Reflections on my experience in Charlottesville

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I wish I could tell you that it was an easy decision to go down to Charlottesville, that I was committed and convicted that being there was the right thing from the moment mid-July I first learned about the white nationalist rally being planned. It wasn’t, and I wasn’t. Even as I attended a training on July 20th to prepare – reviewing tips for providing immediate first aid care to those hit with bats or tear gas, sitting with seasoned de-escalators to learn their techniques for intervening as third party actors between individuals or groups clashing with words or more, I was still uncertain. My friend Jess, one of the leaders of SURJ-DC, had sent out a heartfelt plea to the community urging everyone to show up. I sat with her in the near-empty and dark community hall at the church where the training was being conducted, and shared that I preferred to mobilize for causes rather than against them, as a “counter-protestor.” I’d recalled the request of the mayor when the KKK descended on Charlottesville earlier in the month for counter-protestors to stay away so as not to draw more attention to the hatemongers. I wasn’t sure showing up to counter-protest was the right strategy, ultimately. I made excuses, even as I began to compile a list on my phone of materials I’d need to buy if I were to go: bandages, liquid antacid mixed with water in equal parts to treat those tear gassed, glucose tablets, rehydration salts.

A couple days later, the call for clergy went out. They pled for 1000 to show up to join Charlottesville-area clergy in being a faith witness to love in the face of hate. I work around-the-world with religious actors who I train and support to do that very thing; to put their life on the line to undermine and denounce extremists, and to defend their communities nonviolently, drawing on religious ideas, rituals, practices to do so – mobilizing the power of religion for the cause of life and love – and recognizing that as clergy they have both relative security and moral obligation to be out there, outside the walls of the temples and churches, when times of need arise. In late July I traveled to Japan where I’m on the selection committee for the Niwano Peace Prize, awarded every year to religious peacebuilders who do just that. Then I went to Myanmar for a week, where I’ve worked with Buddhist monks and nuns, Muslim youth, Christian pastors who were on the streets in Mandalay when deadly riots broke out there. How could I not do what I ask others to do? I returned back to DC and let Congregate C’ville – the clergy collective – know that I would be there.

On Saturday morning my alarm went off at 3:30am. I showered, took out a permanent marker and wrote across my stomach my brother’s phone number, my blood type, my name. Then I put my clergy shirt and collar on, grabbed my backpack full of supplies, and hit the road in the dark of dawn, arriving in Charlottesville as the sun had just risen. There I met up with friends and other clergy – seemingly equal part male and female –convening outside First Baptist following a sunrise service to walk to various locations. At McGuffey Park, where my group went, just a few blocks from Emancipation Park where the white supremacists were to gather, we sang, we listened to speeches by artists, activists, by Vice Mayor Will Bellamy, by Rev. Brian MacLaren. Some of us then walked to First United Methodist Church, where from the top steps in front of the church you could see the white nationalists’ rally beginning to build. They streamed past the church en route to the park – with their helmets, their weapons, their body armor. They carried flags and shields with images on them – symbols of hate, worlds of meaning I am not familiar with. They glowered at us and called out horrible things with a breathless ease. We sang back at them. Some of them were clean cut – polo shirts and khakis, respectable-looking neo-Nazis. Others looked rough – big beards, black clothes, leather chaps and jackets covered in patches. Nearly all were men. And all were white.

Quaker tips

Good tips, handed out by the Quakers

First UMC had been designated a place of safe sanctuary adjacent to the park. They’d set up barriers downstairs and had security wands they were using to ensure all those who entered the church were unarmed. There was a medic tent set up just inside the security perimeter, with a hose and shower area that was used all day to care for those who’d been hit with tear gas and mace. There were medics providing other forms of first aid care for those hit or punched. Some folks were carried in by their friends from off the park, doused in gas or with visible injuries, blood streaming down their faces. The church also had two tables set up with food and drinks – one down below in the parking lot, and another on the front steps where many of us stood overlooking Emancipation Park. From there, we sang, we watched as the crowds built up, the flags waving behind those who carried them throughout the park. We heard the muffled sounds of declarations made through megaphones. We watched the crowds of counter-protestors gathering just outside the park. We saw the armed militia men line up along the park – dozens of them clothed in beige, army green, or camo gear adorned with patches, some of which depicted the same symbols on the flags of the protestors behind them. They were carrying one, two, and sometimes three large guns, and they stood facing the counter-protestors in a manner that made it appear they were there to defend the supremacists gathered. The clergy trained to participate in direct action lined up facing them, in front of and in defense of the counter-protestors.

