Have Courage and Be

Photo by Oliver Cole on Unsplash

I hereby command you: Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.

Joshua 1:9, The Bible

The courage to be is the ethical act in which man affirms his own being in spite of those elements of his existence which conflict with his essential self-affirmation…The courage to be is rooted in the God who appears when God has disappeared in the anxiety of doubt.

Paul Tillich, The Courage to Be

I don’t know what strikes fear and dismay into your heart. Maybe it’s the headlines. Or a barrage of emails sent by decision-makers who are doing the best they can with a dumpster fire raging out of control and a smoldering landfill nearby. Maybe it’s fear of having to actually use the ridiculous glitter-infused hand sanitizer from Bath and Body Works that your mom got you for Christmas years ago. Maybe your heart beats a little faster when there is no chicken, bread, milk, or toilet paper on the grocery shelves you took for granted. Maybe you are ninety-two years old, or wondering if you will get a chance to (cool) iron out the square creases of your plastic-wrapped cap and gown. Maybe you wake up in these strange days, knowing that your old and new co-workers will require, in addition to the usual productivity, food/treats/diaper changes/entertainment/walks/exercising/snuggles. I don’t know what it is that makes you fearful, but it’s enough.

For me it’s partly the experience of asking, all at once, if something like “Zoom” can facilitate meaningful worship, vocation, meaning and purpose, family, and community. For me, it’s knowing, as I write this, someone will not turn ninety-three. For me, it’s knowing, as I write this, you will learn that you won’t walk across the commencement stage in your neatly pressed (or not) cap and gown on the day you intended. For me, I am dismayed at the Sisyphean task of self-examination and existence in a world that is so uncomfortably different from the one I had become accustomed to.

I am also encouraged. I am encouraged by educators who risk new pedagogies so that what they know of the world will be carried by a new generation. I am encouraged by students who trust that the pursuit of knowledge is worth fighting for. I am encouraged by families who are honest about the pain of living with one another. I am encouraged by lapsed musicians who pick up their instruments, and active ones who deliver their art in unique ways. I am encouraged by friends who offer to put jigsaw puzzles on their porch for a trade. I am encouraged by communities of faith who step back long enough to examine the “why” of their sacraments as much as the “how.” I am encouraged by libraries who let me check out dozens of books for the long haul. I am encouraged that faith, hope, and love still abide in a time when doubt, despair, and hatred are easier.

I don’t know what encourages you. I don’t have a recipe for these times (though I can recommend good cookbooks and tell you to wash you hands before eating). I hope that you will take time to be lost, to be poor, to take risks, to feel the dusty rocks and sharp stones of the wilderness beneath your feat, to mourn what will not be. I hope you will choose to live again, in spite of all that threatens to undo your life. Most of all, I hope that you will be, and be of good courage.

Who is my neighbor?

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”

But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.” (Luke 10:25-37)

The last year of my life has been like a modern re-enactment of God’s command to Abram in Genesis 12:1. God tells Abram: “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” I got married on December 5, 2015 and moved out of my parents’ house into the apartment my husband, Ryan, and I rented in Evanston, IL. Three months later, my job came unexpectedly to an end, and a few months after that I accepted an invitation to join the chaplaincy staff at Monmouth College several hours away. My husband and I bought a house in Monmouth, and he patiently lives half-way in ‘the old country’ for his job in Chicago. It has been such a whirlwind, I’ve only now really started to look around me at this new country God has chosen for me. Monmouth is a town of less than 10,000 people and the smallest place I have ever lived. It’s been overwhelming at times, but mostly it has been oddly eye-opening.

In the few short months that I’ve been here, I’ve had to take my Bible more seriously. Someone thought it would be a great idea to let me preach in chapel for the first service after our recent presidential election, and again for the first service following the presidential inauguration. If you’ve kept an eye on national news, you have a sense of what kind of time it’s been. Over the past week especially, I’ve had to look in the mirror and ask the question of the Good Samaritan parable: “Who is my neighbor?”

