy has in fact focused on interconnections between anthroposophy and the political right in ways that are both illuminating and, in my view, sometimes quite unfair. More fundamentally, I think the problem into which that scholarship falls is that it presupposes an either-or view of politics. That way of thinking denies the core of environmental politics, which is concerned neither with the liberation of the left nor with the authority of the right, but rather with harmony and balance.

There was an alliance between environmental thinking and fascist thinking in the 1930s and 1940s. It included some strands of anthroposophy and some other early promoters of organic agriculture. That alliance has pretty much dissolved. Part of the reason for this is that the emphasis within the political left and the political right has shifted since that time.

In the 1930s and 1940s, the strongest force internationally on the political left was Stalinism. Students of Rudolf Steiner, and environmental thinkers more generally, could not stomach Stalin’s centralized, statist view of society: it was too out of balance. But the “blood and soil” version of fascism had a certain affinity for environmental thinking.

Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher brought into the world a different version of conservative thought, one committed to the idea that free economic markets are the source of all salvation for humankind. And free market fundamentalism is about as far from environmental thinking as you can get. That version of conservativism dominated from Thatcher’s time until a few years ago.

But now the old, fascist form of conservatism has come back. In this moment, those of us on the left really don’t know whether the enemy we should be concerned about is the neoliberalism that Thatcher and Reagan brought into being, or the rise of nationalist and fascist currents on the part of Trump, Le Pen, many of the people behind the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom, and so forth.

But the alliance between fascism and environmentalism has not come back. I have seen absolutely no evidence of any sympathy for this sort of resurgent fascism among people connected to the anthroposophical movement. Politicians in Europe with anthroposophical connections have been tied to very strong pro-refugee policies. The anthroposophical movement is very cosmopolitan, so it relies on open borders.

Despite the fact that Rudolf Steiner was quite critical of government bureaucracies and government involvement in the economy, virtually no one in the anthroposophical movement today would be pushing to scale back social welfare bureaucracies. They see the excessive power of corporations as the stronger threat.

Many people feel defeated by the enormity of environmental problems facing our world and become fatalistic, but the anthroposophical community remains actively committed to its work. What accounts for this attitude?

This is probably the aspect of anthroposophy that I find most attractive: there is much less despair in the anthroposophical milieu than in other communities of environmentalists. One reason for this is that they don’t see humanity, in itself, as an environmental problem. They truly believe that human activity, if rightly directed, can make the world a better place for other creatures. Another reason is that they are radical believers in evolution. They don’t think the environmental goal is to remake some past Eden; rather, it is to help every individual and every species continue on its path of development, in relationship with everything else.

Perhaps the most important factor, though, is that seeing the best in everything and remaining open to new ideas are integral to the spiritual practice of anthroposophy. They are, in fact, two of the “basic exercises” that Rudolf Steiner recommended all of his students practice on a daily basis. Not every person connected to an anthroposophical initiative practices these, but enough do that they set a positive tone for everyone else. Since I spend most of my time in academic and leftist contexts, both of which can foster an ultracritical ethos, I treasure the opportunity to spend time with people for whom affirmation and appreciation are core spiritual disciplines.

During the summer of 2013, you traveled with a research grant from the Center for the Study of World Religions. How do those experiences manifest in the book?

There is an intentional community movement called Camphill that is rooted in anthroposophy, where people with and without developmental disabilities create life together, usually in an agrarian context. In the summer of 2013, and then again more briefly in the summer of 2016, I took my family, and we went from place to place, through the United Kingdom and then on to Switzerland, visiting Camphills and other anthroposophical initiatives.

My usual ethnographic method is to blend formal interviews with immersion in the life of particular communities. So we would get work schedules and participate in the various tasks needing to be done. My “Alternative Spiritualities” class in the fall also included field trips to Camphill Village USA and a few other places connected with other spiritual traditions, where I and my students also got to do a little bit of agricultural labor and so forth.

This book is the culmination of many years of research. What is next for you?

I am on sabbatical this spring, and I will be writing a new book entirely focused on the Camphill movement. Back in 2007 I published a small book, Touching the World: Christian Communities Transforming Society, that is a comparative study of Camphill communities and Catholic worker communities. But it doesn’t really delve into the anthroposophical roots of Camphill, and it doesn’t fully explain how it happened that a network of intentional communities started in the 1930s is still thriving today. So, while I was researching Eco-Alchemy, I was simultaneously researching a bigger book on Camphill, and I hope to have that book finished soon.

 

Claire Laine, MTS ’18, graduated from Harvard Divinity School with a concentration in religion, literature, and culture.

Please follow our Commentary Guidelines when engaging in discussion on this site.

See also: Books, Interview, Nature

Between the Sacred and the Profane: The Border as a Contested Space

Black-and-white ideas drive U.S.-Mexico Border Patrol practices.

Christopher Montoya
 

Illustration of the Statue of Liberty with barbed wire draped over it

Illustration by Jean Tuttle / The i Spot

 

This is an edited version of remarks delivered at the “Symposium on Religious Literacy and Government: Refugee and Immigration Issues,” sponsored by the Religious Literacy and the Professions Initiative, held at Harvard Divinity School on December 7–8, 2017. Additional articles from the symposium are found under the "Who are 'We'?” section of this issue.

One night about 20 years ago, while working as a U.S. Border Patrol agent in the deserts of southern Arizona, I apprehended a large group of “undocumented aliens.” During the apprehension, I struck up a conversation with a young girl from Mexico City. As we walked, I offered her my arm to help her navigate the difficult desert terrain. When we arrived at the road where other agents were waiting, a supervisor noticed that she and I were arm in arm. He responded by saying, “These people will hurt you!” I turned to the young undocumented migrant and asked, somewhat sarcastically, “You wouldn’t hurt me, would you?” She giggled and replied, “Of course not,” and continued giggling.

On rare occasions, direct, personal assaults against Border Patrol agents do happen. Throughout the Border Patrol’s history, a handful of agents have been feloniously killed. But enforcement assault data and statistics drawn from various sources suggest that Border Patrol agents enjoy one of the safest law enforcement jobs in the nation. Why, then, would this supervisor offer a blanket statement about this young woman (and the rest of the group) and implicitly accuse them of being potential threats to “our” personal safety? Why did I fail to recognize “these people” as threatening? The answer is complex and requires thoughtful analysis on many different levels. For now, I offer the following limited analysis to help explain these conflicting ideas.

Forget, for the moment, that the U.S.-Mexico border is a geographical or a political boundary. Instead, imagine the border as a site where ideological tectonic plates are constantly grinding against one another. Think of it as a contested space between two abstractions: the Sacred and the Profane.1 Think of it as space that is simultaneously familiar and foreign.

Mircea Eliade informs us that “for religious man, space is not homogeneous; he experiences interruptions, breaks in it; some parts of space are qualitatively different from others.” Some parts of “space” are deemed Sacred and other parts are thought of as Profane.2 This leaves us with two many-millennia-old religious ideas about what we should value around us: the Sacred and the Profane.

The Sacred, according to Eliade, is a space that “religious man” has conceptualized as “inhabited territory” or occupied by us. It is a space that is “our space” or “our world.” Religious man thinks of “his world” as the “center of the world” (29, 22). The Sacred is the realm that lives in constant opposition to chaos. The Sacred is the realm of order. It is the realm of law (including immigration law). To a state actor who enforces immigration law on the border, it is known simply as “law and order.” However, as we shall see, some claim that “law and order” in the borderlands is being overtly transgressed.

The Profane, on the other hand, is “everything outside . . . a foreign, chaotic space peopled by ghosts, demons, ‘foreigners’ (who are assimilated to demons and the souls of the dead)” (29). It is also the “unknown . . . a sort of ‘other world’ ” and one “unoccupied by our people” (29, 31). The Profane is the realm of chaos that exists to oppose order. To a border enforcer, it represents “chaotic space” that threatens “our world” by invading us. When lawbreakers (including migrants) and drugs cross that barrier, it symbolizes “the retrogression of the cosmos [order] into chaos” (79).

These ideas of the Sacred and the Profane exist, at least in part, in conflict with a postmodern worldview. Fundamentally, the Sacred and the Profane are structured as a black-or-white proposition, which is inherently more restrictive. In contrast, modern religious interpretations and their manifestations (the Kino Border Initiative, for example) are much more inclusive. Indeed, the KBI has redefined the relationship between foreigners and the nation.3 The Sacred versus the Profane mindset fails to comprehend the nuances found in these more inclusive religious interpretations, and how this lack of nuance might affect our current predicament on our southern border. However, this more primitive lens must be understood, since it continues to frame the perceptions of so many state actors and other stakeholders in the borderlands. 

The U.S.-Mexico borderlands are a contested space, “seen” through this deeply and fundamentally religious lens by certain state (and nonstate) actors. This somewhat simplistic view of human migration and criminality can only exacerbate an already tenuous situation. It is important to interrogate how government officials (U.S. Border Patrol) and nonstate actors “see” the border, for it is this “vision” of the border that informs their behavior. I suggest that many state actors, such as Border Patrol agents, who enforce immigration law “see” the border through a very primitive lens that excludes many postmodern refinements of religious ideas. In doing so, their actions, for the most part, fail to align with modern policing practices.

In sharp contrast to organizations like the KBI, border enforcement personnel, generally speaking, see the problem not as an all-inclusive humanitarian mission but as a “good guy versus bad guy” scenario. Consider the following congressional testimony given by National Border Patrol Council President Brandon Judd to the House Judiciary Committee, Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security, on February 4, 2016:

As I was in church this past Sunday, my mind was preoccupied about this hearing and my testimony. I was thinking about what I could say to help shed light on our current situation when one of the basic tenets of my religion’s faith came to mind: “We believe in being subject to Kings, presidents, rulers and magistrates in obeying, honoring and sustaining the law.”

All religions, that I’m aware of, believe in rules, tenets and commandments. It’s no different with the laws of the United States; [when] persons, whether citizens or not, follow the laws of this great nation, peace and prosperity abound. However, when those laws are broken on a large scale; chaos is the byproduct. And make no mistake, chaos defines parts of our southwest border today. . . . [italics mine]

The language in this testimony is revealing. It uses religion to frame a complex problem in simple terms and, at the same time, offers a solution: chaos caused by foreign lawbreakers can be resolved by following laws that will beget order. As evidenced by this testimony, in the context of certain federal law enforcement rhetoric, there appears to be a collision between the Sacred and the Profane at the U.S.-Mexico border. A clear-cut conflict is framed as a battle between order and chaos. Other types of testimony are subtler but offer us similar ideas.

In a report from the KBI is the following migrant testimony: During the course of the apprehension, a Border Patrol agent is alleged to have dragged and punched an “illegal alien.” During the alleged assault, the agent allegedly said to the migrant, “can’t you see this is U.S. territory?”4 At first glance, it is tempting to describe this comment as just an expression of a kind of nationalism. This may, in part, be true. As Benedict Anderson asserts: “The nation is imagined as limited . . . [and] has finite, if elastic, boundaries, beyond which lie other nations. No nation imagines itself coterminous with mankind.”5 The idea of the Sacred may be the original “imagined community.” But let me suggest the following explanation.

The Border Patrol agent is operating at the border, a border which is a contested space between the Sacred and the Profane. To the agent, “his” space (everything north of the border) is Sacred. The agent is most likely a Christian who is, in part, acting out a Christian worldview and whatever dogma comes with it from his specific tradition. Agents immersed in this worldview are situated in a unique position in this contested space, given all of the attached cultural values and opinions. Such a position perceives a direct affront to their idea of the Sacred. However, does this interpretation, based on the border agents’ situated knowledge, help or hinder them in making objective claims when it comes to human rights in the broadest sense? I suggest that their current interpretation hinders them. Although they are motivated by a much deeper, much older principle—the Sacred in its opposition to the Profane—they lack a fundamental understanding of the complexities of modern human migration and criminality, especially as these pertain to our southern border. It is this idea of the Sacred in constant opposition to the Profane, in its current iteration, that is problematic.

Part of the problem, as Shaun Casey’s comments suggest, is the mission as it is understood by border enforcers. The mission on the border is to prevent or interdict any and all incursions. Period. Meaningful encounters between enforcers and migrants are fleeting and too often laced with an “us versus them” mentality. In my experience, this is not conducive to fostering religious literacy. To do so would require, at the very least, state actors to reach out from inside the Sacred “bubble” they have constructed. However, enforcers “see” the border through a refracted lens that is much narrower and more constrained, thereby restricting their Sacred space to “members only.” In contrast, faith-based groups like the Kino Border Initiative exhibit a much more inclusive “policy” that, for the most part, draws from a more enlightened religious worldview that greatly expands Sacred space to include some members from “the Profane.”

Another problem is the reliance on congressional testimony given by Border Patrol agents as if it is the only or final word on border issues. To many in Washington, especially under the new administration, enforcers are seen as “experts” when it comes to a host of issues regarding immigration and security in the borderlands. This can lead (and has) to profoundly negative implications for those charged with crafting border policy. For example, in March 2017, congressional testimony given by BP agent Brandon Judd recognized Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona for taking an “interest” in the issue of polygraph administration for prospective BP applicants. In his testimony, Judd clearly favors a change in the “improper administration” of the polygraph as a vetting technique.

Coincidentally, during the same month, U.S. Senators Flake, McCain, and Johnson introduced the “Boots on the Border Act.” In it, they call for waiving polygraphs for veterans, military service members, and law enforcement officers. While an argument could be made to exempt current law enforcement officers from this requirement, I believe it would be malfeasance to excuse the other two. By favoring members of the Sacred—i.e., patriots—Judd and the senators remain in the “bubble.”  

As these examples demonstrate, archaic ideas of the Sacred and the Profane are embedded within our current “situatedness” on many levels. In the complex human migration and human rights context at our southern border, the default position should at least be to use contemporary categories of religious interpretation that argue for inclusivity and humane treatment. I fear that, for border enforcement personnel, the “mission” provides obstacles that impede how and to what degree religious literacy is enacted during enforcement operations. In an enforcement setting, especially at the intersection of migration and policing, I agree with Shaun Casey when he suggests that religious literacy will be seen as a “luxury.” Unfortunately, given our current political and social discourse, I’m afraid that primordial, oppositional ideas of the Sacred and the Profane as they pertain to immigration and enforcement will persist.

 

Notes:

  1. I capitalize these two words in my writing to show that these concepts have been reified and have led to dichotomous, dualistic thinking in public policy.
  2. Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion (Harcourt, 1959); page references cited are to this edition.
  3. The advocacy efforts of the KBI are explicitly “rooted in Catholic teaching” and the organization’s stated mission is “to promote US/Mexico border and immigration policies that affirm the dignity of the human person and a spirit of bi-national solidarity.” See www.kinoborderinitiative.org.
  4. Kino Border Initiative, Intake without Oversight: Firsthand Experiences with the Customs and Border Protection Complaints Process, July 2017 (Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States, 2017).
  5. Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, rev. ed. (Verso, 1991), 7.
 

Christopher Montoya is a retired Border Control agent and is currently an M.A. candidate in Latin American Studies at the University of Arizona. His research focuses on how congressional testimony and rhetoric produced by Customs and Border Protection officials influences the border threat narrative.

Please follow our Commentary Guidelines when engaging in discussion on this site.

Eliminate the Muslim

Timeplay in the Making of Postcolonial Identities

By Ahmed Ragab

Illustration of a futuristic landscape with a solitary figure

Illustration by Tithi Luadthong / Alamy Stock Photo

 

Introduction

This essay is cross-published with the permission of Cosmologics: A Magazine of Science, Religion, and Culture.

The premise for the short story collection Iraq+100 is decidedly postcolonial. Hassan Blasim, the collection’s editor, asked the contributors to write about Iraq 100 years after the American- and British-led invasion in the early 2000s.1 The prompt animates a form of play on time and history. The “Iraq” listed in the title, but almost absent in most of the stories, was itself the product of an earlier postcolonial condition—a nation state built in the 1930s upon the borders and identities constructed and negotiated in the colonial period.2 A new episode of invasion and colonization has eliminated the first postcolony, reanimating some of the concerns that vexed the first postcolonial project, namely: sectarianism, tribalism, and religious fundamentalism.3 As such, Iraq+100 proposes a new chronology for Iraq—one that distinguishes between two postcolonial ages. The stories commence at the end of the first postcolonial Iraqi state in the early twenty-first century and project a narrative 100 years into a future that imagines a new, second postcolonial world that will create and define a new set of identities and territories.

In his introduction, Blasim laments that there are hardly any Arabic writings in genres of science or speculative fiction. In his view, this lack of futuristic writings is symptomatic of the closure of futurity by the first postcolonial state, due to two interconnected dynamics. On one level, the authoritarian postcolonial states that ruled the Arabic-speaking world controlled how the future was imagined by shutting down the public sphere, thereby rendering the future moot. On another level, the failure of the postcolonial project of modernization and industrialization deprived the region and its authors of the opportunity to think about futures, especially scientific and technological ones. The [first] postcolony never owned the production of science and technology, Blasim explains, but instead remained a consumer of the products of the former metropole, rendering futuristic thinking futile.

A lively environment of futuristic writings exists in popular serialized novellas, movies, and TV shows, as well as comic books and young adult literature.

Blasim’s view of Arabic science fiction is limited to what he considers worthy literary production. But if we look beyond his tastes, a lively environment of futuristic writings exists in popular serialized novellas, movies, and TV shows, as well as comic books and young adult literature. Yet, Blasim’s questions about the possibility, availability, and legitimacy of futuristic thinking and the identities that such thinking entails merit further examination. Here I investigate the timeplay that animates the production of new postcolonial identities in the future. I propose the term timeplay to describe the deliberate destabilization of time and chronology in the production of identity categories. In “play,” time is flexible and malleable, and it is also effectual in the making of players. At the same time, it is unstable and with dubious consequences. Play is at once an attempt at rehearsing meaning-making in the non-play and a ritualistic reenactment of the malleability and the unsettling instability of these meanings. The dubious consequentiality of time in play reflects the production of postcolonial identities—made through and over time but requiring recognition and comprehension.

In investigating how timeplay influences the production and projection of Muslim identities into the future, I look at two examples of science fiction writings. First, in a number of stories from the Iraq+100 collection I investigate dystopia and haunting in the making of timeplay and the production of contemporary Muslim identities. I then posit Marvel’s Sooraya as another example of the production of Muslim identities in the “West” looking at how this mode of future-making intersects and/or contradicts that of Iraq+100. I present these examples as modes of thinking about timeplay as a tool in the production of deliberately destabilized future ethno-religious identities.
 

Kahramana and the Inevitable Dystopia

In Kahramana, the first story in the Iraq+100 collection, and named after the story’s protagonist, we are in a future Iraq that has lost its identity and territorial integrity. 4 The land on which the original postcolony resided is now divided between various polities, two of which we encounter: an alliance, or NUL (Nations United League)-controlled territory, and a polity controlled by an Islamic State or Imārah (Emirate), that is unmistakably the future manifestation of ISIS. We learn that the leader of the Islamic State may be infertile and that the State’s future might hang on his procreation. Kahramana, a soft-spoken woman who says very little throughout the story, is the leader’s future bride who carries the promise of regeneration and the future of the theocratic polity. Drawn on the body of a woman, among other women, the future is made tenuous by Kahramana’s unyielding though understated agency. She escapes the ISIS-esque polity and requests asylum in the UN-esque controlled area. We learn that she is, in fact, only one of thousands of people who escape as refugees and seek asylum.

View of the Zaatari Refugee camp in Jordan
A view inside the Zaatari refugee camp, northern Jordan. Photograph by Russell Watkins / Department for International Development.

The landscape of the story is marked by harsh weather and climate change. Unlike other climate-change based dystopias, however, this climate change is limited, semi-purposefully inflicted, and unescapable.5 A series of experiments has transformed this part of Iraq into a snowy tundra where the population contends with the alliance’s trials run awry. The inevitability of this weather, much like the inevitability of the occupation/mandate/control, renders comprehension superfluous. There is simply no need and no value for the protagonists to understand and no reason for the author or reader to explain the conditions of the colony. Life is already destined by forces outside anyone’s control. Much like Kahramana, whose fate is sealed by her place of birth and her physical beauty (which suggests her fertility), the readers have to contend with the sealed fate of everyone in the story. Here, the dystopia is accidental. Caused by mistakes with good intentions, the dystopia affirms the absurdity of the colony’s future.

Kahramana is coded white. She has a fair, almost white, skin, little nose, and blue eyes. Her appearance at border control and then in the asylum center stirs waves of estrangement, compassion, and discomfort.6 Kahramana’s white appearance, which made her a more visible target in her homeland, now makes her a poster child for the population forgotten by Western press, which the NUL/Alliance leadership cares about. Her photo is printed in newspapers and on posters. Kahramana embodies a population forgotten and a colony that has become annoying, boring, and disturbing. She hardly speaks. When she does, she contradicts her white appearance by her dress, interests, and her language. She understands that it is safer to remain quiet and let her blue eyes make her an acceptable refugee. Kahramana is white but not quite.

Kahramana enacts a version of Homi Bhabha’s colonial and postcolonial subject. “Colonial mimicry is the desire for a reformed, recognizable Other, as a subject of a difference that is almost the same, but not quite,” Bhabha explains, “which is to say, that the discourse of mimicry is constructed around an ambivalence; in order to be effective, mimicry must continually produce its slippage, its excess, its difference.”7 The not-quite subject is left with only mimicry to make sense of her identity and enact her agency. Kahramana’s looks, her eye color and fair skin, make her a visual mimicry of whiteness, an image that merits identification, and a quandary of colonial miscegenation that threatens the lines separating the colonial from the colonized. At the same time, her speech, her hopes, and her history make her un-white, an incomplete image that must be frozen in slippage in order to perform its mimicry, and silenced in order to produce colonial sympathy. Kahramana’s escape, an agential performance aimed at changing her preordained fate, can be completed only by the shutting down of this agency—rendering her a mute picture of a blue-eyed helpless woman, an object of salvage.

Her potential coherence and the consummation of her identity as an individual threatens the visual, political and emotional order that conditioned her identity and those of others in the colony and its surroundings.

The surprise and interest of the colonial NUL officers soon turn into outrage, for the attention and sympathy that Kahramana’s looks generate transcend and subvert the mechanical order of the colony. Her blue eyes demand a break from the monotony of colonial administration, which has enabled the disappearance of the colony from colonial consciousness and attention. On one hand, Kahramana is an assemblage of white looks and Muslim identity and history.8 As an assemblage, her identity cannot be fully consummated in a coherent subject. In fact, her potential coherence and the consummation of her identity as an individual threatens the visual, political and emotional order that conditioned her identity and those of others in the colony and its surroundings. She provides the raw material for a process of colonial civilizing that promises to turn Bhabha’s not-quite figures into full civilized subjects. The desirable nature of this assemblage is the reason why Kahraman becomes a poster child, in the metaphorical and literal sense. She is an example that can be evoked when considering the refugee program, and her young blue-eyed face is printed on posters to raise awareness about the colony. In the background, the other browner subjects linger unseen.

In this sense, Kahraman is a reproduction of Sharbat Gula, known as the Afghan girl.9 In both cases, women’s bodies become sites of recognition as their looks pose the possibility of engagement along with the safety resulting from their gendered deprivation of agency. In both cases, their blue and green eyes, respectively, look out from faces rendered helpless and, therefore, harmless by the colonial gaze. In the same way, President Trump’s Afghanistan policy is also drawn on the bodies of women intentionally stripped of agency. On August 27, 2017, The Washington Post reported:

One of the ways McMaster tried to persuade Trump to recommit to the effort was by convincing him that Afghanistan was not a hopeless place. He presented Trump with a black-and-white snapshot from 1972 of Afghan women in miniskirts walking through Kabul, to show him that Western norms had existed there before and could return.10

Women in Kabul, Afghanistan, 1972
Young women wearing mini-skirts walking down the street in the city of Kabul, 1972. Photograph: Laurence Brun / Rapho.

The difficulty in making the decision was rooted in colonial fatigue. Analysts wondered how long the United States would continue to wage war in Afghanistan. Others remarked that this was the longest war that the United States had waged. The women in miniskirts, similar to Kahramana’s blue eyes, presented a recognizable object of salvage that could reanimate the empire and awaken it from slumber.

Akin to what Jasbir Puar explains as “the liberation of American empire from its closets— an empire already known but concealed,”11 the celebratory narratives of Trump’s own electoral win utilize the seeming errors in the polls and the unexpected swing in the electoral vote to produce a narrative of coming-out: an appearance of the known but concealed under the overwhelming pressure of fake morality. According to Puar, this coming out of the white American empire would and should result in pride—pride of truth, of ownership, and of “winning.” But while Puar’s narrative focuses on the existence of a concealed empire, the proud “Trump movement” is unconvinced of the empire’s existence. Instead, it is deeply nostalgic for a past time and a past empire. Here, the coming-out is not of empire but rather of an imperial ideology that aims to restore a bygone, or never-accomplished, legacy. The “movement” is haunted by the specters of colonies past and never accomplished, chased by overpowering nostalgia for non-existing memory and tormented by the fleeting moment of victory. “This logic of haunting would not be merely larger and more powerful than an ontology or a thinking of Being (of the “to be,” assuming that it is a matter of Being in the “to be or not to be,” but nothing is less certain). It would harbor within itself, but like circumscribed places or particular effects, eschatology and teleology themselves.”12 While, as Derrida explains, this hauntology is irreducible “to everything it makes possible: ontology, theology, positive or negative onto-theology,”13 it is a condition that invites specific forms of epistemological empiricisms, whereby the specters of empire can be investigated, revised, understood, and ultimately exorcised into an ontological rendition.

To be sure, this haunting is in part motivated by these familiar objects of salvage. In the case of Trump’s Afghanistan policy, the miniskirted women sufficed only for a short period before he reverted to the older narrative expressing the need to simultaneously win and disengage. The “White Man’s Burden” was resurrected in narratives of unending unwinnable wars—wars that should be won, and yet, at the same time, should never be fought. In the case of Kahramana, her blue eyes become a reason to hate and blame her for unending war. The uncomfortable nature of Kahramana’s presence brings the paranoia to the fore. Officers wonder whether she is a spy.14 She is a Muslim and remains so despite having survived and escaped the neighboring theocracy. The assemblage that first made her an attractive and salvageable object now becomes a locus of suspicion—a marker of her transgression and unnaturalness. Sophia Roosth explains how the category of the natural/unnatural invokes certain modes of kinship, queered or “fictive”: “Unnatural blurs the categorical and the normative—it refers simultaneously to that which is counter to nature and to that which is against the (moral) natural order, something strange or out of the ordinary.”15 This “unnatural” with its attendant queer kinship rooted in colonial miscegenation is reason for moral outrage, justifiable only in paranoia.

In the making of this paranoia, timeplay is key. Kahramana’s past and identity merge into a core of Muslimness that she cannot escape, and one that further emphasizes her suspicious identity and the transgression that her not-quite (un)nature embodies. Her escape narrative, shrouded in the mysteries of her incomplete, traumatized memories and her inability to fully communicate, is at once repeated and reanimated, with gaps filled with stock narratives woven from colonial imaginaries, and also doubted if not entirely denied. Similarly, she must wait for a decision on her asylum claim, and this suspension in time functions both as a reminder of her tenuous position and her vulnerability to deportation and as a way to withstand the media storm that will soon dissipate allowing for the old colonial amnesia to settle in again. These layers of timeplay animated by paradoxes and ambivalences are characterized by their danger and seriousness as well as their inconsequentiality. Ultimately, Kahramana loses the timeplay and her request is denied as the media storm predictably ends.16 We are left ignorant of her fate, which is rendered, much like her life and her future, utterly inconsequential.

In Kahramana, postcolonial identity in the future is built on ambivalences and held hostage to colonial nostalgias and boredom.

In Kahramana, postcolonial identity in the future is built on ambivalences and held hostage to colonial nostalgias and boredom. Kahraman’s life and her status is dependent on the history of her escape. It is only through proving a history of abuse to which she was subjected before escaping—and her potential future personal demise, should she continue to live there—that she can acquire refugee status. However, the linearity that this time narrative requires is denied to her as her identity traps her into an unending time loop where past abuses, and her survival of these abuses, are equivalent to her future trials, which she presumably may survive. With an identity fixed in time, though transgressed by eye-color, Kahramana is unable to access a linear time narrative that would liberate her from paranoid timeplay and render her salvageable. Instead, her being salvageable but not-quite spells the end for her, and the literal end of the story, as she is returned to the land from which she escaped and is expected to survive—or escape again—in a timeplay that frames her identity and preserves the colonial project in disinterest, inattention, and amnesia.

 

Haunting: Colonial Specters and Friendly Ghosts

The haunting past is at the heart of Iraq+100. The name “Iraq,” which titles the collection and animates the collection’s literary endeavor, is almost nowhere to be found inside the stories, where most of the narratives are in worlds where “Iraq” ceased to exist. Yet, Iraq haunts the narratives forcing them to contend with the failing first postcolony and the second colonization. In the “Corporal,” a short story authored by Ali Bader, the ghost of a soldier, who died on the front lines during the invasion, is summoned using new technologies to tell his story. While the exorcised ghost promises to give some details about the war and the invasion, his narrative is dubious, difficult to understand, and trampled in repetitive and inexplicable timeframes. The ghost fails to understand where he is and whether he is in his present or future.17 He narrates his certainty of defeat and colonization, while attempting to prove that he still fought and refused to surrender.18 At the same time, he narrates a surrender story that renders his death by enemy bullets an unnecessary act of violence, which he did not expect but did not find strange and does not condemn. The ghost is stuck in a time loop where his memories are remarkably inconsequential, as most of his interlocutors hardly remember the war of which he speaks. Yet his remembrance carries the potential to liberate his soul, the soul of the nation, and possibly that of the author and readers.

In another story, “The Gardens of Babylon” by Hassan Blasim, Iraq, past and no longer present, is the site of unique environmental degradation after chemical wars have made the air hardly breathable.19 Here again, the environmental apocalypse is not the manifestation of global destiny but the accidental, inescapable reality of the colony/postcolony. People live in domes built by Chinese conglomerates that have granted Chinese citizenship to domes’ inhabitants and installed local rulers to enforce order. In the dome-kingdom-colony of Babylon, the protagonist collects stories and salvages objects of a past forgotten civilization outside the dome to write videogame scenarios. In a similar narrative, in “The Worker” by Diaa Jubaili, the protagonist is a historian who is tasked with collecting stories of famines and wars that have plagued this land over its history. The polity’s leader, a cross between a theocratic charismatic leader and autocratic postcolonial head of state, needs these stories to write speeches that inspire patience as the country plunges into famine and disorder.

The past is never absent and cannot be fully erased. Instead, it is toyed with and deployed literally in games.

Outside the domes in the “Gardens of Babylon,” the videogame screenwriter is haunted by a past that will not disappear despite his best wishes. In fact, he is tasked with exorcising and animating this past for the enjoyment of his customers. The contrast between the scenarios of the games they play and the seemingly comfortable life they live under the domes is the pretext that preserves the conglomerate regime. While the protagonist is amazed that some people remain interested in history-based games and worries about finding exciting materials for his game scenarios, he acknowledges that the glass domes do not hide the past but amplify it in its ubiquitous yet inapproachable presence. He encounters youngsters wearing masks and searching for artifacts. The past is never absent and cannot be fully erased. Instead, it is toyed with and deployed literally in games. At the same time, the specter of the forgotten colony risks upsetting the existing order and creating chaos—an idea that makes the protagonist scared and anxious.

In the same way, the leader’s speeches in “The Worker” resurrect the past in order to promise a different future. The speeches invoke the instability of the past as a fate stuck to this land, and the leader justifies his rule through the similarity between the present and the abhorrent past. The historians’ narratives explain that the land has always been plagued by hardship and difficulty. There is no escape from violence and famine because these specters haunt the land and the people and cannot be exorcised. They keep coming back in a loop that renders time circular, and the leader’s promise is to make time linear and to escape this time loop. Yet, in the process, he understands that his rule relies on this endless timeplay. In all these cases, the past cannot be escaped or forgotten despite being vaguely remembered. Stuck in a time loop, the making of the postcolony’s future is reliant on and haunted by its unknowable past and its failures and atrocities.

In Derrida’s narrative of hauntology, specters demand investigation and create duties for those they haunt.20 Similarly, the protagonists in the various stories of Iraq+100 are tasked with investigating the past, not through its artifacts or on its own terms, but rather through investigating the specters that haunt their reality. No one is truly interested in the ghost soldier’s stories, but listening is a duty that cannot be escaped. In the same way, no matter how historical videogames decline in popularity, the presence of the ruins outside the domes demand their existence to the chagrin of the exorcist/game writer. The investigation, however, does not truly exorcise the specters, ushering in a haunting-free future. Instead, it reanimates an identity made of assemblages and premised on paranoias and timeplay.21 The leader’s recollection of specters of the past does not deliver him or his people into a brighter future. Instead, it seals their identity as assemblages produced in timeplay that are paranoid of their past and future. In paranoia, the story needs to remain the same—stable and unchanging.
 

Sooray—Hybridity and Assemblages

The specters of the past and the resulting identity assemblages in paranoia are equally visible in the journey of the Afghani mutant Sooraya Qadir (known as Dust).22 In the Marvel Comics universe, mutants are humans with an X-gene that gives them extraordinary abilities but renders them the objects of derision and discrimination. The future of mutants is to be charted between the competing views of Professor Charles Xavier, who advocates the assimilation of mutants within human societies, establishes a school for “talented children,” and builds the army of X-men, named after his initials, and Magneto, once a friend of Xavier, who harbors violent skepticism against humans and builds an army that bears some animosity toward Xavier’s mutants. Yet, both Xavier’s and Magneto’s mutants must battle the forces of human bigotry led by the arch-villains Colonel William Stryker and Donald Pierce, who advocate different versions of mutant genocide.

Sooraya’s Islam is visible throughout her mutant career. She chooses to dress in a black niqab covering her body and face. The niqab is never forgotten, for it serves as an object of exegesis and explanation.

Sooraya is a mutant from Afghanistan who was rescued by Wolverine, Xavier’s top lieutenant, after being captured by slavers. Her powers are rooted in her origin and reflective of her identity: salvaged from the desert, she can transform into sand storms that render the technology-powered Stryker’s attacks useless. Sooraya’s Islam is visible throughout her mutant career. She chooses to dress in a black niqab covering her body and face. The niqab is never forgotten, for it serves as an object of exegesis and explanation. It was never imposed on her, Sooraya explains, but rather empowers her as a choice she makes daily. Sooraya’s niqab is constructed around a slippage that highlights its nature as drag. The niqab is terrorist code,23 yet, she is pitted against the Taliban several times, recalling the image of the good Muslim as cast by the Western gaze.24 While the niqab ostensibly aims to cover and conceal her from male gaze, it is drawn in a manner that allows her to participate in the comics erotica of mutant bodies.25 Moreover, the niqab does not cover her from our gaze as we follow her to her room and peek at more of her body than what she ostensibly would want. The slippage through which her niqab becomes an act of mimicry—though of the colonized and not of the colonial—also renders it fake, exaggerated, or drag. Yet, this drag does not aim to subvert a gender or identity order through transgression. Instead, it confirms the colonial order through imitation and mimicry.26

As a character, Sooraya, is required not only to carry the burden of her mutant self and to drive her own narrative, but also to carry the political message of the authors. The character is haunted by Islam, not only on the pages of the comic, but also beyond. On one level, her Muslimness haunts her coming out as a mutant through a battle with the Taliban, and her identity as a mutant is always questioned due to the religiously motivated attire that functions also as her identity marker. On another level, she is required to represent Muslims and to question the terrorist assemblage that she modifies into a new “good Muslim” assemblage. At yet another level, Sooraya herself becomes aware of her double haunting. When confronting Donald Pierce, she explains that she is a Muslim and a mutant and so understands bigotry through both identities, that she understands Pierce’s bigotry requires the example of a misled few for its self-validation, and, furthermore, that she is not willing to serve as the example that justifies his bigotry. Sooraya’s identity renders her life a performance for the benefit of the bigot that she attempts to resist. In the process, her agency is modeled at the intersection of conformity and subversion.

