This sermon was preached by Rev. Dr. Stephanie Paulsell, one of my former seminary professors and an inspiration in the art of making scholarship a ministry to others and an act of devotion. She offered this reflection at a Seven Last Words of Christ service on Good Friday at The Paulist Center in downtown Boston, where I served as a graduate student intern. She preached it over ten years ago, and it has remained with me ever since. Every year, on Good Friday, I pull it up and read it. And it never gets old. That’s how you know you’re hearing the Word of God in it. Many thanks to Stephanie for granting me permission to post her sermon on this blog! 


Luke 23: 39-43

Rev. Dr. Stephanie Paulsell
The Paulist Center
Boston, MA
April 9, 2004

In one of his many anxious meditations on the inadequacy of human words, St. Augustine maintains that words are reminders of our distance from God because they are temporal and will not last.  No matter how eloquent we are, Augustine writes, we cannot capture the eternal mystery of God in language.  Even our best words–God, life, love–even our best words only strike the air for a moment, and then they are gone.

On Good Friday, imperfect, fallible, very human words are all we have.   We can join the women at the foot of the cross, but like them, we cannot make this horrible dying stop.  We cannot rescue Jesus; we cannot take him down from the cross, bathe his wounds, feed him back to health.  All we can do is listen for his last words and try to hear them–really hear them–before they disappear into silence.

Like most words that are forged in suffering, Jesus’ last words are hard to hear: forsaken, thirst, finished.  These are words exhaled on a last breath, words that will be swallowed up by a silence that is empty and complete.

And yet, even with that terrible silence spreading out across the afternoon, Jesus breathes out a word that shines out of Good Friday like a jewel.  A beautiful word: Paradise.  A word that evokes images of pleasure and loveliness: a quiet stretch of beach; streets paved with gold; angels, their  wings arched and trembling.  Paradise: a word that says this day of suffering will end.  A word that promises that forsaken, thirst, finished are not the last words to be said about us.  “Truly I tell you,” Jesus says to the man suffering next to him, “today you will be with me in Paradise.”

Perhaps you read the interview with religion scholar Karen Armstrong in the New York Times magazine last Sunday.  When asked if she believed in the afterlife, she said it didn’t interest her in the least.  “Religion is supposed to be about losing the ego,” she said, “not preserving it eternally in optimum conditions.”

Armstrong objects to our lack of imagination about Paradise,  the way we tend to imagine it as the ultimate in personal fulfillment, or an excuse not to respond to world’s pain, an excuse to focus our attention on the end of the story rather than the life that is before us, right here, right now.   We all know what our misuses of the idea of Paradise have wrought: passivity, exclusion, violence.  It is when our ideas about Paradise harden into certainties that Paradise becomes dangerous.

For who can say what Paradise is?  The best attempts to describe it are marked by glorious failure. I know a person who was caught up into Paradise, the apostle Paul writes, but all he can say is that he heard things that are not to be told. Even that great cartographer of Paradise, the poet Dante, fails in the end to describe it. “How incomplete is speech, how weak!” he cries at the threshold of the presence of God. His critics have grumbled in frustration ever since.

Dante cannot give us a vision of God in words. He is writing with light, Peter Hawkins says, and its splendor hides the very face we long to see. But although the poet cannot show us what he sees in Paradise, he can describe what happens to him there. And what happens is that he begins to turn, to move, to be moved, as he says, by the Love that moves the sun and the other stars. For the first time, he feels his inner life and the life of the world match.  Everything inside of him–his desire, his will–begins to turn in harmony with creation itself.

It is this turning, this deep joining of the world that we hear in the second word of Good Friday.  Two crucified men, their bodies spread out in an awful parody of openness and welcome, turn to one another in the only way they can: with words.  Like all human words, these words do strike the air and pass away, but they also hold open a place in time in which the eternal can break in.  One man says, “remember me.”  The other replies, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

This moment of turning mirrors God’s never-ending turning towards us, God’s joining us in birth and death, hunger and thirst, joy and pain.  The wheel of God’s compassion turns and turns, gathering up everything in its path: Jesus, the crucified thieves, the executioners, the women weeping at the foot of the cross, the jeering crowds.  And we ourselves, one Good Friday congregation among many, straining with other faithful people around the world to hear the last words of our beloved as he struggles through his last hours of life.

Paradise.  This is not a disappearance behind the garden hedge of Eden, a turning away from the world of time.  It is a radical turning towards the world, a joining of our life to God’s life, our life to all of life.  It is a refusal to say–ever–that things may one day get so bad that we will have to turn away from others to focus on ourselves, or our homeland, alone.  We’ve come here today to try again to set our lives turning against that grain and turning toward the world God made and called good.  We’ve come here to put ourselves in the path of God’s own turning, to be swept up and quickened in God’s clasp.  Paradise.

There are other words coming in this hour.  Harsher, colder words: forsaken, thirst, finished.  When those words have struck the air, Jesus will fall silent, and there will be no more words today.

