On the Lived Theology Reading List: Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass: America's Prophet, by D.H. DilbeckAmerica’s Prophet

In his new biography Frederick Douglass: America’s Prophet, historian D.H. Dilbeck seeks to focus on an underexplored aspect of the prominent abolitionist’s life, his Christian faith. Dilbeck- who previously wrote A More Civil War– portrays Douglass’ religious life as complex, combining both youthful evangelicalism and a growing hostility towards churches complicity with slavery and bigotry. The book shows how Douglass came to represent a prophetic black Christian vision, and his life showed the tension between the promise of an inclusive Christianity that embraced social reform and the reality of an American Christianity that was too often simply a religion for slaveholders.

Reviews and endorsements of the publication include:

“A superb account of one man’s 50-year fight for human rights and freedom in America. Recommended for those interested in the U.S. Middle Period, Civil War, African American history, and all readers.”—Library Journal, starred review

“D. H. Dilbeck does a very fine job assessing and then discussing the importance of the black prophetic voice to this reformer and Christian activist.”—Spirituality & Practice

“An original and often moving account of a complex but endlessly interesting figure, a giant in his time who still speaks to Americans today. Dilbeck has treated Douglass’s religious faith and prophetic character more carefully than any previous scholar.”—George C. Rable, author of God’s Almost Chosen Peoples

For more information on the publication, click here.

Fellow travelers are scholars, activists, and practitioners that embody the ideals and commitments of the Project on Lived Theology. We admire their work and are grateful to be walking alongside them in the development and dissemination of Lived Theology

For more of “On the Lived Theology Reading List,” click here. To engage in the conversation on Facebook and Twitter, @LivedTheology, please use #LivedTheologyReads. For more recommended resources from our fellow travelers, click here, #PLTfellowtravelers. To sign up for the Lived Theology monthly newsletter, click here.

In conclusion

This summer has been steeped in challenges that have grown me in indescribable ways. The experiences that I’ve been privileged to encounter have been extraordinarily formative and have broadened my horizons. As I close out my last week in DC, I’ve been reflecting on my time this summer and all of the incredible people that I’ve had the benefit of meeting and working alongside. After thinking over the various organizations and site mentors that I’ve worked with this summer, I’m finally beginning to realize how broad the definition of activism is. Coming from an upbringing in a small, rural town and living a very apolitical life up until recently, this summer was new in many ways. My commute time quadrupled, everyone became a stranger, my work became very real, and my political and theological dispositions that I had carefully crafted in my sheltered upbringing were exposed. I quickly realized my insufficiency and I became very aware of my privileged identity. It was through all of this, however, that I was finally able to catch a small glimpse of what public theology actually is. It’s a dynamic and ever-evolving lived reality. The moment we think ourselves settled is the moment that we give into arrogance and egoism.

Aerial view of Washington, DC

Consistent challenge is a necessary aspect of growth. I think this blog has been one of the outlets that has helped me to grow this summer. It is a collection of thoughts, feelings, interactions, and hopefully a series of sparsely connected beliefs that tell the story of my summer. It questions and challenges, admittedly too boldly sometimes, the structures and institutions that I worked with and against this summer. It tries to posit answers. It challenges–or at least I hope it does. My goal in writing these blog posts was that I would be able to challenge not only myself, but also my readers.

My opinion is one among a vast multitude of others. It’s probably presumptuous and it is definitely underqualified, but it’s my best attempt at an answering the challenges that presented themselves. My thoughts here have resulted from past experiences informed by present encounters and future hopes. This summer, one of the first things that I was shown in my work is that there are some deeply ingrained problems in the foundations of our country, and living out theology means identifying and uprooting them. It means that we must reconcile with a history that is steeped in things like racism, sexism, American exceptionalism, and many other -isms. It means that we must identify the modern iterations of these perils and use our collective voice to do something about it. It means that some of us must leave positions of comfort and safety and join people who’ve been fighting for decades. It means that we must not just think think from our own perspectives but ensure that we are hearing others.