While Sooraya attempts to resist and subvert her placement as a terrorist, through her actions as a character and through her character as action, she does so by conforming to standards of surveillance that police her acts as a specimen of her kind. Sooraya cannot afford to extricate herself from this regime of surveillance. Instead, she seeks to subvert it by complying with it and then rendering it useless by showing that she had nothing to hide. Here again, timeplay is key in the construction of Sooraya as a character in the surveillance regime. Her attempt to subvert the surveillance regime by undermining its expected results could only operate in a linear temporality that accepts causes and results and admits change in itself and in the surveilled. Instead, this surveillance regime is rooted in a paranoid temporality, where Sooraya’s identity is fixed and unchangeable. In fact, Sooraya’s failure to play the terrorist puts her under a more intensive mode of surveillance. She becomes a potential surprise—a risk that paranoia cannot afford.27 Similar to Kahramana’s fate, the failure to perform the expected renders her even more suspicious.
 

Conclusion

The postcolony’s existence is entangled in webs of time. At one level, the postcolony is always tethered to a particular history of colonization. At another level, the traditional postcolonial project of catching up and finding a seat at the table is one that is anxious about time. Catching-up means making time and it also entails the hope that obstacles of the past remain in the past. In this way, the production of the postcolony, in so far as it is a project for the future, is premised on a linear temporality in which the colony recedes and becomes a vague memory. The postcolonial identity, although always marked with the injuries of colonization and with the ruptures and rewriting of precolonial history, should extend to the future, moving ever further away from the past.

The production of postcolonial identity relies on the making of selfhood at the intersection of the temporalities produced in the colonial archive, and those enacted in the postcolony.

Scholarship in postcolonial studies has investigated the production and the meaning of its post-ness. Kwame Appiah and others have shown how this identification (as post-) continues to produce a particular relationship to temporality that tethers the postcolony to the former metropole in a constant process of self-production.28 This process, explains Benedict Anderson, is part of the production of a chronology at the heart of the imagined national communities emerging from the colonial period.29 Yet, these chronologies are often derivative of the European archive and its arrangement, as Aime Cesaire and Achille Mbembe have shown,30 and they rely on the production of variant times that, in Elizabeth Povinelli’s analysis, impact the making of the modern and the contemporary.31 As such, the production of postcolonial identity relies on the making of selfhood at the intersection of the temporalities produced in the colonial archive, and those enacted in the postcolony. This identity, as a function of communication with self and other, is rooted in a belatedness that is necessary for the production of history, in Hegel’s view, but also characteristic of a lagging behind history and remaining constantly outside or beside it. Similar to what Annamarie Jagose has proposed in regard to lesbian sexual identity, the postcolonial identity “retrospectively assembled from the behaviors and affects it touts as its natural expression, is always imitative and belated.”32 In the same way, postcolonial identity, built as an assemblage, is second in a chronological hierarchy that renders it imitative, and is built on “a retrospective narration of relations between the present and the past” that renders this postcolonial identity anachronistic and belated.33

In this context, Hassan Blasim’s lamentation of the absence of futuristic or science fiction narrative in Arabic is symptomatic of an anxiety about (re)productive futurities, to borrow Lee Edelman’s analytic.34 Blasim blames the first postcolonial state for a form of infertility that has impacted Arabic writings and plagued the Arab and Muslim identity. Blasim’s anxiety is also connected to how the identity of the Muslim and Arab is stamped with a death drive—both of the individual wrapped in terrorist drag or of an entire world at risk of being blown up or converted and rendered infertile, dangerous, and perverse. Sooraya, in her duality as a mutant and a Muslim, is particularly aware of how she is wrapped in this death drive, and she is concerned with the production of a variant future—a productive one—that could take her away from the X-men. When projected into the future, however, Sooraya’s death drive is accomplished in an apocalypse that will witness the full demise of mutants—a future the X-men will anticipate and attempt to prevent through time travel. In this future Sooraya casts away her terrorist drag and is portrayed in tight mutant garb with a modified power. She is then the one who kills Wolverine, her original savior, and his comrades, achieving the death wish expectant in her identity.

Despite Blasim’s anxiety and interest in a productive future, the characters in the stories of Iraq+100 defy his wishes. They are not interested in large narratives and transformative ideas. Instead they are preoccupied with little stories that have no significance. The historians and authors that are tasked in the stories to collect the history of the past are not interested in recovery or in the construction of reliable narratives. Instead, they are invested in the eclectic and unrepresentative.35 The lack of significance is supplanted by the melodramatic, where the characters knowingly obsess about their little lives and reject any interest in the bigger or overarching questions.36 The characters’ resistance to larger and more consequential narratives becomes a form of resistance to productive futurity. They realize that they are involved in a timeplay where futurity cannot be accomplished or even imagined and where productivity is subversively disconnected from consequence.

There is no way forward for an identity that must remain always the same and return to where it came from.

In this timeplay, the postcolonial Muslim identity is a palimpsest, which is not a place for intertextual generation and negotiation but rather for paranoid violence.37 The old text, which cannot be fully erased, haunts the new narrative that can never be fully accomplished and is never completely legible. The result is not a hybrid text but rather an assemblage that animates paranoia through its ambivalence, and is also fixed in ambivalence through a paranoid reading. Progress, change, and productivity are the key terms driving the futuristic narratives of this timeplay. Productivity is obstructed, however, by recurring famine and war and a climate gone awry. The futility of intervention and the inconsequentiality of actions do not render postcolonial future-making obsolete or negate its temporality. Instead, they turn it into dubious play with uncertain results and tenuous relations to reality. This play is implicated in the production of time loops that reproduce colonialism and postcolonialism, and continue to recreate the identities of the postcolony as fixed in paranoid gaze. The timeplay is governed by paranoid suspicions and suspended in playful governance. There is no way forward for an identity that must remain always the same and return to where it came from.

The works analyzed in this paper reveal layers of pessimism that remain uninterested in contributing to the making of productive futures. When colonialism and marginalization render stepping out of the timeplay impossible, the lack of enthusiastic engagement becomes the central mode of subversion. The stories in Iraq+100 along with many others written in the Arabic speaking world over the past half-decade, following the failures of the 2011 uprisings, speak to this level of pessimistic disengagement as a mode of resistance and subversion. These stand in a significant contrast to the enthusiastic participation that characters like Sooraya, among many others, exhibit as they are made to reenact the making of a Muslim identity that is looped in paranoid timeplay. The constructed agency of Sooraya is presented as a model for the abducted agency of the mini-skirted Afghan women, snatched by modern photography and colonial display from their world and made to participate in the new colonial salvage operation of recreating the same identities in question.
 

Epilogue

The Ban, in its various versions, was not based on particular data or past acts. Instead, it was an act of speculative fiction, whereby the future of Muslims, stuck in their undifferentiated Muslimness, is imagined and acted upon.

On Friday, January 27, 2017, President Trump issued the first Muslim Ban. The Executive Order was to take effect almost immediately, and it wreaked havoc in airports all over the world throughout the weekend. Confronted with media critique of the seemingly disorganized rollout, President Trump tweeted at 5:31 am on January 31, “If the ban were announced with a one week notice, the ‘bad’ would rush into our country during that week. A lot of bad ‘dudes’ out there!”. Wrapped in paranoid expectation, Trump’s anxiety about an onslaught of “bad dudes” was logical. The question of whether or not this rushing in was indeed feasible was irrelevant. The Ban, in its various versions, was not based on particular data or past acts. Instead, it was an act of speculative fiction, whereby the future of Muslims, stuck in their undifferentiated Muslimness, is imagined and acted upon. For an act of futuristic or speculative fiction, the reality of contemporary Muslims, their diversity and their defiance of the overarching narrative of Muslimness propagated by the administration, by New Atheists, or by others, is equally irrelevant. In the same vein, the consistent calls for the reforming of Islam also look to the making of a future Muslim identity that is different from the future imagined by Islamophobic discourses. In all cases, the identity of Muslims is made into the future. Contemporary Muslims serve only as raw material for the production of a future that may or may not include them.

 

 

Notes:

  1. Hassan Blasim, Iraq + 100 ( Tor, 2016).
  2. On the construction of colonial and postcolonial communities, see Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (Verso Books, 2006).
  3. On the construction of Iraq as a nation state, and Iraqi nationalisms, see, among others, Sami Zubaida, "The Fragments Imagine the Nation: The Case of Iraq," International Journal of Middle East Studies 34.2 (2002), 205–15; Guiditta Fontana, "Creating Nations, Establishing States: Ethno-Religious Heterogeneity and the British Creation of Iraq in 1919–23," Middle Eastern Studies 46.1 (2010): 1–16; Orit Bashkin, "Hybrid Nationalisms: Waṭanī and Qawmī Visions in Iraq under ʿabd Al-Karim Qasim, 1958–61," International Journal of Middle East Studies 43.2 (2011): 293– 312. See also Arbella Bet-Shlimon, “Kirkuk, 1918–1968: Oil and the Politics of Identity in an Iraqi City” (PhD diss., Harvard University, 2012).
  4. Blasim, Iraq + 100, 1–10.
  5. See Peter Yoonsuk Paik, From Utopia to Apocalypse: Science Fiction and the Politics of Catastrophe (UMN Press, 2010); Anne Maxwell, "Postcolonial Criticism, Ecocriticism and Climate Change: A Tale of Melbourne under Water in 2035," Journal of Postcolonial Writing 45.1 (2009): 15–26; Laura Wright, "Wilderness into Civilized Shapes": Reading the Postcolonial Environment (UGA Press, 2010).
  6. Blasim, Iraq + 100.
  7. Homi K. Bhabha, The Location of Culture (Routledge, 1994), 85.
  8. Here, I am using Jasbir Puar’s analysis of the assemblage as a mode of imparting and understanding identities. However, in Kahramana’s case, the assemblage is one rooted in the colonial optimism rather than in danger and fear. See Jasbir K Puar, Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times (Duke U.P., 2007).
  9. Cathy Newman, "A Life Revealed," National Geographic Magazine 1 (2002). On Gula’s iconography, see Anna Szorenyi, "The Face of Suffering in Afghanistan: Identity, Authenticity and Technology in the Search for the Representative Refugee," Austl. Feminist LJ. 21 (2004), 1. Deborah Cohler, "Keeping the Home Front Burning: Renegotiating Gender and Sexuality in Us Mass Media after September 11," Feminist Media Studies 6.3 (2006): 245–61. Rae Lynn Schwartz-Dupre, "Rhetorically Representing Public Policy: National Geographic's 2002 Afghan Girl and the Bush Administration's Biometric Identification Policies." Feminist Media Studies 7. 4 (2007): 433–53.
  10. ‘It’s a hard problem’: Inside Trump’s decision to send more troops to Afghanistan, accessed 8/27/2017.
  11. Puar, Terrorist Assemblages, 1.
  12. Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International (Routledge, 2012), 10.
  13. Ibid., 63.
  14. Blasim, Iraq + 100.
  15. Sophia Roosth, Synthetic: How Life Got Made (University of Chicago Press, 2017), 67.
  16. Blasim, Iraq + 100.
  17. Ibid.
  18. See Nalo Hopkins discussion of the use of ghosts and other elements of “fantasy” in the writing of postcolonial science fiction: Nalo Hopkinson, So Long Been Dreaming: Postcolonial Science Fiction and Fantasy, ReadHowYouWant.com, 2010. See also Gregory E. Rutledge and Nalo Hopkinson, "Speaking in Tongues: An Interview with Science Fiction Writer Nalo Hopkinson," African American Review 33.4 (1999): 589–601. Themes of ghosts and magic have become part of the writing of postcolonial science fiction as a mode of ownership of myths and metaphors. See Elizabeth Olubukola Olaoye and Mary Bosede Aiyetoro, "Afro-Science Fiction: A Study of Nnedi Okorafor’s What Sunny Saw in the Flames and Lagoon," Pivot: A Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies and Thought 5.1 (2016). Esthie Hugo, "Looking Forward, Looking Back: Animating Magic, Modernity and the African City-Future in Nnedi Okorafor’s Lagoon," Social Dynamics 43.1 (2017): 46–58.
  19. Blasim, Iraq + 100.
  20. Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International (Routledge, 2012). On postcolonial haunting, see Michael F. O'Riley, "Postcolonial Haunting: Anxiety, Affect, and the Situated Encounter," Postcolonial Text 3.4 (2008). Much has been written on the deployment of haunting in postcolonial literature, see, among others, idem, Postcolonial Haunting and Victimization: Assia Djebar's New Novels (Peter Lang, 2007); Troy Potter, "Ghosts of Australia Past: Postcolonial Haunting in Australian Adolescent Mystery Novels," International Research in Children's Literature 8.2 (2015): 185–200; Ahmed Idrissi Alami, "‘Illegal’crossing, Historical Memory and Postcolonial Agency in Laila Lalami's Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits," The Journal of North African Studies 17.1 (2012)” 143–56; Zeina Tarraf, "Haunting and the Neoliberal Encounter in Terra Incognita and a Perfect Day," Cultural Dynamics 29.1–2 (2017): 39–62.
  21. On assemblages as identity-makers, see Lindsey Moore’s investigation of colonial and postcolonial museums as assemblages: Emma Waterton and Jason Dittmer, "The Museum as Assemblage: Bringing Forth Affect at the Australian War Memorial," Museum Management and Curatorship, 29.2 (2014): 122–39. See also Alexander G. Weheliye, Habeas Viscus: Racializing Assemblages, Biopolitics, and Black Feminist Theories of the Human (Duke University Press, 2014).
  22. Few scholars have analyzed the making of Sooraya Qadir, the production of Western male gaze and the making of the Afghan and Muslim in the post-9/11 world. See, among others, Jehanzeb Dar, "Holy Islamophobia, Batman! Demonization of Muslims and Arabs in Mainstream American Comic Books," Counterpoints 346 (2010): 99–110; Julie Davis and Robert Westerfelhaus, "Finding a Place for a Muslimah Heroine in the Post-9/11 Marvel Universe: New X-Men's Dust," Feminist Media Studies 13.5 (2013): 800–09; Miriam Kent, "Unveiling Marvels: Ms. Marvel and the Reception of the New Muslim Superheroine," Ibid., 15.3 (2015): 522–527; Jacob L. Thomas, "The Rebirth of the Female Superhero: Kamala Khan’s Ms. Marvel," THE IMAGE OF REBIRTH (2017), 76. In these pieces, Sooraya is compared to the more recent Kamala Khan (Ms. Marvel). In this article, however, I will not engage with Kamala Khan. Instead, I look at Sooraya as a Muslim heroine who is also occupying the immigrant space. See A. David Lewis, "Sidebar: The Immigrant Space," The Secret Origins of Comics Studies, ed. by Matthew Smith and Randy Duncan (Routledge, 2017), 22. Most recently, Sophia Rose Arjana has explored the images of Muslim women superheroines especially those produced in Muslim countries (Veiled Superheroes: Islam, Feminism, and Popular Culture [Kim Fox, 2018]). In the fourth chapter, “Burka Avenger and the Subversive Veil,” she looks at a Pakistani superheroine who resembles Sooraya Qadir in a variety of ways but is produced in Pakistani animation and addressing rather different issues from those explored here about Qadir. Arjana also looks at Ms. Marvel (chapter 3), who is another Marvels Muslim woman superhero but who is not discussed in this paper.
  23. Puar, Terrorist Assemblages, 11.
  24. Dar, "Holy Islamophobia, Batman!," 107. In the same vein and on the representation of Muslim characters in comics post-9/11, see Natalie Kate Bograd, "“Nothing’s Been the Same since New York”: The Marvel Cinematic Universe's Engagement with 9/11 and the War on Terror" (MA thesis, University of Texas, 2015); Nickie D. Phillips and Staci Strobl, Comic Book Crime: Truth, Justice, and the American Way (NYU Press, 2013) ; Thomas Richard, "Mythologies Politiques Et Identitaires Dans Les Conflits Du Moyen-Orient À L'heure De La Mondialisation," (Université d'Auvergne-Clermont-Ferrand I, 2014); Cord Scott, "Written in Red, White, and Blue: A Comparison of Comic Book Propaganda from World War Ii and September 11," The Journal of Popular Culture 40.2 (2007): 325–43; Christian J. Steinmetz, "A Genealogy of Absence & Evil: Tracing the Nation's Borders with Captain America," (MA thesis, Georgia State University, 2008); Holly Swyers, et al. The War of My Generation: Youth Culture and the War on Terror (Rutgers University Press, 2015).
  25. Arjana, Veiled Superheroes, 48. See also, Keith T. Edmunds, "Heroines Aplenty, but None My Mother Would Know: Marvel’s Lack of an Iconic Superheroine," Heroines of Comic Books and Literature: Portrayals in Popular Culture, ed. by Maja Bajac-Carter, et al., (Rowman and Littlefield, 2014), esp. 212–213.
  26. Here, I am deploying mimicry in the opposite direction of Homi Bhabha’s usage and in conjunction with the mimicry discussed earlier in this piece. In this context, colonial mimicry (of the colonized) is reminiscent of Blackface and minstrelsy, which utilize mimicry to further substantiate colonial order. See Jason Richards, "Imitation Nation: Blackface Minstrelsy and the Making of African American Selfhood in ‘Uncle Tom's Cabin,’" Novel: A Forum on Fiction, JSTOR 39 (2006): 204–220; Mikko Tuhkanen, "Of Blackface and Paranoid Knowledge: Richard Wright, Jacques Lacan, and the Ambivalence of Black Minstrelsy," Diacritics, 31.2 (2001): 9–34.
  27. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity (Duke University Press, 2003), 130.
  28. See, for instance, Kwame Anthony Appiah, "Is the Post-in Postmodernism the Post-in Postcolonial?," Critical Inquiry 17.2 (1991): 336–357. See also Suman Seth, "Colonial History and Postcolonial Science Studies," Radical History Review, 2017.127 (2017): 63–85; idem, "Putting Knowledge in Its Place: Science, Colonialism, and the Postcolonial," Postcolonial studies 12.4 (2009): 373–88.
  29. Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (Verso Books, 2006).
  30. Aimé Césaire, Discourse on Colonialism (NYU Press, 2000).See also idem, Notebook of a Return to the Native Land (Wesleyan University Press, 2001). Achille Mbembe’s work on time and archives include "The Power of the Archive and Its Limits," Refiguring the Archive (Springer, 2002): 19–27, On the Postcolony. vol. 41 (Univ of California Press, 2001).See also, Mbembe, et al, "Qu'est-Ce Que La Pensée Postcoloniale?"Esprit, 12 (2006): 117–133.
  31. Elizabeth A. Povinelli, "What's Love Got to Do with It? The Race of Freedom and the Drag of Descent," Social Analysis, 49.2 (2005): 173–81, at 176.
  32. Annamarie Jagose, Inconsequence: Lesbian Representation and the Logic of Sexual Sequence (Cornell University Press, 2002), x.
  33. Ibid., xi.
  34. Lee Edelman, No Future : Queer Theory and the Death Drive (Duke U.P., 2004).
  35. Here, I recall Halberstom’s description of the production of queer temporality as a process of focusing on the little, insignificant, and ecletic as opposed to the representative and significant. See Carolyn Dinshaw, et al, "Theorizing Queer Temporalities: A Roundtable Discussion," GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 13.2 (2007): 177–95.
  36. Here, I recall Christopher Nealon’s description of the melodramatic as a mode of subversion and ambivalence ("Invert-History: The Ambivalence of Lesbian Pulp Fiction," New Literary History 31.4 [2000]: 745–64.
  37. See Sarah Dillon, "Reinscribing De Quincey's Palimpsest: The Significance of the Palimpsest in Contemporary Literary and Cultural Studies," Textual Practice 19.3 (2005): 243–63; John C. Hawley, Postcolonial, Queer: Theoretical Intersections (SUNY Press, 2001).
 

Ahmed Ragab is the Richard T. Watson Associate Professor of Science and Religion and the director of the Science, Religion, and Culture program at Harvard Divinity School. He is a physician and historian of science and medicine and the author of The Medieval Islamic Hospital: Medicine, Religion and Charity (Cambridge University Press 2015).

Please follow our Commentary Guidelines when engaging in discussion on this site.

FitzGerald’s Cast of Evangelicals Falls Flat

Curtis J. Evans

In Review | Books The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America, by Frances FitzGerald. Simon & Schuster, 752 pages, $20 paper.

1980 anti-music demonstrators

Christian demonstrators protest outside a punk rock show at the Starwood, Los Angeles, 1980. Photo by Gary Leonard / Corbis via Getty Images

 

Evangelical Protestants are very much in the news today and a frequent topic of conversation, with commentators and others asking: How is it that Christians who have been clamoring for decades about the decline of American culture and the necessity for personal integrity in our leaders could elect a figure like Donald Trump? The recent death of prominent evangelist and preacher Billy Graham has also inspired a flurry of articles and essays reflecting on his place in the evolution and politicization of evangelicalism in the last half of the twentieth century. Unlike in 1980, when historians were lamenting the dearth of scholarly work on evangelical Protestantism, the scholarship in recent years has not only matured but feels as though the market is glutted with books, such that one wants to demand that any newer books justify their existence.

Frances FitzGerald’s The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America, published in 2017, is one recent work, written by a renowned journalist, that tries to take a long historical view of evangelical attempts to shape and direct the nation through political activism and a politics of Christian values. As I try to identify the central thesis of FitzGerald’s book, I’d like to elaborate on two areas of the book that require further analysis and that will support my contention that the book’s aims are vague and that it does not effectively add to our understanding of evangelical Protestantism (in view of the massive previous scholarship). Those two areas are periodization and the cast of characters. But first, I must turn to the definitional problem. Who are evangelicals for FitzGerald? And why does that matter for the argument in the book?

FitzGerald opens her work by arguing that: “today white evangelicals are a very diverse group that includes, among others, Southern Baptists, Mennonites, Holiness groups, Pentecostals, Dutch Reformed groups, and a number who belong to nondenominational churches” (2). She maintains that they “have little in common” beyond the “essentials of their faith.” She cites with approval historian George Marsden’s definition that contemporary evangelicals are those Protestant Christians “traditional enough to affirm the basic beliefs of the old nineteenth-century evangelical consensus: the Reformation doctrine of the final authority of the Bible, the real historical character of God’s saving work” as recorded in the Christian scriptures of the Old and New Testament, salvation through “the redemptive work of Christ,” evangelism and missions as crucial priorities of the Christian life, and the significance of “a spiritually transformed life” (2).1 No further discussion is given to the doctrinal definition or how this might be complicated by other factors, such as social location, geography, gender (which I will address later in this review), and race, though, in the body of the text, the first of these two issues is addressed. A more extended explanation in the introduction would have helped.

In a cursory way, FitzGerald alerts the reader that she intentionally “omits the history of African American churches because theirs is a different story” and “their religious traditions are not the same as those of white evangelicals,” even though some blacks might identify as evangelicals (2). That is the extent of her discussion of black evangelicals, with the exception of a few comments about black Southern Baptists at the end of her long book. But if the particular beliefs that FitzGerald lists are markers of evangelicalism, why not include African Americans, given that many African American Protestants share these beliefs? Would this complicate the story of “evangelicalism in America,” or would the inclusion of blacks necessarily lead to highlighting a different set of criteria than theological beliefs and tenets as the defining feature of evangelicalism, even though the bulk of the book is about the relationship between theological beliefs and political and social activism? This makes the case for the inclusion of African Americans in the story all the more compelling.

While FitzGerald argues that the category of “evangelical” is a religious one and not a political designation, it is immediately evident that the primary purpose of the book is not to explore the religious dynamics and practices of evangelicals, but rather to show how a select number of elite white male leaders reshaped and reordered priorities and beliefs in their local churches, inspired and motivated their broader constituents to social activism, and incited involvement in local, state, and federal campaigns for political offices. FitzGerald begins by arguing that evangelicals compose nearly a quarter of the population. She argues that they are “the most American of religious groups,” without quite spelling out what that means (2). She states that evangelicals constituted a “dominant influence” on American culture, politics, and morals in the nineteenth century and that during the twentieth century, especially since 1980, “many evangelicals, led by the Christian right, have struggled to reverse” the secularizing of the American nation, and have “reintroduced religion in public discourse, polarized the nation, and profoundly changed American politics” (2).

Although the quotation above indicates that FitzGerald does make a slight distinction between evangelicals and the Christian right, most of the time the book loses sight of this distinction and never offers a compelling reason why over 50 percent of the book is about the Christian right. In fairness, the author states up front that the book’s aim is to offer a history of white evangelical movements that will help us to understand the Christian right and its opponents. Even so, it is curious she should choose as a title “The Evangelicals” for a book that is really about the Christian right since 1980 (in a book with 17 chapters, only the first few contain history prefatory to the 1980s). The book might have been more appropriately titled “The Emergence of the Christian Right and Its Quest for Political Power.” This is not merely a pedantic pet peeve, for I think the title is misleading and promises more than it delivers. It leads the reader to believe that this is a nuanced story about evangelical Protestantism and American culture, whereas most of the book is about why certain white male leaders became so adamant in their opposition to select aspects of American culture that they formed political organizations and interest groups to channel their strident critiques of American society.

A disproportionate discussion of the last five decades of the twentieth century shapes the book, with only cursory coverage devoted to the nineteenth century, which the author still maintains is crucial for grasping evangelical aspirations of cultural relevance and political power. The first chapter covers the First and Second Great Awakenings and the emergence of evangelical Protestantism as a notable and significant religious movement in America. The second chapter looks at divisions within evangelicalism over slavery and doctrinal disputes. The third chapter, “Liberals and Conservatives in the Post–Civil War North,” is mostly an attempt to tweak standard narratives about how historical critical scholarship on the Bible, Darwinian evolution, and social reform affected or led to a deep split within American Protestantism. Surprisingly, there is basically no discussion of race, reconstruction, and the implications for particular developments of evangelicalism. These first three chapters serve as the backdrop for the twentieth century. The remaining 14 chapters are about twentieth-century developments. In a book of almost 700 pages, less than 100 pages are devoted to pre-twentieth-century developments. So, it is obvious where the primary issues begin and the action takes place for FitzGerald when she begins her fourth chapter, on the fundamentalist-modernist controversy. This section constitutes the real beginning of the book and signals that it is a work on the emergence of a militant and selectively antimodernist (more George Marsden’s emphasis than the author’s) evangelical Protestantism that wants to enforce doctrinal purity and reverse larger cultural changes in the nation.

Yet, there is no shortage of recent books that situate the Christian right in the broader history of evangelical Protestantism. Two of most relevance for FitzGerald’s narrative are Daniel K. Williams’s God’s Own Party: The Making of the Christian Right (Oxford University Press, 2010) and Matthew Avery Sutton’s American Apocalypse: A History of Modern Evangelicalism (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2014). It is clear from her footnotes that FitzGerald is conversant with Williams’s work, yet nowhere does she offer a direct refutation of or engagement with his claim that, rather than focusing on the cultural changes of the 1960s (the sexual revolution, the ending of school prayer and Bible reading in schools, feminism, civil rights) as the primary impetus for the emergence of the Christian right, we should look to a longer history of activism going back to the 1920s. Much of FitzGerald’s work points to the 1960s as the key and historically salient moment for a massive reaction and realignment among conservative Protestants in both the North and the South. Although, as noted above, the fundamentalist-modernist controversy of the 1920s does serve as a backdrop to her more detailed work on the Christian right in the 1980s, a great deal of that section is about doctrinal disputes and internal conflicts within the Protestant denominations. It is not clear, with the exception of the attempts to ban the teaching of evolution in public schools, what these seemingly insular internal denominational debates tell us about the longer political activation of conservative Protestants. Granted, their separatism and their building of networks outside the denominations express their dissatisfaction with liberal Protestant conceptions of Christianity, but it is not always evident what all these detailed internal disputes reveal about the author’s thesis.

As far as I can tell, FitzGerald shows no familiarity with Sutton’s book. It is not cited in the footnotes and it is not listed in her final bibliography. I think Sutton’s larger argument is especially relevant to her attempt to provide a long view of conservative Protestant political activism. He builds on and challenges George Marsden’s Fundamentalism and American Culture (Oxford University Press, 1980; 2nd ed., 2006), and Joel A. Carpenter’s Revive Us Again: The Reawakening of American Fundamentalism (Oxford University Press, 1997), two works that are important conversation partners for FitzGerald. Sutton takes a long view of fundamentalism, from the late nineteenth century to the early twenty-first century. Unlike FitzGerald’s use of Jerry Falwell, for example, as a catalytic figure who convinces previously apolitical Christians to engage their world, Sutton argues that cultural engagement and activism was a priority for evangelicals throughout the twentieth century. Sutton rejects narratives that portray the Scopes Trial and the debate over evolution in the 1920s as watershed moments that supposedly forced a major retreat of fundamentalists from activism (a framework that still shapes FitzGerald’s book). Dispensational premillennialism, while it appears only here and there in FitzGerald’s book, is also crucial to Sutton’s argument. Rather than leading to an apolitical stance, he argues, this prophetic schema led to a black and white, us versus them, and Manichaean view of the world. Prophetic interpretation is what drove the activism of conservative Protestants, in Sutton’s reckoning. This approach seems a much more compelling way of thinking about evangelicals: not as merely reactive spectators, but rather as responding to and helping to shape modern America. There is a way in which, despite all the masculine preening of leaders of the Christian right, they come across in FitzGerald’s narrative as reactive and responding to larger events rather than as active participants in co-constructing contemporary America.

The cast of characters in this book consists almost exclusively of white males, with a few notable exceptions (for example, Phyllis Schlafly, a Catholic antifeminist and activist). The list runs long: William Bell Riley, Billy James Hargis, Billy Graham, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Francis Schaeffer, R. J. Rushdoony, and so many others. These men preach, denounce, form organizations, serve as the sources of political activism, cajole and urge fellow Christians to vote and become politically active, and—seemingly single-handedly—create a politicized Christian movement that transforms America. Women have hardly any place in this narrative, whether as organization builders, speakers, writers, educators, or political activists. There is virtually no discussion of gender or how it might have shaped and framed evangelical styles of preaching and activism. Laypeople are either passive or play no role in FitzGerald’s work. Perhaps some might facetiously assert these are merciful omissions in a book of this length, but these important topics cannot be bypassed, even on those grounds. Obviously, a richer and more inclusive narrative would mean much less coverage of Billy Graham, Jerry Falwell, and Pat Robertson, the three figures who get more attention than any others in the book. FitzGerald’s book is the “great leader” history writ large, applied to evangelicals in this instance.

One cannot help but raise the question of audience. What is clear is that, as a journalist, FitzGerald has spent considerable time, for example, talking to and interviewing people in Jerry Falwell’s church (probably as fieldwork and reporting for some of her earlier books on cultural change in the United States). The book feels different in certain sections, especially when the almost ethnographic style is used to tell of the rise of Falwell and his relationship to members of his church. While a strength in some ways, it makes the book feel a bit uneven. We get an intimate portrait of a few figures, while most feel like detached thinkers, known only from a distance, and that despite the fact that the book really is a collection of mini-biographies. If the original impetus of the book, based on previous of FitzGerald’s books, was to explain the seemingly sudden emergence of the Christian right in the 1980s by focusing a great deal of attention on several of its most vocal leaders, then it would make more sense to employ this style.

My sense is that the book seems intended to help curious journalists, interested political observers, and those concerned about the polarizing and polemical discourse of the Christian right get a better sense of how and why the Christian right emerged. But in focusing so much attention on individual leaders, the chapters often read as self-contained pieces that neglect a broader argument and therefore do not advance our understanding of the lived experience or the nature of political activism of conservative Christians, except to highlight how they were animated about particular social issues or how their leaders gathered around a presidential figure and tried to exert influence (mostly notable in Falwell’s relationship with President Ronald Reagan).

This explains why FitzGerald relies so heavily on secondary sources. The book is a work of synthesis that tries to bring together a lot of scholarship on evangelicals, but in so doing, it necessarily puts itself alongside these other works in a comparative way. That leads people like me (as one who has taught courses on evangelicalism in the twentieth century) to ask: What does this work add to previous scholarship? I could not find any significant original argument, and I saw no new perspective advanced in the book as a whole. I can see some value in having these compendiums about the Christian right readily available to those who have little understanding of it or of its religious activism, but, as an interpretive project, the book is seriously lacking in critical acumen.

In fact, where one might anticipate the book would be the most useful—namely, in illuminating our current context—it fails to live up to its stated aims. For, while the book ends with an epilogue that speculates why evangelicals in such high percentages supported a sordid and mendacious figure like Donald Trump for president, disappointingly, FitzGerald concludes with: “the simplest explanation was that those evangelicals who voted for Trump had affinities with the Tea Party” (629). That is hardly a compelling explanation for why they voted for Trump. She goes on to claim that people who rarely attended church and were least educated tended to support Trump.

Perhaps the timing and publication of the book did not allow for a fuller assessment and digesting of relevant data, thereby explaining this weak, flat, and inadequate explanation. What seems more plausible is FitzGerald’s argument that evangelicals were heartened by Trump’s assertions that he would stop illegal immigration, that he would make America great again, and that he would be the strong leader who would protect them from terrorists and the alleged destructive policies of liberals. Yet, this is a strange place for FitzGerald to end, given her broader narrative. Her previous discussion does not help us to understand precisely this phenomenon—especially her extended discussions of Falwell and others preaching against moral decay in high places, railing against sexual sins lurking in every corner, and urging the nation to repent of its many sins. We will need to turn to another book to have a better handle on this side of evangelicalism. Perhaps Allan J. Lichtman’s White Protestant Nation: The Rise of the American Conservative Movement (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2008), with its keen focus on ethnic and racial nationalism as formative in the development of Protestant Christian activism in the 1920s, would be a much more suitable work to help with this query. In the end, FitzGerald’s book is a disappointing one that suffers from too many omissions and a surplus of superfluous details on certain figures. One will have to look elsewhere to answer a number of salient questions about the longer history of evangelicalism and such burning questions as why evangelicals ended up voting for Donald Trump.

 

Notes:

  1. George M. Marsden, Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism (Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1991), 4–5.
 

Curtis J. Evans is Associate Professor of American Religions and the History of Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School. He is currently working on A Theology of Brotherhood: The Federal Council of Churches and the Problem of Race (forthcoming from Oxford University Press), a historical evaluation of the FCC’s attempt at social and racial change from the 1920s to the 1940s.

Please follow our Commentary Guidelines when engaging in discussion on this site.

Government Innovation in an Era of White Nationalism

Successful national and local efforts are mission-driven and collaborative.

