The Church's Political Witness in a Politicized World


Recently I was having a conversation with a dear friend who preaches for a church about the tension between centering on the message of the Gospel, the life of the church, and the craziness and insanity that seems to dominate our existential anxiety and frustration with everyone who doesn't think exactly like us. This person specifically (and insightfully asked): "How do you decide between focusing on the Gospel and letting Donald Trump define the lectionary?" The question wasn't really about Donald Trump (though that's another conversation entirely and for another time), but about the difficulty of forming a faithful witness as a community of faith and addressing (or not addressing) the "pressing issues" of the moment. This is a real tension, and one that lacks an easy answer. 

This is more difficult than it seems for a number of reasons:

  1. The task of leading a congregation as a pastor/teacher involves communicating with and seeking to (positively) form people across a wide diversity of experiences, perspectives, and opinions. (Even within churches at the far ends of the spectrum, fundamentalist and extremely progressive, this is the case.) While there may be areas in which there is significant theological agreement or resonance, when it steps into the contemporary issues facing the culture(s) in which the church lives, it is most likely another story altogether. 
  2. It is emotionally, spiritually, and intellectually exhausting to go around preaching from one dumpster fire to another. This doesn't mean that it isn't important, and that those who preach should simply beg off in the name of "self-care" or a more utilitarian desire to avoid conflict. But I think most people who preach regularly would tell you (if they felt like they could) that this kind of response to the culture wars of the moment is not only exhausting, but it doesn't form healthy Christian communities. 
  3. If you serve in a church that is predominantly white and middle class, many of the hot-button issues of the day are not hot-button in your communities. While there are certainly issues affecting these kinds of communities, they often aren't the ones that tend to bring out all the venom and alienation that comes from real problems facing communities of color, LGBTQ+ persons, and those of different social, economic, or immigration statuses. 

So what are those who are called to preach and to lead churches to do? 

Here I want to make two important distinctions before I offer what I think is an initial solution...

First, I think that it is important to recognize that there is a difference between the church's ethic (this is right or wrong, or to put it another way, in keeping with or in opposition to the implications of the Gospel), and the church's practices. Here is what I mean by this: The Christian ethic is relatively universal (e.g., The Greatest Commands), but the church's actual, concrete practices are as diverse, particular, and evolving as we could possibly imagine. Christian practices of the Christian ethic in the Philippines look fundamentally different than they do here on the Upper West Side in Manhattan. Concrete practices of love and generosity, while driven by the same ethic, are distinct in Flint, Michigan (where you couldn't baptize someone in the water) and the wealthy suburbs of Phoenix (where everyone has a pool and one of the nation's highest rates of domestic violence homicides). 

Second, I think it is important to say that perhaps we have simply made things entirely too complicated. (Yes, I said it.) It seems to me (and this has been my experience in trying to have thoughtful conversations about a whole host of contemporary cultural and world issues), that too often we are simply unable to ask the most direct and meaningful questions that would enable us to get to the root(s) of an issue instead of simply talking past one another. (Again, another issue for another essay.)

So here is what I am proposing as an (initial) answer:

The ethic of the church should be clear, concise, and explicit. The resulting practices of the church should be thoughtful, engaging first the voices of the marginalized and the non-ecclesial expert, and should reflect the complexity of the issue(s) to which they are responding. 

Now that sounds really nice (and it does), but this seems vague and smacks of a church-growth kind of "plug and play" solution that can simply be franchised into a never-ending stream of products to be sold. But I think it is quite the opposite. 

First, this idea virtually eliminates the call for or expectation of universal specific practices. More concretely this means that while all churches should embody the Christian ethic, the specific ways in which this is done in their respective contexts has a degree of fluidity, variety, and value that is unique to their (social, economic, geographic, and cultural) location(s). 

Second, this not only brings voices that have too often been excluded (the marginalized and the non-ecclesial expert) to the table, but it gives them the first turn to speak to the community. Here's why I think this is important: (1) It is so easy for issues to be convoluted from poor sources, (literal) fake news, and issues related to bias. This tendency is lessened (as much as possible) by bringing in individuals and organizations who can speak to these issues and conversations with some actual expertise. (2) In order to prevent this from merely becoming an intellectual exercise, or to prevent the ecclesial community from acquiring its own Messiah-complex, it is also important to center the voices of those who are caught, trapped, or crushed under the issue(s) at hand. This is meaningful because they most likely have not had a voice in the ecclesial community, and they certainly haven't had one in the larger context. The church can learn more clearly and directly how its commitments to the embodiment of the Gospel might emerge by listening to these two voices which often find themselves "locked out" of the positions of influence and discernment in our churches. 

So what might this "clear, concise, and explicit" Christian ethic look like?

The following list is my initial suggestions about what this might be. I will frame these two ways: (1) As a proclamation, and (2) As a question or series of questions. These serve as the boundaries of our reflection when we are confronted with issues both internal to the church and outside of it. (And as we find if we look close enough, those issues are always connected.) 

A clear, concise, and explicit Christian ethic for disorienting, overwhelming, and ambiguous times:

If it is harmful, we seek to disempower it.
Does this cause harm?

If this denies the dignity of a human being, we seek to restore it.
Does this denigrate someone?

If this comes from a motive other than love, we seek to reorient it.
Is this loving?

If this excludes or alienates others, we seek to reconcile it.
Is anyone being left out or pushed out?

These claims can be held up against and questions asked about any of the contemporary issues that church leaders feel pressure to avoid or address within their communities both ecclesial and otherwise. And while these questions are simple and concise, it is the responses that are complex and difficult. And that's ok. Churches that live in the real world (instead of holding on for the next one) will find that their decisions are no more complex than real, everyday life for people in their communities. This also enables the church to face these issues with a healthy dose of humility, transparency, and willingness to both confess and repent when they have messed up. 

So go ahead, pick an issue, ask these questions, and then get to work embodying this ethic in your ecclesial community. I think you just might find that instead of the culture leading the church  that the possibility for the Gospel to speak clearly and powerfully just might emerge. 

My Best Books of 2017 and Reading in the Year Ahead...

As another year draws to a close I wanted to take a moment to reflect on the books that have most profoundly impacted me in 2017. This was an incredible year for me for reading. This is due to a number of factors: (1) I completed my MTS thesis this spring which brought me through many great books, (2) I had a summer break before we moved to NYC that enabled some much needed down time, and (3) I live down the hall from one of the top theological libraries in the world, the Burke Library at Union Theological Seminary

How I Read Great Books All Year Long...