This summer, I’ve seen remarkable people like Kris Norris, Jane Adams, Irene DeMaris, Jeania Ree Moore, and so many others live out their theology and persistently challenge one another to avoid complacency. These inspirational mentors have helped me immensely throughout the summer. They’ve challenged me and helped me realize the work that lies ahead of us. They have shown me that despite the overwhelming brokenness that is our current political climate, we must continue to strive for something greater. We must continue to find hope in our work both personally and systemically. As Senator Cory Booker puts it, “Hope is the active conviction that despair will never have the last word.” I hope that my blog this summer has been the challenging voice of hope that I intended it to be, and that its readers were able to see some of the convictions and challenges that I had the opportunity to experience this summer.

The longest day in the world

* Names have been changed for privacy purposes.

“There are larks and there are owls.”

Somehow, this little quip emerges from my sluggish brain when my alarm rings at 4:30 a.m. I am decidedly not a lark. That much is evident in my tired, clumsy movements as I pull on my work boots and layers. The sleepiness leaves me more quickly than usual, as if my body can sense the special occasion.

I arrive at the farm two minutes before sunrise and eye the gargantuan cactus which stands at the farm’s entrance like a royal guardian. This morning, I notice a series of bone-white blossoms with long, finger-like petals. The cactus is named “Queen of the Night” and identified by her lovely nocturnal blooms. I’ve never seen them before this morning—another feature marking today’s sacred quality.

I meet my friends in the field where we create a makeshift circle of seating with overturned crates and assorted chairs. As we settle into our spots, our youngest member, Karlina unsheathes her elegant guitar. Karlina is the daughter of our farm manager, and admittedly I am guilty of forgetting Karlina’s age. Too often I treat her like the woman of impenetrable composure she resembles rather than someone on the brink of adolescence. Soon, Karlina and her sister will travel to Mexico by themselves in order to visit family. They seem so young to make such a trek on their own, but then again, Karlina’s mother was the same age when she came, alone, to live in the United States. I wonder how young or old or timeless we all must appear in the eyes of the eternal. For, “All people are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall” (1 Peter 1:24).

Regardless of her youth, Karlina is our leader this morning. With a low, confident voice, she announces the title of our first song. Blue light emits from our small handheld screens displaying lyrics and chords. The light is more prominent than that of the rising sun which hasn’t yet burnt away the coast’s thick grey overcoat. We have both monolingual English speakers and monolingual Spanish speakers within our intimate circle, so as we sing our praises, English and Spanish are continuously being stitched together. I haven’t heard some of these songs in months, years even, and in this moment those seasons of life seem like completely different lives. Yet the lyrics are inexplicably familiar, going beyond the words of memory. I contemplate some of these familiar names and terms in Spanish and marvel at how different they sound to my ears, how they must sound echoing in the heavenly places.

My eyes rise to the horizon, which is slowly shifting into focus, and I remember that yesterday evening we all watched the moon rise over the same horizon. Together we stood transfixed by the magical quality of the honey-hued moon, and with a soft smile Lisa had said, “La luna de miel.”

Press conference with protest signs

We had gathered at the farm, along with many others, for a press conference wherein health professionals, farmers, and farmworkers spoke about their experiences with pesticide exposure, specifically chlorpyrifos, which is as dreadful as it is unpronounceable. Our farm manager, Reyna, was the final speaker in the lineup and shared her own story with her usual unswerving confidence, eloquence, and powerful presence. Cameras strained to capture her testimony as her eldest daughter, Maria, looked on with knowing eyes, holding an artfully painted sign of protest. The ceaseless activism accomplished by these two women is absolutely stunning. Inseparable from such work is their faith, which is the source of their abundant love and tireless commitment to justice for all. Their faith is the wild and reckless sort, the kind which compels folks like me to rise before the sun and gather in the fields to worship.

The love I have for these women, for all the people who I’ve shared life with over the past couple of months, goes beyond words. I close my eyes and dig my heels into this moment which is pregnant with peace and gratitude. Despite my straining, each second is eclipsed by the next until like the tide, time has come to steal the sand from underfoot. I surrender to the moment’s passing. There is no other option. Instead, “I will locate the point of dawning and awaken with the longest day in the world.”


Rock cross at sunrise


Do justice. Love mercy. Walk humbly.

Today is the day, God brings new to the poor, proclaims release to the captives, gives sight to the blind, and sets the oppressed free. And so shall we.”