Here are just a few examples from this week. We have an older boiler system in our house, and the circulator pump has been on its way out since day one. In the first place, I now know what a circulator pump does and what it looks like. Not bad for a city girl, right? More importantly, I now know the skilled technicians who replaced our failing part who have been at work here for generations practicing their trade. When I mention to others who we had do the work, more than one person has affectionately referred to them as ‘good, salt of the earth folks.’ Ryan and I have met many of our neighbors on the block…which is impressive, because we haven’t exchanged more than a few words with any of the six other families from our urban Evanston apartment building. They have offered advice, an open door to garages full of tools, and even the manual labor of their teenage sons. Today, I met a wonderful woman whose 17-yr-old son is really excited to pursue a vocational training program for welding after graduation this spring. She’s really excited for him because it means he will likely have a steady wage, a career that values apprenticeship, a trade that allows him to see the tangible fruit of his labors, and he has job prospects that give him the option of staying close to his family.

I share all this because I often forget to value the deep worth of all my neighbors. I’m passionately on the side of the oppressed and underprivileged and my facebook feed is full of college and grad-school educated friends who are just as passionate about peacemaking, seeking justice, and doing good in the world. We call on each other to write letters, we read and post newspaper articles, we make phone calls to our governmental representatives. But today I’ve noticed, with greater clarity, that I can also reach a wider group from where I’m sitting, and the work of conversation is harder. The welder, the farmer, the tradesperson, the immigrant, the stranger, are my all neighbors here in Monmouth, and it’s not as easy as a facebook post.

If I’m honest, I have to remember and value the diversity of where I’ve come from. My family is a family of immigrants, so I value the newly arrived immigrant and the refugee. When my dad graduated from high school in a tiny Minnesota farming town, he went on to learn the vocational trade of an electrician and is way more useful than I’ll ever be around a dark house. He married my mom, a woman in ministry who has since completed doctoral work. Bringing up ‘politics’ at family gatherings can be uncomfortable. I come from complicated roots. I have seen changes happen, walls come down, and compassion increase, but it has taken a lot of time and a lot of hard work.

The small town where God has called me needs every single one of our gifts to survive and thrive. In our small school district, over 30% of students from preschool to third grade now have a language other than English as their primary language. 77% of students are considered low-income and are eligible for free or reduced meals at school. According to the 2010 census, the population was 88% white. Six years later, public school data from 2016 reveals that our area is much more diverse: only 64% of students from K-12 are white. Diversity has emerged rapidly over a relatively short period of time, and the work of interdependence and community building is an urgent challenge. People are all over the map where the recent election was concerned. We read our Bibles and interpret our faith traditions in dramatically different ways. To practice a liberating theology in this place is to embrace many truths, to be surprised by the broadness of mercy, and to seek to be faithful as real discomfort and complexity are encountered by the roadside.

Toward a Politics of Liberating Theology

Mosaic at United Nations Headquarters, NY/Credit: J. Hawkinson

My goal in this brief conversation is to explore two key components which challenge both Pentecostalism and mainline Protestantism. I look first to the power and place of the Holy Spirit as a defining feature of the church’s life in the world. Second, I take up the challenge of the church’s engagement with a theology of social transformation. In conclusion, I argue for a third way as a new paradigm for theology in a contemporary context: a “liberational spirituality.”

Power and place of the Holy Spirit

Pentecostalism at its core “represents a ritualized prolongation of the original Pentecostal event (Acts 2:10, 19) that expresses the essence of Christianity with an intense spirituality that recalls the life of early Christians” (92). Throughout their work Shaull and Cesar frequently cite the Pentecostal communities as marked almost universally by the radical presence of the Holy Spirit in the everyday lives of the poor. The role of the Holy Spirit in the lives of the poor in the Pentecostal church is central and powerful. Even more than traditional theological concepts like sin and salvation, the work of the Holy Spirit is central to the lives of worshippers (139). The Holy Spirit takes the form of “the immediate presence and power of God in everyday life, bringing health and material well-being and a new quality of life here and now” (139). God’s kairos, or breaking into this world, “is known as an immediate experience of the divine, especially among the poor, an experience…of sick persons being healed, of broken lives being reintegrated and restored” (152). The poor, “for whom the world has been a prison, many of whom are living, in a sense, on their own “death row”…enter, through the Spirit, into another realm” (153). The work of the Spirit, for the poor of the Pentecostal church, is the fulfillment of the word preached to free the captives and give sight to the blind.