Before I do that I wanted to share a quick list of the way that I hunt down so many great books. If you are anything like me, one of the most painful questions of life is this: How am I supposed to read all of these incredible books?!?! So here are just some of the ways that I try to keep up:

  1. I follow places that make it their business to pay attention to new and/or important works in the fields that interest me. This includes places like the Englewood Review of Books and The New York Review of Books, I often check the forthcoming titles section at some of my favorite publishing houses like Fortress Press and Orbis Books. And on social media I pay attention to the book recommendations of scholars, activists, and church leaders that I respect. 
  2. I read every footnote in every book that I read. When I begin to notice a pattern of citing certain authors or certain texts I am able to add them to the orbit of what I am reading or going to read. 
  3. I am always asking my friends and mentors, "What are you reading?"
  4. I pay attention to everything that Kris reads for her MDiv/MSSW at Union Theological Seminary. Her courses are amazing, and I find that it helps (slightly) to assuage my unvarnished jealousy to read alongside her coursework. 
  5. When I look up a book on Amazon I always take the time to look at the other recommending titles. And I keep an active, ongoing wishlist going to provide a reminder for myself of the titles I want to pursue going forward.


The books that I have read this year have spanned a number of different disciplines, in part due to the interdisciplinary nature of my thesis work, and I have broken them down here as follows: Theology/Church History, Society/Culture, Memoir, and Race/Racism.


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Suffering by Dorothee Soelle

This book is first on the list on purpose. If you have ever struggled with questions about the nature of evil and human suffering this is the first book I would recommend for you. Her work was central to my thesis this Spring and was the only book I re-read in 2017. The first chapter in which Soelle offers a critique of what she calls "Christian masochism" and "Christian sadism" should be required reading for all clergy and those who wrestle with these kinds of questions. This book would be in the top 10 books I have read in my lifetime. I cannot recommend it strongly enough. 

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Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies by Marilyn Chandler McEntyre

McEntyre, a professor of English who writes about the intersection of language and Christian faith, has written a short little book about the importance of the task faced by theologians and clergy in the stewardship of language, particularly in a culture that is in some ways post-truth. Although written in 2009, this book feels as if it was meant for the Trump Era of fake news and campaigns of misinformation. This is a beautifully written text that not only informs but will help those who have the calling of communicating the truths of Christian faith in a society filled with so much (dis)information. 

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Post-Traumatic Public Theology edited by Stephanie N. Arel and Shelly Rambo

This edited collection of essays ranges widely around questions of trauma and human suffering, theological reflection, and the concrete life of Christians and ecclesial communities. I found the essays by Willie Jennings ("War Bodies: Remembering Bodies in a Time of War"), Bryan Stone ("Trauma, Reality, and Eucharist"), and Dan Hauge ("The Trauma of Racism and the Distorted White Imagination") are foundational contributions to their respective conversations at the intersection of trauma and theology. Highly recommended. 

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Silence: A Christian History by Diarmaid MacCulloch

Diarmaid MacCulloch is one of the leading church historians alive today, and this text, the product of 2006 Gifford Lectures (some of the most prestigious lectures given in religion), MacCulloch explores the places in Christian history from which we can learn because of silence. He explores these "gaps" to which he is conscious because of his own experience as a renowned church historian who, as an openly gay man, has experienced enough silencing to know where to look in the Christian tradition. This is a must read for anyone interested in how to learn from and explore church history. 

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Eccentric Existence: A Theological Anthropology, 2 Vols., by David E. Kelsey

The career-long project of an important theologian, this massive two-volume set (1,092 pages) is a tour de force for anyone who wants to think deeply about theological anthropology. This is one of the most complex books I read this year, but was also one of the most rewarding. Anyone thinking about the nature of sin, salvation, or what it means to be human must engage this work. This is one I will be coming back to for years to come.

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The New Testament: A Translation by David Bentley Hart

From the Dust Jacket:
David Bentley Hart undertook this new translation of the New Testament in the spirit of “etsi doctrina non daretur,” “as if doctrine is not given.” Reproducing the texts’ often fragmentary formulations without augmentation or correction, he has produced a pitilessly literal translation, one that captures the texts’ impenetrability and unfinished quality while awakening readers to an uncanniness that often lies hidden beneath doctrinal layers.
The early Christians’ sometimes raw, astonished, and halting prose challenges the idea that the New Testament affirms the kind of people we are. Hart reminds us that they were a company of extremists, radical in their rejection of the values and priorities of society not only at its most degenerate, but often at its most reasonable and decent. “To live as the New Testament language requires,” he writes, “Christians would have to become strangers and sojourners on the earth, to have here no enduring city, to belong to a Kingdom truly not of this world. And we surely cannot do that, can we?”

The "Concluding Scientific Postscript" at the conclusion of the text is not only a powerful explanation and defense of Hart's choices throughout the New Testament text, but is a wonderful example of how Scripture should be considered and more importantly, encountered. This is the only thing I carry to church these days. A must have. 


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Conflict is Not Abuse: Overstating Harm, Community Responsibility, and the Duty of Repair by Sarah Schulman

This is the book that I discovered in 2017 that I always needed but could never find. In this incredibly provocative book, Schulman takes on all kinds of areas of tension and sensitivity and cuts through it with laser precision. Exploring the difference between conflict, which inherently involves a duty to participate in repair, and abuse, she opens us up to re-examine every area of our lives and society where polarization, animosity, and defensive postures reside. Someday when I teach full-time, this will be required reading of every student I teach. An incredible book. 

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The Wounded Storyteller: Body, Illness, and Ethics, 2nd Edition, by Arthur W. Frank

This wonderful book explores the ways in which stories of illness that emerge within a "remission society" whose primary values are wholeness and health, and how these narratives are used to respond to the world as it is and as we long for it to be. 

This book not only unlocks the way that stories are told, but helps the reader to understand how they are being deployed. Not just what they are saying, but more importantly what they are doing. This book has changed the way that I listen for how churches deploy (or silence) the narratives of Scripture and their own communal life. A brilliant book whose influence and importance are rightly regarded. 