This gripping quote is the last line of the litany for the United Methodist Social Creed from the Book of Resolutions. The language in the litany is absolutely gorgeous, and in a prophetic voice, it exhorts us both as individuals and as a society to tirelessly pursue this future reality. In its traditional call and response format, the litany demands that its constituents speak truth to power. It refutes passivity and demands action.

After working with the United Methodist General Board of Church and Society this week, I was introduced to this litany and to several amazing people who are living out this call and working to make this litany a present reality. The General Board of Church and Society has no problem ensuring that they are submerged in the happenings of the world outside the walls of the church. Housed in the Methodist Building with other powerful faith-based advocacy voices, GBCS is located adjacent to the Supreme Court building and directly behind the Senate office buildings. They’re intentionally located in a highly political environment, and their work acknowledges that in order for the words of the litany to become actuality, the church must involve itself in the provocative climate of politics.

Supreme Court Building

This week, throughout much of my work, I was struck by the complexity and the immensity of our current political situation. Up until this point I had not been allowing myself to zoom out of the issues and topics that I was directly involved with in order to recognize the larger picture. The scope of reality hit me full force this week. I suppose that happens when the blinders of privilege are taken off for a second. As a person who checks virtually all of the boxes of privilege, I am often guilty of living in complacency or even ignorance. I often find myself hiding behind either a focus so narrow that I am unable to see the vast reality of the situation or a focus that’s so broad it dilutes the harrowing actuality. As this week trudged on, I often thought about this closing line from the litany. I thought about the morass of political brokenness that I was witnessing and it made me wonder whether it’s always been like this. I wonder whether the litany’s author felt a similar sense of helplessness when he looked at the brokenness of the world. I wonder if the prophets of the Old Testament experienced something similar as they wrote their lamentations, prophecies, and psalms. I wonder whether they saw the poor who needed good news, the captives who wanted release, the oppressed who needed be freed, in the same way that we do. I wonder if the feelings that haunt me today are like those that have haunted the people who came before. I wonder how much we, as a society, have been hiding behind the blinders of privilege. Whether this cacophony has dulled to a drone or our particular symphony is just extremely out of tune, action is required to produce the beautiful harmony that we are capable of. But how exactly might this look?

Outside the United Methodist building, less than a couple hundred feet from the Supreme Court of the United States, there is a beautiful little sign that reads, “Do justice. Love mercy. Walk Humbly.” This sign faces the US Capitol Building and points more or less in the direction of the Supreme Court. It’s a small beacon reminding its surrounding environment in an elusively simple tune to do what is required of them. It is a tuner that resoundingly guides to answer the question above. What must one do to achieve this harmony? Do justice. Love mercy. Walk humbly. As I passed this sign every morning this week, I was always struck by its eloquent simplicity. As a person of privilege, it’s easy to see the world through a filter. It’s almost as if I don’t have to confront the brokenness of the world because in most cases it doesn’t directly or explicitly affect me. The first part of this beautiful saying pushes against this. In using the active form of the verb ‘do,’ it challenges my complacency and pushes me to go and make justice happen. This doesn’t mean adopting a white savior complex: not only are we, as people regardless of who we are or where we come from, required to do justice; we are also, no matter who we are or where we come from, required to walk humbly. If we are to make the litany a present reality and hear the full tune of creation, we must do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly in everything we do.

On the Lived Theology Reading List: Langston’s Salvation

Langston's Salvation: American Religion and the Bard of Harlem, by Wallace D. BestAmerican Religion and the Bard of Harlem

In Langston’s Salvation, Princeton University Religion scholar Wallace D. Best offers an important evaluation of the place of religion in the work of the great poet of the Harlem Renaissance, Langston Hughes. Langston’s Salvation is not strictly a religious biography of Hughes, but rather a study of how Hughes engaged with religion as an intellectual and how he thought theologically. Hughes was raised in the AME Church, and as an adult wrote about religion extensively, particularly in his poetry. Hughes vocally insisted that he was not an atheist or antireligious, and Best is able to document his complex attitude towards faith. As Best observes in the book’s preface, “Hughes seemed to have existed somewhere between a religious past and a present that was always in flux on matters of God, faith and the Church.”