Before that silence overtakes us, let us allow this second word to set us turning, turning on the wheel of God’s compassion, turning toward the world with our hearts wide open, turning in time with the God who never tires of turning toward us.

Paradise.  Paradise.  We need this word of generosity to help us stay turned towards one another, even as powers and principalities encourage us to turn us away from each other in order to seek our satisfaction alone.  We need this word of resistance to help us stay turned towards the earth, even as our 24-hour economy tries to detach our body’s rhythms from the rhythms of creation.  We need this word of love to help us stay turned towards God, even as we suffer, even as we weep.

One forsaken, dying man says to another: Paradise.  And even the stars begin to turn.


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“I no longer love blue skies”

This is adapted from a talk I gave on January 24th at an interfaith conference on drone warfare held at Princeton Theological Seminary. I was invited to speak from a faith perspective about the use of weaponized drones as a tactic of modern warfare. 


I’m sure many of you know a certain poem written by the poet e.e. cummings. It’s one of my favorite apocryphal psalms of gratitude. It begins like this:

i thank You God for most this amazing
day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

I often murmur this verse to myself when standing under a blue true dream of sky so wide and open that it makes my soul expand into the infinite that is yes, that is God. Or I murmur this verse over an evening meal, in gratitude for being carried through a day under that blue dream.

And it’s this poem I think of when I heard the thirteen-year-old boy from Pakistan offer his statement to American policymakers at a congressional hearing in 2013. Zubair Rehman, who survived the drone strike that killed his grandmother, spoke in his native Urdu, explaining to them: “I no longer love blue skies. In fact, I now prefer gray skies. The drones do not fly when the skies are gray, and so for a short period of time the mental tension and the fear lessens. But when the sky brightens, the drones return, and so does the fear.”

This is where I begin, the perspective of Zubair Rehman looking up from his slice of earth in Pakistan to the heavens, and fearing a blue true dream of sky that should send his soul soaring because of everything which is natural, which is infinite, which is yes, but that instead makes him cower. Zubair is afraid of the blue sky he no longer loves, because, as Congressman Rush Holt said in his own presentation last night as explanation for why drone strikes are so terrifying: it’s because they come out of the blue.

Augustine described sin as a curving inward. For him and, later, for Martin Luther, sin is best understood as a turning toward the self and its will, its needs, away from the other and the Great Other that is God. It’s a cowering inward, instead of an expanding outward in response to God’s call from heaven. There is something in Zubair Rehman’s recoil under the blue heavens that makes me think of Augustine’s description of sin. What does it mean when our government’s actions (read: our own actions, since our democratic government ostensibly reflects our collective will) force others to curve inward, stifling their souls, preventing them from soaring gratefully into the blue true infinite yes?

And, of course, what does it mean when our own national security concerns, our love for self and nation, turn us inward, leading us to put nation and self before God and other?When asked what was the most important commandment, Jesus replied that the commandment on which everything hangs is this: love God with all your heart and mind and strength. Once you get that right, once you orient your everything toward the Infinite Yes, then everything else falls into place: love of neighbor and all creation, the law and the prophets, and ultimately the peaceable kingdom. That’s where adherence to the great commandment leads, we’re promised: Peace on earth.

Now this is what’s a little absurd about all that: The Christian faith, rooted in Judaism, teaches that it is actually possible to eradicate sin and violence and to create a world in which all human beings flourish, living into fullness. The world, meanwhile, this same world in which drones are manufactured, sold, weaponized, and sent flying, tells us that very same idea is a naive, impossible pipe dream. To which belief do your thoughts and actions adhere? I’d like to say that’s an easy answer for me, but it’s not always when I read the news and hear about the extreme suffering being wrought around the world by both governments and non-state forces. Still, most days I do my work as a builder of just peace trusting the rather absurd notion that a world without war is possible – that we have already the resources, knowledge, and institutions to create sustainable peace. What we lack is faith. I don’t mean religious faith, necessarily, but rather the trust, generally, in our ideals as a solid and legitimate foundation for making life and death decisions, policy decisions, and military ones too.

So often in DC I hear the argument that if we do not respond militarily in the face of the suffering of others, it’s the equivalent of doing nothing. This was the argument made last year by Secretary Kerry as he advocated for a military campaign into Syria. The faulty logic here is assuming that to respond to suffering in ways other than militarily, to respond in nonviolent actions that build peace, is the equivalent of doing nothing. In reality, military interventions (of whatever sort – ground troops to bombing campaigns to drones) hardly have a solid track record in creating sustainable peace. We can look backwards in history and see the story of violence unfold and the reality of what bombs and violence do – they create shock waves across space and then across time, creating new forms of violence in their wake.  We give arms to groups that end up turning those arms against us later on. We fight one front only to entrench resentments that arise in another place  — an endless game of whack-a-mole. The Cold War ends, its proxy wars continue through the 90s, up to the war on terror – you can dot a line between these episodes from the God’s eye view. What this tells me is that not only is the use of military force not the only viable response to injustice or violence, but perhaps more persuasively, it is arguably not the most effective response, ultimately.