Unbroken Brain: A Revolutionary New Way of Understanding Addiction by Maia Szalavitz

From the Dust Jacket:
Challenging both the idea of the addict's “broken brain” and the notion of a simple “addictive personality,” Unbroken Brain offers a radical and groundbreaking new perspective, arguing that addictions are learning disorders and shows how seeing the condition this way can untangle our current debates over treatment, prevention and policy. Like autistic traits, addictive behaviors fall on a spectrum -- and they can be a normal response to an extreme situation. By illustrating what addiction is, and is not, the book illustrates how timing, history, family, peers, culture and chemicals come together to create both illness and recovery- and why there is no “addictive personality” or single treatment that works for all. Combining Maia Szalavitz’s personal story with a distillation of more than 25 years of science and research, Unbroken Brain provides a paradigm-shifting approach to thinking about addiction.

This book is brilliant, accessible, and an important conversation starter for one of the most entrenched and important problems that faces our nation in the coming years. 


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A Mother's Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy by Sue Klebold

I admittedly had a deeply personal interest in this memoir. Sue Klebold is the mother of Dylan Klebold, one of the two shooters at the first "mass" school shooting: Columbine High School in Colorado. Growing up about 30 minutes north of Columbine, having friends who attended the school when this happened, and having met Dylan in an off-chance encounter at Columbine a few months before the shooting made me curious how Sue, a tireless advocate for adolescent mental health and intervention and anti-violence advocate, would tell her story. In an honest, raw, and heartbreaking testimony to the complexity, fragility, and terrorizing potential of human beings, Klebold holds nothing back. Breathtaking. An important memoir in the age of active-shooter drills in our schools and in a political climate that protects weapons over children. 

Against the Wind: Memoir of a Radical Christian by Dorothee Soelle

The memoir of my favorite theologian is both insightful and expansive. It opens up new avenues into a richer understanding of her perspective, theological commitments, and the ways in which this radical disciple and theologian navigated the ever complicated path between the academy, the church, and the streets. This memoir helps to give context to her expansive work and to the kind of life that can be cultivated by the reader in order to prepare themselves and their communities for the kind of capacity that characterized Soelle's life and career. Anyone interested in her work should read this memoir. 


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Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America by Michael Eric Dyson

Without a doubt one of the most important and uncomfortable books I read in 2017, Dyson literally takes us to church with a full liturgy examining black experience, white complicity, and the ways in which White America, particularly those who claim Christian faith must wake up and respond with boldness and an absence of ambiguity or neutrality. At times I felt myself physically cringe, verbally respond, or put down the book through tears in my eyes. 

For all these reasons and more this is one book that all white people who care about racial justice in America, particularly of Christian faith, should read yesterday. 

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White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide by Carol Anderson

From the Dust Jacket:
Since 1865 and the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, every time African Americans have made advances towards full participation in our democracy, white reaction has fueled a deliberate and relentless rollback of their gains. The end of the Civil War and Reconstruction was greeted with the Black Codes and Jim Crow; the Supreme Court's landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision was met with the shutting down of public schools throughout the South while taxpayer dollars financed segregated white private schools; the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965 triggered a coded but powerful response, the so-called Southern Strategy and the War on Drugs that disenfranchised millions of African Americans while propelling presidents Nixon and Reagan into the White House, and then the election of America's first black President, led to the expression of white rage that has been as relentless as it has been brutal. 

Carefully linking these and other historical flashpoints when social progress for African Americans was countered by deliberate and cleverly crafted opposition, Anderson pulls back the veil that has long covered actions made in the name of protecting democracy, fiscal responsibility, or protection against fraud, rendering visible the long lineage of white rage. Compelling and dramatic in the unimpeachable history it relates, White Rage will add an important new dimension to the national conversation about race in America.

This book is a powerful retelling of the real history of racism in America, and one of which I was largely aware. Anderson masterfully challenges some of our most sacred narratives, exposing them for the complex and often malevolent individuals and institutions that they were. A humbling and important book. 


I don't want to take the time here to say why I am excited about these books in the coming year, but I do want to lay out some of them here. Some of them are new, others are simply new to me. Maybe this can serve as a nice stimulus for your own reading list in the coming year...

What's on your bookshelf for this coming year?

The Harvest of the Wounded (A Sermon): John 4:31-38

(This is the prepared manuscript of a sermon that I delivered in an abbreviated form at the Manhattan Church of Christ. This is also my attempt to offer a kind of "trauma-informed" reading of this biblical text. For more of what a "trauma-informed" reading of biblical texts looks like consult a future post I am writing that details my theological and methodological commitments about this practice.) 


A Small Text to Radically Reorient Our Worlds

The text for this evening falls in an awkward place in the middle of one of the most famous narratives from the Gospel of John. We have before us a side conversation, and a cryptic one at that, as John is often wont to do. Here Jesus offers John’s version of a most elemental metaphor for Christian faith and witness: harvest. But as is often the case in the fourth Gospel, Jesus is here not just to communicate, but to disrupt our assumptions, to jar our categories, and to enable us to reconsider God’s work in the world and our place in it. In other words, Jesus is concerned with nothing more than the revelation of the very nature of God, in himself and his encounters with people, particularly those who are seeking some answers, some hope, and something that cannot perish, spoil, or fade.

First, let us hear again the text before us…

Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, “Rabbi, eat something.” But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” So the disciples said to one another, “Surely no one has brought him something to eat?” Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. Do you not say, ‘Four months more, then comes the harvest’? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor. (John 4:31-38, NRSV)

Jesus in this engagement with his disciples is concerned that they have a change of vision, a change of priorities, and a transformation of the way in which they engage with and perceive the needs of the people around them.

But when you and I approach this text we do not come to it blindly, as if we are hearing for the first time. Neither do we come to it in a vacuum, as if what is really going on here has no bearing on this response that Jesus has to those closest to him. And what I want to explore tonight are a number of ways that we have been misshaped to read this text and the larger story that it is a part of, and more importantly how we have thought about our place in the world as the redemptive presence of God in a deeply wounded world.

The (Tortured) History of This Text

Before I try to unpack the ways in which we have been shaped to misread this text by centuries of presumption and problematic theological commitments, I want to just explore briefly the way that Christian thinkers through history have thought about this woman and her story in which we find this enigmatic teaching of Jesus about the harvest.