Shaun Casey

Illustration of immigrants walking over landscape resembling US flag

Illustration by Davide Bonazzi / The i Spot

 

This is an edited version of the keynote address delivered at the “Symposium on Religious Literacy and Government: Refugee and Immigration Issues,” sponsored by the Religious Literacy and the Professions Initiative, held at Harvard Divinity School on December 7–8, 2017. Additional articles from the symposium are found under the "Who are 'We'?" section of this issue.

I have been incredibly fortunate over the course of my winding, checkered career. During my long sojourn as a student from HDS to the Kennedy School and back to HDS, I was very lucky to have a wealth of support from an astonishing cast of academic firepower. At times, Harvard students can be complacent with the intellectual riches around us. The older I get the more I value the opportunities I had here in Cambridge. Two teachers influenced me, in particular. Both were at the top of their respective academic fields while they simultaneously practiced forms of public engagement in the wider society. In different ways and contexts, the late Richard Neustadt at the Kennedy School and Bryan Hehir, now of the Kennedy School and formerly at the Divinity School, modeled for me how it is possible to build an academic career that can have an impact far beyond the academy. My earliest childhood memories are heavily shaped by intense family debates on religion and politics, so to have a career that has enabled me to move back and forth from the academic study of religion into national and international politics has been a remarkable gift. HDS trained me and propelled me into this endlessly fascinating space.

Government can do much better in understanding the religious dynamics of its space, but scholars of religion, too, can do better in understanding the challenges of working in government.

Let me set out what I hope to accomplish in this talk. First of all, I will survey one space among the complex boundaries between the academic study of religion and the work of government: the intersection of religious literacy and the provision of government services in the United States. I will argue that there is room for improvement on both sides of the equation. That is, government can do much better in understanding the religious dynamics of its space, but scholars of religion, too, can do better in understanding the challenges of working in government (this may actually be the hardest part of the relationship). Let me hasten to add that what the Religious Literacy Project at HDS is doing in this and other gatherings is precisely the kind of collaboration that is so needed in our country. 

Second, and to help focus my first claim, I will reflect broadly on my experience in the State Department as special representative for religion and global affairs and then, more specifically, discuss our work on refugee resettlement issues, in order to glean lessons learned and best practices I saw in the context of local government work. I believe that both stories can yield insights for anyone working in government where religion arises as a dynamic in their work.

Third, I will conclude by assessing our current political environment through the lens of the growth of white nationalism. I will offer a preliminary assessment of the consequences of this for both the academic study of religion and the role of government in issue areas where religious dynamics play a significant role. I believe the current national political environment increases the need to have a more sophisticated view of religion in government service and also, sadly, makes it harder to do this work. In the end, I hope to convince you that innovation is possible when it comes to democratic government entities becoming more adept at deepening understanding of religion. Yet progress is fragile and subject to reversal. In our current vexed political time, there are counterforces that reject pluralism, promote white nationalism, encourage xenophobia, and reject liberal international order. To ignore this political dynamic risks rendering the work of religion scholars or government service provision fruitless.

I was reminded recently, while reading Reinhold Niebuhr’s 1944 work The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness, that perhaps the gravest sin of the Children of Light is naïveté. We should not underestimate the political forces that are arrayed against us, lest we fail due to not discerning the signs of our time.

Let me begin with the definition of religious literacy given by the HDS Religious Literacy Project:

Religious literacy entails the ability to discern and analyze the fundamental intersections of religion and social/political/cultural life through multiple lenses. Specifically, a religiously literate person will possess 1) a basic understanding of the history, central texts (where applicable), beliefs, practices and contemporary manifestations of several of the world’s religious traditions as they arose out of and continue to be shaped by particular social, historical and cultural contexts; and 2) the ability to discern and explore the religious dimensions of political, social and cultural expressions across time and place.

Critical to this definition is the importance of understanding religions and religious influences in context and as inextricably woven into all dimensions of human experience. Such an understanding highlights the inadequacy of understanding religions through common means such as learning about ritual practices or exploring “what scriptures say” about topics or questions. Unfortunately, these are some of the most common approaches to learning about religion and lead to simplistic and inaccurate representations of the roles religions play in human agency and understanding.

Let me state at the outset that I like this formulation. I want to explore this understanding a bit in light of my own work, which involves trying to bring a deeper understanding of religious dynamics and a more sophisticated engagement with religious actors in perhaps the most hierarchical, patriarchal, traditional, and gendered corner of the U.S. government—the State Department. I will parse three clusters of ideas based on my government experience.
 

1. Religious Literacy Requires Team Capacity

A general religious literacy is seen as a luxury for many institutions at the intersection of religion and government, especially government entities. And this is a real problem. That is, given limited or shrinking resources, plus often narrowly defined policy missions, the breadth and depth of the needed knowledge on religion is often narrowly focused or circumscribed in its mission. What is often needed is expert knowledge on specific policy issues and specific religious communities. Not only is context a prerequisite for understanding religion sufficiently, but a knowledge of the policy mission of the government entity is also a necessity.

When I launched the Office of Religion and Global Affairs at State, I did not need scholars who were effective apologists for the need of the State Department to approach religion better. Instead, I needed staff who already knew how to interpret the political and social implications of lived religion in specific country and regional contexts. That is, I needed people who were multilingual in understanding religion in specific contexts and U.S. diplomatic priorities and organization and who had an ability to train other people on both sides of the coin. The perfect candidate had training in the study of religion in a specific geographical context, had lived in that region, and had a deep knowledge of U.S. diplomacy in the same space. All of these skills were crucial. 

Thus, in the context of government, religious literacy is often a team or office-wide capacity and not an individual capacity. So how do we talk about the religious literacy of offices, bureaus, teams? When I built a staff of 35, I was both thrilled by the talent and embarrassed that we pretended to be able to interpret the complexity of religious dynamics on a planet of over seven billion people! A crucial part of collective religious literacy, if that is a workable term, includes what sources you turn to when you do not have sufficient knowledge of religious dynamics on your staff. Working in government, you are always going to encounter mission-driven conundrums related to religion that no one in the organization is going to be able to answer instantly.
 

2. Humility Is the Best Posture

If you work in a government setting where religion figures significantly, you will always be challenged by situations that exhaust your knowledge rapidly.

There is a danger of elitism here when, in fact, humility is a better posture. If you work in a government setting where religion figures significantly, you will always be challenged by situations that exhaust your knowledge rapidly. At the nexus of the academic study of religion and the provision of government service, there needs to be some modicum of humility on both sides. In my years at the State Department, I encountered more than a few religion scholars who said one semester of their graduate seminar could cure the perceived ignorance in the State Department. What I wanted to say, but rarely did, was that the diplomatic illiteracy of the religion scholar rendered a lot of their free advice (or, in some cases, their expensive advice) useless for me. And this leads to my final observation about religious literacy.
 

3. The Scholarly Guild Needs to Engage in Mutual Dialogue

This has to do with the role of the religion scholarly guild. Too many of my brother and sister scholars are not willing to venture into mutual dialogue with practitioners in the policy and government world as equal partners. The range of reasons given to justify this reticence or unwillingness is wide, and I cannot parse it fully here. The best answer I have heard about why religion scholars should be willing to help the State Department to get better on religion came from my brilliant chief of staff, who noted that the State Department has tried, and will continue to try, to engage religious leaders (and usually not delve deeper to understand the implications of lived religion) and therefore will assess religious dynamics in a terrible fashion. So why shouldn’t scholars trained in religion try to bend those arcs in a better direction?

I am pleased that the Religious Literacy Project is helping to render my cranky observations about the scholarly guild moot. With these contextual observations as background, I now want to turn to innovation in government. The first step will be to set out how we tried to innovate in the State Department, and the second step will be to chronicle the forms of innovation I saw as I surveyed the resettlement of refugees in the United States in 2015 and 2016.


One of the most sobering moments of my life came the day I was sworn in as an employee of the Department of State in July 2013. After the whirlwind administering of my oath, I was ushered into an austere space euphemistically called “transition,” which consisted of a windowless room on the first floor of the Harry S. Truman Building, or Main State, as it was known. I had a phone, no working computer, no staff, and a wastebasket. All I had to do was to design a strategy for an office with an as yet undetermined number of staff, no set budget, no location in a building that considered real estate size and location as the highest form of political currency. (This was in contrast to the seminary where I taught and had an office in the sub-basement of a 60-year-old dormitory that was literally turning to dust. Students had to hire field guides to locate my office, and when they arrived, they often wondered out loud which administrator I had alienated to earn such a desolate location). It was not a glorious beginning.

Eventually we got a prime office location on the seventh floor, a roster of positions to fill, and a budget. Reflecting back now, I see four dynamics at work in those early days. First, I knew what I didn’t know and I immediately set out to find helpful veterans who could help me learn and recruit people who knew what I didn’t about how the State Department is organized and run. A friend told me that the hallways of the department were littered with the bleached bones of academics who had arrived hell-bent on bending the will of the place to their views. I knew [then] Secretary of State Kerry and many of his senior staff and their respective styles, so I was confident about those relationships, but having never organized anything larger than a 15-person graduate seminar that lasted for 14 weeks, I had a lot to learn. So I found tutors.

The central organizing principle of the State Department was a slow-motion train wreck between, on the one hand, six regional bureaus and, on the other hand, functional bureaus. The six regional bureaus were populated by careerists who saw themselves as akin to the U.S. Marines, through which U.S. policy is formulated and to which some 200 embassies and posts report back to Washington. The functional bureaus, in contrast, addressed crosscutting global issues, such as human rights, economic issues, military affairs, climate change, and nonproliferation issues. The ongoing interaction between these two sorts of bureaus, regional and functional, posed real problems for our office since we were neither fish nor fowl—we were an office in the secretary’s bureau, which dealt with the whole spectrum of department bureaus.

Historically, the State Department approached religion in three ways. The main response was to ignore it.

Historically, the State Department approached religion in three ways. The main response was to ignore it. The second response to religion, initially foisted on them by Congress, was through the lens of International Religious Freedom, which now has a 20-year vexed history. The third response was through the rubric of Countering Violent Extremism, which proved to be a highly problematic approach to Muslim communities and countries. Carving out a new role was going to be politically dicey.

The second dynamic I encountered was how to build a staff with a coherent mission and the requisite skills to bring a more sophisticated approach than the existing ones. Here, I looked for people with graduate training in religion or a cognate field who were able to interpret religion in context, in geopolitical terms, but also in terms of the political implications of lived religion, an understanding of current U.S. foreign policy, and experience in living or working around the world such that we could plausibly interact with the six regional bureaus of the department. And all of these hires had to have a security clearance! I couldn’t wait the average nine months to a year to hire staff without such a clearance and wait for them to get it.

We created a three-fold mission: one, to advise the secretary of state when religion cut across his portfolio, which meant we were constantly monitoring his priorities and aligning ours with his. Second, we wanted to equip embassies, posts, and bureaus to engage religious actors and assess religious dynamics with more sophistication. And third, we would be the portal through which any external actors or stakeholders could inquire about what the State Department was doing in their interest areas.

To perform this mission, we organized ourselves into a number of teams. First, we consolidated three small existing offices from across the department to create synergies.1 We then established a team of six regional advisers, each of whom related to a respective regional bureau with the mission of persuading these bureaus that we could help them be successful in their strategic goals by expanding their capacities to engage religious actors and assess religious dynamics in their regions. This is where we won the hearts and minds of the most skeptical careerists in the State Department: by proving the validity of our concept.

We also established a public diplomacy team, which was charged with telling our story, building a deep domestic and global network of interested parties, and promoting U.S. foreign policy globally. We modeled a form of innovative engagement that became a case study highlighted by the Bureau of Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs as a model of success.

What we could not become was an office that comported itself as the smartest people in the State Department on all things related to religion. We could have settled for just talking to our next-door colleagues, the Office of Policy Planning, the internal think tank for the secretary. As one slightly cynical State Department veteran put it, “You can try to change the one world one memo at a time.” But this would surely have been a short trip to rejection by the department and would have led to oblivion for our mission.

The last aspect of our office I want to mention was a set of office values we aspired to instill and model to help us be able to collaborate across the department and in our engagement with religious actors domestically and globally and, frankly, to be able to build an office of 30 or so highly motivated, overachieving individuals into a team. This list is not particularly profound, but I can assure you it was not typical State Department office culture. Here is our list:

Find joy in your work.
Continue learning.
Treat others with dignity.
Support a flexible workplace.
Do collaborative, creative work.
Drive out fear.

While we were a team of experts, no two individuals shared the same skill set or knowledge base. We had to be collaborators who could work well with career government employees, tap wide knowledge networks, and be at ease moving across thousands of very diverse religious actors all around the globe. And I should add that dealing with countless religious actors required that we modeled a stance of openness, hospitality, and humility in an institutional space that has not always been known for such virtues. Culture mattered in our office, given our subject matter and our status as the new kids on the block.

What does my State Department story about religious literacy mean for the work of those in local government? Let me list five key lessons here:

  1. Senior leadership support is crucial.
  2. The definition of your mission has to be concrete in order to convince or woo doubters.
  3. Collaboration across government offices is key. Show how you help others succeed.
  4. Religion is so complex you have to be a permanent learning organization.
  5. Understanding your political and geographical context is also essential.

The second area of innovation I want to describe is how the U.S. government collaborated with nongovernmental organizations to resettle tens of thousands of refugees every year in the country. I have to confess that before I came to the State Department, I did not know that it paid for the first 90 to 120 days of a refugee’s life in the United States. In the midst of the expanding refugee crisis, fueled in large part by Iraqi and Syrian refugees fleeing ISIS, we began to monitor the crisis. In so doing, we learned that the State Department provided this funding for refugees through engaging nine implanting partners, six of which were religiously affiliated. I spent several months from December 2015 through the middle of 2016 visiting six refugee resettlement centers in Jersey City, Baltimore, Dallas, Phoenix, Des Moines, and Chicago.2

To my mind, [refugee resettlement] is one of the best, yet woefully under-told, good news stories about effective public-private partnership.

This system of refugee resettlement relies on an array of local networks to make the process possible—religious leaders and communities, nongovernmental organizations, social service providers, schools, police departments, municipal government leaders, and individual volunteers. To my mind, it is one of the best, yet woefully under-told, good news stories about effective public-private partnership. As many of you probably know, across the globe, more than 21 million people have fled their homes and crossed international borders as refugees, searching for safety. This does not take into account the 40-plus million more who have been internally displaced in their home countries. Quite simply, we are facing the largest refugee and forcibly displaced person crisis in human history. Some advocates note that if you count “people on the move” broadly defined, between 200 and 300 million people are in transit today.

In late September 2015, President Obama signaled the U.S. government’s commitment to addressing this issue by hosting, in New York, the Leaders’ Summit on Refugees to secure new commitments from 52 countries and organizations to increase humanitarian funding, admitting more refugees through resettlement or other pathways, and increasing the ability of refugees to access education and lawful employment. To model the spirit of this commitment to help the world’s most vulnerable people, President Obama signed a presidential determination authorizing the admission of up to 110,000 refugees in fiscal year 2017. Soon after that announcement, we met our goal for fiscal year 2016 of welcoming 85,000 of the world’s most vulnerable people from all different regions of the world.

Over the course of my travel, I had the opportunity to meet with approximately 100 refugees and hear their stories, to learn of the incredible work of the local resettlement offices, and to provide support to local religious communities and others who are so integral to the success of arriving refugees. In Jersey City, I met 20 refugees from seven different countries. I was dispirited by the end of our hour together. Hearing their stories of incredible hardship in their home countries, how difficult it was to live in UN refugee camps, the dissonance they experienced while moving to the United States, looking for affordable housing, finding entry-level work, struggling to learn English, my reaction clearly showed on my face. At the very end, a Syrian woman, with her husband and ebullient two-and-a-half-year-old daughter, looked at me and said, “Don’t worry, Dr. Casey, we all know we will be in a better place in a year.” Likewise, I met a man in Dallas who told me, on his fourth day in the U.S., after spending 17 years in an Ethiopian UN refugee camp, “I love Dallas and I love America, because for the first time in my life I can work with my hands and support my family.” I was ashamed of my privilege and the ease with which I live my life.

What was so heartening to see was the outpouring of welcome and assistance for refugees at the local community level. Phoenix was no exception to this. In one recent fiscal year, Arizona welcomed over 4,000 refugees from almost 50 countries around the world. It is local communities—NGOs, local resettlement offices, religious communities, schools, volunteers, and others—that have devised innovative programs and support to help refugees. In Phoenix, organizations like Refugee Focus offer sewing classes as a part of its empowerment program for refugee women. The organization cooperates with Downtown Phoenix Partnership to collect vinyl conference banners, which the women reuse and sew into bags that are sold at local conventions. This gives me hope.

Despite the ugly anti-refugee rhetoric that persists in the U.S. media and political discourse, community members are still offering support for refugees.

In Des Moines, I saw innovation by the resettlement professionals who started a pro bono registry for mental health professionals to offer trauma counseling, because they were seeing unprecedented levels of trauma, especially among Iraqi and Syrian refugees. In Des Moines, they also started an incubator farm primarily for Burmese farmers to introduce their indigenous agricultural products to American markets. Despite the ugly anti-refugee rhetoric that persists in the U.S. media and political discourse, community members are still offering support for refugees. This will become even more necessary in the year ahead, if the United States continues to welcome refugees from all over the world.

In the six refugee resettlement centers themselves, I saw an incredible range of innovation, including the following.

  1. Former refugees were serving as employees. The fact that they had successfully navigated the bizarre UN and U.S. government process gave new refugees hope that they, too, could come to flourish in the strange new cultures they found themselves in.
  2. Diaspora groups played a huge role in helping refugees become American citizens. At every center, a dazzling array of diaspora groups helped refugees to navigate professional certification, find jobs, find affordable housing, and help children adapt to American public education opportunities.
  3. The centers all possessed incredible linguistic skills. The nine national implementing partners selected specific families and individuals based on their centers’ capacities to engage the refugees culturally, religiously, and in their native languages.
  4. The centers multiplied the paltry U.S. government funding they receive with dollars they had raised themselves. The centers realized there were often massive gaps in the government- sponsored resources available to the refugees, and they took it upon themselves to cover the fiscal gap.

Among local governments, I saw a wide range of innovation regarding refugees:

  1. School districts developed refugee-specific welcoming practices that required them to hire multilingual teachers, to develop faculty development plans with local colleges and universities that were previously unavailable, and to hire administrators who had been refugees themselves. The Des Moines public schools hired an assistant superintendent in charge of refugee student service and curriculum. The district partnered with Drake University to provide a master’s program for young public school teachers to gain formal education to advance on the career certification ladder and also to acquire the linguistic and cultural knowledge, including religion, that would enable them to be more effective in the classroom.
  2. Mayoral offices set up refugee welcome departments, offered city government–issued identification cards, and formed national networks of mayors to share best practices around refugee resettlement. One of the most prominent of these networks has been set up by the New York City Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs.3 One of my staffers at State, an HDS graduate, informed me of Boston’s Office of New Bostonians, renamed the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Advancement, and its innovative cross-government resources that are being made available to immigrant and religious communities (compare this with “Countering Violent Extremism” as a welcome slogan!).
  3. Police Departments hired police officer liaisons to new refugee communities to serve as conduits between refugee communities and police departments. In the face of growing unrest in many urban areas, police departments—like the one I saw in Des Moines—appointed police officers as official liaisons to refugee communities (as well as to other communities) to build communication links between the police and the increasingly diverse communities they serve. As one such officer told me, “When bullets and/or fists begin to fly, it’s hard to build relationships and trust.”

My basic conclusion was that for refugee resettlement to succeed, it required a “whole of society approach.” I also saw new forms of interreligious cooperation.

My basic conclusion was that for refugee resettlement to succeed, it required a “whole of society approach.” I also saw new forms of interreligious cooperation that I had never seen before at the local level. Mosques, Buddhist temples, and other forms of religious worship have grown and expanded, and existing Christian churches, synagogues, and mosques have joined community-level efforts to welcome new Americans. Local religious ecosystems are changing in light of the newest waves of refugees, and new forms of civic life have emerged and evolved. There is much to do, and much to study about what is happening at the local level.4

As a result of my survey trip, our office was able to collaborate with two State Department bureaus to offer a grant to several of the religiously affiliated refugee resettlement agencies to gather best practices and to provide training to religious agencies in several European countries to bring these successful practices into their own refugee resettlement work.5 Perhaps the most important factor in this broad refugee resettlement partnership was the insistence of the Bureau of Population, Migration, and Refugees on regularly convening their grantees to survey what was working in the refugee space, and what was not. This constant drive toward innovation led them to build deep relationships with religious actors.

In conclusion, let me say a word about the increasingly difficult national political environment. I am not going to make a detailed political statement here. I am trying to show that as a result of new or impending federal policies, such as the possible deportation of DACA registrants, the reduction of annual refugee admissions to the United States by over half, the attendant funding cuts to the nine implementing partners I mentioned earlier, and the Muslim ban that bars travel from several majority Muslim countries, local government work is going to be harder. To the extent the current administration cares about religion, it entails rewarding conservative Protestants and attacking Muslims. Full stop.

For the foreseeable future, innovation at the intersection of religion and government will come not at the federal level, but at the local level.

In the face of these policy changes, and others, cities are now increasingly in the foreign-policy business. Mayors and city councilors cannot say, “We’ll take that up next year in Congress.” For the foreseeable future, innovation at the intersection of religion and government will come not at the federal level, but at the local level. In any era of instability and uncertainty there will be anxiety, fear, and backlash. But there is also opportunity for innovation that can be spread across the whole country. And that is one arena where institutions of higher education that study and teach religion can partner with those in local governments to take up the hard work of democracy together.

 

 

Notes:

  1. These three offices were the Special Representative to Muslim Communities, the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism, and the Special Envoy to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation.
  2. I visited all of these centers with an eye toward how the partnerships were working, and to discern lessons to be learned about the best practices happening at the intersection of religion and government service provision.
  3. I attended their meeting in September of this year and was amazed at both the recognition of the eroding national support for this work, and at how the immediacy of need in this area led to the important work of sharing insights and lessons learned.
  4. One area for deeper study is to analyze how the relocation of now hundreds of thousands of refugees across almost 200 locations in the U.S. has spurred not only xenophobic responses, but also cooperation.
  5. The two State Department bureaus are the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs and the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration.
 

Shaun Casey is director of the Berkley Center and a professor of the practice in Georgetown’s Walsh School of Foreign Service. He is the author of The Making of a Catholic President: Kennedy vs. Nixon 1960 (Oxford University Press, 2009), and he is currently writing a book on ethics and international politics tentatively titled “Niebuhr’s Children.”

Please follow our Commentary Guidelines when engaging in discussion on this site.

Hindu Worlds of Art and Culture

A selected reading list from Diana L. Eck’s course
 

Book cover for An Introduction to Hinduism

An Introduction to Hinduism
Gavin Flood (Cambridge University Press, 1996).
This thematic and historical introduction traces the development of Hindu traditions from ancient origins and major deities to the modern world, with emphasis placed on tantric traditions, Hindu ritual, and Dravidian influences.
 

Book cover for India: A Sacred Geography

India: A Sacred Geography
Diana L. Eck (Random House, 2012).
Eck’s exploration of the sacred places of India takes the reader on a journey through the beliefs and history of this rich and profound place, while providing a basic introduction to Hindu religious ideas and their significance for our understanding of the modern sense of “India” as a nation.
 

Book cover for Darsan

Darsan: Seeing the Divine Image in India
Diana L. Eck (rev. ed.; Columbia University Press, 1998).
The role of the visual is essential to Hindu tradition and culture, but many attempts to understand India’s divine images have been laden with misperceptions. Darsan, a Sanskrit word that means “seeing,” is a book of ideas to help us read, think, and look at Hindu images with appreciation and imagination.
 

Book cover for The Hindu Temple

The Hindu Temple: An Introduction to Its Meaning and Forms
George Michell (University of Chicago Press, 1977).
This introduction to the cultural, religious, and architectural significance of the Hindu temple employs a profusion of photographs, building plans, and drawings of architectural details.
 

Book cover for Myths and Symbols

Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization
Heinrich Zimmer (ed. Joseph Campbell; Princeton University Press, 2017).
First published in 1946, this landmark work analyzes key motifs found in legend, myth, and folklore. It provides a comprehensive introduction to visual thinking and picture reading in Indian art and thought.
 

Book cover for Hindu Goddesses

Hindu Goddesses: Visions of the Divine Feminine in the Hindu Religious Tradition
David Kinsley (University of California Press, 1988).
Kinsley’s sourcebook explores the rich history of Hindu goddess worship and provides a survey of the major goddesses by presenting individual portraits of each goddess’s appearances, roles, and significance within Hinduism.
 

Book cover for Classical Hindu Mythology

Classical Hindu Mythology: A Reader in the Sanskrit Puranas
Cornelia Dimmitt and J. A. B. van Buitenen, eds. and trans. (Temple University Press, 1978).
This anthology of primary sources from the Puranas features myths of creation, stories of the great gods and goddesses, and tales of rivers and cities, heroes, demon, and sages.
 

Book cover for The Love Song of the Dark Lord

The Love Song of the Dark Lord
Barbara Stoler Miller, ed. and trans. (20th anniv. ed.; Columbia University Press, 1997).
Jayadeva’s dramatic lyrical poem Gitagovinda, a source of religious inspiration in both medieval and contemporary Vaishnavism, is accessible in this renowned translation. The poem is an important part of Indian devotional literature.
 

Book cover for the Ramayana

The Ramayana
William Buck (35th anniv. ed.; University of California Press, 2012).
This retelling of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, two Sanskrit verse epics, written some 2,000 years ago, is here made accessible to the modern reader without compromising the spirit and lyricism of the originals.
 

Book cover for Many Ramayanas

Many Ramayanas: The Diversity of a Narrative Tradition in South Asia
Paula Richman, ed. (University of California Press, 1991).
The multivocal nature of the Ramayana is evident in this volume of collected essays, which covers diverse retellings of the story of the exiled prince Rama, who rescues his abducted wife by battling the demon king who has imprisoned her.
 

Please follow our Commentary Guidelines when engaging in discussion on this site.

Let Us Create

Natalie Cherie Campbell

The desire to create is one of the deepest yearnings of the human soul. No matter our talents, education, backgrounds, or abilities, we each have an inherent wish to create something that did not exist before.
—Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

What do you think of when you hear the word creative? I think of being artsy and original. When you hear the word creative, do you think of yourself? For a long time I didn’t.

Looking back, it amazes me that I didn’t. I was 4 years old when I started learning the piano and was very musical in other ways growing up. I wrote songs as a blossoming tween—though, let me tell you, creativity is not bound by quality (those songs were sooo dramatic, they fairly ooze!). For years, I thought music was my one and only “big” talent, which meant it didn’t really count. Being creative meant more than just having one talent, it was . . . a way of being, something I couldn’t be. I thought I couldn’t draw or dance because those were my sister’s talents, and she was the creative one, as though creativity was a zero-sum game and only certain talents counted.

But one day in college, I decided that I was a creative person. It was such a simple paradigm shift. I just decided to count. I could draw and dance if I wanted to. It didn’t matter that my cartoons and watercolors were all imitations. It didn’t matter that I wasn’t choreographing the dances I was learning in my classes. I have a few pictures I’m proud of, and I made it onto a folk-dance team. Every time I finished a cartoon or watercolor painting, I’d go find my husband and flaunt my work, like a kid presenting my masterpiece. Every time I’d dance, I felt connected to myself, the other dancers, God, and the cultures of the world. Dancing was being ecstatically alive.

Still, no matter how creative I have become, there is always something I’m sure I cannot do. Right now, it’s cooking. When I was 14, it was crocheting. My grandma tried to teach me, but my fingers were uncoordinated, and I bungled up the edges and made squares into lopsided triangles, wondering how in the world it got to be that way. So I gave up. Years later, I found her crochet hook and ball of yarn buried in my boxes and decided that I’d try again. I now make blankets, stuffed animals, and hats, whatever catches my fancy. I’m currently making a Cthulhu stuffed animal for a friend’s baby, a friend my husband met through a Dungeons and Dragons group. It looks so cool!

Last year, I made a white blanket, headband, and pair of booties for the blessing day of my older sister’s soon-to-be-born baby. But her baby, Stephanie, was stillborn. Instead, she and her husband dressed Stephanie in the little white dress my sister had sewn and in the booties and headband I had crocheted, and they buried her, swaddled in my white, ruffled, crocheted blanket with its interwoven purple ribbon—my sister’s favorite color. I never got to see Stephanie or to touch her, and I couldn’t comfort my sister at the funeral, but with Stephanie wrapped in the work of my hands, I know that they both felt my love. I had no idea that a passing fancy could become so meaningful. I also made my sister and her husband a scrapbook of the few pictures they had had taken of them with Stephanie. I started scrapbooking during my senior year of high school because I’m deeply nostalgic and hate change. This proved to be another fancy I was grateful for, because my sister and her husband needed the comfort of feeling close to Stephanie, and they needed it fast.

It’s not just that I’ve decided I can be “a creative person.” I’ve chosen to make creativity my mission—to move through this world leaving a trail of beauty. Creativity is foundational to my religious beliefs. It helps me to “find a path to peace, hope, and joy—even during times of trial and distress,” as was so beautifully articulated by Dieter F. Uchtdorf, one of the apostles of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. As he expressed it at the October 2008 LDS General Conference:

Creation brings deep satisfaction and fulfillment. We develop ourselves and others when we take unorganized matter into our hands and mold it into something of beauty. . . .

You might say, “I’m not the creative type. When I sing, I’m always half a tone above or below the note. I cannot draw a line without a ruler. And the only practical use for my homemade bread is as a paperweight or as a doorstop.”

If that is how you feel, think again, and remember that you are spirit [children] of the most creative Being in the universe. Isn’t it remarkable to think that your very spirits are fashioned by an endlessly creative and eternally compassionate God? Think about it—your spirit body is a masterpiece, created with a beauty, function, and capacity beyond imagination.

But to what end were we created? We were created with the express purpose and potential of experiencing a fullness of joy.1

The LDS Church created a video to highlight these words. When I saw it for the first time, I knew that my creativity was a heritage and a vocation that I needed to nurture and pass on.

So I am here, trying to make my mark on the world as a creative nonfiction writer and to fulfill my sense of this vocation by speaking, soul to soul, with the written word. Yes, I am a “creative” person, and that fact is stitched into the deepest parts of my identity because I view it as vocation. It’s true that my modes of creativity, although eclectic, are of a traditional brand, giving me an “in” to the creative category. But you don’t need a list of qualifying creative strains to be creative. It doesn’t matter what you can or cannot do, or what is traditionally categorized as “creativity.” You are creative. You count.

We must expand what counts. As Uchtdorf put it: “The bounds of creativity extend far beyond the limits of a canvas or a sheet of paper and do not require a brush, a pen, or the keys of a piano. Creation means bringing into existence something that did not exist before. . . .” For example, we students at Harvard Divinity School preach; we synthesize ideas and present new interpretations of concepts through our research. We care about expanding our abilities or we wouldn’t be here. We are creative because we care—about people, life, compassion, beauty, justice, forward thinking, and changing the world. These are all pursuits of purpose and beauty. These pursuits require creativity—we all must create a space, a community, a world that can support our creative vision.

Uchtdorf preached: “Don’t let fear of failure discourage you. Don’t let the voice of critics paralyze you—whether that voice comes from the outside or the inside.” We must not let perfect be the enemy of good, as the saying goes. To that end, he gave the following advice:

If you still feel incapable of creating, start small. Try to see how many smiles you can create, write a letter of appreciation, learn a new skill, identify a space and beautify it. . . .

The more you trust and rely upon the Spirit, the greater your capacity to create. That is your opportunity in this life and your destiny in the life to come. . . . As you take the normal opportunities of your daily life and create something of beauty and helpfulness, you improve not only the world around you but also the world within you.

Uchtdorf inspires us to use “normal opportunities” to create in our “daily life,” adding “helpfulness” to beauty as a manifestation of creativity. He teaches us to believe that what we create can transform not only our external and internal spaces but our relationships and our communities. Such an understanding of creativity allows us to be creative in accessible, meaningful, powerful ways. Therein lies the potential for a crochet stitch to become transformative.

My blessing to us all is that our understanding may ever increase, our vocations always burn bright, and our creative horizons continually broaden so that we can discover creativity within ourselves and make beautiful the world.

 

Notes:

  1. Dieter F. Uchtdorf, “Happiness, Your Heritage,” talk at the October 2008 General Conference of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, www.lds.org/general-conference/2008/10?lang=eng. All quotations here are from this presentation.
 

Natalie Cherie Campbell, MTS ’18, studied religion and literature at Harvard Divinity School. She has worked as an editor and writer for various publications, including the Ensign and the Liahona of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. She was the student editorial assistant in HDS’s Office of Communications for 2016–17 and 2017–18.

Please follow our Commentary Guidelines when engaging in discussion on this site.

See also: Opinion

Listen First

Emily Click

I am an ordained Christian minister (UCC), and so one might say I am in the forgiveness business. I would therefore like to explain why I think it is time to hit the “pause” button on a leap toward forgiveness, or on wringing hands over whether, in light of recent disclosures of wrongdoing by prominent men, our response has gone too far.

One might think we ministers would preach that judging a sinner should not be the last word: lives can be set right. Service need not end, simply because harm has been done. Instead, proper and detailed steps of repentance, confession, and forgiveness may allow those who have made mistakes to continue caring for others, serving and striving to do better. This focus on forgiveness is fundamentally sound Christian theology.

So why am I recommending we pause before we orient ourselves to this core teaching of Christianity?

Much of the worry over whether the pendulum has swung too far focuses on what some regard as a tremendous cost paid by those who are exposed for having “sinned” or done wrong. Matt Lauer loses his spot on the Today show, Charlie Rose’s illustrious career screeches to a halt, and another leader is forced to step down from running a sports team.

We worry that they pay a cost disproportionate to the harm they have done, or intended to do. We ask: Is someone who has built a career rightly cast aside when he is exposed as having wrongly pursued someone out of romantic or sexual interest? Is the correct price the end of a career? What if the wrong was very real but definitely unintended? How can we reckon with pricing the harm done?

Some are asking whether we, as a society, might be overreacting by ending the careers of man after man (and the occasional woman) exposed as having, at some point in his life, treated someone harmfully. What if he only did so verbally? Where is the “line” of unacceptable behavior, really?

This argument runs the risk of perpetuating an old harm done, not just by victimizers, but also by the “rest of us.” What we as a society have failed to do, and need now to repent, is to count the price victims have paid. Too rarely do we ask the attendant questions: What cost has this harm created for the person who was harmed? What invisible scars do we ignore, and then ask victims to bear in silence? What careers have been ended by intimidation, by a workplace territory pockmarked by risky bosses, by leering colleagues, by prices to be paid for professional favors?

In order to pay attention to the harms suffered, we might also ask ourselves: Are we willing to listen? What kinds of violation are such that we do not want to hear the details? What is the cost to society when we intentionally fail to fully understand the nature of what these women have gone through? What happens when we silence an entire group of people—in this case, most often women or trans individuals? What price can we place on asking some people to carry lasting damage in silence? How does it sound to them when we wring our hands over the price being paid by their victimizers? What harm is done, not just by the wrongdoers but by the rest of us, when we turn away? How has this exacted a price from individuals, and then also from society? How many women’s rents went unpaid because the aftereffects of their abuse left them unable to get out of bed to earn a living?