In fact, there is, ultimately, only one way to end violence. That is what is affirmed in our scriptures, and that is what is affirmed in much of the scholarship and statistics that inform the field in which I work, international conflict management: it’s the creation of sustainable peace — an environment in which people have collaborative and supportive relationships, and in which there is a lack of structural and cultural violence: the suffering caused by economic and political structures of exploitation and repression, and the aspects of culture, including religion and ideology, used to dehumanize others and legitimate violence.

To put it in more Jesusy-speak, this is the creation of shalom, or salaam, a context marked by the conditions conducive to human flourishing, in which all people live with dignity, fully, their soul expanding into the infinite blue true dream of yes.

My denomination, the United Church of Christ (or UCC), declared itself a Just Peace church in 1985. And we have a resolution that will be presented at our upcoming national gathering to reconfirm our Just Peace commitment on its thirtieth anniversary, calling on our churches to do so in light of the state of near constant warfare in the world today, warfare that’s been extended through the use of weaponized drones, as well as the growing inequality, environmental degradation, cultural prejudice, and poverty that feed incessant violence.

Just peace principles are rooted in the vision and values to which Maryann Cusimano Love spoke yesterday: the creation of right relationships between people, the eradication of human exploitation, the commitment to a positive peace free of overt and structural violence, the restoration of ties that bind people together, and care for the psyche and spirit.

Do drones help to create just peace? That’s the question I’ve been asked to answer today. Well, no. As has been noted by others, the use of drones has harmed our relationship with others around the world. The feeling of mental anxiety experienced by those living in places where drones operate, where attacks that are not constrained by rules of law come out of the blue, terrorize them and create resentments toward the U.S. that feed violent reactionary movements. The secrecy of the drone program and its use runs counter to democratic, participatory processes and undermines international cooperation as a value and as the foundation necessary for international organizations to function. Our use of drones has expanded violent military campaigns into areas in which we are not at formal war, lowering the bar for military interventions and dragging our country into a state of seemingly incessant, unmitigated military campaigns. For me, this undermines the argument that drones limit destruction caused by full-flung military campaigns. That argument might fly if we used drones only in places where we have declared war, but in reality they’ve expanded the battleground. Drones, certainly used in isolation, and arguably used at all, do not help build sustainable peace. They are merely a short-term, easy, almost whimsical (a word used by one of the other conference presenters) answer to complex problems. And they make kids fear blue skies.

This is what the Christian scriptures teach us: our security will not ultimately come from more advanced weapons. Those who live by the sword, die by it. The more we seek to refine and rebuild our machinery of death, the more insecure we become, at least from the perspective of the ultimate. It’s love, finally, and only, that squelches out fear. It’s love as lived out in the public square as justice, right relationships, human flourishing. It’s love that’s reflected in the infinite yes of a true blue dream of sky in which souls can soar toward heaven in gratitude. Pretty absurd an idea, but maybe one deserving of our faith.


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Praying the Hours

The ice slabs on the river groan when the terce sun strikes them, cracking
as the cold night lifts and exposes them to something new.

I listen to their shifting from here, above the sound of wood
stirring, crumbling as the stove’s heat grows and undoes everything.

Tonight at vespers the incense was so thick it filled my lungs, wove
into my hair, my clothes, my soul. It enfolded me as he prayed:
let your love be like incense.

So much that I am overwhelmed by it? Almost wishing it to end, almost wishing to rush
outside into the January air so cold, so fresh, it makes me gasp, stars fierce
above the waning vesper light.

Antony went into the Egyptian desert seeking something, says the monk. He didn’t run
from anything. He ran toward something.

Like you are doing, he adds.

I did not know I was seeking something when I walked into that arid place.
Except to love. To be loved.

I stand now at the mouth of the tomb, wrapped in my grave-clothes and waiting
to be fully unraveled so that I might rush out. The sound of shifting is unmistakable
in the time between compline and the beginning again of matin.

Emery House
West Newbury, MA

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First Love

It was most of all the way you’d proclaim your self-importance in morning granola
served mixed together with organic yogurt and my fruit, frozen hard.
I always came second to your child which was the way it should be. But

at bedtime he and I would peer at each other over your head as it nodded
time to the words of the story and sometimes the look wasn’t lovely at all
but full of regret for the other’s existence.

What I remember most is the afternoons in summer spent lying in bed
with the hot sun shining in on us and my gut wrenching to be doing
something or even anything besides this nothing we’d managed to wrap
ourselves in to, and the heat.  I’m not so sure my best moments were with you.
Certainly there was an awful lot of hating boredom and doing for the sake of not doing
and perfectly good hours wasted along the face of my clock you’d hung
in the beams of my light shining a lavender white.   Oh,

but then there were your hands. They were cold on my thighs that ached
under the weight of days spent on the far side of the bed we shared
though you’d never know it from looking.  The blanket barely stretched
across the length of the flat mattress and I was always stealing it in the slumbering hope that you’d come closer for refuge from the moon winds gasping in on us, closer

from the street lights that cast our night room orange, closer
from the hum of the refrigerator sleeping, nearly empty now of meat or sweets,
small bulb revealing only an apple or condiment and then large empty spaces of shelf.