Reviews and endorsements of the publication include:

“[A] meticulous account of Hughes’s religious provocations in his literary work…Offering astounding historical and literary analysis to some of his widely popular and some of his lesser -known works such as “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” and Tambourines to Glory respectively, Best explicates Hughes’s works to explore the religious orientation in his writings.”—Black Perspectives

“As Wallace Best portrays him in this stunning, brilliantly argued and written work, Langston Hughes is a poet and prophet who spoke to the deepest dilemmas of African American Christianity in the uncompromising language of religious and artistic modernism. The road to Langston’s “salvation” was not straight, and as he charts its course over time, Best enlarges the field of American religious history and the meaning of modern ‘religion’ itself.” —Robert A. Orsi, Professor of Religious Studies and History, Northwestern

“With close readings of Langston Hughes’s poetry and with finely tuned arguments about the place of religion during the early twentieth century, Wallace Best provides what none has offered before: he shows the beautiful mind of Langston Hughes as a ‘thinker about religion.’ Langston’s Salvation heralds a new day, perhaps even a renaissance, not only in the study Hughes and his poetry, but also of liberal religion in the United States. It is impossible to read Langston’s Salvation and fail to wonder what other great writers of the past have to offer if we follow Best’s lead and approach them as thinkers about religion. This book is like Hughes’s poetry: an invitation to see more than what’s on the surface.”—Edward J. Blum, author of W. E. B. Du Bois, American Prophet

For more information on the publication, click here.

Wallace Best is a member of the department of religious studies at Princeton University, where his research and teaching center on African American religious history, religion and literature, and gender and sexuality and womanist theology.

For more of “On the Lived Theology Reading List,” click here. To engage in the conversation on Facebook and Twitter, @LivedTheology, please use #LivedTheologyReads. For more recommended resources from our fellow travelers, click here, #PLTfellowtravelers. To sign up for the Lived Theology monthly newsletter, click here.

The green blues: climate change and lament

“As long as faith leads one deeply into action, and not deeply into inaction, then that’s a very good thing.”
– Bill McKibben

I was raised in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. Though I make no attempts to hide my unabashed bias, the Valley is a place of world-class natural splendor. The Shenandoah River meanders along the Valley’s floor. Meanwhile, the Blue Ridge Mountains form the lush eastern wall and to the west are the dense Allegheny Mountains. In the midst of such abundant natural splendor, the threat of environmental devastation can feel remote. Even during my high school years, when I attended a Governor’s School dedicated to environmental sciences, the dangers of climate change felt like an abstract, ominous threat looming somewhere in the far, far away future. It was so difficult to comprehend the gravity and urgency of a threat I could not see with my own two eyes. As long as my little corner of the earth remained seemingly undisturbed, it was all too easy to delay my concern and invest my energy elsewhere.

After spending some months in an agricultural community in Southern California, I realize this convenient illusion is not an option for everyone. In the short time I have lived here, I have witnessed the impact of the decade-long drought, unusually scorching heatwaves, and deadly wildfires. It’s no wonder the Left Coast has been assigned a stereotypical reputation for being “granola” (an adjective for those who demonstrate some amount of environmental enthusiasm). The need to conserve resources and practice conscious consumerism is felt a bit more urgently within this community whose livelihood and survival depend upon those very strategies. I suspect others who have watched the painful degradation of their own habitats can relate, whether in the sinking Maldives, the desiccating Amazon, or in the disfigured mountains of Appalachia.

Watershed Mural

Recently, I have had the pleasure of consuming copious amounts of podcasts during my time in the fields of The Abundant Table Farm. I stumbled upon a podcast interview with Bill McKibben, a universally celebrated environmentalist, activist, and thinker. McKibben’s comments were compelling, reinforced with digestible, relevant facts. His engaging style comes as no surprise in light of the fact that McKibben is credited with writing the first book about climate change for a general audience. During the podcast interview, he confesses frankly that “Sometimes it’s hard to strike the right balance between being honest about where we are and not causing too much despair.”

I empathize with this tension, and I think tension is an appropriate word because tension is uncomfortable—painful, even. For your sake and mine, I’ll skip the part where I bombard you with numerical figures intended to communicate the Earth’s dire circumstances. But take my word for it: they’re dire. Erin Lothes Biviano calls this condition the “green blues” and suggests that within a hermeneutical framework, the blues might be likened to an expression of lament.[1] The ecocide which is occurring in this very moment is a colossal loss of life, plain and simple. It warrants mourning and has the potential to inspire great change, for both the individual and the collective.