First I wish for us to hear the text, with the side conversation with Jesus amongst his disciples temporarily removed from view. I want us to listen particularly closely to the places where we have been formed to “fill in the gaps” or to articulate a supposed backstory of what is occurring here. What we will find is that this actually reveals much more about us and the communities under whose influence we have been taught this story than it does about this Samaritan woman.

Now when Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard, “Jesus is making and baptizing more disciples than John” —although it was not Jesus himself but his disciples who baptized— he left Judea and started back to Galilee. But he had to go through Samaria. So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.

A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”

Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”

Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you want?” or, “Why are you speaking with her?” Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” They left the city and were on their way to him.


Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I have ever done.” So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. And many more believed because of his word. They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.” (John 4:1-30, 39-42, NRSV)

The early church read this text as a model for the transformation of those who encounter Christian faith, but with one minor shift from how most contemporary readers hear this text...they presumed that this was indeed a woman of faith, of reputation, and of longing who sought the truth wherever it took her and wherever it found her. And on this day, it found her at the place where she was. It was an ordinary place with an extraordinary history of connection and even marriage going all the way back to Jacob himself. But for this woman, and those who would soon believe her message, this place took on new meaning as it was the location of an encounter with the unexpected. Remember, she proclaims through the town proclaiming, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” (John 4:29, NRSV)

In fact, an entire tradition arose about what happened to this woman. The historians of the middle ages named her Photina and told of the boldness with which she proclaimed the Good News through the entirety of her life, leading to her eventual martyrdom. One story suggests that she converted the daughter of Nero and was martyred in Rome. Another recounts that she preached the Gospel in Carthage and died as a religious and political prisoner there. Although clearly beyond the scope of what we learn from the biblical text of this unnamed woman, in general, nearly all commentators from both the ancient and medieval periods of Christian faith view the Samaritan woman as a capable, compelling recipient of salvation and witness to the faith. Craig Farmer in his review of the major interpreters of this story summarizes it this way:

Although ancient and medieval commentaries on the fourth Gospel do not commemorate these extracanonical accomplishments, they portray the Samaritan woman’s personality and discipleship in equally flattering ways. Not only does she beautifully model the sinner’s conversion to Christ, but she also demonstrates admirable zeal in bearing witness to Christ among her fellow Samaritans. On the basis of her testimony, a host of the citizens of Sychar come to faith in Christ, a feat matched by none of Jesus’ disciples in the pages of the Gospels. (Farmer 365)

Is this the way that you have heard this text explored? For me, it most certainly is not!

The way that I have always encountered this text goes something like this…

A Samaritan woman, with a deeply problematic life of immorality and social exclusion, has come for water in the middle of the day because she is such a pariah that she must come alone. It is this serial adulterer who has had five husbands and now is simply living with a man, who happens upon Jesus. And it is there, confronted by the revelation of her sinful life, the full weight of her guilt and shame, feeling completely exposed by this stranger that knows all her deepest secrets, that she comes to believe that this is who Jesus is.

The single problem with this interpretive backfilling of this story is this: There is no evidence whatsoever that it is true, and in fact, the very text that is interpreted this way mitigates against such a profoundly slanderous reading! [For more about this consult this article by Maccini.]

There is no mention of why she came in the middle of the day, there is no suggestion that she is alone, and there is no suggestion that she interprets Jesus’ insights into her story as provoking guilt, shame, or even repentance!

But instead of trying to describe the ways in which this history of interpretation takes such a downward spiral beginning in the writings of the early Reformers, from which we take our own theological and interpretive heritage, I want to try to get at the underlying issue that directs us to these kinds of readings.

The Categorical Insufficiency of Salvation = Forgiveness of Guilt/Sin

And the core of these issues is this: Particularly in the traditions that are in the lineage of the Protestant Reformation (of which theologically Churches of Christ most certainly are), the primary focus and primary problem in need of resolution in theological constructions of salvation is as follows: forgiveness for guilt incurred by sin committed by the person.

In other words, for people in the Protestant line of interpretation around this text, we must first find the guilty agent in order that the work of salvation can properly begin.

The real problem however is this: Salvation as merely the forgiveness of guilt is insufficient. There are so many elements of our lives in need of salvation that have absolutely nothing to do with forgiveness.

It is for this reason that I would like to propose that we think about the Samaritan woman in this story, as well as ourselves and those around us, not as wicked, but as wounded.

This is not a suggestion that we should replace wicked with wounded, for there are undoubtedly persons and powers and communities that perpetrate unspeakable evils in the world and against people everyday. Instead I want to suggest that we must expand our language and our categories to think about the way in which all persons are wounded persons.    

Think back to the Samaritan woman of our text. The early Reformers painted her as a sarcastic, belittling, sexually promiscuous, flagrant sinner who responds to Jesus with thinly veiled contempt...until Jesus shakes her with the revelation of her utter wickedness. They want us to understand that only after demonstrating to this woman how awful she was could she begin to be prepared to receive how good and how redemptive the person talking to her could be.

And this kind of pattern, of exposing our depravity as a mechanism of bringing about conversion, is so deeply engrained in our faith and even in the very systems that govern our society. It could be argued that the entire American project is rooted in this malformative vision initiated by Augustine and transmitted to us through the pens and pulpits of people like John Calvin and Martin Luther. America is after all, the only nation in the world in which the fundamental commitments and categories of the Protestant Reformation are connected, sometimes inseparably, to the powers of the State.

But I want to propose that Jesus does not see in the Samaritan woman, or us for that matter, someone who is fundamentally wicked and in need of forgiveness to stave off an almost certain eternal damnation, but instead as someone who is deeply and profoundly wounded and misshaped by the Powers of Sin and Death. We are not therefore considered to be objects of God’s wrath, but recipients of the responsive, redemptive compassion of the Great Physician.

This is not to in any way minimize the realities and destructive force of the sin in our own lives. It is true that sometimes the most harmful wounds a person experiences are in fact self-inflicted. But it is to recognize that at the end of the day, when we really reflect on our lives in all of their complexity, all of their pain, and all of the potentiality, that the majority of the wounds that most deeply shape who we are, for good or for bad, are not wounds that were self-inflicted but were wounds that were done to us.