When I came back to pick up the last of my things you’d found buried
in the closet, stored for the years, I took your son out for ice cream. He told me
that I didn’t live there anymore and he missed me and he was only three years old.

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An Advent Awakening in Ferguson

“For the third time he spoke to them: ‘Why, what wrong has he done? I have not found him guilty of any capital offense. I will therefore flog him and let him go.’ But they persisted with their demand, shouting that Jesus should be crucified. Their shouts prevailed.” Luke 23:22-23


This morning I went to church to worship a God who knows what it’s like to have a child deemed a criminal, seen as a threat to the state and public order, subjected to a shoddy trial resulting in an unjust verdict, and then killed by the state. Two thousand years ago this was done to Jesus with the tacit acceptance and even support of the socially privileged, some of whom cried fervently for his crucifixion.

We are now in the season of Advent in the Christian liturgical year. This time of year we acknowledge darkness in the world. As the days grow shorter and colder in the Northern hemisphere, our slice of earth tilting away from the heat and light of the sun, we call out for the heat and light of God. We see the shadowy places in the world: the wounds, the injustices, the disease and violence and indifference, and we cry out for hope, love, peace, and joy. With each cry, we are told that God responds, Jesus growing and turning and dropping in Mary’s large belly, preparing to break into this dark world as an answer, reminding us to love our way into solutions to the world’s suffering.

In Ferguson last August, an unarmed son was killed by the state. That morning 18 year old Mike Brown had done something criminal: he had shoplifted. Walking home, he and his friend were stopped by an officer. What happened next is not fully known. There’s disagreement about that, but no disagreement about how it ended. Officer Wilson shot Mike Brown multiple times, and then Ferguson exploded. When the officer was not indicted, the country exploded.

The fuel to the flame grew with the non-indictment in the Eric Garner case weeks later. Garner who was himself deemed criminal for selling loose cigarettes, who was confronted by police and responded angrily, saying “I’m tired of it. This stops today.” Have you watched the video? You can’t unsee it once you’ve seen it. The exhaustion in his voice is like a weight on your soul. He was weary, pleading for an end to the suffocating oppression, suspicion. The cops circled him, descended on him, compressed his chest and put him in a chokehold as he said eleven times, “I can’t breathe,” his arm outstretched, his hand reaching. He died. The cop was not indicted. And the country exploded again, the protests growing. “We can’t breathe,” chanted these crowds.

Something is arriving among us in this country. Something redemptive.

On Twitter and Facebook I have encountered countless voices saying that these dead men and boys deserved what they had coming. He was a criminal, they say to those arguing that black lives matter. Mike Brown was a threat to public order. He attacked like a demon. Crucify him, tweet the crowds fervently, crucify these criminals. It’s an old story. But remember how it ends.

Today I needed to see the Advent candles of hope and comfort blazing, to put my faith in the belief that even as the crowds cry for crucifixion, God is arriving to bring new life and light to this darkness, an answer to outstretched arms and hands up toward heaven. You can see the light building as the crowd of protesters grow across the nation, as their tweets calling us to awake and to love grow louder, overcoming the darkness, ensuring the voice of the oppressed is louder than the crucifixion cries. May the world will be changed forever.

__________________  lightindarkness

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Ferguson is not just in Missouri


On Monday my plane was taxiing out to the runway to take off at 8:05pm CT when the press conference announcing the Grand Jury outcome in Ferguson was taking place.  Over the intercom, the flight attendant told us to switch our smart phones to airplane mode. I ignored him, furiously updating the Twitter feed of #Ferguson, through which I was able to follow the rambling, defensive speech of Prosecutor McColloch via the increasingly frustrated and despairing tweets of those watching. Even without hearing it directly, I could tell where this was going. The plane reached an altitude above the cell phone signal before McColloch had made the official announcement but it didn’t matter. I knew, and at thirty thousand feet above the country, traveling from Dallas to DC, I looked down out my window and tried to keep my heart from exploding.