However, that “change” piece is surprisingly difficult. The Christian Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople writes:

We are all painfully aware of the fundamental obstacles that confronts us in our work for the environment. It is precisely this: how are we to move from theory to action, form words to deeds? We do not lack technical scientific information about the nature of the present ecological crisis. We know, not simply what needs to be done, but also how to do it. Yet, despite all this information, unfortunately little is actually done. It is a long journey from the head to the heart, and an even longer journey from the heart to the hands. How shall we bridge this tragic gap between theory and practice, between ideas and actuality?[2]

What exactly happens in that journey from the head to the heart to the hands that our actions are so fundamentally dissonant from our beliefs? Fatigue? Human error? Sin? In Biviano’s analysis, “Too often, it seems that the head is confused, the heart is overwhelmed, and the hands are busy.”[3] Frankly, I’m not sure where to go from here. My head is confused, my heart is overwhelmed, and my hands are busy. At the very least, I can offer solidarity to all those whose hearts ache with the green blues. There’s power in that. There’s power in confronting the devastation and allowing ourselves to be moved by it. There’s power in continuing to hope.

[1] Erin Lothes Biviano, Inspired Sustainability: Planting Seeds for Action (Orbis Books, 2016), 53.

[2] Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, “Sacrifice: The Missing Dimension,” Address at the Closing Ceremony of the Fourth International Environmental Symposium (2001).

[3] Biviano, Inspired Sustainability, 55.

Faith-based lobbying and theological reasoning

Lobbyist: \\ˈlä-bē-ist \\ (noun) one who conducts activities aimed at influencing or swaying public officials and especially members of a legislative body on legislation

As I’ve worked with various organizations throughout this summer, I’ve noticed a generally consistent reaction when I tell people that I’m involved in faith-based lobbying. More often than not the response is “Oh, lobbying?” They usually continue in one of two ways. Either they chuckle, smirk, and wager a slightly aggressive but not overbearing question implying their dissatisfaction with lobbying based on some preconceived notion, or they nod in interest and begin exploring my opinions as a “budding lobbyist” on various controversial topics. Both scenarios are admittedly kind of uncomfortable for me. People often identify lobbying as the stereotypical actors engaging in “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine” politics. From my limited yet meaningful experience, I want to posit that faith-based lobbying is actually quite different from other forms of lobbying. With that in mind, I also want to submit that there are some incredible issue-based lobbying groups out there that tend to be unfairly lumped under the contentiously identified lobbyists. I think the typical aversion towards lobbyists may be unfairly monolithic in its broad categorization. How many read the definition above and immediately picture a closed-door meeting where gobs of campaign money are promised in exchange for some footnotes on a bill that will make a corporation richer? How many think about kickbacks and special interests?

When I think of lobbying, I think about people fighting for what they want. It’s not “swaying public officials” in the sense of deceiving them, but rather it’s pitching one’s case on why it’s important. Granted, there are lobbying groups who look and act exactly like the above caricatures would suggest, but just because they exist doesn’t mean that there aren’t good groups of lobbyists fighting against them.

The lobbying that I participated in looked a lot different from what’s described above. Faith-based lobbying is not limited to a single issue; the theological framework through which we understand the world is broad enough to encompass any area of policy that is deemed beneficial or detrimental to the intended world order. Faith-based lobbying, at least in its proper forms, does not claim “God wants X policy” or “God wants Y candidate.” This is a crude and often misinformed understanding of the work of faith-based lobbying.

Meeting Chart

Often the first job in lobbying meetings is to give a quick synopsis of the bill or issue that you’re going to be talking about. Senators and members of Congress deal with so much legislation and policy that they often rely on meetings to hear different perspectives on what effects the bill or amendment will have if passed or killed. In this educational section of the meeting, we generally start with current research and statistics and then move on to how the subject of our meeting (the piece of legislation or policy) has the potential to impact those numbers. We share why this is important to us, using theological reasoning, and finally, we take questions. The theological reasoning is not simply “God wants X” or “God thinks Y.” We acknowledge that we actually don’t really know what God wants or thinks. Faith-based lobbying, as the title suggests, means that the act of lobbying is predicated on faith. This faith, whatever its specific form, is the framework through which we see, experience, and understand the Divine in relation to the world.