I understand the call to right and proper forgiveness. I would ask, however, that we wait to make such a call. Instead, it is a time for listening. It is time for us, as a collective society of men, women, and folks of all gender identities, to be quiet and to listen to those just finding their voices. What they have to say is shocking and embarrassing.

I have read every detail of each woman’s testimony. I have not wanted to read the descriptions of grotesque interactions. But I am grateful that, finally, these words are being written: far too often it is the intent of victimizers, by doing unspeakable acts, to make it impossible for their victims to fully testify to their pain. When we listen, what we hear is that their brutality exceeds our understanding of how humans relate. If we experience discomfort reading the specifics, well then, maybe we are beginning to understand what it means to bear one another’s burdens.

What we learn when we listen is that too often we, as a society, confuse sexual desire with romantic connection. We watch movies that conflate sex and romance, and we have ignored the way that the movies make beautiful actresses act out our confusion. We fail to see sexual actions as also enhancing the wrongdoer’s power. The power differential is far beyond a mere imbalance: it is like a treacherous cliff that endangers anyone who approaches it for scrutiny. Until we fully understand what has been routinely suffered, we cannot begin to count properly what price their victimizers ought to pay.

When we do come to examine the price being paid in lost careers, damaged reputations, and broken families, I suspect we may discover the price paid by victimizers is still steeply discounted rather than set too high. I suspect that we understate the cost victimizers should bear, not so that we may offer forgiveness and a way toward reconciliation and restoration; instead, that discount exempts us all from hearing what we do not want to hear. A cheaper price for victimizers allows us to stop noticing those walking in pain alongside us. When we close our eyes to the pain of trans folk beaten to death or to women smiling in spite of profound violation, we exempt ourselves from realizing just how that power imbalance happens to serve our own needs quite well.

While abusers must do acts of contrition, confession, and restoration of justice, the work is not theirs alone to do. The “rest of us” (Christianity proclaims us all in need of forgiveness) must set an entirely new course.

The time of silencing those bearing unspeakable pain is past. Restoration of justice is too important to leave to those just now realizing the harm they have done. This is work for all of us to do. We need to stop trying to fix it quickly, and instead we need to see this as a time for listening.

Forgiveness needs to come, but it must come only after we listen, for a long, long time.

 

Emily Click is assistant dean for ministry studies and field education at Harvard Divinity School and a lecturer on ministry. Her scholarship has focused on new ways of conceptualizing connections among adult education theory, human development theory, and education for religious leadership.

Please follow our Commentary Guidelines when engaging in discussion on this site.

Making Belief in the Singapore Army

Theophilus Kwek

"Best not to forget the dead,” says Sheng, “since they don’t ever forget us.”

Heads bob around the table as steam rises from our bowls of prawn noodles. But Hui is doubtful. “Even here, in the camp?”

“Yes, even here.”

It’s slightly past noon, and in the sprawling base where I have been posted for two years of mandatory National Service, lunch is served to nearly a thousand troops with industrial efficiency. This morning has been slow, indistinguishable from others except for being the eve of the Seventh Month, when—in a handful of diasporic Chinese traditions, including ours—the doors of the dead are flung wide open. We’ve all heard the stories: fruit offerings, left in quiet corridors, neatly peeled and eaten during the night; a sweet scent or haze announcing a long-awaited relative.

The men aren’t taking any chances. They swap notes over how to pray (and to whom, and where) so as to appease the itinerant ghosts, and as we leave the cookhouse, conversation turns to recent bereavements in our families (or who might be expecting a visit from whom). Later, though, my suspicions are confirmed. Several tell me privately that they wouldn’t have spoken as openly with classmates, partners, or, for some, close family members. Far easier, they say, to discuss such matters within the fenced, unassuming ambit of the camp—among colleagues and friends—even if more visible trappings of religion hold sway in the world outside.

Just before the annual monsoon makes landfall, joss fires are kept burning in metal urns to last through the Ghost Festival, leaving a film of ash across the country. Despite the pointedly secularist position of her government (part of a long-standing commitment to official multiculturalism), Singapore’s meteoric transformation into a glittering “Intelligent Island” has been accompanied by a popular rediscovery of faith, from the spread of Pentecostal Christianity among the middle class, to the proliferation of Buddhist and Islamic youth associations and house gatherings. Yet, personal beliefs still sit awkwardly alongside the global city’s other imperatives: academic excellence, economic progress, and, above all, an unyielding drive for a modern, technocratic image that conveys first-world status.

♦♦♦

I notice them on my evening walks around the camp: makeshift altars in light containers, some no bigger than a shoebox. Closed on three sides, they contain low shelves on which the statues of various deities are arranged, while their ridged awnings provide shelter from birds and tropical rain. Some are stand-alone fixtures, partially hidden by low foliage; others are nailed to walls and pillars at shoulder-height, with figurines gaily painted to catch the eye. There’s one behind the main cookhouse and another by a training shed, a stone’s throw from the block’s designated smoking corner.

The camp buildings themselves, though hardly spartan, contrast with these festive aberrations. It doesn’t take much—discolorations in the concrete floor, a broom left nearby for clearing the ashes—to demarcate zones of reverence with subtle precision: where one should stand to pay respects, or leave offerings on paper plates. Such ritual spaces, unremarkable and passed through by those in a hurry, carve out pockets of otherworldly significance in the life-and-death reality of the camp, places where the regular rhythms of discipline and hierarchy do not easily apply. For the devout, they are exceptions within the camp’s exception, suspending one imposed order in favor of another.

Other uncommon spaces make the camp a diverse geography. Crucifixes dangle from unshowy chains pinned to office walls, while nondescript rooms are set aside for our Muslim colleagues’ Friday prayers. Not infrequently, multiple traditions claim the same niche. One altar houses the portly figure of Tua Pek Kong, venerated as the head of the Southeast Asian folk pantheon, with statues of Guan Yin (shared by Taoist and Mahayana Buddhist devotees) and the Hindu goddess Kali on either side. In the late hours, Cantonese-speaking chefs come here to pray alongside the Tamil-speaking construction staff, each tending to their own gods. The camp, one could say, is a broad church.

Following the tumult of the Second World War, anthropologists like Victor Turner developed pathbreaking ways to understand how ritual might help to structure (and restructure) our societies and lives. Since then, scholarly attention has turned toward investigating ritual geographies, spaces drawn into and patterned by our practices of reverence or foreboding. Tracing the camp’s perimeter, my route transects the seen and unseen thresholds of those who worship here, as well as the invisible histories of this site—it was a residential area before the camp was built—that remain hidden in its slopes and hollows.

But the ritual geography of the camp is also manifest in a more immediate sense. For its conscript inhabitants, its squares and walkways are overlaid by the cadences of patrol and punishment. Under close supervision, a liturgy of memorized orders and marching songs takes precedence. Formulaic compliments enshrine the camp’s hierarchy of command, and a roster of servicemen keep a nightly vigil. Such rituals carefully structure disparate lives around the battalion’s demands and ensure the success and safety of its short-term missions, all of which are underwritten by a grand narrative of national security.

How are we to read the two sets of ritual spaces against each other? Are the footholds of faith littered across the camp at once transcendent and incongruous? Should we read them as attempts to reinscribe meaning within an oppressive landscape, or merely as cracks in the military’s totalizing mythos, through which the servicemen’s inner and communal lives may be glimpsed—if only momentarily? By the time I head back toward the barracks, the camp is already cloaked in dusk: except, that is, for the laser-red points of lit joss-sticks winking under their aluminum roofs, sending a warm, slow pulse into the restless dark.

♦♦♦

“We will always bear true faith . . .”

On the first morning of every recruit’s National Service, he (only males are subject to conscription) is ushered into an air-conditioned hall in one of Singapore’s offshore training facilities and made to recite the pledge of the Singapore Armed Forces while parents, siblings, and girlfriends look on. Right palm raised—voice shaking ever so slightly—he swears loyalty to the republic and its president, promises to defend the constitution, and seals it with the ultimate wager: “with our lives”!

Over the following weeks, the intensity of belief in these words fades, as it must, into the texture of other rituals. We are taught to waterproof our belongings, smear camouflage paint several millimeters thick across our faces, and, when called upon, shoot to kill. In its lavish public relations efforts, from free-to-air soap operas to ubiquitous advertising campaigns, the army self-consciously portrays the two years spent within the organization less as a costly sacrifice (though no one quite denies that) than as a rite of passage, marking one’s transition into manhood.

Bound up in the hardheaded calculations of defending an increasingly open, and hence ever-more-insecure city, are several modern myths, easily glossed over in the rush to justify higher defense budgets and extensive conscription protocols. Narratives of perennial threat and resource scarcity, repeated so often in the public media as to become familiar, resonate with prophecies of timely salvation from terrorist plots or with parables of endemic class and race divides vanishing among the rank and file. Even in Singapore, where levels of bureaucratic trust are unusually high, nothing less than true faith in the army’s necessity is required to keep the system well oiled and the men content.

The veracity of these myths is, to me, less interesting than how those whose paths now cross daily with mine—fellow servicemen, civilian staff, migrant laborers, army regulars—must choose to live within their contours. From this perspective of choice, the re-articulation of belief against the camp’s barren backdrop might all too easily be parsed as a collective reassertion of our individual lives, lives whose trajectories have been enlisted to a singular purpose. Spaces set aside for worship give voice to another hunger, a search, perhaps, for more than personal and national survival.

Yet, to parse faith as a choice would be to miss the point entirely. Whether they have been convinced by tradition, epiphany, or “merely” the accumulation of small sureties, all true believers must surrender the notion that they have chosen one truth over another. Faith, after all, requires that the inescapable exists beyond ourselves—and may only be submitted to, not opted for. Why believe otherwise, in either the gods of hearth or nation? We do not remember the dead; it is they who remember us. And so the fires must be kept, the altars replenished every morning.

♦♦♦

A postscript.

One evening, my walk takes me to where I can look out over the surrounding forest to the wide river beyond. A man is kneeling on the grassy rise; from where he is, the barbed-wire boundary seems to disappear. I stand and watch as he briefly raises, then lowers his arms.

I close my eyes, as I know his are.

For a spell, it almost seems like there is nothing else in the camp that matters, no one to share in the evening’s calm expanse.

No one, of course, but him and his God.

 

Theophilus Kwek is the author of five collections of poetry, most recently The First Five Storms, a winner of the 2015/16 New Poets Prize awarded by The Poetry Business. Having recently completed an MSc in refugee and forced migration studies at Oxford University, he is now based in Singapore as a writer and researcher. He serves as co-editor of Oxford Poetry.

Please follow our Commentary Guidelines when engaging in discussion on this site.

See also: Opinion

Multiple Lenses, Essential Gestures

by Wendy McDowell

I spent my summers during college working as a counselor and cabin head at the Rotary Sunshine Camp in Rush, New York. The camp served children of all ages who had various developmental disabilities, hereditary and genetic conditions, and sensory impairments. I found many joys in this work, but one unexpected perk was getting to see the world through different lenses.

The work itself required different ways of being and moving—you had to slow down (and stoop down, to lift children in and out of wheelchairs), to lean in and listen closely, and to communicate in new, creative ways. All the counselors learned at least rudimentary sign language, and we used nonverbal gestures with many kids, as if we were in a never-ending game of charades.

One session, I spent long stretches of each day flat against the cabin floor, trying to coax Scott—a 7-year-old boy with Down syndrome—out from under the bed. He would scamper and hide there at every chance (not out of fear, but mischief!). Our little prankster would snicker and point his finger at us as we went through all kinds of machinations to get him out.

Falling in love with these kids, I couldn’t help but start seeing the world through their eyes, to imagine what it was like to watch mouths move without sound or navigate a gravel path in a wheelchair, to wonder how it feels to have limbs that fly out on their own accord or lungs that gum up with mucus each day.

This didn’t lead me to a “count my blessings” moment, but to a gestalt shift in which “having a disability” felt like the norm.

The world inside camp proved itself to be a healthier, more authentic environment than the sphere of the so-called able-bodied, which came to appear rather delusional to me.1 As my colleague Faye Bodley-Dangelo notes, “If we’re honest with ourselves, most of us are only temporarily abled.”2

When I read Jonathan L. Walton’s “Seeing with God’s Eyes,” I immediately thought back to that camp and those children. The “dominant theme throughout the Bible,” Walton writes, is that “God sides with those on the underside of power.” This is why biblical narratives are replete with people who are physically or socially “disabled” (the blind, the lame, the hungry, widows, strangers, fishermen). Rather than read these as metaphorical conditions, perhaps we should seek out and sit with the “strangers” of today.3

It strikes me that most of the articles in this issue involve putting on new lenses so that we might make different gestures.

Several authors use a historical lens. Melissa Borja gleans lessons from past responses to refugees entering the U.S., while Diane L. Moore urges us to face the “devastating pillars” of our nation’s history. Curtis J. Evans and Kristin Kobes Du Mez explore how limited narratives about evangelical history sidestep important issues. Seth Perry points to the “co-constitution of factors” at play in the racialized history of Mormonism.4 And a Q&A with Dan McKanan illuminates different historical strands of environmentalism.

Shaun Casey and others engage a pragmatic lens focused on the here and now to ask: Where is innovative work being done in our communities? How can we share power and collaborate with new partners?

Others look through lenses of art and ritual. Seven poets meditate on their favorite hymns, unearthing deep memories and faith. Ahmed Ragab turns his eye to the literary futures Muslims imagine, given paranoid, postcolonial timeplays. Theophilus Kwek sees a Singapore Army camp through its ritual geography, and Christopher Montoya views the U.S.-Mexico border as a contested space.

Many use the lens of the moral imagination to address suffering. Alexandra Nichipor investigates how having the BRCA mutation shakes up women’s religious views. Emily Click asks us to consider the price paid by sexual assault survivors. Terry Tempest Williams challenges us to “stay with the troubles” rather than to “avert our eyes” from the violence done to other species and our Earth.

Williams employs multiple lenses within her essay.5 Biology. Theology. Geology. Politics. History. Myth. Memoir. She zooms in—a magnifying glass, zooms out—a bird’s-eye view. But always with her “Hands on the Earth.”

She asks here: “What is the essential gesture—gestures—for each of us? . . . Where is our grief? Where is our love?” To put on lenses of love is to have your world cracked gloriously open, but it is surely to grieve.

The last week at Rotary Sunshine Camp was for children with muscular dystrophy. Other kids in the earlier sessions had life-threatening conditions (sickle cell anemia, cystic fibrosis, juvenile diabetes), but this was the one week our entire camp was full of children who had an incurable, degenerative disease. Those of us who worked there for years witnessed each child’s gradual loss of mobility.6

One evening another counselor and I were on night duty, and we overheard the hushed conversation of two boys after lights out.

“You know those boys in Cayuga? How they’re in wheelchairs, and can’t move?” John said to Anthony, his bunk neighbor (Cayuga was the cabin for the oldest boys).

“Yeah?” Anthony replied.

“That’s going to be us in a few years.”

A pause. I could hear the steady breaths of other boys, fast asleep after a chock-full day.

Anthony’s answer was matter-of-fact: “I know.”

Then John, the kindest boy in the cabin, said, “And after that, we’re going to die.”

Anthony didn’t respond for a while. I had the sense he was holding the weight of these words in his hands, as if they were a precious bag of marbles passed to him by his friend.

Finally he answered back: “Are you scared?”

John thought a moment and said, “Sometimes. Are you?”

“Yeah. When I think about it.”

There was silence for a good long while after this, until John whispered, “I’m tired” and Anthony said, “Me, too.” Soon their breaths joined the other sleepers.

Neither boy burst into tears or said it was unfair. An early death was a fact of their lives, and they had in each other a companion who fully understood that fact.

May I be so lucky as to know a love like that, I thought.

 

Notes:

  1. Unlike at the church camp I went to as a kid, there was little to no bullying in this camp.
  2. Faye has served as the managing editor of Harvard Theological Review since 2015, and she came on board as the Bulletin’s managing editor in January 2018—a welcome addition!
  3. The more we do this, the more we might find ourselves “identifying our neighbor in the unlikeliest of places” (Walton again).
  4. Racism and white supremacy are lenses, too, of course—but the kind that blocks vision and endorses hate.
  5. Terry models a multiplicity of voices and vantage points in everything she writes—this is part of why she is such a beloved “citizen writer.”
  6. Boys with Duchenne muscular dystrophy go from walking tiptoed, to needing braces, to pushing themselves in wheelchairs, to the last stage in which most of their muscle tissue is gone. At this point, they need to be in automatic wheelchairs, and many experience life-threatening breathing and heart difficulties.
 

Wendy McDowell is editor-in-chief of the Bulletin

Please follow our Commentary Guidelines when engaging in discussion on this site.

See also: Editor's Note

Not All Rosy: Religion and Refugee Resettlement in the U.S.

Resettling refugees has always evinced both tension and generosity.

Melissa Borja
 

Refugees from Saigon, South Vietnam, boarding a US carrier

South Vietnamese refugees arrive on a U.S. Navy vessel during Operation Frequent Wind, 1975.

 

This is an edited version of remarks delivered at the “Symposium on Religious Literacy and Government: Refugee and Immigration Issues,” sponsored by the Religious Literacy and the Professions Initiative, held at Harvard Divinity School on December 7–8, 2017. Additional articles from the symposium are found under the "Who are 'We'?" section of this issue.

In the past three years, one of the largest refugee crises in human history has unfolded, and along with it has come an outburst of anti-refugee hostility. In the United States, where political leaders have associated refugees with terrorism, opposition to refugees is widespread and at times vicious, as shown in the October 2017 events in Shelbyville, Tennessee. There, the anti-refugee and anti-Muslim activism in Shelbyville provoked its own backlash and drew a strong rebuke from Americans who take pride in the idea that the United States is a refuge for the persecuted and a haven for people of all religions. History offers an important corrective to that rosy exceptionalist narrative, though. The truth is that refugee resettlement has always been contentious in the United States, and the anti-refugee hostility on display in Shelbyville is hardly a new development. Even at times when public and private responses to refugees have been the most generous, American refugee care has always been complicated and controversial, especially on matters of religious and racial difference.

A look to the past—specifically, to Southeast Asian refugee resettlement four decades ago—offers useful insights into current debates about refugee resettlement and religious life today. Amid the fallout of the Vietnam War, the United States undertook an expansive, decades-long effort to resettle over one million refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. These refugees marked a turning point in the history of American refugee care. Along with the Ugandan Asian refugees who arrived two years before them, Southeast Asian refugees were nonwhite, non-European, and predominantly non-Christian, and they introduced a new religious pluralism to the American system of refugee care. Historically, the private voluntary agencies that perform most of the on-the-ground labor of refugee care have been Christian organizations that, until the 1970s, resettled people of their own faith tradition. Southeast Asian refugees forced these agencies to recalibrate their policies and practices and adapt to a new multireligious clientele. The challenges that faced Americans then resonate with the challenges that face us today, and we can learn valuable lessons from that past resettlement effort.

Lesson #1: Anti-refugee sentiment is long-standing and common.

In 1975, The New York Times covered refugee resettlement efforts in a small Florida town where 1,500 Vietnamese refugees had been placed. The town was named Niceville, but the welcome that residents gave to Southeast Asian newcomers was not especially nice. According to one local radio poll, 80 percent of the town’s residents said that they did not want any more Southeast Asian refugees resettled in their town. Residents cited a number of reasons for their opposition. They expressed concern that refugees would bring diseases and “Communist infiltration.” There were also economic anxieties. “We got enough of our own problems to take care of,” declared one resident, at which point another resident agreed and added: “They don’t even have enough money to take care of Social Security now—and they want to bring in more people.” The article made clear that Niceville residents were not only concerned about the arrival of Vietnamese refugees but were downright hostile to them, exemplified in efforts of local high school students to organize a “gook klux klan.”1

1975 New York Times article
1975 New York Times article.

The targets of this antagonism were Vietnamese refugees, not Somali Muslim refugees, but the common themes are clear. The residents of Niceville expressed similar concerns to those of the residents of Shelbyville—in particular, economic competition, national security, and cultural and religious difference—and also revealed an unabashed racism. Moreover, this hostility is consistent with other responses to refugee resettlement projects in American history. Public opinion polls indicate that Americans have almost always been opposed to refugees, and they might even be more supportive now than during past waves. For example, in May 1975, one national public opinion poll from Gallup found that only 36 percent of Americans said that the United States should resettle Vietnamese refugees; 54 percent said it should not.2 Public opinion about Jewish refugees is similar: in January 1939, only 30 percent said that the United States should resettle Jewish refugees; 61 percent said it should not. Public opinion about Syrian refugees is roughly the same: in October 2016, only 41 percent of registered American voters said that the United States should accept Syrian refugees, while 54 percent said it should not. In all cases, a majority of Americans said we should not accept refugees; only about one-third said we should.3

Anti-refugee sentiment appeared to diminish when people in host communities had a clearer understanding of the circumstances that brought refugees to the United States. For example, when Americans knew that Hmong refugees were in the United States because of their partnership with the U.S. military in the fight against communism, or when Americans had a better understanding of the experiences of trauma that refugees had experienced, they were more welcoming.

However, this hostility also became more powerful when directed against religious and ethno-racial minorities, who are seen as particularly threatening and non-American. The hostility against Muslim Somali refugees is in many ways particular to the era of the War on Terror, but it also has much in common with how race and religion intersected in the treatment of Jewish and Southeast Asian refugees during the twentieth century.

Lesson #2: If religion was a source of tension, it was also a source of generosity. Refugee resettlement has long been a public-private, church-state endeavor, and religious institutions have been central to the administrative apparatus of American refugee care. 

Scholars of American political development have observed that the United States frequently delegates work to private institutions. Refugee resettlement is an example of this style of “public-private governance.” However, refugee resettlement is unique in that those private institutions are predominantly religious institutions.

Religious institutions have been central to refugee resettlement since before the Second World War. Religious voluntary agencies, church-affiliated charities, and congregations have worked with the government to support refugee relief and resettlement at all levels—internationally, nationally, at the state level, and locally. They have not only aided refugees in the immediate period after resettlement, but they have also been critical to facilitating refugees’ long-term integration, years after their initial arrival.

The government’s reliance on religious institutions has myriad advantages. For one, this system offers social and cultural benefits. Congregations that sponsor refugees and run outreach ministries can offer a network of caring support for refugees. As is clear in the events at Shelbyville, religious groups can also serve as a bridge between refugee and non-refugee communities and help to broker more peaceful relations when tensions arise.

The involvement of religious organizations also allows the government to expand capacity, provide resettlement and relief to a greater number of refugees, and reduce the public cost of refugee resettlement. In 1975, Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Minneapolis found that it cost $5,601 to resettle one Vietnamese refugee family, a cost that eclipsed the $500 per capita grant offered by the federal government.4 This imbalance continues into the present. Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS) conducted a study in 2008 that found that the State Department funded only 39 percent of the actual cost of resettling a refugee, while private giving covered the remaining 61 percent.5 This study revived the long-standing concern that the government consistently underfunds the refugee program and shifts most of the cost unfairly to private (especially religious) groups. Whether or not the current system is fair, the point is still clear: American refugee care runs on the labor and resources of religious groups.

Lesson #3: Delegating work to religious institutions comes at a cost.

Importantly, voluntary agencies like LIRS and congregations like Bethlehem Lutheran are not simply another type of private institution on which the government relies. They are first and foremost religious institutions, with overlapping but nevertheless distinct goals from government. And while these religious institutions have offered undeniable assets—for example, well-established networks of eager volunteers—they have also introduced some important complications.

One issue is that religious organizations are operating in a changing context. Historically, religious voluntary agencies resettled members of their own religious or national community: Catholics resettled fellow Catholics, for example, and Lutherans resettled fellow Lutherans. However, beginning in the 1970s, the predominantly Christian voluntary agencies that had contracts with the federal government to do refugee resettlement began to serve new religious groups—at first, a small group of Ugandan Asian refugees, who were Muslim and Hindu, and then later, a huge wave of refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, who were Catholic, Buddhist, animist, and ancestor worshipping. Christian voluntary agencies and churches have adapted to these new circumstances in different ways, to varying degrees. However, they have not always been effective or consistent in their efforts to resettle refugees in accordance with their own stated commitment to accommodate religious difference.

Indeed, questions of religious freedom and religious pluralism in the American system of church-state refugee care remain crucial and, unfortunately, relatively understudied. In general, much of the conversation about government collaboration with faith-based organizations tends to focus on the religious freedom of service providers and the question of whether or not the rights of Christians are imperiled. What has received less attention is the religious freedom of service recipients and, in particular, service recipients who are religious minorities. What do these arrangements look like from the vantage point of non-Christian refugees? Do they see their freedom compromised?

A look at past efforts to resettle Southeast Asian refugees offers insight into these important questions. In general, Christian agencies and churches that resettled Southeast Asian refugees sincerely strived to serve refugees in a way that respected religious difference. There were some genuine efforts to accommodate religious difference. All of the voluntary agencies, for example, created elaborate guides offering recommendations for church sponsors about how to understand and respect the religions of the refugees. Catholic and Lutheran voluntary agencies even made efforts to help Buddhist refugees find monks and temples, out of the belief that supporting refugees in practicing their religious traditions was essential to the long-term success of the resettlement process.

However, accountability was difficult to ensure, given the complex structure of refugee care. Resettlement involved a variety of public and private institutions, connected in a long chain of delegation. In this system, there was a big gap between the professionalized voluntary agency employees who practiced refugee care in a largely secular way and local church volunteers who viewed refugee care as a religious ministry that did not have anything to do with government. It was often these local church volunteers who had the most interaction with refugees. At the same time, these volunteers were not always the most experienced, skilled, or knowledgeable about how to practice pluralism in a meaningful way. Refugee resettlement was sometimes a church volunteer’s first chance to have a close relationship with a non-Christian person.

In these circumstances, church volunteers sometimes made unfortunate missteps. When church groups resettled Ugandan Asian refugees, for example, a strictly vegetarian Brahmin man was given work in a poultry processing plant, which produced psychological and emotional strain. Church volunteers brought Muslim refugees to the mosque—but did so on Sundays, rather than Fridays. While church volunteers by all accounts had good intentions, they struggled to accommodate refugees’ religious differences, in part because they lacked reliable information about the groups that they were aiding. For example, one of the most widely circulated resettlement manuals that voluntary agencies gave to church sponsors drew heavily from a dissertation written by a 1950s Christian missionary, who portrayed indigenous Hmong religion as primitive demon-worship.

Finally, on occasion, church volunteers considered refugee care to be an opportunity to evangelize. Because many of them were already engaged in international affairs and humanitarian work, missionaries were often the people who were most interested in getting involved in refugee care. But along with enthusiasm and global experience, they also brought clearly missionary purposes. In the context of these missionary goals and also the dependent relationship of refugee sponsorship, refugees sometimes reported frustrating experiences of religious pressure. Hmong refugees shared stories of how church sponsors would show up at their door on Sunday and bring them to church, sometimes against their will.

Lesson #4: Delegating work to religious groups raises big issues that are rooted in a very basic question: What is religion?

First, there is the matter of what is religious in public-private refugee work. In trying to ensure that refugees do not experience religious coercion, voluntary agencies tried to manage the religiousness of refugee work and make a distinction between the nonreligious work of resettlement and the religious work of the church. Much depended on one’s interpretation, though. For example, some resettlement manuals encouraged sponsors to bring refugees to Sunday services, in order to allow refugees to develop a network of friends and to experience the hospitality of the church community. Voluntary agencies and church sponsors, therefore, did not consider bringing refugees to church to be an inappropriate religious activity because doing so had a nonreligious objective. However, many refugees did see being brought to worship services on Sunday as a religious act, and sometimes a coercive one. More fundamentally, the distinction between religious and nonreligious work was an artificial one that did not always make sense to church volunteers, many of whom approached refugee care as a ministry animated by deep religious conviction.

Second, there is the question of what gets to count as religion in the lives of refugees. Some aspects of religious life are not immediately legible as “religion,” especially when groups adhere to traditions that are not familiar and recognizable to Christian service providers. Somali refugees who are Muslims have a religion that church sponsors immediately recognize as a legitimate, rightful religion, but others, like the Yazidi people or the Hmong people do not. What about those refugees? How can people respect refugees’ religions if they do not see refugees’ beliefs and practices as “religion” in the first place? There are important consequences of forcing refugees to engage with Americans through a common universal category that is called “religion”—a category that is rooted in the Christian West and that refugees might not necessarily use to describe themselves, at least until they arrive in the United States.

In 1976, Congress passed a law that prohibited the U.S. Census from asking Americans to identify their religion. However, that same year, the United States was directly asking Southeast Asian refugees to identify their religion when they applied for resettlement. This question was a tricky one for Hmong refugees to answer. The government form had check boxes, and they could select only one of several options: Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, animist, or ancestor worshippers. The truth is that Hmong people could select multiple categories. They could not even fill out the form properly because the assumptions embedded in the form completely lacked literacy of the religious lives of Hmong people. For a short period of time, the government did away with the check-box question and allowed a free response, and Hmong people simply answered the religious identification question with two words: “Hmong religion.”

When the United States resettles refugees, people in both government and religious institutions need to ask themselves: Are we forcing refugees into boxes that do not make sense? Are we understanding refugees on their terms, or ours? And to what degree do our flawed assumptions and our misapprehensions of other people undermine our shared objectives of integration, inclusion, and freedom?

 

Notes:

  1. James T. Wooten, “The Vietnamese Are Corning and the Town of Niceville, Fla., Doesn't Like It,” The New York Times, May 1, 1975.
  2. Douglas E. Kneeland, “Wide Hostility Found to Vietnamese Influx,” New York Times, May 2, 1975. A June 1975 Harris poll found slightly more generous numbers—37 percent supported resettlement of Vietnamese refugees, while only 49 percent opposed. Another poll, August 1977, found the split at 31 percent-57 percent.
  3. Clare Boothe Luce, “Refugees and Guilt,” The New York Times, May 11, 1975; Ishaan Tharoor, “What Americans Thought of Jewish Refugees on the Eve of World War II,” The Washington Post, November 17, 2015; Jens Manuel Krogstad and Jynnah Radford, “Key Facts about Refugees to the U.S.,” Fact Tank, Pew Research Center, January 30, 2017.
  4. 94th Congress, 1st and 2nd Session on Legislative and Oversight Hearings Regarding Indochina Refugees, “Refugees from Indochina, Hearings Before the Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship, and International Law of the Committee on the Judiciary, House of Representatives,” 325–28. The fact that the actual cost of sponsoring refugees was much larger than the per capita grant was well-documented.
  5. LIRS, The Real Cost of Welcome: A Financial Analysis of Local Refugee Reception (Lutheran Immigrant and Refugee Service, 2011).

     

 

Melissa Borja is an assistant professor in the Department of American Culture at the University of Michigan. She is currently writing a book about the impact of U.S. refugee policies on Hmong religious life.

Please follow our Commentary Guidelines when engaging in discussion on this site.

Poets on Hymns: “Come, My Beloved, to Greet the Bride”

Yehoshua November

Opening lines of Lecha Dodi in Hebrew and English

 

Narrow arches and walkways opening to private gardens, white linens on rooftop clotheslines, ancient stone synagogues, the holy Wailing Wall itself. When I was 18, I spent a year in the Old City of Jerusalem. I had just broken up with a girlfriend and graduated from a public school in Pittsburgh, the former steel-mill city whose working-class population idolizes the Steelers and Penguins. Now, I found myself in an all-male yeshiva, my dorm room only several hundred yards from Judaism’s most sacred site. Though situated at the heart of my people’s history, I felt far away, geographically and spiritually.

To be sure, I had grown up in a traditional Jewish home. We observed the Sabbath and followed Jewish dietary laws. But it was a home that placed equal—if not more—emphasis on the arts and secular culture. As I write in one of my poems, the Marx Brothers’ movies served as background to family dinners, and Sam Cooke’s sensual voice would float up from my father’s Danish speakers when he returned home after a long day of seeing patients. My mother was a student of art history. Biographies of artists lined our shelves, and impressionist prints hung on the walls. On road trips, my father played Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, The Drifters, Roy Orbison, and Marty Robbins (my first exposure to poetry).

Indeed, I had spent most of my life in Jewish day schools. I had even completed close to a year of studies in a yeshiva in Rochester, New York—a far more zealous institution than the school in Jerusalem, where students didn’t dress solely in black and white and were encouraged to attend secular universities. Still, on the cusp of adulthood, in a distant environment devoted exclusively to Judaic studies, I felt more keenly a tension I had always felt: the pull between the here and now and the spiritual afterlife, which, as the rabbis of my youth had so often underscored, awaits those strong enough to jettison their worldly concerns and devote themselves to Torah study. That year, I learned a few pages of a Talmudic tractate on marriage but also found a small used book store in the Jewish Quarter where I purchased The Brothers Karamazov, Jude the Obscure, and Malamud’s The Fixer. I also wrote the sort of bad poetry only a perplexed 18-year-old can write and did not fail to notice the young women from London attending a seminary around the corner from our yeshiva.

Every Friday night, as the sun set over Jerusalem, arms over each others’ shoulders, the students at the yeshiva danced down the long set of stone steps that led to the Western Wall, where we would pray the service that welcomes in the Sabbath. Our enigmatic head rabbi—a stocky man with a high-pitched voice—criticized this ritual as too demonstrative, an attempt to get ourselves photographed by the many tourists who’d come to visit the holy site. Perhaps he was right, but I remember these moments as a point of light and clarity in a confusing time. And as I danced with my classmates—many of whom I secretly resented for their profuse praises of the yeshiva staff and their readiness to dive into the Torah’s waters—I sensed a kind of peace wash over me.

This mystical poem—especially when read according to Hasidic thought—complicates the theology that sees this physical life solely as a means to a later spiritual reward.

At the bottom of the steps we formed a circle and danced in front of the ancient wall whose cracks were crammed with desperate notes—scribbled prayers for healing, for an escape from poverty, for children, for finally finding the fated marriage partner. A classmate with a sweet voice would take his spot in the front of our group and begin to lead the Sabbath evening prayers. Soon, the sky overhead turned deep blue, and we sang the hymn that ushers in the Sabbath: “Come, My Beloved, to Greet the Bride. Let Us Welcome the Sabbath.” I didn’t know it at the time, but this mystical poem—especially when read according to Hasidic thought—complicates the theology that sees this physical life solely as a means to a later spiritual reward. As I hope to explain, the poem turns upside down a worldview that prizes the heavens over the divine possibilities of the everyday. And, for me at least, this reversal seems to run parallel to the tendency of many contemporary poets to locate transcendence and light not in the sublime moment but in the mundane.

Over the years, I’ve heard “Come, My Beloved, to Greet the Bride,” which likens the Sabbath to both a bride and a queen, put to many different tunes. (I even know of a rendition that uses Simon and Garfunkel’s “Scarborough Fair” as its melody.) The lyrics, however, were composed by a sixteenth-century Kabbalist and rabbi, Shlomo HaLevi Alkabetz, who lived in Safed, a city in Northern Israel where the great Kabbalists of that time converged. In acrostic fashion, the poet’s name, Shlomo HaLevi, Solomon the Levite, is woven into the first letters of the poem’s first eight stanzas. It’s said that many mystics in Safed composed Sabbath poems during this period, but only “Come, My Beloved” won the deep admiration of Rabbi Isaac Luria, the father of Lurianic Kabbalah and the leading Jewish mystic of Alkabetz’s era.