On Tuesday I attended the #DCFerguson rally and march. Over one thousand of us gathered at Mt Vernon square and then marched in a two mile loop back into Chinatown, stopping traffic along the way. Most of the drivers seem nonplussed. Many opened their windows for high fives, lending their voice to our chants of “hands up, don’t shoot.” Metro bus drivers danced in their seats. Folks in apartment buildings we passed came out to their balconies and cheered us on. People at gyms got off the treadmills and stood jumping up and down at the windows. We passed a second floor boxing club where the boxers with sweaty hair plastered to their foreheads lifted big red gloved fists out the windows, grinning big. It was one of the most moving marches I’ve ever been a part of: nonviolent, diverse, angry and frustrated but also loving and hopeful, with a spirit of camaraderie. Some unfairly heckled the police officers that accompanied our march to ensure public order, but most didn’t. At the end hundreds streamed onto the steps of the Smithsonian’s Portrait Gallery, the rest of us facing them as final speeches were offered. “We must funnel our anger and frustration in constructive ways!” shouted the march organizer. “We must act in a unified way, putting aside petty differences!” The crowd cheered. And then, to honor Mike Brown’s family, we linked arms and sang “We Shall Overcome.” It was cheesy in the most wonderful way. It made me love my city even more. Justice is love in the public square.

On Facebook and Twitter, there has been a severe backlash against those protesting in solidarity with those in Ferguson. As noted by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), which tracks these things, there has been a steady increase in hate group activity in the U.S. since 2000. This increase is no doubt linked to the changing demographics in the U.S., with whites poised to lose their majority status by the time the next census comes around. But the election of President Obama fueled white supremacy. According to SPLC: “The number of Patriot groups, including armed militias, skyrocketed following the election of President Obama in 2008 – rising 813 percent, from 149 groups in 2008 to an all-time high of 1,360 in 2012.” While that number decreased in 2013, I have no doubt that the racial tensions resulting from the shooting of Mike Brown by Darren Wilson and the way in which the criminal justice system handled it, and the nationwide protests responding to these incidents, will bring those numbers back up.  I preached about these birth pangs of a new America two years ago, and those forces of hate pushing back against the  upending of the status quo, paraphrasing Dr. King by saying “hate anywhere is a threat to love everywhere.” Some of the comments on Twitter expose such callous dehumanization of blacks generally, and all those supporting the nonviolent protesters calling for justice. Some advocate violence. Here are just two examples of many:

I’ve seen this kind of rhetoric/attitude countless times in my work overseas in conflict zones. This is the same way some Burmans speak about Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. This is the way some Hutus spoke about Tutsis before the genocide, the way Jews were described in Europe before the Holocaust, the way folks like Bill Maher speak about Muslims. This dehumanization is what justifies and perpetuates institutional and overt violence against an entire group of people.

(by the by, here’s a great plea to white allies about how to respond to those in their Facebook feeds who are expressing one of these kinds of arguments, written by Spectra: Stop Unfriending. Of course, some folks with very extremist views just aren’t worth engaging. You won’t get anywhere. But many folks should be engaged).

But this isn’t just about hate. This is about justice. This is about a system that consistently treats black bodies and lives as if they are less precious. This is about a prevalent social and legal norm that sees and treats young black men as a threat to the state and to the white community. The results are lethal. As a I wrote in my piece last year after the killing of Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of George Zimmerman, “[Justice systems] are reflections of the broken nature of humans that established them.  This despite the ways the criminal justice process itself tries to mitigate the worst impulses of human nature by ensuring ethical standards, due process, presumed innocence, checks/balances/appeals. But human nature is persistent, and sin is pernicious.” Here’s just one statistic among the many: whites consume and deal drugs more frequently than blacks, but blacks are three times more likely to be arrested for so doing, and go to prison far more often (see here). Of the more than 200,000 people serving time in state prisons for drug offenses in 2011, blacks made up 45 percent and whites comprised just 30 percent, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. This is just one statistic among many, many, many that show how the justice system is not colorblind. And as a result, more black males are imprisoned than ever before, and then, stigmatized as criminals with felonies on their records, they are stripped of basic civil rights — to vote, serve on juries, face nondiscrimination in employment, etc. They have power stripped from them. This constitutes a “new Jim Crow,” as argued by civil rights lawyer Michelle Alexander.  The efforts to restrict voter rights targeting minority communities further perpetuates this suppression.

Recently someone in my Facebook circle asked me: doesn’t the fact that blacks constitute  approximately 14% of the nationwide population and nearly 40% of the incarcerated population indicate that they are more criminal? The statistic above about drug use disputes that, as have various studies by organizations like the Justice and Policy Institute, which indicate that whites commit crimes at similar rates but are arrested and imprisoned less often, or face lesser sentences than minorities for the exact same crimes for which they are convicted. One can’t help but be cynical when thinking about how many rich white folks on Wall Street got away with committing egregious crimes affecting millions around the globe. Mass murders, mass shootings, parents who kill their children … these are all examples of crimes that whites commit more often than blacks in this country. No race is inherently more violent than any other. The system just treats them this way. It’s a story as old as time, described in the very first chapters of Genesis.

Finally, there is the question of police treatment of minority communities generally, and young black men particularly.  Several folks have pointed out the discrepancy between the police response this past weekend to 12 year old Tamir Rice in Cleveland, who was holding a toy gun and was shot to death almost immediately by arriving police, versus the police response to 63 year old Joseph Houseman who refused to drop his (not toy) rifle and kept threatening passers by with it. The police negotiated with him for forty minutes before successfully confiscating his rifle. He received it back the next day and was not arrested nor charged. This is just one example. There are many more. Can you understand why one would feel there is a double standard in our country?