When we met with House and Senate staff members, our meetings were full of interfaith voices, educating and petitioning on behalf of theological rather than ideological convictions. We had no interest in kickbacks, campaigns, or contracts. We were asking for people to be treated like we believe they were intended and created to be. When we were lobbying for S.1917 “Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2017” (a.k.a. SRCA), our goal was to gain cosponsors on a revenue-neutral bill that would nearly eliminate mandatory minimums, provide more funding to rehabilitation programs rather than prison expansion, and drastically reduce the ability to ‘stack’ charges. The bill held strong bipartisan support and was aimed at comprehensive criminal justice reform. We were advocating for SRCA because the voices that make up the interfaith coalition all agree that human beings were never created to be locked up in cages. Representing the Church of Scientology, the Quakers, the United Church of Christ, Reformed Judaism, Catholicism, and mainline streams of Protestantism, we met with House and Senate staff members in order to make a case for the SRCA.

My experiences showed me that the negative connotation that lobbying tends to carry is not uniformly accurate. There are many different types of lobbying, and to equate Big Pharma or the NRA to the ACLU or Bread for the World is simply a mistake. The diversity and intentionality of these groups is substantively distinct. Additionally, my limited experiences in lobbying revealed that faith-based lobbying is not built on the overly pious claims of religious ideologues as it is often thought to be. We should begin to use a more focused lens in discerning the intentions and the effects of lobbying.

All the chains were unfastened

* Names have been changed for privacy purposes.

Throughout my writing, I have reflected extensively about the insights gleaned from my time spent in the fields. However, my experience as a worker at The Abundant Table (TAT) has been far more dynamic and multifaceted than I can adequately convey. One of the most challenging and rewarding pieces of my internship was creating a summer camp for children of farmworkers in the community. The connections and trust TAT has established throughout the farmworker communities is undoubtedly a testament to the organization’s prophetic witness. I was thrilled—and daunted—by the prospect of facilitating a summer camp experience with the hope of uplifting and celebrating this particular population, especially given the immense persecution farmworkers and their families are facing in the current moment. Needless to say, all of the pieces surrounding camp—from laying the groundwork to experiencing its fruition—were ripe with teachable moments and unexpected insights about myself, others, and faith. One such moment occurred during the first day of camp as the children and I crowded around picnic tables for lunch beneath an enormous tree in the center of the garden.

It was sticky outside. The atmosphere was uncharacteristically humid and the conditions were only aggravated by the strawberry jam adhering to my palms. I had just finished preparing fifteen PB&J sandwiches along with freshly squeezed lemonade. Between the lunch items and the remnants of the morning’s painting activity which lingered on forearms and fingers, I think we had all resigned ourselves to the stickiness. As I settled into the wooden bench of the picnic table, one of the older boys named Ismeal asked me if I’d heard the story about his abuelo.

I asked him, “What story?”

The story,” He responded with wriggling eyebrows telegraphing some secret meaning.

The other children’s chatter quieted, suddenly interested in Ismeal’s words. Most of the children who attended the camp were cousins, and if they were not cousins by blood, they were cousins in the closeness between their families. Thus, this abuelo was something of a larger-than-life figure all the children knew and admired. They urged Ismeal to tell the story with excitement and anticipation that made me wonder how many times they had played out this scene. Ismeal waited for the group’s full attention and started recounting how his grandfather was wrongfully imprisoned by the authorities when he was recently detained. Abuelo was a man of God, Ismeal provided, and during his detainment he had prayed fiercely. Suddenly, Abuelo realized his cell door was unlocked. Tentatively, he walked out of his cell, all the way out of the detainment center, and into the horizon. Ismeal described the tale with a myriad of stray details, like how the security cameras had miraculously malfunctioned during his abuelo’s escape. The other children chimed in, supplementing information Ismeal had neglected and demonstrating their own familiarity with the story.