And I think that it is this, the wounds that have happened to this woman, that Jesus is revealing in this narrative. Lynn Cohick, a brilliant New Testament scholar who concentrates her work on the lives of women in the ancient world and particularly the early church says this about the Samaritan woman:

It’s unlikely that she was divorced five times, each for committing adultery. No man would dare marry a convicted adulteress with neither fortune nor fame. That she was a serial divorcée is also unlikely. She would’ve needed the repeated help of a male advocate to do so. Further, we have no evidence that anyone in the ancient world, man or woman, divorced five times. … It is more likely that her five marriages and current arrangement were the result of unfortunate events that took the lives of several of her husbands. Perhaps one or two of them divorced her, or maybe she initiated divorce in one case. As for her current situation, maybe she had no dowry and thus no formal marriage, meaning her status was similar to a concubine’s. Perhaps the man she was currently with was old and needed care, but his children didn’t want to share their inheritance with her, so he gave her no dowry document. Perhaps he was already married, making her his second wife. While the ancient Jewish culture allowed it, such an arrangement went against Jesus’ definition of marriage as a union between one man and one woman (Matt. 19:4-6). It makes sense, then, that Jesus would say that she wasn’t married. Scripture doesn’t tell us why she had five husbands, but exploring first-century realities helps us imagine how her life might have unfolded (Cohick 68, 69).

In other words, when Jesus “calls her out” what is in fact happening here is that Jesus is extending an offer of welcome and embrace, of satisfaction and security, and of stability and permanence -- for “those who drink of the water that [he] give[s] to them will never be thirsty. The water that [he] will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” -- to someone whose wounds are deep, long, and irreparable. He is not offering her mere forgiveness despite her wickedness, Jesus is extending to her an opportunity to receive from the Great Physician himself, the healing she so desperately wants and needs.

The Harvest, Not of the Wicked, but of the Wounded

It is now that we can begin to see people not as wicked but as wounded that we can circle back to the text that brought us here in the first place:

Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, “Rabbi, eat something.” But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” So the disciples said to one another, “Surely no one has brought him something to eat?” Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. Do you not say, ‘Four months more, then comes the harvest’? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor. (John 4:31-38, NRSV)

This cryptic teaching can now be seen perhaps in a clearer light. We are not sent out into the world to reveal to it its inherent wickedness and depravity in order that it might panic or be so moved by the overwhelming nature of guilt and shame. Instead, we are sent out into the world as representatives of the Great Physician whose power is that he enables us to properly diagnose the ways in which we have been wounded and offer us life, God’s life, in the here and now, leading towards our healing and redemption.

Jesus is teaching us here that the thing that sustains him -- and by extension the same thing that can sustain our own lives -- is to be about the healing and redemptive work of God in the world. Jesus is calling us to recognize that when we locate our shared woundedness with our sisters and brothers in the world, and when we commit to lives that bring healing and redemption, we too find healing. This is the experience of the Samaritan woman! She found in her woundedness a place where the work of God offered her healing and she couldn’t keep this to herself. She began to reap a harvest among her own people that God had been sowing for a long time. And in the same way we are sent into the fields, the places where we find the universal wounded community called humanity, to bring in a harvest of healing and wholeness and redemption that we did not plant but that we will have opportunity to both receive and participate.

And when those people, who through the love and redemption made possible by this community, come also to faith they will take up the words of the Samaritans: “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.” (John 4:42, NRSV)


Cohick, Lynn H. “The Real Woman at the Well: We Know Her as an Adulterer and Divorcée: Her Community Would Have Known Otherwise.Christianity Today 59, no. 8 (October 2015): 66–69.

Farmer, Craig S. “Changing Images of the Samaritan Woman in Early Reformed Commentaries on John.Church History 65, no. 3 (September 1996): 365–375.

Maccini, Robert Gordon. “A Reassessment of the Woman at the Well in John 4 in Light of the Samaritan Context.Journal for the Study of the New Testament 53 (March 1994): 35–46.

Too Wounded to Care: Moral Injury and the Failure to Respond to Gun Violence in American Society

Concertgoers flee the site of an active shooting at a concert in Las Vegas on October 1, 2017. Image courtesy of  ABC News . 59 people were killed and over 500 were injured. 

Concertgoers flee the site of an active shooting at a concert in Las Vegas on October 1, 2017. Image courtesy of ABC News. 59 people were killed and over 500 were injured. 

There have been only a couple of times in my life where it felt as if the society around me found itself in an existential crisis. Unbelievably, it seems as if few acts of violence are capable of causing that level of reaction and reflection anymore. This is my attempt to explore the genesis of the incapacity not as a political or ideological conflict, but as a cultural moral injury

The Columbine Massacre: The "Original" Moral Injury

The perpetrators of the "Columbine Massacre," Eric Harris (Left) and Dylan Klebold (Right). 

The perpetrators of the "Columbine Massacre," Eric Harris (Left) and Dylan Klebold (Right). 

My first experience of this shattering of innocence came in the immediate wake of the execution of twelve students and a teacher and the subsequent suicides of the perpetrators Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, on April 20, 1999 at Columbine High School. I had friends at Columbine, hiding in adjacent rooms. I had performed in their auditorium just a couple of months earlier as part of a community choir and had set up risers with the stage manager, one of the shooters who seemed kind and helpful. In the days after the shooting my friends and I sat on the infamous hill above the school on which crosses for each of the victims had been placed and outpourings of grief and anguish scattered on every square inch of open space. You could smell the flowers from the parking lot over a hundred yards from the hill. And what seemed like an earth-shattering existential crisis in which we doubted the goodness of the world, quickly became something entirely different.

Moral Fragility and the Compulsion of Scapegoating

Violent video games, bullying, and maybe some depression or other mental instability were (almost immediately) blamed. No matter the cause they had one thing in common, they were causes that lacked agency, that weren’t contagious, and certainly had nothing to do with the fundamental commitments of our entire society. This was an outlier, an exception, albeit an excruciating one. It was time to move forward, or more precisely, to move back to the real world from which this tragedy had removed us. I was conscious enough even as a sophomore in high school to recognize that, at least to some extent, this was smoke and mirrors. But it is only in hindsight that I have come to recognize the danger and insidiousness of this psychological "self-defense" mechanism that pervades our entire society. A 2016 ABC News story details for us that there have been fifty mass murders or attempted mass murders at a school since Columbine. Seventy-three percent of those perpetrators had absolutely no prior criminal record. More than two-thirds of those who went to schools with premeditated plans of murder got their guns from home or from extended family. Sixty-five of these school shooters or those who were preparing to do so referenced Columbine as a motivation for their actions. And finally, one, the number of schools shootings per week, on average, at a school or college in 2015.