Each Friday evening, as the sun set, Luria and his students would go out to the Galilean Hills to read from the Psalms and welcome in the Sabbath. Tradition has it that these excursions inspired Alkabetz to compose “Come, My Beloved.” The poem became the seventh hymn the mystics recited during their services under the open sky, corresponding to the seventh day of the Jewish week, the Sabbath. (Luria and his colleagues preceded “Come, My Beloved” with the recitation of six chapters from the Psalms, each one corresponding to one of the six days of creation.) On Friday nights, many Jewish communities across the world continue to recite this seven-hymn formula initiated in sixteenth-century Safed. And Alkabetz’s poem remains one of the few prayers composed as late as it was in Jewish history to be included in Jewish prayer books across all denominations.

Our yeshiva’s effort to usher in the Sabbath with a heightened sense of ceremony clearly dates back to Alkabetz’s time. But key phrases in Alkabetz’s poem—as well as the mystics’ practice of going out to the hills to pray—owe something to the Talmudic sages who lived more than a thousand years prior to the Jewish mystics of the 1500s. The Talmud notes that each Friday evening, two rabbis, Rebbi Hanina and Rebbi Yanai, would don elegant robes as the sun set. Rebbi Hanina would say, “Come let us go and greet the Sabbath Queen.” Rabbi Yanai would proclaim, “Enter, O bride! Enter, O bride!” (Tractate Sabbath 119:A). Alkabetz borrows from Rabbi Hanina’s pronouncement in the poem’s refrain, which also serves as the poem’s first line. And Rabbi Yanai’s words appear in “Come, My Beloved’s” final stanza. Interestingly, as they recite this final verse, contemporary worshippers turn to the back of the synagogue, to the doorway, a gesture that signifies welcoming in the Sabbath presence and recalls the practice of exiting the synagogue to pray under the sky.

In a basic reading of the poem, the first two stanzas and the final one praise the Sabbath and call upon the reader and/or G-d to welcome the day with joy and eagerness. The middle stanzas articulate a longing for the end of the long Jewish exile (which began in 70 CE with the destruction of the Second Temple). In stanza three, Alkabetz addresses this theme directly: “Sanctuary of the King, royal city . . . / For too long have you dwelt in the valley of weeping” (lines 9–10).

When I completed my studies in Jerusalem, I returned to the United States to concentrate on poetry. Of all times and places, it was as an MFA student, married and back in Pittsburgh, that I first encountered the Hasidic mystical teachings, including those that focus on Alkabetz’s poem. In particular, I found myself drawn to the Hasidic claim—based in Midrash—that all of creation, including the loftiest heavens, was constructed because G-d desires a home in this lowest realm, in our mundane world. The Jewish mystics explain that the fulfillment of each divine command, or mitzvah, draws an infinite divine light down to this physical reality, refining and uplifting the material world. According to Hasidic thought, this process will culminate in the Messianic Era, when all of physical reality has been refined and can serve as a vessel to reveal the divine unity underlying creation—a home for G-d in the lower realm. The Sabbath, when the divinity behind the world’s curtain is less concealed, is said to be a foretaste of that era.

If in Jerusalem my pendulum swung toward poetry and the secular, in graduate school for poetry, it swung toward Hasidic philosophy. I became so enchanted by this mystical tradition that I enrolled in a Hasidic yeshiva as soon as I finished my MFA. I thought I was turning my back on poetry and academia (which appeared to leave little room for Hasidic life), that I would become a rabbi and perhaps give up on poetry entirely. Ultimately, it was the Hasidic texts themselves, along with the advice of a good mentor, that helped me see things in less dichotomous terms. They helped me to realize I could attempt to live as a Hasid and, at the same time, as a poet and writing professor at a university.

Similarly, seen through a mystical lens—especially that of Hasidic mysticism—Alkabetz’s poem appears to offer a theology that contrasts with the bifurcated notion of Judaism I had encountered, and felt alienated from, in my youth. It offers a world-embracing version of Jewish life and the universe, going so far as to take a mystical form of lovemaking (which, according to Hasidic thought, serves as the source of physical intimacy between husband and wife) as its central allusion. The poem celebrates the Sabbath as a sort of restful glorification of the divine energy responsible for finitude and physicality and suggests that this energy has something to offer the divine spheres associated with G-d’s infinity and transcendence (spheres synonymous with the afterlife I had been told to strive for as an endgame). In the poem’s refrain, Alkabetz enjoins the “Beloved” to engage with the “Bride.” The mystics note that the term “Beloved” derives from “Song of Songs,” where it connotes G-d’s masculine or infinite attribute: G-d as he transcends the world. In contrast, “Bride” refers to the Shechina, or G-d’s feminine posture, that energy invested in and responsible for perpetuation of the finite and the physical.

In a Hasidic discourse on Alkabetz’s poem, likely delivered shortly before the beginning of the nineteenth century, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the Alter Rebbe, explains that, on the Sabbath, G-d’s transcendent, masculine energy, the Beloved, lowers itself to lift up the feminine finite energy, the Bride, which is invested in creation throughout the week. Alkabetz alludes to this process in the first part of the poem’s refrain: “Come, My Beloved, to greet the Bride.” The Beloved then draws the Bride—along with all of creation—back to its source in the upper spiritual worlds, representing a kind of Sabbath or respite. (The Hebrew word for Sabbath actually derives from the Hebrew term for return—in this case the Shechina returns to the upper worlds, to its source.) The “Beloved” then spiritually inseminates the “Bride” with a new divine light. As a literal translation of the refrain continues, “The faces of the Sabbath let us welcome.” The Hebrew word for faces—pnai—is rooted in the word panimiyus, which means internal or within. Here, then, Alkabetz alludes to the mystical Bride’s absorption of the mystical Beloved’s spiritual “seed,” or divine light, a kind of internal Sabbath, a restoration of energies that ultimately leads to the “birth” of another week.

In Hasidic thought, the physical world…is the stage on which creation’s ultimate purpose plays out. The higher worlds serve as a sort of spiritual bridge down to physical reality.

However, as noted, in Hasidic thought, the physical world—associated with Shechina—is the stage on which creation’s ultimate purpose plays out. The higher worlds serve as a sort of spiritual bridge down to physical reality. As such, according to the Alter Rebbe, Alkabetz’s phrasing implies that the transcendent, masculine light—Beloved—also experiences a kind of Sabbath, a return to, and infusion from, its source, but only once it has infused the Shechina with new life. Hence the plural wording, “The faces of the Sabbath let us welcome.” On the Sabbath, the masculine, infinite energy (along with, and for the sake of, the Bride) enjoys its revivification. It, too, is lifted back to a higher place in the heavens and receives and internalizes a new divine flow of energy. The Alter Rebbe adds that, according to Alkabetz, it appears G-d’s infinite, masculine energy and G-d’s feminine, finite mode enjoy equal footing on the Sabbath, both greeting “the faces of Sabbath”—a return to a higher spiritual realm—together. Elsewhere, the Alter Rebbe explains that, in the Messianic Era, when physicality has been fully refined and spiritualized, the two energies will share equal standing throughout the week, and in the end, G-d’s feminine attribute—which plays a more central role in making the physical world a home for G-d—will prove superior.

As a poet and as a student of Hasidic thought, it has been illuminating to take note of the overlap between contemporary poetry and the Hasidic endeavor to sanctify the quotidian. Though contemporary poetry is generally seen as a secular enterprise, the impulse to elevate the mundane, to shine light on the ordinary, also appears to drive many contemporary poets. For some, it is poetry’s central ambition. (Just look at the lines of praise on the jacket of most volumes of contemporary poetry.) Alkabetz’s poem celebrates the Sabbath, a day when the ordinary, the finite, is not overlooked or degraded but lifted up and infused with transcendent light. It would seem that—albeit in a secular sense—many contemporary poets observe a kind of Sabbath, shining luminous light on our finite lives, directing our gaze not up toward the heavens but down toward the sacred possibilities of our earthly existence.

 

Yehoshua November teaches at Rutgers University and Touro College. He is the author of two collections of poems: Two Worlds Exist, a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award, and God’s Optimism, which won the Main Street Rag Poetry Book Award and was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. He lives with his family in Teaneck, New Jersey.

This is an edited versions of an essay from the forthcoming Stars Shall Bend Their Voices: Poets’ Favorite Hymns & Spiritual Songs, edited by Jeffrey L. Johnson, © 2018, due out in October. Used by Permission of Jeffrey L. Johnson and Orison Books. Additional articles from the book are found under the “Poets on Hymns” section of this issue.

Please follow our Commentary Guidelines when engaging in discussion on this site.

Poets on Hymns: “Great Is Thy Faithfulness”

Kwame Dawes

Opening lines of music for hymn
 

“Great is Thy Faithfulness” is a “classic” hymn in the sense that it is in the style of nineteenth-century hymns in its language and musical form. Until I decided to write this piece, I had never even thought for a moment about who wrote the song, where it came from, and what it might have meant to the person who composed it. I selected it because, when asked to pick songs for any important occasion in my life and in the life of my family, I have always picked this song.

This song does the work of laying out the character of devotion and submission to God. It presents the core argument of the faith, and it lends itself to repetition.

I have always picked it because it has consistently articulated my sense of gratitude for the things that have gone well in my life and in the lives of those that I love. It is fundamental and basic in its doctrine of salvation. If I claim to be a Christian, which I do, then this song does the work of laying out the character of devotion and submission to God. It presents the core argument of the faith, and it lends itself to repetition. It is a hopeful song. In the manner in which I remember it, the final verse is always joyful, especially when it moves toward the affirmation of the chorus. And musically, the chorus is perfectly memorable. Indeed, the way that it rises to its triumphant repetition, and the sweet spot of “thine hands have provided . . . ,” which begs for harmonies of rich depth and complexity, makes it hugely affirming and uplifting as great hymns should be. The “argument” of the song is basic. As an apologia, it presents the case for the claim that the chorus presents: “Great is thy faithfulness, Lord unto me.” Each verse is an argument, and the chorus affirms that argument. So, when the final verse declares, “blessings are mine with ten thousand besides!,” it makes sense to then fall into the almost militant and joyous declaration, “Great is thy faithfulness!” The waltz meter is elemental to this song’s character and its shape.

It is a curious thing to me that I did not select a song that has demonstrated a flexibility such that it has been allowed to be rendered in different musical styles that mean a great deal to me. There is no reggae version of the song that stands out to me, nor is there a highlife version of the song that sticks in my mind. Oh, I am sure that it has been rendered in many styles, but almost always, in Jamaica, the song is rendered in that deeply Victorian style, slow, steady, with the sense of the cathedral rising around it. And yet most of the times I have sung this song, it has been in small groups, impromptu gatherings, outdoors, and in the world of the Charismatic movement that raised me in Jamaica, decidedly anti-cathedral settings. In other words, I encountered that song during periods when the “hits” of worship were modern choruses, very contemporary and almost in defiance of the rituals of the established church. And yet, significantly, our leaders would somehow remember this gem, and in this new space, the song would assume great meaning because our ability to find in it the doctrinal and emotive familiarity of our faith proved to be central to its power and meaning. In a time when the great doctrine of the time among Charismatics was “what new thing is God doing?,” this old song would both unsettle us and move us for its age (and hence its unexpected freshness), its relevance, and its beauty.

“Great is Thy Faithfulness” is the song that is easily incorporated into all communal occasions, especially family occasions.

I chose this song because somewhere in our lives, my wife and I agreed that “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” is our hymn. There is a difference between what might be her hymn and what might be my hymn, and what proves to be our hymn. For instance, whenever I purchase a new pen, I almost always write the following words down: “When I survey the wondrous cross.” I wouldn’t call this a favorite, but I would call it a song of importance to me, for it spells out with explicit clarity and some skill the fundamental tenets of Christian salvation. But “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” is the song that is easily incorporated into all communal occasions, especially family occasions. Part of the ritual of the life that my wife and I have established as a family has been the affirmation of the various ways in which we have seen grace in the providence of our lives. We have had hard times, times of need and want, times where death lurked in the shadows, times when we did not know what lay in the future, times, in other words, when we felt out of control. As immigrants we have experienced that the massive sense of stepping blindly into the unknown has characterized who we are and what we do, and so the faithfulness of God has been something we have easily felt the need to express gratitude for.

This hymn works for so many occasions. When my father died suddenly and tragically, the question was what to offer as songs for his funeral. My father was a Marxist, and while he never claimed atheism as a dogma, I still remember him quipping, “The ancestors I know, but J. Christ esq., I do not know,” or something to that effect. But his children had all managed to reconcile their cultural socialism with a genuine and perhaps radical faith. My mother was a longstanding Catholic who had developed a more evangelical bent in time. And so we were fully aware that the funeral was both for him and for us. “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” made the list. It also made the list of songs for my wedding with Lorna, and Lorna and I have shared this song in any environment that has warranted the expression of who we are in the world in terms of our spiritual sense of the world and the grounding of our lives.

This song offers some of the key qualities for that curious combination of prayer and congregational affirmation. Theologians probably have a term for this, but in my mind, it is especially telling that some songs lend themselves entirely to almost closed prayer, while others speak in communal terms such that the “audience” for the song is the rest of the congregation. In this song, the audience is, first and foremost, God. The song addresses him. And the speaker is a singular speaker—it is the “I,” the “me.” Hence, the song makes sense to the evangelical mind—the mind that seeks to articulate an intimacy with the deity to whom one speaks. Yet the shared sentiments of the song, the shared awareness of what God’s faithfulness has ensured, is decidedly one of the critical ways in which the song becomes a communal one, one in which all the singers are at once affirming a deeply personal relationship with God and, at the same time, a communal affirmation of that relationship with those within earshot.

For a self-proclaimed roots man, a man who is acutely aware of the complexities of postcolonialism; and more than that, for a man whose embrace of Christianity was delayed for years because of the deep struggle I had intellectually and philosophically with the history of Christianity and its relationship with colonialism and slavery; and further, for a writer who has been explicit that reggae music’s capacity to engage what Kamau Brathwaite calls Nation Language, and to affirm an African sense of culture and identity, something does seem almost contradictory in this impulse toward a song that employs archaisms and a musical style and cadence that are decidedly Eurocentric.

The best I can offer is that those characterizations of self are as always limited and rarely reflect the contradictions and complications of our lives when the public self intersects with the deeply personal self. Further, there is little question that my movement to faith came about because of something that I could only call grace, which allowed me to discern in Christianity a series of beliefs and tenets that transcended (a word, by the way, that I use sparingly and with great caution) and, at the same time, that managed to accommodate the peculiarities of my distinctive existence, my discourse, my politics, my history, my fears, my anxieties, my education, and my sense of culture. At the heart of this transformation, this conversion, if you will, was a way of viewing faith that would later find language in a line by T. S. Eliot that I only really started to understand as being relevant to more than art in 1994, as I finished the last touches of my long epic poem, Prophets, which, arguably, could be read as the first serious effort to address my faith in the copious manner that I felt was needed at that point: “For us, there is only the trying, the rest is not our business” (“East Coker”).

“Great Is Thy Faithfulness” does not, I can say, have the kind of impact on my sense of the world that, say, Bob Marley’s “Give Thanks and Praises” has whenever I hear it. But I would never say that one is more important to me than the other. “Give Thanks and Praises” roots itself in the spirit of thanksgiving, of gratitude, and of appreciation.

And because Marley offers this song in a music that I feel owns me as much as I can claim to own it, I am constantly affirmed by what it does to my body, my mind, and my spirit. Yet, when I sing the final verse of “Great Is Thy Faithfulness,” I do find rolling through my mind a litany of the reasons for gratitude—some even deeply secretive—that I carry within me everyday, and so I can weep as I sing this verse:

Pardon for sin and a peace that endureth,
Thy own dear presence to cheer and to guide;
Strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow,
Blessings are mine, with ten thousand besides! . . .

When I discovered the actual history of this hymn, I realized it does not lend itself to being an automatic preference of mine.

I could easily have started this reflection with the statement, “I do not have a favorite hymn.” This would be true. But as I think of hymns that have meaning and value to me, I find that I am drawn to this great hymn. When I discovered the actual history of this hymn, I realized it does not lend itself to being an automatic preference of mine. The author, Thomas Obadiah Chisolm, was a rural southerner from Kentucky who lived through the period of Reconstruction and the difficult years that followed into Jim Crow America. He wrote this song in 1923 when he was in his mid-50s. It became popular immediately. Curiously, the language and style of the song are archaic and very nineteenth century, even though he wrote it well into the twentieth century. But what he actually wrote was a poem—one of the many he wrote during his lifetime. He certainly was not a modernist poet. William Runyan, a New Yorker who grew up and lived in Kansas, set the poem to music, and these two Methodists would produce a song that, quite frankly, they have become best known for.

Given the sketchy history I have at this point of these two men, I have decided against going any deeper. I fear discovering things that would make it harder for me to focus almost exclusively on the song in the manner that suspends the intellect and elevates the emotive. In other words, I don’t want to spoil the song for myself. I would be hard-pressed to describe this song and lyric as an example of great literary or musical achievement. While I am not qualified to make such a pronouncement on the musical achievement, I can say that, as a poem, it is at best competent and occasionally hackneyed. But it makes a case beautifully, in the way that the best sermons and speeches can make wonderful and moving cases. There is an art to this. What I can say is that, at the end of the day, the song manages to remain important to me because I have come to associate it with key moments of my life, and during those moments, the song has had the pure clarity and meaningfulness for which I remain deeply grateful.

 

Kwame Dawes is Chancellor’s Professor of English and editor-in-chief of Prairie Schooner at the University of Nebraska. Born in Ghana, he spent his childhood and early adulthood in Jamaica. A prolific and celebrated writer of poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and plays, he also collaborates with musicians, filmmakers, and visual artists.

This is an edited versions of an essay from the forthcoming Stars Shall Bend Their Voices: Poets’ Favorite Hymns & Spiritual Songs, edited by Jeffrey L. Johnson, © 2018, due out in October. Used by Permission of Jeffrey L. Johnson and Orison Books. Additional articles from the book are found under the “Poets on Hymns” section of this issue.

Please follow our Commentary Guidelines when engaging in discussion on this site.

Poets on Hymns: “I Love to Tell the Story”

Kathleen Norris

First line of music for the hymn I Love to Tell the Story

When I was a child I thought my family went to church in order to sing, an easy assumption as my father was a choir director and I made my debut in a “cherub choir” at the age of four. Later, as I prepared for confirmation, I discovered that the catechism made less sense to me than the hymns I sang on Sunday morning. That’s where the poetry was, and theology in a form I could understand, that enticed me on an emotional level.

The hymns I cherish most are those that combine good theology with graceful verse. “Come Down, O Love Divine,” for example, with its submission to the workings of the spirit: “O let it freely burn, till earthly passions turn to dust and ashes in its heat consuming.” I feel a pang in admitting that “the yearning strong, for which the soul will long, shall far outpass the power of human telling.” As “human telling” is what I do, those words can be painful, but they also heal, tempering my pride.

I once used a hymn to help heal my husband. Raised a Catholic before Vatican II, he had a strained relationship with the Christian faith. He knew Reform theology—he’d read more Calvin than I had—but wasn’t familiar with Protestant hymns. When I was preparing a worship service for a Presbyterian church in western South Dakota, where I would be preaching, I chose a hymn, “Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise,” with him in mind. I’m not sure my poet husband heard a word of my sermon, but after church he raved about that hymn. He recognized it as a perfect poem, by Coleridge’s definition, “the best words in the best order,” with its evocation of God as “Unresting, unhasting, and silent as light.”

As a Benedictine oblate called to daily remind myself that I am going to die, I treasure this hymn’s realism: “We blossom and flourish like leaves on the tree, then wither and perish, but naught changeth thee.” This verse holds more meaning for me as I’ve grown older and so many of my loved ones, including my husband, have died. The hymn ends on a mystical note about our limitations in comprehending the divine: “All laud we would render, O help us to see, ’tis only the splendor of light hideth thee.”

I find that the best hymns are like scripture in that their words strike my heart when I most need them. If I’m experiencing spiritual dryness, the honesty of “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing” is a balm. “Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it; prone to leave the Lord I love.” Oh, yes: preach it, brother. And when I was preparing a funeral service for my sister Rebecca, Isaac Watts’s magnificent version of Psalm 23, “My Shepherd Will Supply My Need,” came to mind. Brain-damaged at birth, my sister had an exceptionally difficult life, and the closing verse, with its promise of being “no more a stranger, nor a guest, but like a child at home,” seemed right.

I’d call “I Love to Tell the Story” my favorite hymn for two reasons: its simplicity, and the fact that “I love to tell the story” could be any writer’s mantra. The hymn is apparently too simple for the Episcopal hymnal, which is ironic, as its author, Katherine Hankey, was a member of the Clapham Sect, a nineteenth-century group of evangelical Anglicans devoted to ending slavery. My copy comes from a Presbyterian hymnal.

I appreciate the line, “those who know it best are hungering and thirsting to hear it like the rest” as a challenge. Any writer knows the value of repetition, but here it is deemed essential to a faith that can never be fully grasped or mastered. All we can do is listen to the story once again, and allow it to become fresh and new.

Even as a child I was attracted to this hymn’s insistence on the vast import of story: the idea that hearing and telling Bible stories involved me in something much larger than I could comprehend, that transcended time itself. And this makes the hymn’s last verse difficult for me to sing without weeping: “And when in scenes of glory, / I sing the new, new song, / t’will be the old, old story, / that I have loved so long.”

One of the miracles of people singing hymns together is that they can transform even a drab hotel conference room into a bit of heaven. This hymn asserts that heaven is indeed full of singing and encourages me to envision all the people I have loved being with me there and joining in. And we’ll discover that the new song we’re singing is the gospel in a nutshell, that “old, old story, of Jesus and his love.”
 

 

Kathleen Norris’s books of poems and essays take a wide view of Christian practice. Raised in Methodist and UCC churches, currently she is a member of a Presbyterian church in her mother’s hometown in South Dakota, a member of an Episcopal church in Honolulu, and an oblate of a Benedictine monastery in North Dakota.

This is an edited versions of an essay from the forthcoming Stars Shall Bend Their Voices: Poets’ Favorite Hymns & Spiritual Songs, edited by Jeffrey L. Johnson, © 2018, due out in October. Used by Permission of Jeffrey L. Johnson and Orison Books. Additional articles from the book are found under the “Poets on Hymns” section of this issue.

Please follow our Commentary Guidelines when engaging in discussion on this site.

Poets on Hymns: “Jesus Is All the World to Me”

Patricia Jabbeh Wesley

Opening lines of music for hymn
 

War has its own music. It rises out of the explosion of bombed buildings and missile attacks, in the bombardment of early morning gun battles between warring factions, in the ominous sounds of crumbling cities, and in the shrill cries of the dying or soon to be executed. Such horror makes every organ in us tremble, that senselessness of human cruelty which is as inexplicable as an insane language. For me, a poet, this horror turned me even more to hymns, to songs and poetry, and especially to the old, solemnly powerful hymns my Mamma sang in our home when I was a child. In the ugliness of the Liberian Civil War, the starvation, desperation, and constant fear of being killed, I rediscovered the power of the old hymns. Everything else had failed us, so I needed to help my family find that old place of peace.

One day in May 1990, as war engulfed our country, I pulled one of our old family hymnals off a bookshelf and began to leaf through it. The news on the BBC radio was clear. Tens of thousands of rebels led by Liberian warlord Charles Taylor were drawing closer to Monrovia, our capital. They were fighting a guerrilla-styled war against Liberian government troops. Samuel K. Doe, the president of Liberia, was losing the battle every day. His army, therefore, turned on us civilians and, like the rebels, were also killing thousands of civilians throughout the country and across Monrovia and its suburbs.

The invading rebel army called itself the “National Patriotic Front of Liberia,” or NPFL, but we civilians called them “rebels.” They also nicknamed themselves “Freedom Fighters,” but we knew that they were guerrillas, looters, killers, and rapists. The news of the bloodbath and the devastation of our cities and villages on their way to Monrovia defined them and their rebel warfare for us.

Charles Taylor and his forces invaded Liberia from a northern border town in Nimba County on Christmas Eve, 1989. By May 1990, they’d already captured most of the country in their mission to remove the Liberian government, and they were moving fast toward the capital city where we lived. They’d leveled many cities and villages, and now foreign governments, including the United States, were evacuating their citizens from Liberia. There are no words to describe the desperation of a nation preparing to be overrun by such a powerful and unruly rebel army as the NPFL. Nor are there words to describe the aloneness we felt as the world suddenly abandoned us. In that same month of May, Charles Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia suffered a breakup and split into two warring factions, becoming the NPFL and the Independent National Patriotic Front of Liberia, or INPFL. The original NPFL was now at war to remove the Liberian president, Samuel K. Doe, and his government, even as they were locked in a fierce war against their breakaway group, the INPFL. The new rebel group, INPFL, led by Taylor’s former fellow co-commander, Prince Y. Johnson, was also caught up in a similar fight on two fronts, against Taylor and Doe.

All of this news was so overwhelming that I started writing poetry with a new dedication, writing about the encroaching war. But not even poetry could comfort me at this time. I felt that our family needed something else to hang on to. We were devout Christians who held family devotions every morning and evening, teaching our children the values of Christ. Therefore, it was not difficult to think of needing a theme song or a hymn for our family. I thought we needed a song we could hide in our hearts if we were forced to flee the city.

The hymn would become my favorite during the war. Singing it in the privacy of my bedroom one day as the war drew closer, I knew that this was the hymn for my family.

I sat on our terrazzo-tiled living-room floor that day and found Will Thompson’s “Jesus Is All the World to Me.” The hymn would become my favorite during the war. Singing it in the privacy of my bedroom one day as the war drew closer, I knew that this was the hymn for my family. I used to know the power of such old hymns as a little girl growing up in my mother’s church during the 1960s. Even as a little girl, I was drawn to them, as I was to poetry. Maybe I loved them because Mamma sang them out loud throughout the house when she was down. Maybe I loved them because they were my first contact with poetry. I had memorized many of them as a child, held them in my heart, and believed in their power. This was the old place of peace, I thought, where I needed to take my family. This would be our healing.

When the war began, on December 24, 1989, I was a young wife and mother of three small children, living with my family in Congo Town, a suburb of Monrovia. My husband, Mlen-Too, and I were on the faculty at the University of Liberia while volunteering to mentor and minister to university students throughout Liberia. As the war drew closer, we began looking for the tools we needed to help our family survive the carnage we knew was coming. We began making all those kinds of plans people who have never seen war think they can make. Our experience as Christian leaders in the community was important if we were to survive, we thought. By early June 1990, the rebels were only about thirty miles east of Monrovia, but much closer to our home.

What does one do when one’s country is being overrun by two powerful and unruly rebel groups at war with a disorganized government army? What does one do when one cannot go to work, go to the bank, or take her children to school? What does one do when “all other ground is sinking sand,” as fighters on all sides burn down villages and cities, killing tens of thousands, raping women and young girls, turning small boys into child soldiers, and bombing everything in their path? By mid-June, we were surrounded, on the land, at sea, and in the air, in one of the world’s most brutal civil wars. Troops loyal to Liberian President Samuel K. Doe fought hard, but they were fast losing the war. Already, tens of thousands of Liberians were dead. How would we survive the carnage? How could we survive? What would we take with us if we had to run and what would we leave behind? Would we take our hymnals, our Bibles, our books, our clothes, food, or would we be forced to run with only the clothes on our backs?

After I decided on “Jesus Is all the World to Me,” I quickly memorized all of the verses and gave the hymnal to my husband to do the same. Then, we helped our small children learn the words by singing the hymn in our daily morning and evening devotions. The children, Besie-Nyesuah, 7 years old then, Mlen-Too II or MT, 4, and my brother, Wyne, who lived with us, 12 years old, also needed to learn the song. Our third child, Gee, a boy, was only 8 months old, so, he only looked on as we sang the hymn over and over, along with other songs we also needed to memorize.

At first, the three children were slow to learn it, but soon they could sing one or two of the verses without looking in the hymnal. In addition to preparing our immediate family, we also needed to help my aging mother and her two teenage boys understand what we were doing. They had moved in with us due to the fighting. This was difficult, but soon Mamma was singing along. “Jesus Is All the World to Me” was not among her favorites, nor was she familiar with it. She was a Pentecostal, whose old-time favorites were songs like “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” “When We All Get to Heaven,” and “There’s Power in the Blood.”

There is something powerful in a hymn that confirms our hopes and belief in the God who is not only our Lord in a time of peace, but also in a time of war.

The words of the hymn took on new meaning for me as my family and I journeyed through the war. There is something powerful in a hymn that confirms our hopes and belief in the God who is not only our Lord in a time of peace, but also in a time of war. I examined the words of this great hymn like a poet examines the lines of her own poem before publication. I explored the words as they became one of my weapons on our painful journey. I studied the words as though they were the gospel that I needed to carry me through the long military roadblocks, the horrors of walking through the jungle with my family as we fled our home on August 1, 1990, through the intimidation from the rebels and government soldiers, on our long walk into Charles Taylor’s rebel stronghold to flee the fighting that would break out in our neighborhood a week after our flight. I was the custodian of what I knew as our hymn so my family would stay strong.

“Jesus Is all the world to me / My life, my joy, my all / He is my strength from day to day / Without Him I would fall. / When I am sad, to Him I go, / No other one can cheer me so; / When I am sad, He makes me glad, / He’s my Friend,” we sang. If Jesus was all the world to me, and if he was my life, my joy, my all, then it did not matter whether I survived the war or not, whether my family survived or not, whether we starved to death or not, I told myself daily. But it was also important to know that, because Jesus was all the world to me and because he was my friend in this time of tremendous pain, he would keep my family safe. He would be our strength, our hope, our fortress, the one and only one who knew us in our deepest pain and in our greatest joy. I took every word and every line and every verse to heart and claimed it as I did many other hymns. If my world was falling apart, if my world was devastated, as it now was in 1990 and 1991, through the violence, as we were tortured and as we faced death every day, then there was nothing to worry about as long as “Jesus was all the world to me.”

The power of a hymn, whether one is a poet or not, is rooted in faith and in the belief that we have a God, the creator of the universe who gave his all for us on the cross. This hymn explores that faith. As a Christian, my faith in the Bible’s validity and in the truth that Christ brings helps me believe in the power of the words of that hymn. When Will Thompson wrote, “I trust Him now, I’ll trust Him when / Life’s fleeting days shall end,” I claim the words for myself. These words are more meaningful to me than the words of my own poems could ever be. Yes, I have written poetry that explores my painful war experiences, and many of my poems can bring an audience to tears when I read. But the words of a hymn carry more power than that. There is that sacredness in the words of a hymn that is more powerful than the words of a poem. Words like “Jesus is all the world to me, / My Friend in trials sore; / I go to Him for blessings, and / He gives them o’er and o’er” are based on the Bible, and we Christians believe in the holiness of the Bible. It is that faith in both the hymn and the Bible of the hymn that sustained my family and me through the Liberian Civil War. That faith gave us hope that there is a great God, the overcomer, who makes all wars cease, the one that the songwriter of the hymn proclaims, the God who gives grace to the desolate refugee of war. Jesus is all the world to me.

 

Patricia Jabbeh Wesley is an associate professor of English at Penn State Altoona. A Liberian Civil War survivor, she is the author of five books of poetry, including When the Wanderers Come Home (University of Nebraska Press, 2016), Where the Road Turns (Autumn House Press, 2010), and The River Is Rising (Autumn House Press, 2007). She also authored a children’s book, In Monrovia, the River Visits the Sea (One Moore Books, 2012).

This is an edited versions of an essay from the forthcoming Stars Shall Bend Their Voices: Poets’ Favorite Hymns & Spiritual Songs, edited by Jeffrey L. Johnson, © 2018, due out in October. Used by Permission of Jeffrey L. Johnson and Orison Books. Additional articles from the book are found under the “Poets on Hymns” section of this issue.

Please follow our Commentary Guidelines when engaging in discussion on this site.

Poets on Hymns: “One Bread, One Body”

Kate Daniels
 

Music score for first lines of the hymn
 

I grew up in the authoritarian framework of the Southern Baptist Church, and when I was a girl, my understanding of the world depended upon a cooperating pair of dualities.

The Simplicities were teachers, charged with passing along a very simple, either-or set of rules. Do this. Don’t do that. They concretized themselves in God’s word, the Bible.

The Authorities were cops. Guard dog–like, they dominated every aspect of my life as a child and assumed physical reality in the adults who surrounded me in my family and my church. Their job was to enforce the rules.

You could say it was not a capacious theology, dominated, as it was, by a single subject: sin. Capital S. Capital I. Capital N. Past, present, and future sin. We were born in sin we could never slough off. We were constantly being caught in the act of sin. We were relentlessly reminded to refrain from sin. Church was a place where it was never possible to forget how narrow was the road to God’s grace, and how unlikely it was that a sinner such as I would be able to follow it to the ultimate reward. Even now, I can hear the syncopated rhythm that every Baptist preacher I ever listened to belted out. In my head, it translated into something like tom-tom drums: SIN – sin – sin / SIN – sin – sin / SIN – sin – sin . . .

Although this doctrine had produced generations of simple-hearted, loving, hardworking Christian people in my family, it was, for me, an unfortunate frame of religious belief to have been born into. I was a devout and God-loving child, but I had the sensitive, language-oriented temperament of a future poet. I was introverted and private, with a highly reactive brain chemistry that rendered me vividly imaginative but left me overly sensitive to impingements. Exposure humiliated me. Disapproval scourged me. Fear flayed me. Beauty flattened me. Sitting in church, I felt bathed in klieg lights that shone nonstop on all my inadequacies.

I longed—without being aware that I longed—for a way to worship aesthetically, to express my complicated and passionate feelings about God in modes of communication not ordinarily used in everyday life. Outside, the church preached separation and hierarchy. But inside, God felt all of one piece, a huge, unruly front of affect that moved through me like weather, all-consuming and mysterious. In church, where I was obliged to sit still and affectless through long worship services, all dressed up and cramped inside “Sunday clothes,” I could not make the inside and the outside fit together.

Sometimes, music—the great old-time gospel hymns of the Baptist church—provided a temporary respite. My paternal grandmother was born in 1898 on a farm in Tidewater Virginia. Generations of her family were buried in the same Baptist churchyard in New Kent County. Although my Gran was only minimally educated, she had a natural ear for music. One of my earliest memories is of sitting alongside her in a metal glider on the front porch of her small home just off Route 1 in Southside Richmond. Her life was hard, and her faith was simple. Picking out hymns on an old guitar and singing along in a quavering, top-of-the-register voice seemed to help her cope. It was she who first introduced me to the hymns I would later sing in church: “Bringing in the Sheaves,” “Rock of Ages,” “Amazing Grace,” “Just as I Am,” “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.”

Because it made her happy, my younger brother and I learned to sing my grandmother’s hymns. Later, we sometimes performed as a duet in church on Sundays. On those occasions, my father drove into town to fetch my Gran and bring her to services so she could hear us, dressed up in our Sunday best, huddled together over a shared hymnal in front of the church. I am sure my spirit must have soared a bit as my brother and I combined our voices in our sibling harmonies, singing the hymns our grandmother had taught us. What I remember of those occasions, however, was the quaking fear of making a mistake—up there in full sight of God, the pastor, and the congregation—and the punishment that would surely follow.
 