As I contemplated the story in an astonished silence, skepticism arose like a powerful knee-jerk. I wanted to ask all sorts of questions or to dismiss the story entirely, even as I outwardly nodded my head and offered a neutral, “Wow.” Meanwhile, my inner critic persisted, “They’re only children. I’m sure that’s not how it went.” I was shocked at my own unwillingness to believe in such an unexplainable event. I was more comfortable deferring to my unimaginative, adult cynicism—perhaps the “hardness of heart” described in the scriptures. However, I thought about the photos I’d seen of small children locked behind chain-link fences in immigration detention centers or the report I’d recently heard about a woman who extorted nearly one million dollars from countless undocumented families with false promises of visas and green cards. Were these stories not also unbelievable, astonishing, and yet totally real?

My gaze met a family of eyes that waited patiently for a reaction. I told them I’d heard a similar story once in the Bible and asked the children if it was familiar to them. When they told me no, they’d never heard such a story, I pulled up the text from Acts 16 and read aloud the story of Paul and Silas sitting in jail. The text describes how the men were praying and singing hymns to God when “Suddenly there was an earthquake, so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken. Immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened.” The account recorded in Acts is, like many stories in the Bible, utterly baffling and outlandish. It’s also beautiful, dramatic, and positively profound. It’s funny how I can affirm such an event found in scripture but dismiss the remarkably similar story told by Ismeal. Perhaps because Ismeal’s story unsettles so many of my assumptions about the world I know–its operations and governing rules.

I recall a sermon I once heard on the Acts 16 passage, written and delivered by Nadia Bolz-Weber. She underscores Paul and Silas’ singing and prayers, offering the reminder that, “Just because we don’t get to decide the effect prayer has in the world does not mean that prayer has no effect in the world.” If I truly believed this, I think I’d pray more. In this world of heartbreak, it’s all too easy to forfeit that practice of prayer, to discontinue hoping for things not seen. To allow the heart, the mind, and the spirit to become calloused and hard. However, Pastor Bolz-Weber also highlights the way in which “All the doors were open and everyone’s chains were unfastened.” Paul’s and Silas’ faith was enough to free not only themselves, but others. She says,

So many of us have felt tortured by not knowing if we have enough faith or the right kind of faith. I’ve said this before, but perhaps it bears repeating: faith is never given in sufficient quantities to individuals…it’s given in sufficient quantities to communities. Because this thing isn’t an individual competition, it’s a team sport. God has provided in us all the faith sufficient for our freedom.

Even if my own faith is lacking such that I cannot believe Ismeal’s story by my own sheer will. Even if I am liable to become disheartened and hopeless when facing the grave conditions of our communities, the perversion of our justice systems, and the commodification of the land and people—perhaps the faith of these little children is enough to unfasten my chains and, in the process, set me free.

I'm Still Growing Sign

The power of policy

“Behold, I am making all things new” (Revelation 21:5). I’ve heard this verse cited in Christian circles when things are falling apart and everything seems to be spiraling out of control. It’s generally used in a comforting tone to imply that despite how bad it seems right now, there will be a day when God restores everything, and we must hold out hope until then. This has always puzzled me. I wonder how comforting this phrase actually is to a person in need. I have heard this verse preached recursively in sermons about the world’s brokenness. I’ve even heard it recently in reference to our political system. I can imagine people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and James Cone laughing at this verse amidst unimaginable persecution and oppression. My initial response to this well-meaning scriptural reference is to scoff at it and push back with, “Well that’s great, but what does that mean for things in the meantime?”

I think what has too often resulted from this verse is an affirmation of patient passivity. I don’t think that this verse is contending that in the meantime we should do nothing more than sit on our hands. What I’ve seen more than ever this summer is that if the author of Revelation is right to proclaim that God is making all things new, it means that we, as creations of the Divine, must become co-creators with the Divine in order to expedite the coming of the Kingdom and the making new of all things. Additionally, if we are to be active agents in bringing about this divinely decreed change, we must be fully engaged in the world and in the political atmosphere of the present day.