clergy and militia

Photo via Joshua Eaton’s Twitter feed: https://twitter.com/joshua_eaton/status/896365078777405440

On rooftops around Emancipation Park, the National Guard had set up stations where several troops were positioned with large guns pointed toward the crowds below. Many of the state police were huddled together in groups slightly at a distance, observing. As time passed, buses began arriving with riot police in full gear streaming out and taking up position in corners around the park. Medics with big red crosses taped to their chest and legal advisors in bright green caps also stood apart from the crowds, waiting.  From time to time, individuals would walk past with big bandages on their faces from where they had been struck in early scuffles. Word spread that two women within our group of faith representatives had been beaten by a group of supremacists.

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National Guard positioned on rooftops

At 11am, some of us gathered in the sanctuary to pray and worship. Through scripture, preaching, and most of all, passionate singing, we lifted up our pleas to God for peace and love to come and disrupt the building hate and violence in Charlottesville. But we prayed also for justice, recognizing that at root the fight going on that day was about racial justice, and an assertion of peace without address of the underlying issues of injustice would not be an outcome befitting our liberating God. As my favorite Psalm, number 46, was recited, I heard it like I never had before:

God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble with its tumult.

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy habitation of the Most High.
God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved;
God will help it when the morning dawns.

The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter;
God speaks, the earth melts.

The Lord of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our refuge.
(abbreviated)

At the end of the service, a pastor announced that a state of emergency had been declared. I went out to the front steps to see that the supremacists were filing out of the park, and I heard the sounds of shouts and more as the counter-protestors and supremacists encountered one another. The police were moving in. I walked downstairs, where the singing of the clergy and other people of faith gathered had grown louder. I chatted with a transgender (“two spirit”) Native American woman from Tennessee who had arrived with a vanload of other clergy the day before. She and I watched various kinds of folks streaming by. At one point, three young white men came up who looked like they might be with supremacists, and asked to get in. We asked someone who had been speaking with them who they were – he said they were there to protest the supremacists, but dressed like them in order to infiltrate them more easily. Perhaps they were part of the antifa contingent.

As I stood there, behind tables and security detail, I grew increasingly uncomfortable with my place of safety behind barriers and security measures. I was glad the church was serving as a sanctuary, and grateful for the support my colleagues of faith were providing there – physical, emotional, spiritual — to those who needed refuge and comfort. I believe worshipping and praying in that space was itself an act of resistance. But I wondered if more clergy were needed out there, in the thick of it, on the streets where it was clear tensions and violence were mounting. We had more than enough support at the church already.

I had not come to Charlottesville with anyone. I was in touch with other DC-based UCC clergy, but they were in a different part of the city, in a safe house. I had been told not to travel alone around downtown. But I felt compelled to leave the church and go into the world to serve, as I’d claimed in my ordination paper almost ten years ago was my understanding of ministry. So as a group walked past the church’s barricade, I followed close behind them, shadowing them for awhile until I peeled off. I was nervous. I knew what I was doing was possibly stupid, but personally necessary. I’ve been hiding behind walls of privilege much of my life. I kept my eyes peeled and tried always to place myself in groups of folks I knew to be counter-protestors. My clergy collar provided me some sense of security.

Cville

At an intersection, I climbed a small embankment and watched below as a small group of supremacists approached. Blocking the intersections on two sides were lines of police. The supremacists moved up one street with counter-protestors surrounding them on all sides, jeering them and telling them to go home. One man dressed in a Scottish kilt walked up and down the street alongside them holding a sign that read “Real Clansmen wear kilts.” He was smoking a cigarette languidly. Black and brown protestors stood near the group of supremacists, looking defiant, unarmed and unarmored, courageous. As the group of supremacists marched onward, I came down into the intersection. The riot police were given orders, and they filed onward in the same direction the supremacists had gone. I followed a bit behind them with a group of Black Lives Matter activists. Above, a helicopter continued to buzz, as it had done all day, as it would continue to do. A constant white noise of propellers accompanying everything, a buzzing sound that haunts me still. 

I’m telling you: I work in war zones for my day job. My work has taken me to Iraq, Colombia, Sri Lanka. Charlottesville felt like a war zone that day. It was. 