I was ten years old when I first attended a Catholic Mass. It was February 1964, and my mother’s friend, Trula, whose family we were visiting in Florida, took me along with a passel of kids. Fifty years later, I can still recall many details of that first Mass—what the church looked like (palm trees outside, traditional cruciform inside), where we sat (second pew on the left), how the light fell in through the stained glass, the intriguing fact that all the women and girls wore hats or bits of lace on their heads. I felt as if a thirst was being quenched, and I drank in those details over and over as I sat through the Mass with its unfamiliar language (Latin), its inventory of paintings and sculptures and candles and flowers, and the heavy scent of incense that the priest had flung toward us as he processed down the aisle.

What was most deeply imprinted on me was the privacy in worship. For the first time, I felt completely safe in church.

I couldn’t have described it then, but what was most deeply imprinted on me was the privacy in worship. For the first time, I felt completely safe in church. Rote prayers were either silent, or recited together—not improvised as they were at home. Worshippers sat and stood together, as we did, but they also periodically moved their bodies in interesting ways, genuflecting, thumping a gentle fist over their hearts, bending down, all in a noisy herd, to lower the kneelers. In my church, we kept our hands in our laps and to ourselves. But at Mass, people’s hands moved in all kinds of interesting ways, making the sign of the cross, fingering rosaries and crucifixes. Sometimes they raised these things—which looked like jewelry to me—up to their lips and kissed them! As imaginative as I was, I had never imagined kissing in church.

The elders of this church were all men, just as they were in mine, but these men were androgynously clad in long gowns instead of suits and adorned with gold sashes and tasseled belts. They flung about pots of incense, washed their hands daintily at the altar, and were served by a retinue of altar boys. They did not thunder at us but murmured softly in a foreign language, almost as if we weren’t necessary to what was going on. For the most part, they left us alone with our thoughts. I was stunned when the entire congregation rose up and went forward to receive the Eucharist, to claim for themselves the gift. Back home, we waited passively for one of the deacons to pass us our homely bit of Wonder Bread and single sip of Welch’s grape juice. Here, the bread was a thin and elegant wafer, drawn forth from a gold chalice, and the blood was bitter-tasting real wine.

After that first Mass, I continued to attend Baptist services with my family. With a new model of worship in my mind, however, I chafed at its familiar strictures. By the time I was 14, I found more and more excuses to skip church. At school, I filled in part of the gap by singing in choruses where much of our repertoire consisted of eighteenth-century sacred music. For what remained of my adolescence, I prayed privately, I sang, and I carried around in my head all those private feelings about God that did not fit. I often revisited in my imagination the experience of that first Mass where I felt both privately held and publicly affirmed while worshipping.

And then, just as the radical reorientations of Catholic worship instituted by the Second Vatican Council began to be apparent in the American church, I went off to college in Charlottesville, Virginia. There, I ended up in a suite of girls, many of whom were cradle Catholics from the Northeast. They astonished me by voluntarily attending Mass every Saturday evening. Weekly Mass was built into their lives in a casual, comfortable way. It was something they did for themselves rather than something they did out of obligation. This was an unusual attitude for college students in the early 1970s, and I began to walk out with them on Saturday evenings to see what kind of church evoked such affectionate loyalty.

I found provocative the idea that a saint might be soldered together from junk.

That is how I came to the “new” Catholicism—a phenomenon that astounded me right from the start. I found it housed in a church building unlike any I had ever seen: a “church in the round,” a circular brick building, topped by a simple cross, and served by Dominican priests. To enter, you walked across an elevated walkway where a larger than life–sized sculpture of St. Thomas Aquinas had been installed. He was made entirely of chrome bumpers salvaged from junked cars. Never had I seen such art in church: discernibly figural, but also abstract. I found provocative the idea that a saint might be soldered together from junk.

These Saturday evening guitar Masses astonished me with their informality and quickly obliterated my old ideas about attending church. At St. Thomas, many of the students arrived with bare feet and in patched blue jeans. They sat cross-legged on the floor before Mass, playing guitar, chatting, and laughing. Sometimes if you arrived early, a gallon bottle of cheap wine might be passed around. Afterwards, we gathered in the vestibule for potluck suppers. Back then, God-hungry, and trying to find my way into a new form of worship, I was enthralled by the invitation to be myself, private and dressed down.

Because “One Bread, One Body” was not written until after my time at St. Thomas, it could not have been there that I first heard it. Still, my association between that church and that hymn are very strong, and I believe that my early experiences of Catholic worship in the humble space of St. Thomas set the stage for my encounter with this very simple hymn, which has come to mean more to me than any other.

Like the new church-in-the-round architecture, “One Bread, One Body” comes directly out of the Second Vatican Council. Under its directives to maintain “noble simplicity” in all church matters, but with permission to respond to the “local traditions” of individual parishes, Catholic worship radically reimagined itself. Priests turned around to face their parishioners, women removed their head coverings, and vernacular languages replaced the worldwide use of Latin. In St. Louis, a group of young Jesuit seminarians collaborated on liturgical music for a new era. They modeled their hymns on popular forms like folk music and easy listening, and composed them for acoustic guitar. Accessible, musically stripped down, and closely tied to scripture, “One Bread, One Body,” composed by John Foley in 1978, is a good example of the work of the St. Louis group, as they came to be known. Together, they created a series of accessible new hymns, including “One Bread, One Body,” that have become iconic elements of Catholic worship in our time. Others included “Be Not Afraid,” “The Cry of the Poor,” “Though the Mountains May Fall,” “Earthen Vessels,” and “Here I Am, Lord.”

The scriptural reference of “One Bread, One Body” is from 1 Corinthians 10:16–17:

The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ?

For we being many are one bread, and one body: for we are all partakers of that one bread.

It’s a short hymn with a haunting tune and simple lyrics that barely proceed past the scripture.

Here is the refrain:

One bread, one body,
one Lord of all,
one cup of blessing which we bless.
And we, though many,
throughout the earth,
we are one body in this one Lord.

It’s hard to miss the point: One is the answer. One word, one syllable, one cup, one Lord, one church, one body of Christ.

Made mostly from nouns and prepositions, and the verb to be, the hymn’s lexicon is confined to one and two syllable words. If there is an adjective present, it is the word one, used repetitively to modify the bread, the body, the blessing, the Lord. It’s hard to miss the point: One is the answer. One word, one syllable, one cup, one Lord, one church, one body of Christ which encompasses the entirety of humanity even as it cradles each of our individual selves.

But this simplicity is also baffling. The image at the center of the hymn is its “cup of blessing”—easy enough to understand and imagine. Handed to us, we drink from it. But what does it mean for us, as mortals, to bless the God-given cup of blessing? Reciprocity of grace was not in the top-down theology I learned in my early life. I don’t think it ever occurred to me that I might have it within me to confer a blessing upon another. One of my favorite parts of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) was the ritual in which my sponsor—an ordinary human like myself—blessed me over and over, anointing my head and heart, my hands and feet with oil.

From the first time I sang this hymn in Mass—it would have been in Baton Rouge in the 1980s—I felt mystically drawn into something larger than myself—a delicious vastness within which I experienced myself as part of a whole, but also decidedly separate. I call this now the Body of Christ.

There are so many ways to God. “One Bread, One Body” has helped me to understand that. My family members found salvation and sustenance in forms of worship that constricted my spirit. The joy my loved ones found under plain white steeples was inaccessible to me. Nevertheless, we remain together in loving communion within the Body of Christ, a fact I celebrate whenever I sing “One Bread, One Body.”
 

On Sunday mornings when I can’t go to Mass, I like to watch YouTube videos of “One Bread, One Body.” The iconic version in its original guitar form is the one that pops up most often, but there are lots of variations. A gorgeously gowned Methodist choir all lined up at the front of their church in Minnesota. Ordinary parish Masses all over the world. An all-Filipino choir at Holy Rosary Church in the middle of the desert in Qatar, performing a beautifully harmonized version. Watching the different interpretations of this simple hymn with its haunting, deconstructed melody and its unpretentious lyrics is always moving to me.

One of the videos of “One Bread, One Body” that I particularly love is filmed from behind the altar at Epiphany Church in Gramercy Park, Manhattan. It is first communion. The camera captures the priest’s familiar movements as he prepares the gifts. Over his shoulder, just past the altar, you can see the congregation stretching out. While the priest is overseeing the Eucharistic miracle of transubstantiation, some people may be barely paying attention. They’re whispering and waving to each other, or sending a clandestine text message from a phone concealed in a pocket, or writing in their checkbook the amount they just dropped in the offertory basket. Congregants are constantly flowing in and out of the sanctuary. Everyone’s body language is casual and free. At the back of the church, a standing woman rummages at length in a huge shoulder bag, and over on the side, a man sits with his arms clasped behind his neck, elbows soaring out from his body like butterfly wings.

The space inside the Catholic Mass for human beings to be what they are—human, necessarily imperfect and messy—continues to compel me.

The space inside the Catholic Mass for human beings to be what they are—human, necessarily imperfect and messy—continues to compel me. Sometimes the suppressed Protestant inside me rises up, pursing her lips. I no longer do this with judgment, I’m glad to say, but with a kind of inner laugh. This is what “One Bread, One Body” represents for me—a praise song for a God who looks at us all with a forbearing and humorous nature. One who blesses us all, and leaves us alone much of the time to work it out by ourselves. Sometimes mistakes are made, but they are never fatal, though they may seem so in the short run. For God’s time is not our time, and our Catholic faith offers us a multitude of ways—an overflowing cup of blessings—to correct our failings.

Once, attending Mass in Durham, North Carolina, alone with my three young children, two of them still in car seats, all hell broke out between them over a Ziploc bag of Cheerios that had been consumed earlier than I’d calculated. Struggling to restore order to our caterwauling corner of the pew, and horribly anxious about the raucous spectacle we were making, I was distracted by a touch on my arm. An older woman was leaning toward me, gesturing toward my misbehaving kids. She looked very much like one of the churchwomen of my childhood, all dressed up in Sunday clothes, and I tensed up, anticipating a rebuke. Then I saw she was smiling. “Don’t worry, sweetie,” she said. “We’re just glad you’re here.” The relief that swept through me at her words was a giant cup of blessing. I gulped it down. In my head, I blessed her back. When I was able to tune in to the Mass again, the gifts were being prepared, and the parish music minister was instructing us to turn to #498 in Glory & Praise so we could sing, together, “One Bread, One Body.”

 

Kate Daniels is a professor of English and director of creative writing at Vanderbilt University. She was born in Richmond, Virginia. She has received a number of awards and prizes for her poetry, and she has become a leading voice for the use of art in medicine.

This is an edited versions of an essay from the forthcoming Stars Shall Bend Their Voices: Poets’ Favorite Hymns & Spiritual Songs, edited by Jeffrey L. Johnson, © 2018, due out in October. Used by Permission of Jeffrey L. Johnson and Orison Books. Additional articles from the book are found under the “Poets on Hymns” section of this issue.

Please follow our Commentary Guidelines when engaging in discussion on this site.

Poets on Hymns: “Silent Night”

Jason Gray

First line of music for Silent Night

 

What do you do when your organ is broken? In Obendorf, Austria, newly split from its sister city across the Salzach in Bavaria, it’s 1818 and the Napoleonic Wars have left their mark. It’s cold and damp and Christmas is approaching. Father Joseph Mohr is the new priest at St. Nikolaus and requests Franz Gruber (no relation to Hans) write a melody for the poem he’d written two years earlier. Gruber is the schoolmaster and the organist, but there is no organ. Silent pipes. Gruber plays the only instrument at hand, the guitar.

Arguably the most well-known Christmas carol ever was written out of necessity.

At least that’s how the story was told to me by another member of Central Presbyterian Church, an adult I was playing guitar with in the church’s contemporary music ensemble—two guitarists, a bass player, and the organist on a Casio keyboard. I was getting very involved with the church at this point in my life, in high school. I was active with the youth group, joining the choir, and showing off my new guitar skills in our nascent contemporary music group. We weren’t megachurch-ready, but we had a certain charm. My faith was growing, to be sure, but I was also in love with pretty much every female member of the youth group in some way or another. I was sure I’d marry one of them (I did not). This is probably why church has never seemed so enthralling as it once was, but I think almost everything is that way—nothing seems to matter as much as it did in high school. I recognize this is not a great reflection on my faith.

The story’s reason for the problematic organ varies, from mice chewing on wires to rusty pipes to simply choosing a well-made guitar over a low-quality organ.

The guitar is portable, but doesn’t have the largest range. It is quiet and no match for the organ’s volume. But if you want space in between your sound waves, if you want each note to have its own life, it will give it to you.

Although, you rarely hear the song performed in its original arrangement.

Bing Crosby’s recording of “Silent Night” (full orchestra and choir) is the third-bestselling single of all time with around 30 million copies sold (His version of “White Christmas” is first on that list—need we any more proof that we are a secular people, despite our many protests?). That album of Crosby’s, Merry Christmas, with just a headshot of him wearing a Santa hat and a holly bowtie—my family wore that out on Christmas mornings. And I continued to do the same as a grown up, from magnetic tape to lasered plastic to digital files, always around the time the toilet paper from Mischief Night began to disintegrate from the trees.

I whistle and hum carols pretty regularly throughout the year (most likely “Winter Wonderland” or “Rudolf”). This surprises most everyone I come in contact with, but I’m not sure why. Yes, it’s out of season, but they are eminently hummable tunes, and how many of us in the Western world grew up hearing them more than any other class of song? “Silent Night” is not one I whistle though. It is one of the more somber tunes of the season (but not the most somber—I have to give that to “In the Bleak Midwinter”).

“Silent Night” is Joseph Mohr’s only hymn translated into English, and it is Gruber’s only still-known melody, though he reportedly wrote over a hundred. The Presbyterian hymnal includes four verses, but the fourth is an anomaly—it does not correspond to the original German text or the J. Freeman Young translation.

Americans sing the song out of order. Also incompletely. The original German hymn is six verses, but most of us know only three—the first, the sixth, then the second. Which seems like a good metaphor for me as a Christian, incomplete and out of order (perhaps all of us, but I won’t speak for everyone).

In the English version’s missing verses, we don’t sing about the salvation and mercy brought to us, the capital-F fatherly love, the fact that it was all planned from the beginning. The original German text narrates the story in the three lines between the refrains that bookend each stanza. We focus on the couple, mother and child, and the shepherds, and then again the baby—the people in the story. Whether intentional or not on the part of J. Freeman Young, the translator, I think there’s a good idea there. The intangible, though wonderful, things we hope are part of this story are stripped away, leaving us with what we actually know is there. The people. I don’t mean to be sacrilegious; only to suggest that the winnowing down to the human elements perhaps contributes to the carol’s importance to a great deal of the world.

At midnights throughout the Christian world the tune rings on as lights go down and candles burst to life. My favorite moment in all of liturgy is that moment the organ stops in the song and leaves only the congregation’s voices singing. For one moment, at least, the world around you is still. All that would follow from that one night in Bethlehem. A man who would inspire a dozen, then dozens, hundreds, thousands, millions, to turn the other cheek, to build houses for the destitute, to stop a battle for one day, to love one another and die, but also to force others to accept him, to kill for his rejection. This is the mixed blessing of Christmas, or perhaps the mixed inheritance—the blessing may have been pure, but not always its interpretation.

Franz Gruber made the best out of what he was given. I don’t know if I can say that about myself, or how many of us can. But it is what I think about when I hear “Silent Night.” When your organ is broken, find another way of making music.

 

Jason Gray is the author of Photographing Eden, winner of the 2008 Hollis Summers Prize. His poems have appeared in Poetry, The American Poetry Review, the Kenyon Review, Literary Imagination, Poetry Ireland Review, and other places.

This is an edited versions of an essay from the forthcoming Stars Shall Bend Their Voices: Poets’ Favorite Hymns & Spiritual Songs, edited by Jeffrey L. Johnson, © 2018, due out in October. Used by Permission of Jeffrey L. Johnson and Orison Books. Additional articles from the book are found under the “Poets on Hymns” section of this issue.

Please follow our Commentary Guidelines when engaging in discussion on this site.

Poets on Hymns: “The Green Hill Far Away”

Mark Jarman

First line of music for the hymn

There is a green hill far away,
Without a city wall,
Where the dear Lord was crucified,
Who died to save us all.

We may not know, we cannot tell,
What pains he had to bear,
But we believe it was for us
He hung and suffered there.

He died that we might be forgiven,
He died to make us good,
That we might go at last to heaven,
Saved by his precious blood.

There was no other good enough
To pay the price of sin;
He only could unlock the gate
Of heaven, and let us in.

O dearly, dearly has he loved,
And we must love him too,
And trust in his redeeming blood,
And try his works to do.

 

I do not know where I learned the Victorian poet Cecil Frances Alexander’s hymn, “There Is a Green Hill Far Away.”  Either it was at school, Dunnikier School in Kirkcaldy, Scotland, or it was at church, St. Clair Street Church of Christ, also in Kirkcaldy, but it may have been in both places.  There was no separation of church and state in Scotland, or anywhere else in the British Isles, in the 1950’s, when my family lived there and my father served the church on St. Clair Street. Bible study was a weekly part of my elementary school classes, and we began and ended the school day with a hymn. And of course much of Sunday and every Wednesday night were spent at church. I also remember learning Alexander’s hymns “Once in Royal David’s City” and “All Things Bright and Beautiful.”  Along with “There Is a Green Hill Far Away,” they were originally included in her collection Hymns for Little Children. The tune we sang it to was by William Horsley. Though there are other settings, it is Horsley’s tune that has stuck in my mind. And I would not be surprised if it were Horsley’s tune that has made the hymn memorable to me, but I know that is not the only reason.

 

There is another reason this hymn remains in my memory. Whenever I think of it, I also think of a picture that hung in the entranceway of our house on Bennochy Road, the manse as it was called (or parsonage), where the pastor of St. Clair Street Church of Christ would live with his family. This picture was a reproduction of a massive painting by the Polish artist Jan Styka depicting the scene on Calvary, the place of the skull, Golgotha, as Christ is about to be crucified. Styka painted the picture in 1894. It is some 195 feet by 45 feet, and hangs today in Forest Lawn Memorial Gardens in Glendale, California. The reproduction that hung in the manse entryway in Kirkcaldy was very modest in size, but still large enough so that I could pick out the details. Christ stands between the two crosses already erected for the thieves and beside the cross he will be nailed to, which lies on the ground. The hill is barren and rocky and crowded with soldiers and people and at the base of the hill is Jerusalem inside its wall. The hill itself is anything but green. But in the distance, there is a line of green hills. In the scene as Styka depicted it, the hills seem very far away. 

Alexander makes it clear in her hymn that Christ was crucified on a green hill, “without” or outside of “a city wall.” That is where he made his sacrifice to “save us all.” Not only did Alexander have a gift for setting a scene, but also for conveying basic belief with an admixture of Victorian edification. She reminds the little children to whom she is presumably speaking that no one but Jesus could be found “to pay the price of sin” because “there was no other good enough.” Therefore we must not only “trust” that the blood of his sacrifice will redeem us, but must also “try his works to do.” Faith without works did not amount to much in Victorian Christianity like Alexander’s. And Jesus was a model of both, especially for children.  In “Once in Royal David’s City,” Alexander’s famous Christmas carol, we are reminded that Jesus grew from infancy just like us, “For he is our childhood’s pattern.” He was a model of obedience and good behavior.

Still, there is that imaginary green hill far away. It was probably the first emblem of pastoral that I responded to, aside from the 23rd Psalm, and it was more compelling than the imagery there, at least for me, and possibly because in Styka’s painting, the green hills look like a possible escape, a place to flee. In the painting Christ lifts his eyes, recalling Psalm 121, “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help.” No help is coming from the green hills in the distance, but I suspect that Alexander is giving her audience an image it can picture. She was Anglo Irish, a member of the Church of Ireland, and lived in Northern Ireland, married to an Anglican priest who would become Bishop of Derry and Archbishop of Armagh. I am sure she was perfectly capable of imagining a bare and barren hill. But she knew enough of the pastoral tradition to know that green is the color of renewal and new life, such as was bestowed on the world by Christ’s death and resurrection. And the memory she evokes of that hill is still green.

Her common measure quatrains are simple and theologically precise. The sense of nostalgia for a pastoral landscape begins right off the bat with “There is,” for the hill though far away does still exist in what Alexander would have called the Holy Land. Then comes the transition to the historical past, the event and its purpose and its consequence for all time. Like the psalms and like folk songs, the poem includes a series of statement and reiteration, statement and enhanced restatement (“We do not know, we cannot tell,” “He died that we might be forgiven, / He died to make us good,” “Oh dearly, dearly has he loved, /And we must love him too .   .   .”)  Perhaps the most interesting image occurs in stanza four: “He only could unlock the gate / Of heaven, and let us in.” Only Christ and no one else, even St. Peter, could take us to the wall of another city, and open the gate for us. Or we may be meant to imagine a place better than a city – a garden. It would be walled and private and yet the gardener, particularly fond of good little children, would have a key and could let us in.

My suspicion is that I am not the only child from St. Clair Street Church of Christ Sunday School or Dunnikier School in Kirkcaldy, Fife, Scotland, in the late 1950’s, who remains fond of this hymn for reasons that have as much to do with personal associations as with belief.

 

As a child in Scotland, Mark Jarman was introduced to basic Christian teachings through reciting biblical psalms and singing hymns of the church. The author of many books of poems and literary criticism, he is Centennial Professor of English at Vanderbilt University.

This is an edited versions of an essay from the forthcoming Stars Shall Bend Their Voices: Poets’ Favorite Hymns & Spiritual Songs, edited by Jeffrey L. Johnson, © 2018, due out in October. Used by Permission of Jeffrey L. Johnson and Orison Books. Additional articles from the book are found under the “Poets on Hymns” section of this issue.

Please follow our Commentary Guidelines when engaging in discussion on this site.

Religion and the BRCA Mutation

Alexandra Nichipor

Illustration for BRCA mutation

Illustration by Andrew Zbihlyj

 

It was a cold day in January, not long before my 22nd birthday, and I was looking out at the Boston cityscape after receiving my genetic test results. I called my boyfriend and tried to be lighthearted about it. “Hey, I just found out I’m the most boring member of the X-men.”

My genetic counselor had explained my BRCA2 mutation to me carefully. “Sometimes cells divide incorrectly, and when this process goes unchecked, a person can develop cancer. We each have a number of genes that put a stop to this process. One of them is called BRCA2.” She held up two hands “Every person is born with two copies of each BRCA gene. They control signals that say ‘stop’ to rogue cells.” She put one hand down. “But you were born with a flaw in one of your BRCA2 genes, so it doesn’t work.”

What did this mean? “Due to the mutation, you have a 40 to 80 percent lifetime risk of breast cancer, and a 25 to 50 percent lifetime risk of ovarian cancer,” my genetic counselor told me.1 Cancers in BRCA mutation carriers often occurred at younger ages, were more difficult to treat, and were more likely to recur. My mother, a breast cancer survivor, sat white-knuckled in her chair.

I didn’t know then about the biopsy I would have not long after that appointment, a golfball-sized chunk of flesh taken out when an MRI identified a white-hot suspicious area. I didn’t know then about the exhausting experience of yearly screening tests as sure and as stressful as the sword of Damocles, or about the many doctors who would (sometimes aggressively) recommend a mastectomy to lower my risk.

These experiences brought me a profound kind of stress. Psychologist Jeannie Pasacreta, who identified extremely high rates of anxiety in women with BRCA mutations, suggests that “it may be that anticipating the development of breast cancer is more psychologically distressing than actually having it.”2

In his book The Wounded Healer, theologian Henri Nouwen writes: “Making one’s own wounds a source of healing . . . does not call for a sharing of superficial personal pains but for a constant willingness to see one’s own pain and suffering as rising from the depth of the human condition which all men share.”3 My experiences gave me a new vantage point on the suffering of others—children who had lost parents, spouses separated from each other, family members cut down in the prime of their lives. My spirituality had always been significant to me, but now I found myself angry at God at the very moment I wanted to run and bury my face in God’s skirts.

I tend to intellectualize things, so I read everything I could find on BRCA mutations and genetics (a peculiar undertaking for someone who was earning a degree in religious studies!). I didn’t connect my research on BRCA mutations with religion until a young Jewish woman I met at a support group discussed her experience at a mikveh.4

The young woman planned to have a mastectomy in order to lower her risk of disease and so that she could see her children grow up, but the surgery terrified her and she was struggling with it. Though she had never been ritually observant, she went to a mikveh one day, plunged under the water, and came up saying, I’m ready. She went ahead with the mastectomy and has never regretted her decision.

Her story got me thinking. How did this ancient ritual help the woman to navigate modern (indeed, quite new) biomedical choices? What did she lose in that water, and what did she find?

Feminist and poet Audre Lorde wrote, “Each woman responds to the crisis that breast cancer brings to her life out of a whole pattern.”5 The more I researched and thought about the entanglements of religion and the BRCA mutations, the more I realized that exploring this seemingly narrow area was actually a way to approach significant topics: women’s religious experiences, the meaning of disease, the social role of science and technology, the problem of suffering, and the significance of family and ancestry in an increasingly individualized world.

Disease is not only a physiological event, it is a social one. The impact of illness on a person’s life is mediated by numerous factors, including stigma and meaning-making. Someone who feels that the cancer is a punishment for her sins will experience her disease differently than someone who believes that it is an opportunity to experience God’s love. And think of the woman who is facing an early end to her childbearing years due to chemotherapy or surgery: what might her reaction be to a religious injunction to “Be fruitful and multiply?”6

Psychologist Robert Klitzman observed, “In seeking such explanations [for genetic disease], people draw on a wide spectrum of conceptual models: from the purely physical to the purely metaphysical to combinations of these.”7 The constellation of meanings associated with the mutated gene and with a diagnosis of cancer are shaped and filtered through preexisting ways of knowing and templates for understanding the world, one of which is religion. If we can articulate and illuminate some of the religious experiences and reactions of sufferers, we might be able to relieve some of the agony that cancer causes.

The best way to understand what people are thinking is to ask them. This, in simplified form, is a central truth of the social sciences.

New communication technologies have allowed people with BRCA mutations to find each other and form support groups based on their shared experiences. These groups also serve the intriguing social purpose of creating shared discourses of meaning around risk and health.

Given the dearth of knowledge about the entanglements of religion and the BRCA mutations, in the spring of 2015 I designed a short survey on health status and religious belief, and posted it on a forum for people with hereditary breast-ovarian cancer (HBOC) mutations.8 I expected perhaps 7 or 8 responses back, maybe a dozen if I was very lucky. I received 92.

All the respondents self-identified as women, and they ranged in age from 22 to 73 years old. Most had BRCA mutations—though some had other mutations linked to HBOC, such as PALB mutations or Lynch syndrome—and they self-identified with a variety of religious traditions. Of those 92, 17 respondents (18.5 percent) named their diagnosis (either of cancer or a genetic mutation) as the catalyst for a shift in their religious beliefs. Those who described this shift most often stated that their beliefs had deepened and gotten stronger after their diagnosis (9 total responses); only one respondent stated that her religious beliefs had declined or lessened. Though this may say more about the sorts of people who would be moved to take an optional survey on HBOC and religious belief, it indicates that health crises may have an impact on religious belief.

Three central themes emerged over the course of my research: heredity and identity, the female body, and suffering. I ended up structuring my discussion around these themes rather than around the religion of the respondents, not because religious distinctions are unimportant, but because I discovered that the replies of my respondents had less to do with tradition-specific doctrine and more to do with complex individual experience. A Catholic and an atheist both had deterministic or fate-based responses to genetic risk; two Protestant Christians had radically different interpretations of a central religious text on suffering. I was surprised at the similarities among responses that emerged from people with different religious identities, and at the differences that existed among people who claimed similar identities. I found that organizing my research around these three topics actually allowed me to better contextualize the religious identity of the respondent, and to avoid reductionism.
 

Heredity and Identity

In the latter half of the twentieth century and the beginning of this one, something puzzling was happening in the American Southwest: very young women were developing extremely aggressive breast cancers. With the advent of widespread genetic testing in the early 2010s, these women and their families were tested for the BRCA mutations. Around 10 percent of them had a unique and easily identifiable sub-mutation of the BRCA1 gene, 185delAG, which had previously been found only in Ashkenazic Jewish populations.

Through analysis of oral family histories and historical documents, a clearer picture emerged. The story begins in the sixth century BCE, when 185delAG first appeared in a single unknown person in the Jewish population in the Middle East. After the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in the first century CE, the Jewish people were forced into slavery and exile. Over the centuries, some made their way to Spain, where they became the Sephardim, one of the two largest Jewish diaspora populations.9

After the Catholic Reconquista of Spain, Jews became marked for conversion or extermination. Many officially “converted” to Christianity in order to save their families, but a large number maintained Jewish practices in private. Known as the conversos, this community was one of the primary targets of the Spanish Inquisition. When the New World opened up, many seized the chance to be free of Spain, and they established new lives in the Americas, especially in the American Southwest. The gene mutation 185delAG came with them and was a root cause of the high rates of breast cancer.

In his book The Wandering Gene and the Indian Princess, journalist Jeff Wheelwright entwines the history of 185delAG with the personal narrative of the Medina family, descendants of the conversos. The Medinas are reeling over the loss of Shonnie, a woman who died of breast cancer in her late 20s. Early in the course of her disease, Shonnie made the decision to reject medical care from a particularly condescending and callous doctor. Wheelwright frames this choice in the context of her ancestry: “She was the converso rankling before the Old Christian, the Indian resisting the españole, the Hispano resentful of the American, the Witness rejecting the world’s authority while living within the world.”10

Wheelwright’s vivid description of the confrontation between Shonnie and the doctor is in line with other narratives I’ve read and heard. Shonnie did not face the doctor and the news of her diagnosis alone—the legacy of ancestors who had resisted, endured, and survived guided her choice to reject unfeeling and inappropriate medical care. BRCA mutations are hereditary, with a 50 percent chance of being passed from parent to child. More than your grandma’s green eyes or your father’s love of sweets, having a genetic mutation linked to a fatal disease inspires a sense of connection with those who have gone before you.

Not infrequently, this also intersects with Jewish identity, sometimes in families where the news is quite unexpected. The Medina family wrestles over the immediate, pragmatic concerns that arise as a consequence of this genetic inheritance, but they also struggle with wider questions about their identity—what place do Jewish and converso ancestors have in a family of good Jehovah’s Witnesses?11

For women who identify as Jewish, BRCA status has a way of reifying a biological component to Jewish identity. Because one already has to have a Jewish mother to be considered Jewish, it is a relatively short leap for some women to identify Judaism with genetic characteristics. Anthropologist Jessica Mozersky notices that, for one of her interviewees, having a BRCA mutation brought anxiety about health status, but it also offered “a sense of connection to her mother and family, other women and Jews in general.”12

In response to my survey, a young Reform Jewish woman named Maayan noted that “knowing that my specific mutation is thousands of years old and dates back to the first temple in Israel makes it feel less like a burden and more like a piece of history that I carry with me.” Maayan’s understanding allows the mutation to take on a new meaning. It is no longer just a medical liability; it is also a thread linking her to her ancestors.

This connection between Jewish identity and genetics is not without its problems, depending as it does on an understanding of Jewish identity as biologically immutable. Yet there is comfort here as well. For those who know their ancestors and roots, this aspect of identity can be meaningful and grounding.
 

The Female Body

It is no secret that religious doctrine is interested in the proper functioning of the female body: how to properly cover it, nourish it, ensure its proper sexual conduct, and make sure it bears (or does not bear) children at the desired time. So what happens when religious injunctions on the female body collide with medical recommendations? And what happens when these attitudes intersect with American popular cultural values, which identify women’s bodies as sites that require constant improvement and intervention?

For some women in my survey, religiously based values around the purpose of the female body clashed with the medical decisions they planned to make. Candice, a 26-year-old woman who was raised in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints but is currently unaffiliated, said: “Any religious messages about having children and that the sole purpose of a woman is to have children really irritates me. What if I had ovarian cancer/breast cancer and could not get pregnant? Does that make me less of a woman/person?” Candice referenced a pervasive attitude summed up in 1 Timothy 2:15: “But women will be saved through childbearing.” Her comments raised important questions about the place and status of women in faith communities, most notably: to what extent is the value and influence of women in the community premised on their role as mothers or potential mothers?

The importance of the wholeness and integrity of the body (especially when female) was highlighted by other respondents as well. Stephanie, a 24-year-old liberal Catholic who had undergone a prophylactic mastectomy only a few weeks before responding to my survey, had a delightfully fierce response to potential critics: “I’m sure the strictest of the strict Catholics would say I’m mutilating/changing a body God gave me, and I don’t even have cancer. I would just tell them F*** you! You don’t know what it’s like watching a family member die of cancer. Then you have to live with the fact that you have such a high risk of that happening to you, too.”

Stephanie’s response raised other questions for me. Catholic doctrine is heavily centered around natural law, and, though famously rigid on birth control and certain kinds of bodily manipulation, it does permit the removal of ovaries and the uterus when the intended purpose is unrelated to birth control. Bodily integrity is not emphasized to an extent that it precludes potentially life-sustaining surgeries. Nevertheless, it’s possible that certain zealous—if misguided—individuals might assume that Catholic doctrine prohibits mastectomy and oophorectomy. Nuanced and subtle theological positions can become somewhat distorted as they filter down into the diverse ranks of believers, leading to difficulties for people like Stephanie.

For some Christians, genetics evokes the idea of original sin. When asked how her perspective on religious texts or messages changed after her diagnosis with a BRCA mutation, survey respondent Jenn, a Protestant evangelical woman in her 30s, noted that the “story of Adam & Eve made me doubt God’s goodness, as all generations have been made to live with the consequences of their actions (including the introduction of disease and sickness).”

Despite her discomfort with the similarities between hereditary gene mutations and original sin, Jenn’s faith also provided her with more empowering perspectives on the female body. She noted that her faith helped her to “challenge unconsciously accepted unhealthy cultural values (re: beauty, femininity, sexuality, woman’s role/value etc.), sometimes referred to as ‘lies’ in Christian circles.” For Jenn, hegemonic cultural notions of female beauty and fertility were secondary to her identity as a committed Christian.
 

Suffering

Women with cancer or at high risk for it deal with a great amount of suffering: the discomfort and pain of medical tests, surgery, and chemotherapy; the physical pain of metastasized tumors; and the psychological pain of fear and loss. Religions have a number of approaches to suffering and offer a variety of conceptual tools to frame it. How do we respond to suffering? Does suffering have some kind of existential or cosmic value? How can we escape suffering? Do we suffer alone?

One of my survey respondents, Jennifer, converted to Nichiren Buddhism, in part for the resources it gave her to navigate suffering after her prophylactic mastectomy because of a BRCA1 mutation. Jennifer knew another woman with cancer and was amazed at how calm she was through the experience. Jennifer discovered that this woman was a Nichiren Buddhist, so she decided to learn more about the faith and eventually ended up converting. She reports that the practice of chanting and reading sutras has been enormously helpful to her in navigating her health status, offering her practical tools to cultivate equanimity in the face of uncertainty and drastic change.