Statistics via ABC News.

Statistics via ABC News.

The Normalization of Gun Violence in America

Not only are we learning that we have failed to respond appropriately to the slaughtering of innocent children -- often times by children -- but that this horrific kind of carnage has multiplied exponentially across our entire society. We no longer have those kind of national crises about gun violence, particularly towards children. And this betrays a fundamental kind of woundedness that has not been addressed in conversations about violence, gun control, and even about the very basic commitments of our society as a whole.

Moral Injury as a Category for Societal Experiences of Violence

The language of moral injury has been in development since the early 1970’s in the work of Robert Jay Lifton. After a number of developments in recent decades, moral injury has come to be described in this way:

Moral injury, following this line of thinking, is operationally defined as “perpetrating, failing to prevent, bearing witness to, or learning about acts that transgress deeply held moral beliefs and expectations.” Broadly conceived, this kind of injury may involve “participating in or witnessing inhumane or cruel actions, failing to prevent the immoral acts of others, … engaging in subtle acts or experiencing reactions that, upon reflection, transgress a moral code, [or] bearing witness to the aftermath of violence and human carnage. (Warren Kinghorn, “Combat Trauma and Moral Fragmentation: A Theological Account of Moral Injury,” Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics 32, no. 2 (September 1, 2012): 61.

In other words, moral injury is the kind of wound that is both invisible and evident across the whole spectrum of a person’s life for those who have eyes to see or their own wounds of moral injury to bear. In the groundbreaking book, Soul Repair: Recovering from Moral Injury After War, Rita Nakashima Brock and Gabriella Lettini describe the fallout that emerges after this psychological woundedness has occurred:

The consequences of violating one’s conscience, even if the act was unavoidable or seemed right at the time, can be devastating. Responses include overwhelming depression, guilt, and self-medication through alcohol or drugs. Moral injury can lead veterans to feelings of worthlessness, remorse, and despair; they may feel as if they lost their souls in combat and are no longer who they were. Connecting emotionally to others becomes impossible for those trapped inside the walls of such feelings. When the consequences become overwhelming, the only relief may seem to be to leave this life behind (xv-xvi).

The Potentiality of Talking about Moral Injury as a Cultural Phenomenon and Reality

The contention that I want to explore here is this: When it comes to the increasingly common experience of gun violence in society, the persistent inability to respond in generative ways to the realities of gun violence, whether through gun control or even more fundamental interventions (like child abuse prevention, prison diversion programs, and the reform of the prison-industrial complex), is not rooted in a failure of imagination or resources, but in a cultural moral injury that is both unaddressed and perpetually exacerbated by ongoing gun violence. In other words, I think that our society shouldn't necessarily be understood as indifferent or even celebratory of this reality, but should understand it as a location of true woundedness in need of tangible, moral intervention.

While speaking about moral injury in veterans of war, Willie James Jennings asserts what could easily also be applied to questions about gun violence in American society:

Their moral injury must be seen against the horizon of the seared consciousness of a country that functions in a constant state of moral injury. Unlike veterans, however, we have institutionalized ways of numbing the pain of our psychic wound and denying the reality of our moral incoherence. We function with both the denial of our deep connection to soldiers and the real implication of weaponizing human beings and telling them to kill or be killed for us. Americans rarely follow the ledger all the way down to the reality being bought with the lives of human beings. We normally stop short of true sight of that cost, settling on ambiguous and abstract ideas like freedom and democracy, when the actual matter at hand is the freedom of a corporation to operate and/or to extract natural resources from the earth unhindered by whatever people inherit that land. What our veterans expose is the deep contradictions of America’s moral landscape, contradictions that are glossed over by hyper-patriotism that constantly exploits memory. (Willie James Jennings, “War Bodies: Remembering Bodies in a Time of War,” in Post-Traumatic Public Theology, ed. Stephanie N. Arel and Shelly Rambo (Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), 25.)

    Look what happens when we take Jennings exact interpretation and substitute veterans for victims of gun violence in American society:

That this simple editorial reworking of Jennings’ assertion flows effortlessly should give us great pause as to the source of our political, moral, and theological impasse about the ubiquity and ferocity of the trauma and human suffering that is rooted in and caused by gun violence.

Why We Must Admit our Cultural Moral Injury

Our willingness to confess that our historical incapacity to make meaningful and lasting societal changes around issues of gun violence as being the result of a cultural moral injury is, I believe, fundamental to real and lasting change around these questions in our society. This contention is rooted in three fundamental observations: (1) A willingness to identify these realities as "injury" should lead directly to responses of empathy and compassion to those whose response to this common injury are different (or even opposite) of our own, (2) This admission enables us to all begin to articulate the ways in which gun violence in American society has misshaped and impacted us all regardless of our background, experience, or visceral responses to these issues, and (3) a "diagnosis" of moral injury enables us to return to the wounding experience(s) instead of only being caught up in the present chaos and disorientation.  

Cultural Moral Injury as a Locus of Shared Humanity

In order to revisit the realities of gun violence in American society, and to find places where our shared humanity, and therefore our shared need of redemption can emerge, we must begin the difficult yet unavoidable movement of remembering, reacting, and responding. This is no small task, and certainly not without pain, conflict, and perhaps even violence. It is important to remember that all those involved in this movement towards the restoring of communities and persons harmed by a cultural moral injury are in fact injured.

Step 1: Remembering

While this always has the potential to devolve in the arguments (and even violence!) about the meaning of these questions and experiences, in this case remembering will most likely involve a commitment to allow individuals and communities to speak the truth for themselves and their communities and for others to enable them to be heard. I recognize that this is no small task. But too often what happens is that those with a shared injury but divergent responses unconsciously or sometimes even explicitly seek to undermine and illegitimate the concrete, lived experience of the Other. Sometimes this is because the experience of the other is perceived as threatening either to their worldview and ideology, to their own human dignity, or some other factor that causes the hearer to feel unbearably made into the Other. This is real and must be addressed. But perhaps the difference that we could make in this conversation is to no longer jump prematurely to "solutions" (e.g., More guns! or More gun control!), but first to understand the depth and shape of the wounds and the wounded. 