Tamir Rice

The case of Mike Brown has illustrated these painful realities. It’s clear that Mike Brown committed a crime by smoking pot and shoplifting cigs (which, I would like to point out, I did both of in my teens. I also copped an attitude with Edina cops). What happened on his walk home, however, is much less clear. The testimony of police officer Darren Wilson is at odds with many eyewitness accounts (note that 16 of 18 witnesses say Brown raised his arms when Wilson started firing. Wilson fired at least six shots. Is that minimal use of force?), and without a trial he was never subjected to cross-examination (Mike’s companion that day, Darion Johnson, gives an account of events strikingly contradictory to Wilson’s). Looking through the mountains of testimony provided the Grand Jury, what took place that night remains frustratingly unclear.

Some have argued to me that because Mike Brown broke a law by shoplifting and charged at the cop, he deserved what he had coming to him. Well, first, shoplifting doesn’t deserve the death penalty. Second, I’m not convinced that Mike Brown did charge at Wilson, initiating the scuffle between them. Several witness accounts say Wilson initiated the attack.  There’s just enough conflicting testimony to leave me with reasonable doubt. That’s why I, like so many others, hoped for a transparent trial to be able to better discern what exactly happened that night and whether Wilson was in the right to shoot an unarmed Mike Brown multiple times, twice in the head. When someone dies, I want a thorough investigation and accounting. That was denied. Maybe Mike Brown did attack Wilson, initiating the scuffle. In that case, Wilson may have been entirely in the right to defend himself and my heart breaks for the threats and difficulties he’s faced since that day (which he shouldn’t face either way. This isn’t, after all, about Wilson and Brown — this is about something much bigger. Demonizing Wilson just distracts from the larger issue. We’re all caught up in the same system that perpetuates these kinds of events). But we just. don’t. know. That’s what’s excruciating. Moreover, given what I already know about the justice system being weighted against blacks, it’s hard not to assume that the process favored Wilson. McColloch’s apparent role in guiding the Grand Jury toward a decision of non-indictment and his history of police cover-up, and the failure of Wilson and the police to follow protocol that night and the hours of briefings with Wilson that remain unrecorded leave me skeptical, at best.


We can also see in Wilson’s testimony and the way in which whites sympathetic to Wilson have been describing Brown illustration of the phenomenon of defining black men in ways that dehumanize them. Wilson described Brown as demonic, as a Hulk Hogan compared to a 5 year old Wilson (they are roughly the same size — both 6’4″, 200+ lbs, MB had a few extra pounds on DW but I wouldn’t call DW a small guy). One sympathetic to Wilson’s account described Brown to me as acting in an “uncivilized” manner. Compare this with the accounts of his family, friends, and community members as generally a quiet, respectful, and silly kid who had been helping family members load their car that morning and was supposed to start college later that week (Johnson’s testimony of Mike’s behavior at the convenience store describes him in an unflattering way, however, even if his description of Mike’s behavior on the walk home portrays him as victim to Wilson’s provocation/aggression).  The contradictory descriptions are striking. Where is the truth? The media spotlight on the violence and looting being inflicted by a minority of protesters in Ferguson, activities which have been condemned forcefully by other protesters, only furthers the stereotypes of black men as more violent (despite the many examples of whites looting and burning cars and businesses, often in response to sporting events).


Mike Brown

Mike Brown’s case illustrates these realities, but Ferguson is not just in Missouri. Ferguson is everywhere in this country. This not an isolated instance.

On Tuesday I urged my church community to participate in that night’s march “because Trayvon, because Mike Brown, because Tamir, because Jesus.” In his ministry, Jesus taught his followers to see those who were being treated as less than human by the systems of domination: the prostitutes, the immigrants, the poor — those who were demonized by the privileged classes as somehow a threat or unworthy, and so exploited and abused. For challenging the status quo of the political/social/economic systems of his time, Jesus was in turn demonized by the privileged classes, and then unfairly sentenced and executed by the state as a criminal. How can one not see what’s taking place right now through the perspective of the cross? This is all about the cross, through which we see how our ideals of love, justice, and truth are treated by worldly powers. As a follower of Jesus, I am taught to love by seeing those hurt by the powers and principalities, the ones the world treats as expendable, and to act in response … to comfort, heal abuses, and to challenge … maybe even to overturn a few tables in provocative, nonviolent acts of public disruption (Matt 21:12). Black lives matter, despite what the system and the comfortable privileged say to the contrary. The Truth matters. That’s why I’m out there.