The book of Job, a biblical text that deals with the topic of suffering, appeared in the answers of two women in my survey—but they read the text in radically different ways.13 Jenn, the young Protestant evangelical, said that she found the message of Job hard to handle after her diagnosis. The book “made me feel like God uses his followers as pawns for his own edification/pleasure (during a time when I was struggling with trusting that God had my best intentions at heart),” she wrote. On the other hand, Laura (who identified as Christian) cited “the story of Job and his faithfulness in the Bible,” as well as prayer, devotional readings, and Christian music, as sources of religious inspiration after her prophylactic mastectomy and oophorectomy. These responses made me interested in how other people experiencing a health crisis engage this text’s multiple meanings.

One Christian respondent related her own experiences with BRCA to the central narrative in her religion. Jenna, an American Baptist, said: “The Holy Week story—Jesus’ suffering and the ways his friends betray him—comes to mind. I have had new friends come into my life and be amazingly generous. I have had people I love who have all but disappeared in fear at what I have learned. I’m grateful to have this sense of Jesus as close to my experience. Plus, I claim the mystery of resurrection—for the people I love who have died and, someday, for me. My fear of death is still palpable and real, but I do have resources as I consider it.” Jenna was scheduled for a preventative double mastectomy with reconstruction three days after she submitted her response to my survey.

For Jenna, Jesus is a cosmic role model for the suffering self, allowing her to interpret betrayal and suffering in a way that allows for hope. Her religion also offers her a “resource” on how to understand death. This aspect of religion—the ability to consider a life beyond this one—also has implications for end-of-life care.
 

Different Tales of Faith

Susan Sontag described illness as a foreign country.14 In the case of HBOC genetic mutations, it is a dynamic territory that has been little explored. As a result, I am compelled to say that this article is not a map; it is the hasty sketch of a hiker who intends to return to these woods and who hopes others will join me on the path.

Religion and spirituality help us to understand who we are and why we are. Our religious beliefs can turn a potentially catastrophic event into a minor setback in the narrative of our lives, something we can look back on with humor and perspective, marveling at what we have learned. But religion can also be a weight that pulls us down, that negatively colors our lives until we address the source of this pull and remedy it. A medical crisis can be a tale of faith that was tested and proven true, or it can be a tale of unutterable woe and loss than can never be redeemed. Religion can exacerbate inequality and provide a cover for bigotry and sexism, but it can also help women navigate their own authentic ways of being in the world. Whatever tale the sufferer tells, the role of religion must be addressed and understood.

 

Notes:

  1. See Joi L. Morris and Ora K.Gordon, Positive Results: Making the Best Decisions When You’re at High Risk for Breast or Ovarian Cancer (Prometheus, 2010).
  2. Jeannie V Pasacreta et al., “Genetic Testing for Breast and Ovarian Cancer Risk: The Psychosocial Issues,” The American Journal of Nursing 102, no. 12 (December, 2002): 44.
  3. Henri Nouwen, The Wounded Healer: Ministry in Contemporary Society (Image Books,
    1979), 88.
  4. A mikveh is a Jewish ritual bath for various purification purposes.
  5. Audre Lorde, The Cancer Journals (Aunt Lute Books, 1980), 9.
  6. Genesis 1:28.
  7. Robert Klitzman, Am I My Genes? Confronting Fate and Family Secrets in the Age of Genetic Testing (Oxford University Press, 2012), 124.
  8. I am grateful for the support for my research project from Harvard’s Institutional Review Board and administrators.
  9. The Sephardim have long been contrasted with the Ashkenazim, another Jewish diaspora population of German and Western European heritage. Yet the ethnic make-up of Jewish communities the world over is remarkably complex. For example, Sephardim used to refer primarily to Iberian Jewry, but in Israel today, the term can be used more broadly. There are Jewish communities that never left the Middle East (sometimes called Mizrahi Jews), and other Jewish populations do not figure into these categories at all, such as the Cochin
    from India, the Maghrebi Jews from North Africa, and
    the Beta Israel Jews from Ethiopia.
  10. Jeff Wheelwright, The Wandering Gene and the Indian Princess: Race, Religion, and DNA (W. W. Norton, 2012), 173.
  11. Most of the families in the Southwest who discovered they have the mutation identify as Latino/Latina Roman Catholics.
  12. Jessica Mozersky, Risky Genes: Genetics, Breast Cancer, and Jewish Identity (Routledge, 2014), 85.
  13. In Job, Satan suggests to God that Job is only righteous because God has blessed him so much, and God gives Satan permission to inflict a variety of losses and suffering on Job. Job grieves his losses with quiet patience, and when at last he rails against God for allowing him to suffer so, God appears in a whirlwind and reminds Job not to question divine provenance. God then restores all that Job has lost.
  14. Susan Sontag, Illness as Metaphor (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1978), 3.
 

Alexandra Nichipor studied gender and religion at Harvard Divinity School and received her MTS degree in 2015. She currently works in psychosocial oncology at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

Please follow our Commentary Guidelines when engaging in discussion on this site.

Seeing as God Sees

Putting on the lenses of love.

Jonathan L. Walton

To love someone means to see him as God intended him. —Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Wisdom is qualitatively different than smartness. And maturity is qualitatively different than braininess. I am not against smartness and braininess, but it just falls so radically short of wrestling with what it means to be human and making the right mature choices in life. —Cornel West
 

One Love
 

From Genesis to Revelation, there is a dominant theme throughout the Bible: God sides with those on the underside of power. Consider first the Hebrew Bible. From the story of slavery in Egypt to that of exile in Babylon, the most memorable narratives involve a God who stands over against systems of oppression. Similarly, the Hebrew prophets speak of God’s care for the most vulnerable in Israel whenever the leaders “trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way” (Amos 2:7).

This is excerpted from A Lens of Love: Reading the Bible in Its World for Our World, © 2018 Jonathan L. Walton. Used by permission of Westminster John Knox Press.

The life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth also capture this view of God. According to Luke, Jesus inaugurates his ministry by quoting from Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free” (Luke 4:18). Couple this scene with what has to be considered Jesus’s boldest and bravest parable—in Matthew 25, where he teaches about the day of judgment—and Jesus reveals to us a God who identifies most with those who are hungry, thirsty, strangers, ill, and imprisoned. For as we treat them, we treat God.

Entering a text trying to see what God might see and trying to land in a place where God’s love seeks to abide are consistent with the overarching spirit of scripture. Saying that I attempt to see what God might see is in no way a claim to have the mind, awareness, or comprehension of God. But I try to put on the lenses of love to look for those with whom God most aligns, the marginalized and victimized. I aim to step inside of a text and search for the lonely, the left out, and those who have been left behind. Here we will find the Spirit of God and God’s radical love for us.

This is what it means for me to approach scripture with a critical mind and sensitive heart. Intellect is never divorced from moral character. To show compassion requires that one demonstrate a critical understanding of social customs, laws, and structures of a given society. Knowing the stated (and unstated) rules that govern a society helps a reader better identify the people that are most likely to be privileged, as well as those who are most likely overlooked. Compassion coupled with a comprehensive understanding of society come together to cultivate a moral disposition of love and care. Simply put, we need both our head and heart to show love.

In calling for such an intellectual disposition, I am challenging a way of moral reasoning that seeks to divorce the “rational” (read: brain) from the “affective” (read: feelings and emotions). Traditionally, notions of ethical decision making informed by the Enlightenment called for dispassionate and objective analysis. Feelings, intuition, and emotion were supposed to be brought under the control of rational, logical reasoning. This is a fool’s errand. We human beings are social creatures who are always and already informed by cultural patterns, past experiences, and sacred stories that shape how we see the world and process daily interactions. While scientific data, empirical verification, and deliberative, well-informed decisions are important, deeply embedded feelings, anxieties, and aspirations shape the choices human beings make as well. Emotions matter.

Here I find the Wisdom literature of the Hebrew Bible helpful. The purpose of Wisdom literature in the ancient world was not very different than it is today. Elders in the community passed down inherited lessons on life and living to develop the personal character of young people and to explain inexplicable aspects of life. Wisdom here is not tied to smarts as much as to virtue. The Greeks called this phronesis, or practical wisdom linked to personal character. As an example, Proverbs 4:20–27 reads:

My child, be attentive to my words;
     incline your ear to my sayings.
Do not let them escape from your sight;
     keep them within your heart.
For they are life to those who find them,
     and healing to all their flesh.
Keep your heart with all vigilance,
     for from it flow the springs of life.
Put away from you crooked speech,
     and put devious talk far from you.
Let your eyes look directly forward,
     and your gaze be straight before you.
Keep straight the path of your feet,
     and all your ways will be sure.
Do not swerve to the right or to the left;
     turn your foot away from evil.

At the outset, the writer encourages readers to keep these teachings within their hearts for living a productive life. The writer is not sentimental or maudlin. To the contrary, the writer makes an intellectual argument, as the ancient Israelites did not make the division between the heart and the head. The Hebrew word for heart, leb, can also mean “mind” or “will.” Israelites understood the heart as the center of knowledge. An encouragement to keep those teachings in the heart is acknowledging the heart as the center of moral decision making.

This serves as the bedrock of Jesus’s ethical teachings. For Jesus, demonstrating our love for God by seeking the good of others—an ethic known as agape love—sums up the law and the teachings of the Hebrew prophets. When religious leaders attempted to trip Jesus up in Matthew 22 by asking him what the greatest of all commandments was, Jesus replied, “ ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ Herein lies the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ ” The great educator and sociologist of religion Benjamin Elijah Mays summed up this concept brilliantly: “The love of God and the love of man are one love.”

King held neither a romantic nor a friendly conception of love, but rather an understanding of love expressed in intentional acts of care and compassion.

Among Mays’s most notable students at Morehouse College was Martin Luther King Jr. King provided a beautiful example of this understanding of love in his final sermon, delivered on April 3, 1968. Addressing a packed audience in the Mason Temple Church of God in Christ headquarters in Memphis, Tennessee, less than 24 hours before his assassination, King expounded on one of the foundational aspects of agape love: seeking the good of others. King held neither a romantic nor a friendly conception of love, but rather an understanding of love expressed in intentional acts of care and compassion, which is at the core of the Hebrew Bible and the heart of the gospel message. King looked to the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25–37) in his iconic “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” address.

Of course, the parable itself is about agape love, empathy, and identifying your neighbor in the unlikeliest of places. When a certain Jewish man fell among thieves along a dangerous highway, it was neither a Levite (a well-pedigreed Judean) nor a priest who stopped to provide assistance, but a Samaritan—a class of people who were considered religiously and culturally inferior to people of the faith in Judea and Galilee. Thus, Jesus subverts conventional wisdom and places empathy in the eyes of the one who would otherwise be considered a foreigner. Jesus wanted to make the point that the Samaritan could see as God sees. The Samaritan saw the victim through the lenses of love.

Benjamin Mays with Martin Luther King, Jr.
Benjamin Mays with Martin Luther King, Jr.

King took the parable one step further. Not only did he allow the hearer to witness the Samaritan’s demonstration of agape love, but King went on to show concern for the presumed bad guys of the text. King described his own experience driving down this “winding, meandering road” during his first trip to Jerusalem. Because of this experience, King imagined the priest and Levite fearing for their own lives. King concluded, “So the first question that the Levite asked was, ‘If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?’ But then the Good Samaritan came by. And he reversed the question: ‘If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?’ ”

King’s retelling of this story models the ethical design of the parable. He demonstrates both an ethic of love and empathetic care without reducing one to the other. This is to say, we have the capacity and obligation to do what is right and to show concern for our neighbor whether we feel like it or not. When we strengthen our capacity to identify with others, and thus empathize with them, it is always easier to do right by them. Love and empathy, together, lead to justice. As my former teacher and now Harvard colleague Cornel West likes to say, “Justice is what love looks like in public.”
 

The Stories That Shape Us
 

Part of the genius of the “I’ve been to the mountaintop” address is in the way King blends multiple interpretive and ethical approaches. In locating himself and his readers within the story of the Good Samaritan, King employs an ethical approach philosophers refer to as narrative ethics, which focuses on the stories that shape us morally. The stories that frame our world have a normative dimension insofar as they inform how we ought to think, act, interact, and judge others. Narratives are at the core of our moral selves.

Duke University theologian Stanley Hauerwas’s view of scripture focuses on the power of sacred narrative that shapes the moral life. As Hauerwas writes in his classic primer on Christian ethics, The Peaceable Kingdom: “The Bible is fundamentally a story of a people’s journey with their God. A ‘biblical ethic’ will necessarily be one that portrays life as growth and development.” To be clear, I am more inclined to interpret and reinterpret scripture than many virtue ethicists like Hauerwas. I am not as wedded to traditional interpretations of scripture. Yet there is one area where we strongly agree. Knowing what one is “supposed” to do and actually making the right choices when the pressures of life encamp against us are two different things. Ethical decision making is more affective and intuitive, thus revealing the importance of personal character born of communal narratives. Similar to how an athlete’s practice regimen takes over when she is fatigued, our character serves as a sort of moral muscle memory when life becomes overwhelming.

A narrative ethical approach asks us to insert ourselves into the text and to identify with the triumphs, trials, dilemmas, and disappointments of biblical characters.

This is why I appreciate Hauerwas’s approach to scripture. Narrative ethics beckons us into biblical stories as moral subjects. A reader is not a disengaged interpreter standing outside of a story. Rather, a narrative ethical approach asks us to insert ourselves into the text and to identify with the triumphs, trials, dilemmas, and disappointments of biblical characters. Moral principles are not deduced from a list of commandments in order to judge who is right and who is wrong. We immerse ourselves in the text, experience the hopes, fears, and concerns that define the narrative, and then locate the complete and complicated humanity of all moral actors in the story to develop moral sensibilities.

This approach to sacred narrative captures what it means to be a part of a healthy living tradition. Stories of the past are strong and noble enough to be uprooted from their original context without being destroyed, and thus they provide fresh meaning to the contemporary moment. Living traditions bring the insights of the past to a new age in ways that are both inspirational and decidedly relevant. Instead of being a static symbol or standard against which everything is measured, they are a productive component of one’s fluid and ever-expanding faith. These stories provide fresh meaning and insights applicable to our particular moment.

Jonathan L. Walton
Jonathan L. Walton

Is this not what a minister does each Sunday morning? Preachers seek to bring Jesus forward from the annals of antiquity in order that he may be pressed upon the hearts and minds of the contemporary hearer in real and relevant ways. One’s illness today may not be an issue of blood, leprosy, or a withered hand. Yet knowing that one’s life is special to God can bring added strength and comfort to the cancer patient going through chemotherapy or the young man recently diagnosed with HIV.

I witnessed this recently with a dear friend. She entered the summer the envy of many. She was smart and charismatic. She had a caring husband and two beautiful boys. A new tenure track job at a major research university even awaited her in the fall. Yet during the summer she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She spent the entire year in and out of hospital waiting rooms, undergoing multiple surgeries, and enduring debilitating chemotherapy. Though she entered the year an admitted “collapsed Catholic,” having found the church’s hierarchy, marginalization of women, and perceived abuses of power too much to stomach, she increasingly began to tap into the spiritual resources and sacred stories of her faith. She came to realize that though Catholic hierarchy and patriarchy was one aspect of her religious tradition, the Catholic Church of her childhood had granted her so much more. It provided powerful and productive stories.

My friend mined the resources of a healthy living tradition found in her faith. She recalled biblical stories of Jesus connecting with human beings even when they were at their lowest. Over time, no matter how her body felt or looked due to the rigors of chemotherapy, she told me that it was good for her to know that she was yet affirmed and loved by God. Likewise, God’s command for us to love and care for one another resonated deeply with her during the year. Taking time to appreciate beauty, enjoy the quiet presence of loved ones, and seize moments of joy were all born of the sacred ritual practices of her contemplative Christian tradition. Just as the faithful have found delight and encouragement in the Psalms for millennia, this form of intentional spiritual mindfulness caused her to lift her mind from her illness and connect with those who the demands of life often cause us to take for granted. The narratives and experiences of ages past were shaped to comfort her in the present.

Narratives pass down the powers of tradition. The strengths of shared stories include shaping appropriate moral dispositions to confront contemporary challenges. Ancient biblical writers understood this point well. As the Baptist preachers of my youth were known to say, “One should never let the facts get in the way of a good story.” Facts may inform, but stories shape our character. This is why biblical writers were so comfortable shaping history with stories. Stories can convey eternal truths that the facts of life often miss.
 

When the Sun Moves
 

On more than one occasion I have distinguished between fact and truth. This is intentional. Although academic approaches to the Bible have aided us in identifying authorship, pinning down historical dates, and learning more about the ancient world, there is an underside to evidence-based knowledge. Our modern obsession with factuality and empirical verification can negatively impact the way we read and receive the Bible. Too many have made the interrelated mistakes of biblical literalism and crass reductionism.

Conversations are shut down by literalism, and spiritual insights that might be otherwise gained from the Bible are foreclosed by the need to verify empirically every single detail.

Biblical literalists feel that they must defend the factuality of the Bible to the extent that they are willing to compromise scientific credibility. In the face of overwhelming evidence, scientific discoveries, and increased ways of knowing, a literal reading of the Bible will tempt the Christian community to excommunicate scientists and observers who provide powerful insights about the makeup of humanity and origins of society. Such biblical literalism leads to a crass reductionism insofar as its adherents think that they can only hear and receive the writings of the Bible through this modernist frame—that is, if they cannot historically verify that Jonah remained alive in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights, then the story cannot reveal any truths about God’s love and capacity to forgive. As a result, too many confine their intellectual capacity with the spiritual straightjackets of fundamentalism. Conversations are shut down by literalism, and spiritual insights that might be otherwise gained from the Bible are foreclosed by the need to verify empirically every single detail.

One does not need to live long to realize that there are multiple forms of truth. There is the aesthetic truth: beauty. I cannot verify empirically or explain scientifically why the sound of Donny Hathaway singing “Come Ye Disconsolate” or Luther Vandross’s rendition of Burt Bacharach’s “A House Is Not a Home” transports me to a place of peace, joy, and tranquility no matter how many times I hear them. But I know it is true. Similarly, I would never question a couple who walks down the aisle in holy matrimony convinced that they are holding the hand of the most beautiful person that they have ever met. I believe in the idiom “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”

There are metaphorical and moral truths. Nobody I know believes in talking lions or magical worlds behind closet doors. This has not prevented millions throughout the Western world from passing down C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe to subsequent generations on the basis of the manifold moral truths it conveys. Nor would many give any credence to tales of yellow brick roads, dancing scarecrows, and cowardly lions. But L. Frank Baum’s book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz has encouraged many of us to look deep inside of ourselves for the things we desire on the path toward success. Simply put, stories can serve as metaphors that convey moral truths without being literally or factually verified.

Few express this philosophical and historical nuance better than novelist Toni Morrison. In one short but influential essay, “The Site of Memory,” Morrison explains that the crucial distinction in her writings is not between fact and fiction, but rather fact and truth. She notes how literature is considered fiction when it is deemed a product of the imagination but falls into biography or nonfiction when traced to a publicly verifiable event. In the absence of detailed, personal accounts of historical subjects, a writer has nothing more than her imagination to reconstruct the interior life of historical subjects. The point Morrison makes here is that truth is usually concealed. Like the ancient goddess Veritas who Romans believed liked to hide in the bottom of wells, we can only find truth after considerable searching and expense. For Morrison, imagination contributes to the interpretive process that helps us to pull truth from out of her hiding place.

Think about the subjects Morrison most often writes about: African American women living on the underside in conditions of slavery, segregation, and sexism. The absence, if not intentional erasure, of personal accounts of the deepest longings and spiritual strivings of enslaved women in America necessitates what Morrison refers to as “literary archaeology.” A writer is forced to investigate remaining historical sources and use her imagination to reconstruct an interior world of individuals whose sentiments have evaporated into the gases of history.

As an example, Morrison based her novel Beloved on the true story of an enslaved woman named Margaret Garner. Garner was fleeing slavery in Kentucky when U.S. marshals cornered her in Ohio. Garner opted to commit filicide by taking the life of her child rather than having her daughter grow up as an enslaved sexual toy forced to bear the children of her owner. Morrison’s novel excavates the interior life of enslaved women by revealing their truth of sexual violence, despair, and alienation from their offspring. Though we cannot verify all the facts of Morrison’s account, she sought to present the truth of slavery’s horror and inhumanity.

Similarly, just because one might be able to challenge the facts of a biblical narrative does not necessarily mean that one disrupts the truth that it reveals. Just ask John Jasper, one of this nation’s most popular preachers in the nineteenth century. Born in 1812, Jasper began preaching in Richmond, Virginia, while enslaved on a local tobacco plantation. Following the Civil War and his subsequent emancipation, Jasper organized the Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church and became a favorite preacher among both black and white Baptists alike. He was best known for his sermon “The Sun Do Move,” which he reportedly delivered over 250 times, including once before the Virginia General Assembly. Jasper based the sermon on Joshua 10:13: “And the sun stood still, and the moon stopped, until the nation took vengeance on their enemies. Is this not written in the Book of Jashar? The sun stopped in mid-heaven, and did not hurry to set for about a whole day.”

Jasper used this sermon as evidence that God could move the sun across the sky. According to Jasper:

Joshua showed in the sight of all Israel that the Sun Do Move, because he stopped it, by God’s command, for a whole day, as the text states. If he stopped it, that proves that the sun was moving, and moving over Joshua and the Amorites, and of course they was nowhere else than on this here earth, and consequently it was moving around the earth, and after the battle was over, it begun moving again in its regular course.

Many in the community scoffed at what they regarded as Jasper’s intellectual and religious primitivism. Some whites and formally educated African Americans saw him as the quintessential ignorant preacher. But for Jasper, if God said he stopped the sun, God apparently moved it. We can verify empirically that the earth revolves around the sun and not vice versa. This fact is undeniable. Nevertheless, what might it mean for us to understand Jasper’s emphasis as not necessarily on the fact of the sun moving, but rather on the truth of God’s power from the perspective of the formerly enslaved?

Jasper was 40 years old when the Civil War began, and like many of his hearers, he was taught to believe that servitude was a fact of life. Many white preachers even taught on the plantation that slavery was God’s will. All evidence seemed to substantiate this claim as fact. An enslaved person like Jasper, who had no reason to trust in the facts of life, was forced to hold on to the moral truth that God intended for all people to be free. This sermon, then, may very well be interpreted as a matter of simple philosophical deduction: the facts of Southern society pointed to a lifetime of servitude. Others said the sun never moves. God had the power to liberate the enslaved. Thus, God has the power to move the sun to make it stand still! What we have, then, is a metaphorical claim (“the sun do move”) to corroborate an abiding moral truth. No matter how dark the circumstances, God has the power to deliver.

The above examples reveal how we can imagine a world of love and justice. More specifically, this is the role of moral imagination, an orientation that emboldens us to transcend particularities of the present and imagine a radically different future. Think about what the protagonists of Richard Bach’s classic tale Jonathan Livingston Seagull and Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken” share in common. They were both able to envision a different path forward that radically altered not only their individual lives but the lives of others.

Though economic and political factors may seem predetermined and limiting, moral imagination allows us to conceptualize opportunities beyond the apparent limits placed before us.

Many have employed the term moral imagination. From Edmund Burke in the nineteenth century, through John Dewey and T. S. Eliot, to more recently peace activists such as John Paul Lederach, moral imagination often describes an awakened and creative consciousness, a consciousness that can create something out of nothing. Like a painter before a blank canvas or a sculptor with a block of stone, moral imagination turns us into ethical artists. Though economic and political factors may seem predetermined and limiting regarding our ability to act, moral imagination allows us to conceptualize opportunities beyond the apparent limits placed before us.

Moral imagination is similar to faith. Moral imagination challenges us to look at what appears to be nothing to identify something. It asks us to look upon those who are deemed nobody by society to see somebody loved by God! Like faith, moral imagination is both a noun and a verb. The writer of Hebrews said it well: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1). Faith is an assurance of the hope that we possess and a description of our actions. Moral imagination is something that we have, and it is something that we can enact.

Exercising our moral imagination should never be divorced from a thorough understanding of our social worlds as prescribed above. There’s a truism: vision without execution is hallucination. We can say the same about people of faith who have spiritual imaginations without social understanding. As my grandmother likes to say, “There is no need in being heavenly minded if you are no earthly good.”

Furthermore, moral imagination is central to an ethic of love and justice. When we immerse ourselves in a biblical narrative, moral imagination helps us identify with biblical characters; over time, this can improve our ability to empathize with others. In the same way that biblical narratives help us to reimagine what was possible in the ancient world, this same moral imagination can help us reimagine what is possible in our world regarding love and justice.

 

Jonathan L. Walton is the Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and the Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church of Harvard University, as well as a member of Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences and Professor of Religion and Society at HDS. He is the author of Watch This! The Ethics and Aesthetics of Black Televangelism (NYU Press, 2009) and the forthcoming A Lens of Love: Reading the Bible in Its World for Our World (Westminster John Knox Press, 2018), due out in September.

Please follow our Commentary Guidelines when engaging in discussion on this site.

Toward a More Radically Inclusive ‘We’

Diane L. Moore
 

Naturalization Ceremony, US Archives

Naturalization Ceremony, US Archives.

 

This is an edited version of introductory remarks delivered at the “Symposium on Religious Literacy and Government: Refugee and Immigration Issues,” sponsored by the Religious Literacy and the Professions Initiative, held at Harvard Divinity School on December 7–8, 2017. Additional articles from the symposium are found under the "Who are 'We'? section of this issue.

We often say that we are a nation of immigrants.

This common phrase has been echoed throughout the history of the United States and is itself one of the defining pillars of American identity. It captures the rich histories of migrants from across the globe who have traveled to our shores over centuries, inspired by a dizzying array of motivations, including, but not limited to, seeking refuge, security, reunion with family, and relative prosperity. So in this sense, the assertion that we are a nation of immigrants is absolutely true.

However, this phrase masks two other pillars of American history that are also critical to our identity: 1) the genocide of Native peoples who populated this continent for centuries long before the arrival and eventual colonization by Europeans; and 2) the prolonged forced migration of Africans through the heinous institution of chattel slavery. To say that we are a nation of immigrants masks these two other pillars of American identity in ways that hinder our capacity both to learn from and to come to terms with this complicated and devastating history. Regarding the relevance of religion in these phenomena, dominant strands of Christian expression (for example) gave sanction to colonialism, genocide, and slavery, while other strands of Christian expression challenged them. Understanding these influences is an important dimension in understanding the foundations of U.S. identity.

While keeping in mind the pillars of genocide and chattel slavery, I want to focus for a moment on the third pillar (that we are a nation of immigrants), through two vignettes from our history.

The first is a remarkable exchange of letters from 1790 between Moses Seixas, the Jewish warden of a synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island, and President George Washington. The occasion was Washington’s visit to Rhode Island shortly after citizens voted to ratify the Constitution. Washington was met by a cluster of local dignitaries upon his arrival, and Seixas was among those greeting the president. Here is an excerpt from the letter Moses Seixas presented and read publicly:

Deprived as we heretofore have been of the invaluable rights of free Citizens, we now with a deep sense of gratitude to the Almighty disposer of all events behold a Government, erected by the Majesty of the People—a Government, which to bigotry gives no sanction, to persecution no assistance—but generously affording to all Liberty of conscience, and immunities of Citizenship:—deeming every one, of whatever Nation, tongue, or language equal parts of the great governmental Machine. . . .1

A few days later, Washington responded in a return letter to Moses Seixas with these words:

The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.

These comments are clearly aspirational and clearly far from realized at the time of their utterance, when Native peoples were continually persecuted and displaced, and chattel slavery was in full force. When viewed through these realities, those lofty aspirations are exposed as blatantly hypocritical, hollow, and even sinister. Is there any hope that we as a people could truly erect a government that “gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance,” given these foundations? I believe we can, but not until we confront these legacies and the devastations they have wrought. At the heart of the matter, of course, is who is included in our “we.”

The second vignette focuses on the Statue of Liberty that stands as an iconic symbol of the assertion that we are a nation of immigrants. The inscription at the base is adopted from a poem by Emma Lazarus, who was born in 1849 into a Sephardic Jewish family and whose great-great-uncle was Moses Seixas. The inscription reads as follows: “Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, / The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. / Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, / I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

It seems to me that one of the ways to atone for the two devastations of our three pillars of identity—the devastations of genocide and chattel slavery—is that we relentlessly and vigorously embrace a more inclusive version of our third pillar: that “we” are a nation of immigrants, Native peoples, descendants of colonizers, slave owners, and slaves; and that “we” will aspire to give to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance; and that “we” will embrace and recognize as our own the tired, the poor, and the huddled masses yearning to breathe free.

 

Notes:

  1. The 1790 letters are available on the Facing History and Ourselves “Give Bigotry No Sanction” project website, www.facinghistory.org/nobigotry/the-letters.

     

 

Diane L. Moore is the founding director of the Religious Literacy Project at Harvard Divinity School, a senior fellow at the Center for the Study of World Religions, and a Faculty Affiliate of the Middle East Initiative. She served on a task force at the US State Department in the Office of Religion and Global Affairs in the Obama Administration to enhance training about religion for Foreign Service officers and other State Department personnel.

Please follow our Commentary Guidelines when engaging in discussion on this site.

Two Poems

Danez Smith

 

regular black

there is nothing in the universe worth more than the dance floor at a good black wedding

or possibly the sound my light skinned uncle makes when a song he forgot was his song comes on

i tell you this so you can understand how i think of memory, currency, wealth, that kind of shit

my favorite story to tell: once, on the porch, watching The Wheel, my mom was screaming all kinds of wild shit at the TV then my grandma said it’s a place, fool. that joke may sound lame here but it kills on the porch. might could be the happiest i’ve ever been. we was laughing so hard & all alive. nary a cancer had touched us, not a single sick was nursing off our gut, loosening the stools, unbraiding us as we mothered it

i just want you to understand how i understand happiness. summer is my favorite season cause it’s when you can sit still with someone by a tree quiet as hell & call that a good time. i pride myself on being regular & black

i believe in god the most amid wet acts: sex, birth, rain, mid electric slide. i believe because the people i love the most told me to, easier to name the luck which keeps me alive

fact: there is nothing more beautiful than a black woman on the way to whatever she considers church

fact: sister bernitta lost 16 pounds when she started catching the holy ghost once a day

fact: i know a woman who pearls a beautiful blunt & could out gospel yolanda adams any day

fact: today i passed my grandma, said a joke & she laughed, i knew then that i had a purpose

i just want you to understand how i understand everything. i was raised by people who believe there is a way to raise a child. i grew up black & quite happy all things considered. i was loved & had good friends & bad friends who i no longer fuck with. i won fights & got my lip busted & cried in my closet & danced with girls & called a boy a faggot & had a fade & was shot at once & only once & finger painted & felt indescribable loneliness & was given twenty bucks when i was going to the mall. i was homecoming king & pookie’s son & track team captain & played a vulture in The Wizard of Oz & was a virgin & then wasn’t & ate chicken & there was never a question of if i was going to college or not

i was quite normal, quite boring

i tell you this so you can understand this: when that man filled me with what had to be a ghost, i knew i was no longer normal, rushed into a new standard. when he jimmied his way into my blood & broke something that felt like a vow, i wasn’t surprised when, while lotioning, i touched my back, felt feathers

 

 

 


old confession & new

it sounds crazy, but it feels like truth. i tell you –
it felt like i practiced for it, auditioned even, applied.
what the doctor told me was not news, was legend
catching up to me, a blood whispering
you were born for this. i tell you – i was not shocked
but confirmed. enlisted? i am on the battlefield
& i am the field & the battle & the casualty & the gun.
my war is but a rumor & is not war. i swallow a green pill
everyday at noon to take asylum from my body.
i am a delicacy in the tradition of the fugu.
too much of me will end you. at the end of me
there is a boy i barely remember, barely ever knew
saying don’t worry, don’t worry, don’t worry, don’t worry.

so now that it’s an old fact, can it be useful?
that which hasn’t killed you yet can pay the rent
if you play it right. keep it really real:
plenty black folks get paid off the cruelty
of whites, why not make the blood
a business? here. take it. here’s what happened to me.
while you marvel at it imma run to the store.
my blood brings me closer to death,
talking about it has bought me new boots,
a summer’s worth of car notes, organic fruit.

 

 

Danez Smith is the author of Don’t Call Us Dead, a finalist for the National Book Award, and [insert] boy, winner of the Lambda Literary Award and the Kate Tufts Discovery Award. They co-host the Poetry Foundation–sponsored podcast VS with Franny Choi.

Please follow our Commentary Guidelines when engaging in discussion on this site.

See also: Poetry

Understanding White Evangelical Views on Immigration

For this cultural group, militant masculinity trumps the Bible.

Kristin Kobes Du Mez
 

This is an edited version of remarks delivered at the “Symposium on Religious Literacy and Government: Refugee and Immigration Issues,” sponsored by the Religious Literacy and the Professions Initiative, held at Harvard Divinity School on December 7–8, 2017. Additional articles from the symposium are found under the "Who are 'We'?” section of this issue.

What factors shape how white evangelicals approach the question of immigration? On the one hand, the Bible, and Christian tradition, have a lot to say about loving the stranger and caring for the foreigner. There is a universality within the Christian faith that ostensibly cuts across tribe and nation. Indeed, a strong Christian case can be made for extending a “radical hospitality,” for permeable borders, and for a compassionate approach to immigration.

And yet, white evangelicals—those who claim to hold the Bible in highest regard—are more opposed to immigration reform, and have more negative views about immigrants, than any other religious demographic.1 This, despite the advocacy efforts of many evangelical organizations and prominent leaders.

In fact, the Bible appears to hold little sway when it comes to immigration: a 2015 LifeWay Research poll found that 90 percent of all evangelicals say that “the Scripture has no impact on their views toward immigration reform.”2 Evangelicals, then, are not basing their views on scripture. Instead, they are acting out of a powerful, cohesive worldview—an ideology that is at the heart of their religious and political identity, an ideology influenced by conservative media sources but that is also deeply rooted in their own faith tradition.

Evangelicals I know don’t actually talk all that much about immigration. But they talk a lot about other things, and I want to suggest that these other things position them in critical ways when it comes to views on immigrants, borders, and the American nation.

My own research on masculinity focuses on just one facet of the evangelical worldview—but a foundational one. In many ways, gender provides the glue that holds together their larger ideological framework. For years I’ve been tracing evangelicals’ embrace of increasingly militaristic constructions of masculinity, which go hand in hand with visions of the nation as vulnerable and in need of defense.  

To understand contemporary evangelical masculinity, we must look to the past. The 1950s, it turns out, was a critical decade that set the stage for a new understanding of Christian manhood. It was in the early years of the Cold War that gender became closely linked to the security of the American nation. Communists threatened the nation, and the family. They were anti-God, anti-American, and antifamily. Reinforcing proper gender roles—that of male breadwinner/protector and female homemaker/protected—was deemed essential for the security of the American nation.

Evangelicals embraced and promoted Cold War politics. Men like Billy James Hargis and Billy Graham helped awaken Americans to the dangers of communism. They presented a world of stark contrasts, of good versus evil. And America was clearly on the side of the good.  

But evangelicals weren’t alone in embracing this Cold War ideology. This was a time of “Cold War consensus,” when liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, largely agreed when it came to the communist threat. This was the height of American civil religion. God was “on our side.”

In the 1960s, however, this consensus started to unravel—thanks to the civil rights movement, the rise of feminism, and the Vietnam War. Many Americans began to embrace a more critical view of the nation and the military, and they began to abandon “traditional” gender roles. Evangelicals, however, clung tightly to these values. They promoted traditional gender roles, Christian nationalism, and the military. This constellation of issues became central to their religious and political identity and key to their political mobilization in the 1970s.