In contrast, much of the contemporary Protestant church lacks a rich theology of the presence of the Holy Spirit in human experience. I spoke with a colleague working in the social justice ministries of the PC(USA) about this reality, and he jokingly responded that he wasn’t sure the Holy Spirit even appeared in the numerous confessions of the Presbyterian Church. For a variety of reasons, the church in the West has abandoned its spiritual disciplines (165). What once was a rich belief in the Spirit of God offering a “compelling sense of vocation in the world” is now dramatically weakened. Where once the church privileged the “spiritual motivation to struggle for social transformation,” it is now “rarely taken into account in our churches” (214). The current state of affairs is worrying at best, and life-threatening at its worst.

Theology as a tool for social transformation

One of the central criticisms directed toward Pentecostalism in the communities visited by the authors was the claim that the Pentcostal church (though this term is problematically broad) lacks a theology of social transformation. As noted above, Pentecostalism gives strong emphasis to the work of the Holy Spirit in the personal lives of its followers. In contrast, many deeply faithful individuals “gave little or no attention to the analysis of what was happening in the world around them, the social, economic, and political realities causing this destruction of life” (160). Articulated from a theological point of view, the authors “found little evidence of the development of a theology of social responsibility” in the Pentecostal churches they visited (211). In contrast, the PC(USA), as an example, has decades of resolutions and confessions which profess the church’s commitment to social responsibility. And yet, Shaull and Cesar reach the conclusion that the middle-class churches “have little or no connection with the victims of our present order” and are simultaneously “lacking the richness and depth of experience of the presence and power of God necessary for dynamic participation in this struggle for life” (210). If both the Pentecostal and the mainline communities have not created a theology of social transformation, where is the nexus of its development?

Ubuntu as a middle ground

In his life and work, Desmond Tutu has articulated what author Michael Battle has called “a new kind of liberational spirituality” (Battle, 95). Tutu captures this liberational spirituality in the South African framework of Ubuntu. In my analysis, the theology of Ubuntu articulates a vision which balances the radical transformation of the Holy Spirit that emerges from the the daily lives of the poor and the work of theology as a tool for social transformation. Tutu writes “We are each a God-carrier, a tabernacle of the Holy Spirit, indwelt by God the holy and most blessed Trinity. To treat one such as less than this is not just wrong…It is veritably blasphemous and sacrilegious. It is to spit in the face of God. Consequently, injustice, racism, exploitation, oppression are to be opposed not as a political task but as a response to a religious, a spiritual imperative. Not to oppose these manifestations of evil would be tantamount to disobeying God” (Battle, 95). This “liberational spirituality” captures the need to nurture both spirituality and “effective social impact on structural forms of oppression” (Battle, 95). While the church should be cautious about adopting wholesale the ethic of Ubuntu, unique to the South African experience, the concept of a liberational spirituality rings true as a promising goal. It seems an essential concept for the Pentecostal church as an encouragement to participate in the systemic transformation of their societies. The commitment to a theology of social liberation may be one of the few ways to consolidate the voice of the most vulnerable in establishing institutions which include their agency. For the mainline churches, the theology of Ubuntu requires a commitment to the deeply spiritual and contemplative life, as well as a commitment to the restoration of justice in oppressed communities. It demands that the mainline church come to terms with its complicity in systems of oppression, while listening for the call to a new vocation in radical discipleship. The church, wherever it lives and serves in the Holy Spirit, would do well to reclaim its history as a radically transformative force in the contemporary world.

Cesar, Waldo and Shaull, Richard. Pentecostalism and the Future of the Christian Churches. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2000.

Battle, Michael. “The Ubuntu theology of Desmond Tutu.” In Archbishop Tutu: Prophetic Witness in South Africa, edited by Leonard Hulley et. al., 93-105. Capetown: Human & Rousseau, 1996.