Political engagement means leaning into the news even when we see extreme bias—whether in our favor or against us. It means patiently listening when we hear constituents of the opposing party explain their beliefs and why they find ours abhorrent. It means calling and writing and visiting our representatives to share our thoughts on a given issue. It means being aware of the political climate and fighting to change the narrative of anger to a narrative of inclusivity. It means educating ourselves on upcoming legislation and making sure that we agree with what is being proposed and passed. It means speaking out against anything that we don’t believe in, knowing the consequences may be losing Facebook friends or Twitter followers or even the approval of those we love. Most of all, however, political engagement means ensuring that we have theological grounding for our political stances. Relying on partisan arguments supported by cherry-picked Bible verses is insufficient, especially if we believe that we play a crucial role in the process of making all things new.

For Bonhoeffer, it meant making a choice between personal purity and the greater good. When faced with the invitation to join a secret resistance group planning to assassinate Hitler, Bonhoeffer was morally torn. On one hand, killing a human being, even Adolf Hitler, was not only extreme, but against biblical law. On the other, however, if someone didn’t do something drastic, Hitler’s path of terror would continue and millions more could suffer. Bonhoeffer, in valiant courage, decided that it was more important that evil be stopped than that his own personal good be saved.

This week at Bread for the World, I found myself knee-deep in policy briefs and long legislative summaries. This was completely foreign territory to me. While I was consistently having to look things up and ask questions, I found this process very rewarding, and I began to realize the power that policy can have. One small policy change has the potential to affect hundreds of thousands of individuals. I did not realize how important every inch and every amendment in a policy fight really is until this week. In a presentation for the Government Relations Department at Bread for the World, my boss—Jane Adams, Domestic Policy Analyst at Bread for the World—cited the impact that the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and the Child Tax Credit (CTC) can have on low-income working families. After the meeting, I pulled her aside and asked her if she could tell me more about this. Her explanation was remarkably eye-opening for me and I began to realize the power of policy in action.

Interior of the dome of the US. Capitol Building

She explained to me that there was a bill on the table last year that proposed amending the EITC and the CTC regulations to make both refundable from the first dollar rather than waiting until a certain threshold is met. The EITC and the CTC are important for low-income working families because these two credits singlehandedly lift 10 million people out of poverty each year. If both were amended to make them refundable from the first dollar, it would lift an additional 20+ million people out of poverty and would significantly impact the poorest communities in the country. This proposal would have cost $300 billion to alter, but rather than allocating the money towards helping extremely low-income families, President Trump decided to cut the corporate tax rate from 30% to 15%. For every 1% that the corporate tax is cut, it costs roughly $100 billion. This basically means that if Congress had given a slightly smaller cutback to big corporations and only reduced the corporate tax to 18% instead of 15%, over 30 million people could have been lifted out of poverty as a result.

After explaining all of this, Jane said “You know, a budget is a reflection of morals; what you spend your money on is reflective of what you care about, and that’s the same for individuals, corporations, and countries. According to their actions last year, Congress and the president don’t think that drastically changing the lives of the poorest is worth a 3% smaller tax cut to the richest.”

What does this say about who we care about? It’s not the tired, the poor, or the huddled masses. While I recognize it’s probably not shocking news that our country hasn’t ever really done a great job of caring for the marginalized, my conversation with Jane revealed just how capable yet unwilling we are to do so. Things like this can be changed if we become politically engaged members of our communities. God may be making all things new, but are we helping or hindering this process? Are we passively watching or actively participating? Are we choosing to be a bystander with personal purity or a Bonhoeffer with sacrificial servanthood? We must stop hiding behind the pretense of faith-based passivity and use our theological foundations to inform our political engagement. Policy is powerful, but political engagement is a precursor for effective and meaningful policy. With diligence and dedication, I believe that policy can play an integral role in the process of making all things new.

On the Lived Theology Reading List: Accidental Theologians

Accidental Theologians: Four Women Who Shaped Christianity, by Elizabeth DreyerFour Women Who Shaped Christianity

In Accidental Theologians, Religious Studies professor Elizabeth A. Dreyer examines the theology and lives of Hildegard of Bingen, Catherine of Siena, Teresa of Avila and Thérèse of Lisieux. These four are the only women out of the thirty-five people who have been declared “Doctors of the Church” by the Roman Catholic Church, a title that requires theological acumen, holy living and recognition by the Pope. These women largely did not write conventional academic theology, but their writings could often be more religiously insightful because of their popular style. Dreyer makes a strong case for the continued importance of these women to the present.

For more information on the publication, click here.

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