Poster for a Promise Keepers conference "Awakening the Warrior"
2013 Promise Keepers "Awakening the Warrior" national men's conference poster.

At the heart of all of this is a militaristic idea of Christian manhood. Figures like James Dobson, Jerry Falwell, Phyllis Schlafly, and Edwin Louis Cole all identified a crisis of masculinity in the 1970s, against the backdrop of the Vietnam War. By 1980, Dobson was blaming feminists for tampering with the “time-honored roles of protector and protected” and for denigrating masculine leadership as “macho.” He saw this as a crisis of gender, but also as a threat to national security. For the sake of the nation, a “call to arms” was needed, a reassertion of the “Judeo-Christian concept of masculinity” in the face of feminists’ “concerted attack on ‘maleness.’ ”3

By the 1980s, evangelical masculinity had become thoroughly imbued with militarism. In the 1990s, with the end of the Cold War and the rise of Promise Keepers, the evangelical organization for men, this militant masculinity softened into the “Tender Warrior” motif. But by the end of the decade, a renewed “crisis of masculinity was identified,” and the time had come to drop the tender and embrace the warrior.

By 2001, books like Dobson’s Bringing Up Boys decried how “a small but noisy band of feminists” has left men “feminized, emasculated, and wimpified.” Douglas Wilson’s Future Men urged that boys be raised to be warriors, to embrace dominion. Most significantly, John Eldredge’s wildly popular Wild at Heart: Discovering the Secret of a Man’s Soul insisted that masculinity was thoroughly militaristic. A “crisis in masculinity” pervaded both church and society because a “warrior culture” no longer existed. Man was made to image God, a warrior God; aggression was “part of the masculine design.”

Only months after Wild at Heart debuted, terrorists struck the United States. Almost overnight, Eldredge’s call for “manly” heroes developed a deep and widespread cultural resonance. Evangelicals, many of whom had never strayed from Cold War gender constructions, stood at the ready to address these new conditions. For them, it was an almost effortless switch from a communist to an Islamic threat: “[W]hen those two planes hit the Twin Towers on September 11, what we suddenly needed were masculine men. Feminized men don’t walk into burning buildings. But masculine men do. That’s why God created men to be masculine.”4

Dobson, too, connected the dots, characterizing “Islamic fundamentalism” as one of the most serious threats to American families: “the security of our homeland and the welfare of our children are, after all, ‘family values.’ ”5 Books on evangelical masculinity sold in the millions. Read as devotionals, studied in small groups, and preached from pulpits, they were consumed as God’s word.


How, precisely, does this militarized evangelical masculinity affect immigration?

It’s important to keep in mind that religion, though often unacknowledged,…is deeply embedded in how Americans imagine the border.6 From the Cold War to the present, evangelicals have perceived the American nation as vulnerable. Strong, aggressive, militant men must defend “her.” The border is this line of defense. Many evangelicals see the border as a site of danger rather than as a place of exchange or a site of hospitality.

Presently, the key threat evangelicals perceive is the threat of terrorism, and, in the minds of evangelicals and despite much evidence to the contrary, immigrants and refugees are linked to terrorism. Immigration activists working in faith communities have noted an increase in this tendency following the election of Trump. Those working in refugee resettlement have found that, when speaking with evangelicals, they must give much more attention to the finer points of how refugees are screened and vetted before being allowed into the United States.

It is also important to note that, for white evangelicals, this aggressive, militant masculinity is a racialized masculinity. Black men, Middle Eastern men, Hispanic men are not called to a wild, militant masculinity. Their aggression is dangerous, a threat to the stability of home and nation.

Since the 1960s, we also see a dogged commitment to “law and order” among white evangelicals. What started as a backlash against hippies, civil rights activists, and Vietnam-era antiwar protestors, has led to an idealization of law enforcement and the military; border control agents fall into this category as well.  

In light of ongoing and ever-present threats, many evangelicals have concluded that we need strong men, and a strongman. For this reason, President Trump’s “character flaws” aren’t the stumbling block we might expect them to be. In the words of Rev. Robert Jeffress: “I want the meanest, toughest, son-of-a-you-know-what I can find in that role, and I think that’s where many evangelicals are.”7

Evangelicals like to claim that the Bible is central to their identities and to their social and political commitments, and many scholars continue to define evangelicals in terms of their doctrinal commitments. But this misses the bigger picture. Evangelicalism is a historical and cultural movement.

For activists who want to change evangelical views on immigration, quoting scripture will not have much impact unless they find ways to disrupt this larger constellation of commitments.


How, then, might religious literacy help us speak across this divide?

In limited ways, it can help to speak the language of evangelicals. Tapping into evangelical support for “family values,” for example, one might emphasize the importance of keeping families together. This approach, however, is limited in light of the recent conservative demonization of “chain migration,” which has effectively framed family reunification as a threat rather than a good.

Sharing individual stories can also help reveal the human dimensions of failed immigration policies. However, evangelicals have always exhibited a strong streak of individualism and often see individual cases as just that, without looking to the larger systems that dictate the terms of those stories. In this way, white evangelical Iowa farmers may care about their undocumented laborers in a personal way, yet still place a large “Re-elect Steve King” sign in their front yard. Or they may consider someone they know personally as one of “the good ones,” someone “not like the other ones.” In this way, there can be a sizable disconnect between personal sentiments and views on immigration policy.

In a similar fashion, speaking the language of “innocent” victims, of people who have ended up in circumstances through no fault of their own, can also connect with evangelicals. But this, too, can be a short-sighted approach. For instance, emphasizing the “innocence” of Dreamers may have the inadvertent effect of throwing their parents under the proverbial bus, a tradeoff many Dreamers themselves are unwilling to make. More importantly, the language of “innocence” ends up propping up simplistic and perhaps unjust notions of “law and order,” while obscuring the larger structural issues that must be confronted if we are to address questions of justice on a national and a global scale. When it comes to distinguishing the “deserving” from those “undeserving” of assistance, the line is frequently drawn in a narrow, legalistic way; for those who “broke the law,” mercy is inappropriate.8

Rather than attempting to devise tactics to appeal to evangelicals in the current climate, the bigger, more important question that must be addressed is how religious literacy might help us reshape contingent cultural norms to more effectively pursue peace and justice.9 How, in other words, can we speak in ways that address evangelicals’ underlying ideological commitments?

In this regard, it’s hard to be optimistic. It is incredibly difficult to disrupt a cohesive worldview of this sort, particularly one that is inherently suspicious of opposing views and is fueled by a victimization narrative, one backed by a multi-billion-dollar spiritual-industrial complex, and one that has direct and exclusive avenues of communication to hundreds of millions of eager consumers.

In addition to crucial on-the-ground, issue-based advocacy, it would be prudent to invest in faith-based public scholarship and popular literature that works to disrupt reigning ideologies within religious communities. The resources of the religious left (and center) have always been dwarfed by the money pouring into the Religious Right. It will take a concerted effort to offer competing narratives that might open communities of faith up to rethinking immigration in light of the biblical call to welcome the stranger and to love one’s neighbor as oneself.

 

Notes:

  1. Betsy Cooper et al., “How Americans View Immigrants, and What They Want from Immigration Reform: Findings from the 2015 American Values Atlas,” Public Religion Research Institute.
  2. Evangelical Views on Immigration, Sponsored by the Evangelical Immigration Table and World Relief, February 2015 (PDF)
  3. See James Dobson, Straight Talk to Men and Their Wives (Word Books, 1980).
  4. Steve Farrar, King Me: What Every Son Wants and Needs from His Father (Moody Publishers, 2005), 120.
  5. James Dobson, “Family in Crisis,” accessed 7/12/2007.
  6. “Case Study / Arizona-Mexico Border,” Symposium on Religious Literacy and Government (Religious Literacy and the Professions Initiative, 2017), 1.
  7. ‘Evangelical Elite’ Just Doesn’t Get It, Claims Pastor and Trump Supporter,” Baptist News Global, March 16, 2016.
  8. I am grateful to Kate Kooyman and Kris Van Engen of the Christian Reformed Church’s Office of Social Justice for sharing their insights on outreach to faith communities.
  9. This is one of several thought-provoking questions raised in the RLP’s “Case Study / Arizona-Mexico Border.”
 

Kristin Kobes Du Mez is Professor of History at Calvin College. The author of A New Gospel for Women (Oxford, 2015), she is currently writing a book on evangelical masculinity, militarism, and the rise of Donald Trump.

Please follow our Commentary Guidelines when engaging in discussion on this site.

What the Gospels Share with Fanfiction

Jade Sylvan

Illustration for Fan Fiction

Illustration by Andrew Zbihlyj

 

The “synoptic problem” refers to how biblical scholars explain the close literary interrelationship between the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Based on the material that is shared in them, scholars believe that Mark is the earliest of the three synoptic Gospels, written around 60 CE, and that the writers of Matthew and Luke had access to Mark (as well as to another source, “Q”) when they were penning their own versions about 30 years later.1 As a divinity school student new to biblical scholarship, I’ve found it interesting to notice what the later authors kept, sometimes verbatim, from the earlier work. But I’ve found myself more compelled to look at some of the content that was added, and at how the desire of the later Gospel writers to take up the pen parallels the modern phenomenon of fanfiction. While I think that fanfiction may exist as a contemporary descendant to scriptural writing, I’m not necessarily equating fandom with religion. Rather, I’m suggesting that the impulses and processes of fanfic writing and scripture writing may be similar, and that looking at these similarities may be enlightening. I hope doing so will also help make the actions of these millennia-old authors more relatable to current audiences.

Fanfiction actively appropriates aspects of existing narratives and ideas in order to create avenues to complex, frequently alternative understandings. Additionally, fanfiction is often created to fill in the “gaps” left by completed canonical works.

So, what is fanfiction? It’s a relatively new (less than 50 years old) category of writing that has, by and large, existed outside “respectable” (that is, traditionally published) literature. I have been an occasional reader and creator of fanfiction for over 20 years, but I became dissatisfied with much of the writing about the phenomenon. Good-faith attempts to define the movement arrived well into its existence and were often made by interlopers. Now, however, more and more fanfiction writers and readers are defining themselves. In 2017, fansplaining.com took a community poll to come up with a crowdsourced definition of the term. While opinions varied widely on many aspects of what makes a work fanfic, the one category that 73 percent of readers agreed is required for something to be true fanfiction is that it must be written by someone other than the author of the original (canonical) work.2 What the poll didn’t need to specify, perhaps, is that this other author is something called a “fan”—that is, someone who loves the original work that is being appropriated and changed.

This means that fanfiction is inherently dialogical. Fanfiction actively appropriates aspects of existing narratives and ideas in order to create avenues to complex, frequently alternative understandings. Additionally, fanfiction is often created to fill in the “gaps” left by completed canonical works. Probably the most cited “intro to fanfic” example is Kirk/Spock slashfic. (Slash, or slashfic, is a genre in which same-sex characters who are not romantically or sexually involved in the canonical work are written as romantically or sexually involved.) In Star Trek, Kirk and Spock share a strong bond that stops at deep platonic friendship. Kirk/Spock slashfic imagines a romantic or a sexual side to their connection, changing the relationship’s implications while still honoring and exploring a true aspect of the original work.

Likewise, what Matthew and Luke do with the “gaps” in Mark sometimes alters the meaning, while deepening or broadening the reading of the “original” work, as can be seen in the contrasting infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke. These narratives don’t come into play at all in Mark, where Jesus is introduced as an adult. Both of these later synoptic Gospels, however, state that Jesus is born to a virgin named Mary (pointing possibly to some other shared oral tradition). Matthew skips the biological details and focuses on Jesus’s birth to a virgin as a fulfillment of the words of the prophet Isaiah,3 trying to emphasize that Jesus is the Messiah (Matt. 1:23, 2:6, 2:18).4 Luke, on the other hand, shares a detailed narrative of the divine insemination of the mother, focusing on Jesus’s divinity in a way that would be understandable to a largely Greco-Roman population familiar with stories of demigods, as well as with Jewish accounts of special births like that of Isaac (Luke 1:26–38). Because of differences such as these, some scholars speculate that Matthew was writing to a congregation that included a large number of Jews, while Luke was likely writing for a mostly gentile congregation.5 Thus, additions found in later works may give us clues into the interests not only of the authors of Matthew and Luke but of the audiences they were written for.

This phenomenon of later authors taking up the reins to fill in or extend completed works has considerable precedent in the ancient world. J. Lee Magness discusses the nature of suspended endings in ancient literature, pointing specifically to those in the Iliad and the Odyssey. These hanging endings led later authors to write the Epic Cycle to fill these pregnant gaps. Magness goes on to list five assumptions about the ending of the original works that arise from the existence of this later, other-authored Epic Cycle:

  1. that the ending, by pointing to the future (the imagined fate of Hector’s fatherless son) encourages speculation about what happened next;
  2. that the ending is open enough to allow attempts at closure;
  3. that the tradition offered the general parameters within which any projections could be suitably made;
  4. that the text supplied anticipatory clues about future events that later readers/poets could supplement the narrative in a way that convinced succeeding generations of its originality and authenticity; and
  5. that readers of the truncated original no doubt adequately supplied the necessary resolutions, given the demands of the text and the demands of custom, even before the attachment of the sequel.6

In this conception, the story itself exists within an open-ended dialogue between the author and the reader/listener. The exaggerated suspension of the endings in these specific works highlights the fact that suspension, in some sense, is a feature common to almost all endings.

Karen L. King brings Magness’s argument back to the synoptic Gospels in her exploration of the notably suspended ending of the Gospel of Mark, which concludes when the only witnesses to the empty tomb run away and tell no one what they had seen. King writes:

. . . [B]y requiring readers to finish the story, the open [ending] of the Gospel of Mark effectively turn[s] readers into authors. Arguably all suspended endings have this potential to turn readers into authors and even characters. They can, for example, take up the narrative where the literary author left off and compose their own (diverse) endings. Such an ending could be a literary composition, merely extending the narrative by penning a few more lines, such as we see for the longer and shorter endings of the Gospel of Mark. Or authorship might lead to more extensive literary activity, by adding episodes, filling out the fate of characters like Peter and the other apostles, or by wholesale rewriting. . . .7

King expands the purview of these pregnant gaps, saying, “this potential is of course not limited to stories with suspended or open endings, but belongs in various modes to the ‘gapped’ and dialogical character of all literature, art, and other forms.”8 Every unshown moment or possibility in a work is, in a way, an invitation for creative discourse with the reader.

But why take up the pen? Why not simply fantasize about your personal narrative alternatives while washing dishes? One possible answer may lie in how Benjamin Sommer sees the revelation at Sinai to be “collaborative and participatory,” involving “active contributions by both God and Israel.”9 Jewish tradition, he says, is the result of their dialogue. He goes so far as to say that God’s revelation was supralingual and, as such, must necessarily have been “translated” by human beings in order to convey its true meaning. But, of course, “[n]o translation is perfect.” Because revelation can be misunderstood, it can be dangerous. As a result, Sommer argues that “the Bible’s propositional statements and its allusive, associative discourse constitute the beginning of a discussion.”10 Early Christian authors, too, may have taken up the call to continue the scriptural conversation.

Another answer to the “Why write it down?” question could be that some additional salience is needed when a written work is shared with a specific community. Francesca Coppa, one of the founders of the vast fanfiction website archiveofourown.org (called “AO3”), begins her book The Fanfiction Reader with her own list of what fanfiction is and is not. In addition to noting that fanfiction “rewrites and transforms stories currently owned by others,” she makes a point to distinguish fanfic as “fiction created outside the literary marketplace” and as “fiction written within and to the standards of a particular community.”11 Fanfiction is creative work outside the current mainstream model of monetary reward, but it is very much embedded within (sub)cultural needs and wants of its particular communit(y/ies). I, a queer Star Trek fan, want and need to see Kirk and Spock in an erotic embrace. The largely gentile audience of Luke perhaps wanted and needed to hear the Jewish Jesus assuring them that God’s message was for everyone in the world (though early Christianity was a subcultural movement, it should be noted that gentiles were the majority hegemonic group at the time).12

Coppa states that fanfic writers create their works as “gifts” to their communities. Because of this, she argues that “fanfiction is made for free, but not ‘for nothing.’ ” Many fanfiction authors have gone on to successful, commercial careers as professional fiction writers, yet continue to write fanfic for their community, out of what Coppa calls “love.”13 This seems to be the final distinction for Coppa. After all, plenty of commercial properties are taken up and professionally authored by new writers after the original author dies or retires or gets bored, but she argues that these are not examples of true fanfiction. Fanfiction is created not for money but for love—of the original work, of the community, and of the creative act itself.

If scripture is seen as a dialogue, it stands to reason that it would require being embraced and reimagined by different authors in different times and places—even by authors with different points of view. As I have learned about Luke’s pagan slant (e.g., the divine insemination) and Matthew’s messianic additions and how their calculated redactions suited their unique conditions writing in the Roman Empire during the first or second century, I have wondered if we might also see the synoptic Gospels as creations of authors who loved and respected the traditions that came to them. They were taking up the story and filling in the gaps to find the truths that their specific communities want and need. (This is not to deny other, more difficult, motivations and consequences. Many scholars have written about the context of tension and strife in which the synoptic Gospels were produced and about the anti-Jewish tones and polemics that can be found in these texts.)

Likewise, in contemporary fanfiction, authors reimagine stories and texts to find the truths their communities need. In doing so, they feed the subculture so that it might grow strong enough to become self-sustaining, to upset the mainstream, to remake the world.

 

Notes:

  1. Bart D. Ehrman, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, 4th ed. (Oxford University Press, 2008), 92–101.
  2. See Flourish Klink, “Towards a Definition of ‘Fanfiction,’ ” Medium, May 30, 2017. In modern fanfiction, the word “canon” denotes works produced by whoever owns the rights to the story, whereas the biblical canon as we know it wasn’t even an idea when Luke and Matthew were writing.
  3. “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel”; Isaiah 7:14 (New International Version). Here lies another layer of fanfiction, given the large number of quotations and references from the Septuagint—the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible—in the New Testament.
  4. Ehrman, The New Testament, 102–103.
  5. Ibid., 118–119, 128.
  6. J. Lee Magness, Sense and Absence: Structure and Suspension in the Ending of Mark’s Gospel (Scholars Press, 1986), 28–29.
  7. Karen L. King, “Endings: The Gospel of Mark and the Gospel of Judas,” in Early Christian and Jewish Narrative: The Role of Religion in Shaping Narrative Forms, ed. Ilaria Ramelli and Judith Perkins (Mohr Siebeck, 2015), 64–65.
  8. Ibid., 65.
  9. Benjamin D. Sommer, Revelation and Authority: Sinai in Jewish Scripture and Tradition (Yale University Press, 2015), 1–2.
  10. Ibid., 235–236, 218.
  11. Francesca Coppa, The Fanfiction Reader: Folk Tales for the Digital Age (University of Michigan Press, 2017), 2–12.
  12. Ehrman, The New Testament, 121–139.
  13. Coppa, The Fanfiction Reader, 14–16.
 

Jade Sylvan, a first-year MDiv student at HDS, is a superfan of most religions and lives with their wife and smelly dachshund in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Please follow our Commentary Guidelines when engaging in discussion on this site.

See also: Opinion

With My Father atop Birds Hill

Catherine Stearns
 

When he pointed to a squiggle in a tree
any child could make into a bird,

its bright banner one I thought I knew,
I twirled my frilly skirt and sang out—

not yet knowing that flight is one
of many disturbances between us,

or how much hides in plain sight.
The hand holding mine shook

like the shivery motor of an Easter chick
before it withdrew. And that was it:

another hand left in billowing space.

No need to pity the girl any more
than a bird crossed out, for she believed

in the world here below, even when
the word turned from banner to gash,

even when, especially when
in a fit of love or rage the heart chimes in.

 

 

Catherine Stearns is the author of a new chapbook, Then & Again, published by Slate Roof Press. She is writer-in-residence at the Roxbury Latin School in West Roxbury, Massachusetts.

Please follow our Commentary Guidelines when engaging in discussion on this site.

See also: Poetry

‘Whiteness’ in the Mormon Archive

Seth Perry

In Review | Books Race and the Making of the Mormon People, by Max Perry Mueller. UNC Press, 352 pages, $90 hardcover; $32.50 paperback.

Illustration of book with different color faces as the pages

Illustration by Hanna Barczyk

 

I recently taught the book of mormon in a course I call “American Scriptures” and, inevitably, the text’s treatment of race came up. Students in the course always end up with different editions of the text, and I make a point of having them compare their versions of 2 Nephi 30:6. This passage concerns the prophesied redemption of Book of Mormon characters—the Lamanites, ancestors of Native Americans by the text’s logic—who have been cursed with dark skin because of their disobedience to God. In some nineteenth-century editions and in all editions since 1981, that verse predicts that they will one day be “a pure and delightsome people.” In 1830 though, when the Book of Mormon was first published, and in the overwhelming number of editions published up to 1981, they were set to become “a white and delightsome people.” Their redemption from sin would be marked, that is, by a literal change in their phenotypic racial classification.

For most of its history, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints held people of African descent at arm’s length, barring them from the faith’s priesthood and highest ordinances.

For most of its history, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints held people of African descent at arm’s length, barring them from the faith’s priesthood and highest ordinances. This changed officially in 1978, a few years before the change from “white” to “pure” in the text. In class, as we discussed the stakes of the textual change in this context, a self-identified

LDS student in the course suggested that, though the text had long been misread and misapplied by church officials who succumbed to the racial prejudices of their times, the Book of Mormon itself had a notion of race not reducible to those prejudices. It should have been, and should now be, he suggested, read differently.

That student was completely correct, but the relationship among texts, circumstances, and ideological constructions as fraught and consequential as race is complicated. This complexity is at the heart of Max Perry Mueller’s highly anticipated book on race as a constitutive factor in the formation of Mormonism. Mueller takes on a wide range of questions about early Mormonism and race, but the answers to all of those questions resolve to an argument constituted by the same move my student made in his comment: the goal is to make clear a distinction between the ideologies and practices of race that defined the church for most of its history and the set of possibilities available in its founding texts. If early Mormons ignored those possibilities in favor of others more in keeping with the racist assumptions of their historical periods, the text nevertheless still bears them: they are, that is, as available for believers today as they were when the church was founded in 1830. As with my student’s comment, this clearing of space between the text and its reception is a legitimate move, but it is very, very complicated.

Race and the Making of the Mormon People is an erudite examination of many of these complications. By looking closely at the obsession with race found in Mormonism’s founding text, at the recorded experiences of early Mormons of color, and at those moments in Mormonism’s early history especially weighted with racial questions, Mueller argues that a “project of racial purification and reunification was sui generis to the faith.” Mormonism, that is, is inseparable from a “divine mandate to solve humanity’s race problem . . . present in the minds of the founders and in the church’s foundational text, the Book of Mormon” (13).

For Mueller, the ideology of race present in the Book of Mormon and in the minds of early church leaders was distinctive for its day—“proto-postmodern,” even—in imagining race to be mutable, not innate. The Book of Mormon, he writes, “taught its earliest believers that race was not real . . . not a permanent part of God’s vision for humanity” (18–19). Mueller’s first chapter is an energetic close reading of the Book of Mormon that perceptively draws this ideology of race out of its complex narrative. The rest of the book is an account of the historical conditions and personalities beyond the text that contributed to or suffered from the failure of this vision to be realized in the world in which the Book of Mormon moved.

Mueller refers to the Book of Mormon’s racial vision as “white universalism.” That is the relevance of the “white and delightsome” verse with which my students grappled: cursed with dark skin for their sins, the Lamanites have the chance to achieve “whiteness” in a metaphorical as well as a phenotypical sense by converting to Mormonism in the latter days (19). Mueller argues that this conception of race reached the Book of Mormon’s first readers and had a formative effect on the earliest days of the church. This itself is a provocative claim: it is a commonplace that early Mormons didn’t read the Book of Mormon as much as they read the Bible and Joseph Smith’s immediate revelations. One of Mueller’s fantastic contributions here is to attend to all of the ways that the book was “marketed” to various populations—the already converted, Native Americans, African Americans, potential white converts, and potential political and religious enemies. Mueller documents the book’s presentation to and reception by each of these populations through careful excavation of his sources, and he succeeds in making his case for the book’s reach by looking closely at the way specific passages were carefully and intentionally excerpted in early Mormon periodicals. This is one of the signature accomplishments of this book.

Mueller’s attention to the way that the racialized narrative of the Book of Mormon affected early Mormon assumptions about race is an important intervention.

Mueller’s attention to the way that the racialized narrative of the Book of Mormon affected early Mormon assumptions about race is an important intervention. In arguing against a historiographical tendency to assume things work the other way—i.e., that historical circumstance affects the interpretation of scriptures—Mueller may occasionally lose sight of the essential co-constitution of these factors: circumstance will always affect readers’ approach to the text. Nevertheless, his account of “white universalism” as constructed in the Book of Mormon and that ideology’s importance to early Mormonism is completely convincing.

Mueller goes on to argue that Mormons abandoned the Book of Mormon’s way of constituting race over the course of the church’s first few decades: “how the Mormons read their own scriptures changed. They began reading more into the racially exclusionary passages of their expanding canon and less into the inclusive message that the earliest leaders emphasized” (20). This much makes sense, mostly, and Mueller chronicles this shift in reading with subtlety and frankness with respect to the realities of racial ideologies in the early-national period. Mueller’s interest in plotting Mormon views of race on a trajectory of decline, though, necessitates a certain idealization of the Book of Mormon itself and of those early days. When he suggests that “the Book of Mormon’s ‘white universalism’ proved too ambitious to be tolerated in antebellum America” (20) and occasionally slips into referring to that same “white universalism” as “racially inclusive,” Mueller gilds this idealization with an anachronistic enthusiasm. Still, Mueller is convincing when he argues that the church’s early days bore an energy and a theological orientation toward a different view of race than the one the LDS Church ended up embracing for most of its history.

What Mueller means is that specifically religious writing was the primary means of the creation of race and racial hierarchies in early America.

Mueller’s focus on the excerpting and re-mediation of the Book of Mormon is part of his overarching interest in literacy, writing, and the constitution of the archive. He avers that his “most important thesis” is that “if the first construction site of the races in American history was on paper, this paper was religious in nature” (13). What Mueller means is that specifically religious writing was the primary means of the creation of race and racial hierarchies in early America. His corollary argument is that people of color—having relatively little access to the means of reading and writing and subject to racialized assumptions about those means as fundamentally white enterprises—were subjects of this creation but not participants in its discourses. “[I]lliterate nonwhites could not respond in writing to the writers who labeled them as less than human—ahistorical savages or unredeemable slaves” (25).

This concern infuses Mueller’s text with an admirable care regarding most of his sources—it is a true achievement to express such a self-reflexive concern in a work of historiography and actually maintain it while producing a piece of scholarship that is still readable and coherent. He extends this observation, though, into a critique of the archive that, while important in its general thrust, goes places that I’m not sure Mueller intends. A tense-confused sentence in the introduction sets the stage: Mueller asks, “how did racial identities affect who gets to write history?” (21). Who gets to, or who got to? Is this about historiography or the archive of available sources? Throughout the last three chapters of the book, Mueller carefully illustrates the ways that African Americans and Native Americans were written out of the Mormon archive by racial ideologies that coded literacy and writing as white endeavors. This is an important, obsessively self-critical consciousness that all historians should work with.

At the same time, I do think that Mueller confuses ideologies of literacy and the writing of history with the actual absence of voices of color in the archive. Those voices exist; Mueller himself spends a lot of time recovering them. To some extent he undercuts this recovery work, though, by insisting that writers of color in the nineteenth century “cannot escape the racialization of their own writings” (25). This is a self-fulfilling prophecy, a self-defeating attitude toward the archive that seems very much outmoded. Mueller’s attempt to highlight the prerogatives of racial exclusion in the formation of the archive sounds at times like a grudging acceptance of that exclusion.

[Jane Manning James] wanted this account of her closeness to the founding prophet to sway late-century church leaders toward allowing African Americans like her fuller access to the church’s spiritual offerings.

This problem comes to a head in Mueller’s treatment of one of the most important African American Mormons of the nineteenth century, Jane Manning James. In 1843, James traveled with her family from Connecticut to join the Mormons in Illinois, where she came to know Joseph Smith in the year before his death. Manning went west in 1847, among the first Mormon pioneers, and became a well-known and beloved member of Utah society, passing away in 1908. Mueller engages at length with the primary source for James’s life, a brief autobiography that she dictated in 1893. Mueller reads this text like a text—that is, he reflects on it not as a life but as a story about a life, a rhetorical construction existing at a necessary remove from its subject. Mueller argues that James narrated her life—to a white scribe, whose effect on the text Mueller demonstrates—with a goal in mind. As a confidante of Smith and a member of the pioneer generation, James resented being barred from the church’s highest rituals because of her race. “Is there no blessing for me[?]” she asked the church’s president in an 1884 letter. She wanted this account of her closeness to the founding prophet to sway late-century church leaders toward allowing African Americans like her fuller access to the church’s spiritual offerings. In placing herself in the founding era and in a close relationship with Smith himself, Mueller argues, James “composed a revisionist history about Smith’s attitudes about and actions toward Mormons of African descent” (121).

Mueller analyzes James’s autobiography with this rhetorical goal in mind, arguing that, “because her history is a polemic, the question of the narrator’s reliability must be raised” (137). Mueller’s reading of James is, by all appearances, well reasoned. Treating the text in this way, moreover, has the effect of taking James seriously as an author of her own life and an actor in her own story, with her own self-interest and her own voice. Despite his willingness to treat James as an author, though, Mueller persists in conflating his subjects’ association of literate culture and whiteness with the assumption that people of color in the nineteenth century could not be authors. What is most bothersome about Mueller’s treatment of James’s authorship is that other, equally crucial, sources in the book are exempted from rhetorical analysis altogether. Race opens with standard bits of Smith’s autobiographical statements, which are repeated without any of the same attention to the author’s rhetorical interests or narratologically suspect position. The fact that this suspicion is applied most extensively to a text produced by a woman of color is painfully conspicuous.

The most important of the texts which Mueller exempts from rhetorical analysis is the Book of Mormon itself. On a first read, Mueller’s way of referring to the Book of Mormon will be jarring to most readers. Mueller refers to the text in the way that it wants to be thought of: as a pre-Columbian American artifact. He wonders about the motivations of the Nephite editors who composed it from various sets of ancient plates, speculates about what may lie hidden in the text’s various lacunae, and refers repeatedly to the “pre-Columbian American Christianity” that it describes. Most readers will be confused by sentences such as: “What else have the Nephite archivists and historians omitted in the Plates of Nephi? A careful reading suggests that there is no easy answer to this question” (53). With this reading strategy, Mueller is drawing on the methodology suggested by Grant Hardy in Understanding the Book of Mormon (Oxford, 2010) for considering the Book of Mormon as a literary text.1

Hardy’s work is essential, and Mueller’s boldness in applying it in a work of history pays dividends by showcasing the ways that themes of race play out at the level of the text. Assigning all rhetorical agency in the text to Nephites, however, obviates the possibility of treating it as a rhetorical product of the nineteenth century. By presenting his reading of the Book of Mormon this way in this work of historiography, Mueller is not, I think, staking a claim for the prerogatives of faithful reading in scholarship. He executes this text-level reading in the perpetual present tense of the text—always “Christ examines the Nephites’ sacred texts,” as one might write in recounting a novel, never “examined,” as in a history. Further, he pegs his endnotes referencing the Book of Mormon to the 1830 page numbers first, with contemporary chapter and verse citations in brackets: this reminds the reader that Mueller’s intention is to read the Book of Mormon as the first readers might have (contemporary ways of referencing the text came later), and, by this reading, to see what those first readers might have seen by way of an ideology of race.

Still, Mueller’s text-level questions about the predilections of the Nephite authors and editors of the Book of Mormon—questions that can be illuminating from a text-critical perspective—eventually become perplexing as they regard nineteenth-century Mormonism. When Mueller avers that, “It is unfruitful, and perhaps unfair, to hold the Book of Mormon narrators to standards of inclusive and balanced history writing to which they do not claim to aspire,” it is hard not to notice that these are very much the standards to which he holds James (54). The result is that the reminiscences of a historically known African American woman of the late nineteenth century are arraigned for significant interrogation, while the Book of Mormon’s account of “pre-Columbian American Christianity”—which exists as a matter of faith for Mormons and as a rhetorical figure for everyone else—is read flatly, on its own terms.2 Ultimately, the type of rhetorical analysis to which the Book of Mormon is or is not subject becomes most relevant where Mueller distinguishes between oral and written records (54–55). At the level of its nineteenth-century history, the Book of Mormon is a product of Smith’s dictation—it is an oral text. And to the extent that Smith—who clearly read widely but wrote little in his own hand—is the source of that text, what might that say about the capacity of those on the margins of literate culture to leave their mark on the archive, to make an intervention regarding nineteenth-century conceptions of race?

Treating the text as the editorial work of Nephites in service of pre-Columbian American Christianity makes it difficult to treat it as the work of nineteenth-century thinkers in service of a nineteenth-century American Christianity.

Treating the text as the editorial work of Nephites in service of pre-Columbian American Christianity makes it difficult to treat it as the work of nineteenth-century thinkers in service of a nineteenth-century American Christianity. Taken as it’s given, though, Mueller’s literary reading of literacy in the Book of Mormon is wonderfully revealing. The figure of Christ reprimanding the Nephite scribes for not having written Samuel the Lamanite’s prophecies, ostensibly out of prejudice, underscores the crucial emphasis placed on writing in early Mormonism and of writing’s significance for the constitution of race in the same period, whether or not one assumes its relevance for a pre-Columbian American Christianity (49; 3 Nephi 23:6–13).

Mueller closes the book with an epilogue touching on 2 Nephi 30:6, the “white and delightsome” phrase. The textual change to “pure and delightsome” is a particularly salient reminder that, as a text, the Book of Mormon both reaches across time and is continually reproduced in specific historical moments. Smith himself first made the change for the 1840 edition of the Book of Mormon; it was abandoned in subsequent editions before being brought to bear again in a more rhetorically inclusive era. Mueller’s investigation of race as a constitutive factor in the formation of Mormonism, likewise, is a text that will strike different readers in different ways in different times. All of them, though, will find something of value in it, and future readers invested in early Mormonism will be obliged to take stock of it.

 

Notes:

  1. Mueller is rightfully self-conscious about the importance of reading the Book of Mormon, though unfairly dismissive of most historians’ attempts to do so, explicitly owning an insider’s condescension: “For the uninitiated—those who have not grown up Mormon—the Book of Mormon is difficult to comprehend, let alone appreciate” (22). Many non-Mormon scholars have read the Book of Mormon to considerable effect since Mark Twain and Harold Bloom, the two he calls out for not getting it.
  2. According to Mueller, the Book of Mormon is an “American gospel, which Nephi, Mormon, Moroni, and Joseph Smith, Jr. created together” and which is “filled with lessons.” James’s reflections, meanwhile, “appear to be suspect” (144) and are subject to the rhetorical “sleight of memory” (145).
 

Seth Perry is Assistant Professor of Religion in the Americas at Princeton University. His first book, Bible Culture and Authority in the Early United States, will be published in June by Princeton University Press.

Please follow our Commentary Guidelines when engaging in discussion on this site.