Crossing a large parking lot, I came across another group of supremacists who had lined up alongside a building. They held their flags in front of them and watched as a group of counter-protestors gathered before them. Harsh words were flung back and forth. Bottles and other trash began to fly. A man turned to me and asked, “where are the police?” I moved forward, considering putting myself between the two groups to try to de-escalate, and remembered I was alone. So instead I ran a block back from where I came to find a group of riot police, and told them “there is a confrontation happening up there, and no police around.” Even as I did so I thought of the stories I have heard at the numerous Black Lives Matter gatherings I’ve been to, and wondered if the police would help or harm in this situation, who they would protect and who they wouldn’t. I cursed myself for not attempting to deescalate the situation myself. I prayed I was doing the right thing. The police suited up and marched to the scene, to find that the supremacists were walking back as a group toward the large parking lot, the jeering crowd behind them. A counter-protestor next to me yelled at one of the older men in their group, accusing him of racial hatred. “We don’t hate anyone,” the man replied calmly. I looked at his confederate flag, and then at his face. I looked closely. “Fuck you,” the counter-protestor said to him, adding “what you stand for is hate.”

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In a corner of the parking lot, a group of supremacists had gathered to tend to a woman in their group who was injured. They formed a huddle around her. Counter-protestors also gathered around them. Soon, a group of riot police came and formed a circle around the supremacists, their backs to them, facing the counter-protestors. They held their tear gas and plastic handcuffs ready, a warning. From a few blocks away, back towards the downtown Mall area, a large line of riot police advanced with an armored vehicle behind them. A man in combat gear was poking out of a hole on the top of the vehicle, a gun pointed at our group. At this point, a group of clergy approached. They moved faster than the line of riot police, from a slightly different direction. I saw them coming and felt relief. My people. I joined them. They were mostly women clergy. We lingered for awhile; when it seemed things were de-escalating, they began to walk onward. I hesitated, and then followed with them. We went to a café a couple blocks away, which had been designated a safe space for the clergy. A hired guard stood outside blocking the entrance. Inside, the two men who owned the café, husbands, were providing free food and drink to the faith leaders. Cornel West was in there, sitting beside a rabbi, being interviewed by Katie Couric. Surreal, but no more surreal than anything I’d already seen. I took a seat and collected myself. I sent texts to several folks letting them know I was ok. CNN was on the television, and I noted that what was taking place outside the doors of the café was national coverage.

It was not long after this that Rev. Seth Wispelwey, a leader of Congregate Cville, announced that we were needed on the streets. I heard this from the bathroom and quickly rushed out and followed the group streaming out of the doors. “What happened?” I asked as I passed the woman holding the door. “Someone was hit by a car.” She replied. Once outside, the group began running, our stoles and robes streaming behind us. We only needed to go two blocks and there we found the chaos. Seth went straight into the fray, I followed somewhat behind him, turning the corner to see volunteer medics giving CPR to someone I would later learn was Heather Heyer. Other bodies lay strewn at the intersection. Ambulances and police were not yet on the scene. Seth turned around and called to us to help create space. Several clergy and I moved the crowd away, creating a barrier along the sidewalk between the victims, the medics, and the crowds, and creating space on the street for the ambulances that had begun to arrive. Over the next hour, the victims were carried onto the dozen ambulances. Heather rolled past first, her body still and much of her clothing torn away by the medics still working to try and revive her. She was followed by some of those who were the most hurt – their legs, heads, arms covered in gashes, bruises, brokenness. Some were still and quiet, others crying softly, wailing, or even cursing at the paramedics because of the pain they felt as the gurney rumbled along the street. They were mostly younger adults; they were of all races. Some victims sat on the curb waiting patiently as those who were more hurt than them were cared for, and then called out “medic!” in turn to get support they needed. The volunteer medics were often the first to respond – running toward them with their big backpacks full of supplies. Around me, some clergy continued to hold the line (as I did) while others provided pastoral care. A pastor next to me held up her hands and arms in a blessing toward the ambulances and prayed calmly, fervently, and quietly under her breath.

In time, the ambulances all left the scene with many of the victims. The clergy attended to some of those left behind, and then Seth called on us to gather. We walked a block away, and then collapsed into each other in a big group hug. Someone started praying. The helicopter continued to buzz overhead (not long after this moment, the helicopter would crash, killing its two pilots). One of us was crying softly. “God help us,” the pastor prayed, “God help them.”