I’ll let Mike Brown’s last words take out this blog post:


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The Fundies and the Faithful     


The conference at USD was a test in patience and understanding, and I’m not sure I passed. The theme was “gendered responses to religious violence,” or perhaps more accurately: women’s rights and religious extremism. Throughout three days, scholars and practitioners from around the world discussed the exponential rise of religious extremism around the world, much of it violent, and its impact on women’s bodies and status in society. As was rightly said by a number of participants, the situation of women is a good indicator of a spike in religious extremism. Where women are facing more sexual violence and more formal and informal repression, this is often a sign that dangerous forms of politico-religious movements are on the rise that could spill into larger and more militarized forms of violence. Look at Iraq and Nigeria, where women have been kidnapped and forcibly married and converted for years as a tactic of ISIS and Boko Haram. Look at Myanmar, where the monk-led Buddhist nationalist groups have been pushing for legislation to “protect” women that would restrict their right to marry whom they want and practice the religion of their choosing. These groups, all of which are led by men who seek to impose some vision of moral purity on society, often inflict this agenda first and foremost on women – seeking to control them, stripping them of their agency, and claiming in the process that they do so to honor, protect, and dignify them, which is obviously B.S.

A central debate at the conference arose about what the solution to this is, and where religious doctrine and institutions fit in both propelling this phenomenon and addressing it. There were a handful of conference participants who were people (mostly women) of faith. There was me, the Christian minister, several Muslim hijabis (women who wear the head covering) and a Muslim imama (a female imam, or Muslim clergy). Ashima Kaul, a practicing Hindu from Kashmir was in attendance. At one point, Joyce Dubensky, a religious Jew, asked those participants who identify as a peacemaker motivated by faith to stand up.  A little under half the participants stood. The majority of the wider group of conference participants, I would say, was of the “spiritual but not religious” camp. They were not hostile to religion, and recognized its complicated role as a source of both peace and violence, justice and oppression (just as those representing the religious camp did). Finally, a small but vocal camp of participants was openly hostile to religion throughout. I referred to this group as the “secular fundamentalists;” they represented the most extreme position. Lord, did they test me.

This group of secular fundamentalist women’s rights activists had the same definition of religion as the religious extremists: one in which “authentic” religious doctrine necessarily oppresses women and compels violence. As a result, these secular fundamentalists shape religion in the same way as the religious extremists – they reify normative religion as patriarchal, exclusionary, and violent. They ultimately hurt us women-of-faith seeking to chip away at patriarchal and misogynist forms of religious interpretation and amplify the many religious teachings supporting women’s dignity and authority and the history of women’s religious leadership in our traditions as much as the religious extremists do. And so I often feel as angry toward them as I do the religious extremists. I am heartbroken by the distorted version of religion presented by the religious extremists and secular fundamentalists, the way they butcher sacred traditions and ignore their teachings supporting gender egalitarianism, tolerance, and peace, or dismissing them as somehow inauthentic and unpersuasive. But the alienation imposed by secular women’s rights activists is doubly heartbreaking for me. These so-called progressives force their version of what’s right on me. They force me to choose between women’s rights and my faith. This is a false choice that ends up dividing women against each other, and this fragmentation of the movement for gender egalitarianism in the end only benefits patriarchy.


In colonial America, Anne Hutchinson offered weekly religious teachings at her home, preached tolerance and religious freedom as commensurate with the Christian gospel, challenged the authority of male clergy, and criticized the subordination of women.

The fundies at the conference were exclusively from the Middle East and Southwest Asia, as is common. There political Islam has had negative repercussions for women, while the secular regimes of the past – including Saddam’s and the Shah’s in Iran – were much more gender egalitarian. Thus women’s rights activists from this region tend to see secularism (which in their mind often translates into utter absence or suppression of all forms of religion) as the solution and religion as the problem. As a result, the group at this conference was uniformly dismissive of religious actors and any role they can play in fostering inclusion and peace. The Lebanese moderator of a panel on which I spoke with three other women of faith – all of whom spoke about male and female religious actors supporting peace and women’s rights – said at one point that a “secular mindset” is the only one that can promote tolerance. My jaw dropped. Had she heard our presentations? Did she just summarily dismiss all those we spoke about, not to mention us panelists ourselves? I don’t have the “secular mindset” of which she was referring. I am a devout Christian and a stalwart proponent of high-order tolerance, someone who is appreciative of racial and religious difference, sensitive to majority/minority power dynamics and seeking institutional justice, a builder of religious pluralism not just in word but in action, and a defender of the legal separation of religious and state power for the good of both institutions (but note that this doesn’t mean I think they should not be in conversation with one another). I do not have these positions in spite of my faith, but because of it. The teachings of Jesus and many Christian theologians throughout the millennia motivate and shape my work for these goals. And this woman had just dismissed me as having an inferior mindset for this very reason.  Bear in mind as well that just as my Christian ethical commitments motivate and shape my work, so too did Christian theology and ethics drive the establishment of human rights law and the Geneva Conventions in the first place (ahem, Hugo Grotius). As Jimmy Carter has said, those that worked on crafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights were all people of faith.