I would contend that our inability to talk about the shared woundedness that we experience at these events (and I do believe that it is fundamentally a wounding), is rooted in our unwillingness to see these issues as human problems beyond the victim/perpetrator dichotomy that has so deeply infected our entire society. (For more about this read the absolutely brilliant book Conflict is Not Abuse: Overstating Harm, Community Responsibility, and the Duty of Repair by Sarah Schulman.) In other words, we have yet to come to grasp the ways in which we are all wounded by these realities. We are wounded in different ways, but in that woundedness we share a vulnerability and a need for redemption that I am convinced can only be found meaningfully together. 


One incredible example of this is the brave and heartbreaking memoir by Sue Klebold, the mother of one of the shooters in the Columbine Massacre entitled, A Mother's Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy. In it Klebold shares the story of a mother who must wrestle with the horrific murders committed by her son and the loss that it entails both morally and physically as her son Dylan committed suicide at the end of the attack. 

Listen to just a few excerpts from this memoir/confession:

There is perhaps no harder truth for a parent to bear, but it is one that no parent on earth knows better than I do, and it is this: love is not enough. My love for Dylan, though infinite, did not keep Dylan safe, not did it save the thirteen people killed at Columbine High School, or the many others injured and traumatized. (xxi)

Dylan Klebold, one of the two shooters at Columbine High School, with his mother Sue Klebold on his fifth birthday.

My anguish over the lives lost or destroyed by my son's hand, and for the pain and suffering this cause their families and friends, is with me every single day. It will never go away, as long as I live. I will never see a mother in the cereal aisle with her little girl without wondering if that beautiful child will reach adulthood. I will never see a cluster of teenagers laughing and bumping each other at Starbucks without wondering if one of them will be robbed of life before he's had the chance to live it in full. I will never see a family enjoying a picnic or a baseball game or walking into church without thinking of the relatives of those my son murdered. (19)

I became fixated on the picture that aired over and over: the most terrible school picture Dylan ever had taken, so unflattering that when he brought it home, I urged him to have it reshot. It made him look like the kind of kid teachers as well as students would find a reason to pick on -- the guy you'd move your tray to avoid in the lunchroom. It didn't look like him. Even in my near-madness in those early days after the tragedy, I knew how ridiculous it was for me to be upset that the media were using an unbecoming photograph of Dylan, instead of showing him as the nice-looking man he had been. My son was an alleged murderer -- and there I was, dithering over an ugly photo. It was a spectacular example of the tricks the mind plays when we're juggling unbearable emotions. Absurd as it was, I wanted Dylan to be shown the way I remembered him. ... Early on, I flinched from the news coverage about Columbine because it was wildly inaccurate, or reporting things about my son I could not bear to hear. I now flinch because, as an antiviolence activist and brain health advocate, I understand how frighteningly irresponsible much of it was. We now know that press coverage with excessive details -- fetishizing what the killers wore, for instance, or providing precise accounts of their movements during the crime -- inspire copycats, and give them a blueprint upon which to model their own plans. (36, 37)

This is the language of grief and loss for sure, but it is also the language of moral injury

Or listen to this excerpt from someone on the other side of gun violence, Lezley McSpadden the mother of Michael Brown who was killed by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri on August 9, 2014 (more than fifteen years after Columbine). This is from her book, Tell the Truth & Shame the Devil: The Life, Legacy, and Love of My Son Michael Brown

See, before the news media and the nation first heard the name Michael Brown, he was just Mike Mike to me. That’s what we called him. Everybody thinks he was a junior, but he wasn’t. Even though he had his daddy’s first and last name, his full name was Michael Orlandus Darrion Brown. I wanted my son to have his own identity, so he did. From the moment Mike Mike was born, I knew my life had changed forever. I was 16 years old with an infant. I didn’t know what kind of mother I was going to be. But when I held him in my arms for the first time and felt his soft skin, he opened his eyes, and I could see my reflection in his little pupils. I suddenly wasn’t scared anymore. It was like we were communicating with each other without words. I was saying, “I got your back, baby,” and he was saying, “I got yours, too, Mama.”

I can’t just say he was mine, though. When Mike Mike was born, he was adored, doted on and loved by me and his daddy, my siblings and his grandparents on both sides, who helped with his rearing. He was our beautiful, -unplanned surprise—my first son, a first grandson and the first nephew in my family.

And then one day our Mike Mike was shot and killed by a police officer on Canfield Drive in Ferguson, Missouri, and suddenly his name was being spoken everywhere: Mike Brown, Jr., Michael Brown or just Brown…but never Mike Mike, never our family’s name for him, the name that marked him as special to us and those who knew him for real. Pastor Creflo Dollar asked me what I thought about all the people out there on Canfield Drive when I got to the scene the day Mike Mike was shot. I turned, looking directly at him, and as sure as the breath I’m breathing, in a very matter-of-fact way, said, “I didn’t see those people. That day, I was looking for one person: my son. Nobody else mattered.” I think I kind of shocked -Pastor -Dollar. I was respectful, of course, but I had to tell it to him straight up. I was just keeping it real. You see, because as a mother, when your child is hurt, scared or in danger, you hurt, you want to comfort them, and you will protect them from harm, even if it means -laying your own life down. That day out on Canfield Drive, I had tunnel vision. Nothing and nobody was more -important than getting to Mike Mike and helping him in any way I could. It wasn’t until days later, when I looked at the news and people showed me pictures from their phones that I saw the crowd of folks who had been out there. So the only way I can really describe that day is to compare it to the day I had Mike Mike. Bringing him into the world was almost the same feeling as when he left here—a lot of people making noise and milling around, and my attention just glued to my new baby boy.

I’m not going to lie; I’ve been wanting to get mad and just go f--k the world up, because my son being killed has messed my whole life up. No way should my son have left here before me. But I have to stop myself every time my anger begins to build like that. If I look at it that way too long, I’ll find myself in trouble, doing something out of rage and revenge. That would be out of my character, and Mike Mike would never want me to do anything like that. It’s so hard sometimes, but I have to find some type of something to keep myself calm so I can be a good wife and mother for my other kids. That’s why, looking at my son’s death today, I try to see it from more of a spiritual standpoint. God let me have Mike Mike for 18 years. He wouldn’t let me have him longer because He had other plans for us. Those plans are still being revealed to me, but I believe a big part of His plans was to wake people up to some things in the world that need changing. I’m ready, though, for whatever He has in store.