We walked a bit more to find a quiet place, and then formed a circle. A rabbi led us in a centering meditation. Seth assured us that clergy-on-call had been summoned to the hospital to provide pastoral care to the victims and their families. We received reports that the rest of the city was a restive calm at that point. We went back to the café. I ate for the first time that day. Sitting beside Cornel West, I heard him talk about the lack of police support that morning when a couple dozen of the clergy who had trained in nonviolent direct action sought to offer a prophetic witness at the park. “We were bulldozed by the fascists,” he said. “They barreled right at us with their weapons and shields. We had to disband and weren’t able to bear witness for as long, or to the degree, that I had hoped.” On CNN, President Trump appeared. We all shushed. He said his now infamous line – violence “on many sides” and the café erupted in cries of anguish and anger. We had just witnessed a woman die, and many people – many of them young, all of them unarmed – in great pain and injury. Our President was speaking in a callous way to those of us in Charlottesville who were hurting and were looking for a word of moral clarity, recognition of our pain, and support for the courage and conviction of those in Charlottesville witnessing to love and the best of American values in the face of hate. We turned off the press conference before it was done. I turned to Brother West, asking “Do you think these days, or the late 60s with all those assassinations of civil rights leaders were darker?” “These days,” he replied instantly. “In those days, we had a strong social movement. We knew we were winning. These days it’s less hopeful, more fragmented.”

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I noticed a male pastor sitting on the ground, his back against the wall, staring into space. I sat down beside him and asked him if he was ok. He spoke at length, venting and processing, about all he’d encountered that morning and afternoon. About the pain he knew he was feeling, but also the state of shock he was in that was keeping him from feeling it. His mind was spinning, his thoughts disjointed. I knew what he meant. I sat with him for awhile, the cement ground hard underneath us.

I approached Seth and Rev. Smash, another leader of Congregate Cville, and asked if we shouldn’t head back out onto the streets. We agreed to go in twenty minutes. However, when that time came there was a security threat deemed to be approaching (a group of armed supremacists) and we were told to move to the back of the café. We gathered closely and waited, quiet. When the threat passed, we gathered around Seth who suggested we head toward McGuffey park where the Quakers were planning a vigil at 5pm. Arriving there, we learned the vigil had been threatened with violence and called off, so we walked a block onward to First UMC. There, in the same place I’d been that morning, we collapsed into the pews. There were a couple dozen of us remaining by this point. We were tired, sunburnt, sweaty, hurting. Seth stood before us. He’d taken off his robe. His face was red, his voice tired. “I won’t make this long, because I know we all are all worn. But please take seriously the impact of vicarious trauma. Please know that you have been through an intense day. You tended to others. Go home now, and tend to your own well-being. Congregate Cville — which is you, don’t forget, not us — will send out material in the coming days to let you know where we go from here, and to provide guidance for your ongoing self-care.” We prayed one last time, and then we left in groups of at least three to return to our cars. I walked alongside a young rabbi – a man I had been with earlier in the day at the scene of the car attack. He wore a kippah and Jewish prayer shawl. I thought to myself once again how brave my non-Christian faith leader colleagues and those many black and brown counter-protestors were to show up in the face of those who hate them. They had much more courage than me, protected by my white skin, my Christian clergy collar, my gender expression.

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We gather at the end of a long day

I reached my car and drove home, giving a lift to another UCC clergywoman from DC. On the way home, we shared with each other feelings of guilt – for all the things we had not done, for all the places we had not been that day. These were the first feelings of guilt that have stayed with me since August 12th, feelings that have been only exacerbated by the many “thank yous” I have received from others for showing up. With each one, I think to myself: but all I did was show up. I feel guilt that I didn’t arrive the Friday before to participate in the training that would have allowed me to join the direct action other clergy took in the morning. I feel guilt I spent too much time behind the security barriers in the church or in the cafe. I feel guilt that what I saw shocked me so deeply. I should have known. My friends of color have been telling me this for years. I read the SPLC’s HateWatch and cited SPLC’s statistics about growing hate activity in this country, including Neo-Nazism and KKK. It’s a reflection of my own privilege that I was shocked, not fully understanding until I saw it face-to-face. And now I know, and I am changed forever. I try to tell myself: no more guilt, guilt’s an indulgence; no one needs your guilt, just commitment and further action.