Tawakkol Karman won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2001 (with another woman of faith activist, Lehmeh Gbowee) for her activism during the Arab Spring in Yemen and her work to empower women. She has said: ” Islam is a religion that encourages freedoms and was based on the liberation of the bodies and the minds from slavery, oppression, and fanaticism.” (

As moderator, she had the final comment for our session, in which she dismissed religion as an avenue for supporting gender egalitarianism and peace. In a session earlier that morning, a small working group comprising all the secular fundies (they stuck together) said religious actors couldn’t play a role in the Gender Working Group of the Network of Religious and Traditional Leaders. Mind you, this is a network deliberately comprising religious actors, many of whom are concerned about gender justice. These kinds of comments and attitudes did not diminish throughout the conference, and as they were voiced I kept getting more and more offended, hurt, frustrated, and most of all: angry.


Bhikkuni Dhammananda is a Thai nun who has struggled to re-establish the practice of full ordination of women in Buddhism (while Buddha established the bhikkuni order, it died out in the 11-13th centuries). She is an advocate not only for gender equality, but also peace, poverty-reduction, and environmentalism.

I’ll tell you what did not help: when in the aforementioned panel, during the question and answer period, an Egyptian Copic priest stood up and through a translator, informed me that women cannot be priests and bishops because the Bible does not condone it. “If this were the case,” he asked, “why were all of Jesus’s apostles men?” I couldn’t help but think: great, one point for the secular fundies.

Now, I’m no apologist for religion, of course. I know these kinds of attitudes are a pervasive reality that have driven gender injustice, and I spoke to this reality throughout my presentation. But given where I was at emotionally and what I was up against, I sighed inside as the male priest dismissed my religious authority because I’m a woman. Fortuitously, this also allowed me to illustrate a point I’d made in my talk: that women-of-faith draw from theological and scriptural sources to defend their agency as leaders, their rights, and their religious authority. I informed my Christian brother that I was an ordained minister, belonging to a Protestant denomination that had been ordaining women since 1853 without negative repercussions for the institution. Turning to the scriptures, I reminded him that in the Book of Acts there are many women named as leaders in the early church. “As for the gospels,” I noted, “don’t forget that the female followers of Jesus are consistently portrayed as understanding who Jesus is when the men don’t get it, and of staying by his side while he was arrested and crucified while the male disciples betrayed, denied, and fled. So yes, I do think women have the religious insight, faith, and courage to lead the Christian community, and I think the scriptures support that position.” There was my illustration of how to draw from religious resources to support women’s rights and authority against religious actors seeking to undermine women’s empowerment. How would the secular women have responded to this man in a way that would speak to him? With secular arguments?


Sister Joan Chittister. a Benedictine nun, has been a vocal and visible Catholic advocate for peace and human rights, including women’s rights.

I did not persuade the Coptic priest about women’s ordination that day (and I wouldn’t have expected to with one conversation), but perhaps I planted a seed. Later he came up to me and we spoke further, digging into the scriptures some more. All-in-all I found it exceedingly easier to be in conversation with him about a topic on which we had divergent views than I did with the secular fundamentalist women. He was open, he listened, he engaged patiently. The secular fundies, on the other hand, were often combative, arrogant, and dismissive. Guess with whom I’d rather work.

In the end, religion is a reality. The secular fundamentalists (including the “New Atheists” like Bill Maher, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens) would like all religion to go away. Or they think that it can be marginalized to a degree that it has no influence. When one of the secular fundamentalist women worried aloud that engaging religious actors at all will empower normative/patriarchal religion, I understood her concern coming out of her context and experience. But secular suppression of religion, history has shown us, only breeds religious backlash – often in “conservative” forms that differentiate themselves from secular liberal (Western) models of governance and social norms. Given this reality, why not work with people of faith who have the same end goals as you? Why summarily dismiss religious actors who are eager to advance women’s empowerment and/or coexistence and peace, drawing from religious values and arguments to do so, and willing to mobilize in support of international law and standards? Of course we won’t agree on everything, but that shouldn’t be a standard for collective action between groups with overlapping goals. And most importantly, one should never be forced to choose between a faith that is precious to them and their rights as a woman. To force this choice, which the secular fundamentalists do, is itself a form of violence and oppression against women. It denies the integrity and worth of my own voice and forces me into your vision of what’s right.


Ruth Messinger is a religious Jewish advocate for justice, peace, and women’s rights. She serves as head of the American Jewish World Service. She has said: “My strong drive towards social justice to me had direct links to core Jewish values.” (

I’m tired of the secular fundies. They bring me down, man, by defining religion in a way no different from the religious extremists. I’m tired of them telling me what religion teaches, what it is. Who are they, of all people, to say what my religion teaches? They don’t know it like I do. Recognize that fact, and then listen to what I have to say. Really listen. Don’t silence my voice. Don’t tell me that my religious voice, my religious interpretations, my values are not authentic or legitimate.


Amina Wadud is an African American Muslim scholar whose work has focused on Qur’anic exegesis from a feminist perspective. She co-founded Sisters in Islam, a Malaysia-based Muslim feminist organization with global reach.

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