I find a way to smile because my baby had aspirations and dreams. That really gives me comfort on the low days. That’s why I got to clear things up, because folks out here got it twisted: Mike wasn’t a criminal who deserved to be shot like a -dangerous animal. He was a good boy who cared about the right things, and family and friends were at the top of his list. He didn’t have a police record. He never got in trouble. He was a techie, in love with computers. He loved his mama and was proud to be headed to college and of the things he knew. The whole family was proud of him, too.

When my son was killed, everybody had his or her own version of how everything went down. Cops with their version of the facts. People living in the Canfield Apartments with another. The television and newspaper people, EMTs, firemen, old people, young people, Black, White, you name it—everyone with a different story that was supposed to be the truth about my son’s last minutes on earth. My son was dead on the street in front of the world, and everybody -except Mike Mike was busy telling his story. Even in the months since that horrible day, people still haven’t stopped talking, from Twitter to Facebook to Instagram, in the beauty shop and coffee shop, everywhere. Well, let me just say this: I wasn’t there when Mike Mike was shot. I didn’t see him fall or take his last breath, but as his mother, I do know one thing better than anyone, and that’s how to tell my son’s story, and the journey we shared together as mother and son.

I don’t wish this pain, this struggle, this hurt, this void, this guilt or this grief on anybody. After Mike Mike died, I believed we would have justice. I waited for the police to right the wrong, I waited for the county to bring justice for Mike Mike, I waited for the DOJ to discover the truth. The system has failed my son. It has failed me and it has failed all of us. But, now, I know that I can’t wait for anybody else to make change. I must make change, myself. That will be Mike Mike’s legacy; that will be his justice.

That’s the truth of it.

This is the language of grief and loss for sure, but it is also the language of moral injury

Step 2: Reacting

It doesn't take long to determine that the capacity of persons and communities to react, especially to tragedies that exacerbate longstanding moral injuries, is rarely, if ever, lacking. And it is even easier to recognize that these reactions are often hot-headed, unproductive, and often contribute to alienation and polarization more than they address and redress it. And this is certainly not the kind of "reaction" that I am calling for in my proposal. Instead, I am calling for reactions to the articulation and confession of serious social, emotional, psychological, spiritual, and moral injuries. The kind of reactions that are necessary in the wake of moral injury include the following: empathy, lament, and solidarity. 

Empathy. This is the commitment to open oneself to the experiences, emotions, and lived experience of the Other in a way that is allowed to directly affect you as an individual and as a community of persons. It is the willingness to ask yourself questions like, "Can I imagine what I might have felt had I been in that position?" "Can I understand why that would have been the way that such a person or community would have reacted to this situation?" "How would I have wanted people to respond to me and to my community in the midst of that experience?" "Can I recognize the ways in which I am too remote or removed from that person's experience that I recognize that I am left at times with no other recourse but to simply listen?"

Lament. This is the willingness to admit that things are not right in the world. In the Christian Tradition this typically involves a kind of prayer or protest that seeks (or even demands) divine intervention. But regardless of religious commitments, lament is simply the willingness and the bravery to name the injustice, the trauma, the unexpected wounding, the sorrow, and the inability to make things right (maybe ever). This is a fundamental piece of dealing with moral injury that, in so many ways, is fundamentally counter-cultural to just about everything that American culture is built on. 

Solidarity. This is the most embodied, and the most risky of the three responses. Solidarity is a commitment to being "with" that involves the concrete, tangible placement of our bodies, our agency, and our safety. It is anything but #ThoughtsAndPrayers. It is also the reaction that has the most potential to be misshaped. It can become a place for all kinds of oppression: colonialism, patriarchy, sexism, elitism, racism, etc. It is for this reason that true, meaningful, productive solidarity can only come after intentional and productive empathy and lament. 

Step 3: Responding

By this point individuals and communities have engaged in meaningful efforts to (re)humanize the Other, to allow that difference to effect themselves, and are now (at least beginning to be) in a position to respond in more constructive ways. But what is important here is that, if the previous steps have been undertaken consciously, intentionally, and without hurry to come to a "resolution" then this process of responding will not be one side responding to the other, but will instead be a kind of synergistic movement together. This is too often one of the fundamental problems/challenges of controversial issues is that one side expects the other to respond in a particular way with no imagination for how they might come together to a new vision of life together around certain issues or challenges. 

This will always look different from situation to situation and from context to context, but perhaps the fundamental guiding principle can be taken here from Paul's most succinct summary of the Christian faith: "Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law." (Romans 13:10, NRSV). 

But is this really reasonable? Isn't this just the dreaming of an overly impractical solution to a real problem where real people are literally losing their lives everyday?

I believe that this is an absolutely valid question. I want to simply say two things to this: (1) Until we deal with the underlying moral injuries of gun violence I am thoroughly convinced that a long-lasting solution which actually gets at the underlying issues of gun violence (and they are many) will not begin to be resolved, and (2) issues this long, complex, and entrenched aren't solved more easily than they were created in the first place. The complexity of a solution does not legislate against its legitimacy. 

Ultimately, the reason that I suggest that this is one of the issues that must be addressed is that, at least for people of Christian faith, this is a moral issue. It is a moral issue in two senses: (1) It deals with our values about the value of life, the dignity of human beings, the inappropriateness of violence, and (what should be) our eternal intolerance for injustice and oppression. (2) It is moral in the sense that it has violated our fundamental beliefs about how the world should be. None of us believe that we should live in a world where we have to wonder if we will be murdered in the streets or subjected to other forms of violence. No one wishes this for themselves, and this should motivate us to work towards its prevention against others. 

The (?) Way Forward

I am always skeptical when someone suggests that there is a single way forward, and that is why I wish to conclude by suggesting that there is a single posture that must dominate this (and every) difficult/contentious/contested conversation about issues that affect real people in the everyday, concrete lives. 

The posture is this: We must approach one another as members of the wounded community known as humanity. We must see in one another our shared woundedness and together seek our specific and irreproducible redemption. 

In explaining the African concept of Ubuntu is his breathtaking book, No Future Without Forgiveness, Desmond Tutu explains:

Ubuntu is very difficult to render into a Western language. It speaks to the very essence of being human…It is to say, “my humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up, in what is yours.” We belong in a bundle of life. We say “a person is a person through other persons.”

Dear Lord, please let it be so of us.