In the days since the events, I have been a basket of emotions: that guilt mixed with pride, sadness, shock, anger. The president’s ongoing remarks that have equated violence of the counter-protestors to those of supremacists in Charlottesville, and his reference to some among the Unite the Right rally as being “very nice people” fill me with rage. The round-the-clock news coverage and the many narratives about what happened in Charlottesville, some of them diverging quite far from what I saw and heard, upset and confuse me. I fear the national narratives will begin to corrupt my own experience. I feel the need especially to defend the honor of the counter-protestors, who did what was right in showing up on the side of love. I want to shout from the rooftops: these supremacists, they yelled homophobic, anti-Semitic, racist slurs at unarmed clergy people and other counter-protestors. They rushed and barreled through clergy. They came bearing large guns and shields. They came wearing symbols of hate. They came intentionally to terrorize. How can you defend them? I don’t doubt they are capable of redemption, but I also know that on that day, they were a very human embodiment of evil: death, violence, hate. They were willing to enact that violence on the forces of all that’s good, all that’s God. They came to create chaos, and they succeeded. They stood for forces of death-dealing, and they brought death with them.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the extremists those with whom I work overseas with the US Institute of Peace confront and seek to undermine. Buddhist nationalists in Myanmar, ISIS fighters in Iraq. These groups, too, pull on symbols, rituals, practices. They carry flags emblazoned with their symbols. They recite mantras. They also build up entire temples of death-dealing. They create abworld that drives their hate-filled agenda and promotes violence, often against vulnerable groups, driven by a zeal of false righteousness that compels even self-sacrifice for their abhorrent cause.

Within our faith traditions, we have our own symbols, mantras, rituals, practices. We have been handed down these tools from our faith ancestors, inspired and led by a God of liberation. Symbols and ideas that are grounded in and drive Life and Love in the face of worldly ideologies and powers that seek to drive death and hate. Our symbols are stronger. Our message is God’s message. It is more powerful than any human ideology of intolerance. It will be victorious, if we remember how to draw on these divinely-inspired gifts to mobilize the passion, motivation, and means to defeat evil.

I’ve been thinking of Jesus, too. I’ve been thinking of how he walked into Jerusalem, unarmed and unarmored, to face directly those who wanted him dead. I think of him telling his disciples and his enemies to put away their swords. I’ve been thinking about how vulnerable he was, and about how he felt compelled to stand for what was right in the face of what was evil, even if it meant death (which it did). I’ve been thinking of those black and brown bodies, those Jewish and Muslim bodies, vulnerable and defiant in the streets in Charlottesville that day, confronting willingly those who want them dead. I’ve been thinking of Heather. I see Jesus at work, still walking into Jerusalem (or Charlottesville) to do what is right.

I also have been thinking of all those who provided care on the streets that day. Most especially, the volunteer medics who were on the scene of the car attack, who worked so hard to try to revive Heather. I think about the pain they must be carrying. I think of the designated “care bears” who went around with food and water and immediate medical care to those who were participating in direct action. I think of the clergy who participated in direct action, standing up to and seeking to block the entrance of, the white supremacists into the park. There is so much good in this world, I remember. And truly, I believe we have all been preparing all our lives for this moment. It is, as I noted in my first reflective Facebook post after Charlottesville, “the moment we were made for.” And what we are called to do in this moment is to have faith in the good news that love will win, and then do the work to make it so.

 

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Crisis and Opportunity in the Muslim World

I am currently in Morocco for the Marrakesh Declaration and Call to Action, a three-day gathering of prominent Sunni and Shia scholars (though primarily Sunni) from around the world who have come together to affirm the rights of minorities within Muslim-majority contexts and mobilize action to protect them. Drawing from historic Islamic sources, particularly the Charter of Medina, a contract established by the Prophet (peace be upon him) with the Jewish community in Medina ensuring freedom of religious practice and vows of protection, the summit will issue a declaration at its conclusion. In workshop sessions, participants are developing the substance of this declaration and plans for its implementation. Clergy of other faiths and interfaith activists are attending as observers, supporters, and contributors to the discussion.

Marrakesh

The gathering has been in the works for four years, led by the prominent Mauritanian Sunni scholar Sheikh Abdullah bin Bayyah under the auspices of his Forum for Muslims Promoting Peace, with the Moroccan king serving as co-sponsor and host. Sheikh bin Bayyah, an Islamic legal expert, developed the framework for the summit and its declaration, seeking to bring tradition and modernity into conversation. His efforts came in response to the rise of extremist groups in the Muslim world that target minority groups (among others) with violence, rape and sexual enslavement, forced conversion, and destruction of holy sites. These “uneducated” and “arrogant fools,” as Sheikh bin Bayyah described them on the first day of the meeting, distort Islam, and so these prominent ulema (Islamic scholars) have an important role to play in discrediting extremists’ arguments and advancing protection of minorities and their cultural and religious traditions as an essential Islamic duty.

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Sheikh Bin Bayyah addresses those gathered

There is no doubt that the current moment is one of exceptional crisis for the world generally, and for the Muslim world in particular. But this moment of crisis is also one of opportunity, creating motivation as never before for those involved in peacebuilding in the Muslim world to come together across sectarian, ethnic, and national lines to affirm, renew, and strengthen positive teachings and relationships within the tradition, address historical points of disagreement that have divided the greater Muslim community, and draw from the many Islamic sources available to transform the drivers of violence in the Muslim world and beyond.

There have been many attempts to organize the greater ummah, or world community of Muslims, to find points of consensus among the religion’s diverse followers in order to advance peace and reduce sectarianism. For example, the Amman Message, drafted in 2004 and signed by hundreds of Muslim leaders, called for tolerance and unity within the ummah. The 2010 Mardin Conference convened over a dozen Sunni scholars to methodically denounce and invalidate a fatwa that is often cited by militant jihadists. Gatherings and statements such as these have been and continue to be significant markers in considering Islam in the current global context. However, these platforms and declarations have sometimes been criticized for failing to organize and mobilize action yielding tangible impact in ending violence and transforming its underlying drivers. It is the hope of many convened here in Marrakesh, including the conference organizers, but especially the minority representatives from Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere, that this meeting and declaration will yield such action. At the very least, the presence of numerous government representatives and prominent scholars is acknowledgement of the existence of a serious problem that needs addressing. As noted by Shahed Amanullah in a tweet, it’s an important step.

SA tweet

 

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Fruit of Labor

Cover WRP

At long last, our book was released officially on September 15th! Can’t tell you what a relief this is, after such a long incubation period. The  project that led to this book was launched in 2010, a joint effort by USIP, the Berkley Center of Religion and World Affairs at Georgetown, and the World Faiths Development Dialogue. Katherine Marshall and I have shepherded the process along in the years since. Holding the book makes more real and evident the larger project and its impact on me and my work: all those conversations, those incredible women I’ve met and learned about.

The common assumption out there is that religious women are quiet, submissive, oppressed. When it comes to thinking about their response to violent conflict, there is little known about how they work, and so a conclusion that they do little. When it comes to their role in shaping gender dynamics in society, it is often assumed they reaffirm normative practices and attitudes privileging men and their authority. Look closer, and these easy assumptions fall apart. This book tells the stories of women you may never have heard of — women who have been unrecognized by either the religious peacebuilding field (which privileges male clerics) or the women’s peacebuilding field (which privileges secular women). It tells the story of Pastor Adelina Zuniga and Catholic Sister Maritze in Colombia who confront corporate powers and armed actors in their efforts to protect their communities and demand justice, drawing from Biblical stories affirming the leadership of women to defend their agency against religious or secular gatekeepers who makes claims about how religious women should act. It speaks of Tawakkol Karman, Dekha Ibrahim, Bilkisu Yusuf — Muslim women from across Africa and the Middle East who have led nonviolent resistance movements to topple dictators, forged relationships across fraught lines of violence, advocated for women’s rights within religious frames, and put themselves in the most dangerous, violent places to mediate between factions, drawing courage and conviction from their faith. Or Mae Chee Samanasee in Thailand, who quietly brings together Buddhist and Muslim women from the south to offer healing to those worn down by the unending cycles of suffering wrought from decades of violence. Thank God for these women, these stories, and for the opportunity given us to sing their songs.

In the course of this project two women just mentioned, Dekha and Bilkisu, died. Dekha died in 2011 in a car accident, and Bilkisu died just recently in the stampede at hajj in Mecca. Together those involved in the project mourned their deaths, even as we acknowledged their spirit and inspiration live on, encouraging other Muslim women in Africa and religious women across the globe. At our 2010 symposium, Dekha spoke quietly but with a wisdom that granted her authority. She spoke of how delicate peace is — like an egg. Bilkisu, meanwhile, demanded your attention — her towering presence, her deep voice. She didn’t speak much but when she spoke her words were careful and influential. She came across as powerful but never domineering. She co-authored one of the chapters in our book … perhaps her last published piece, her last written word, before succumbing to the glory in the most holy Islamic place on earth. Rest in peace, sisters. We’ll keep singing your song and your praises.

bilkisu    dekha

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Paradise

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! 

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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. 

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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 offered last night as explanation for why drone strikes are so terrifying: 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 others 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: Christianity, rooted in Judaism, directs faith toward the possibility of eradicating sin and violence and creating 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. 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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