Pope Francis: End Sexism in the Church & Ordain Women

To mark the World Day of Prayer for Women’s Ordination today, I’ve posted this letter to Pope Francis. I’ve written it over the last few weeks to submit as part of the May 22 actions on the twentieth anniversary of Ordinatio sacerdotalis, Pope John Paul II’s apostolic letter denying women equality in the Church. I encourage all to submit their own letters of support using the information provided by Women’s Ordination Worldwide

Dear Pope Francis,

From an early age, I’ve known of my call. My parents tell me that attending Mass calmed me as a young child, when I wasn’t running to the altar to participate that is. I became an altar server at 10 and served through my college years as frequently as possible. By high school I was coordinating liturgies, large and small, at my local parish and engaged in several other ministries, sometimes as the youngest person by decades. The church was a second home and a safe space, able to calm me through my hardest moments of adolescence. In a word, being around the parish and being among the people was ‘natural.’

At 13, a priest asked me if priesthood was a life that might interest me given my involvement in the life of our parish, and the life of the People of God. I’ve seriously discerned this question, is God calling me to ordination, for more than a decade. Over time, my yearning to lead people in our liturgies or be present to them in life’s most profound, daily moments of suffering and celebration grew. Throughout college, each moment of reflection, each liturgy, each protest for justice, and each tender encounter with another person was a coal added to this fire burning within me. I received a degree with honors in theology from The Catholic University of America as a first step to making my desire to minister a reality.

I wanted to answer God’s call. I wanted to say ‘yes’ to being a priest. I wanted, more than anything, to try and explain to those on the margins the immense love of God that I have long known. I wanted to do all this as a priest.

And yet, I could never say ‘yes.’ The more secure this call became, the more I sensed I could never answer it. It is the most painful struggle I’ve known, for while being in ministerial leadership is natural to me and noted by many, I cannot enter the priesthood. I could not discover the obstacle to my entering seminary at first, for I had both the right equipment and was attracted to the right gender according to institutional guidelines.

Now, the obstacle is clear: the Catholic Church institutionally refuses to recognize in full the dignity of every person, especially women.

For the last few years, I have ministered on the Church’s margins among the gay and transgender community and spent many hours speaking with people about the necessary renewal our Church needs. At one such conference, I found myself at a table with seven women discussing how the Church can uproot the current power dynamics structured against women. Three of the seven shared their experiences of feeling called to ordained ministry and priesthood. In their stories, I saw my own journey of discernment and it became clear that I could not, in good conscience, become ordained while so many were denied access to serve in ministry due to their gender or sexual orientation.

As it was well known I was considering priesthood, I’ve spent a good deal of time at vocation events and speaking with vocation directors. The key point always stressed was the increasing shortage of priests our Church is facing. Relatedly, a wise friend of mine, an older woman as so many of my mentors and spiritual companions have been, once told me that the Church must die before it can rise to new life. Pope Francis, I believe the Church’s current priesthood is dying by the persistent failure of our leaders to welcome more fully all those God is calling to ordained ministry and spiritual leadership. Help raise it into new, renewed life and open up priestly ministry to all God’s people!

Yet, the priest shortage is not the main reason to ordain women. As the Body of Christ, we need each person’s contributions to most fully incarnate God’s kingdom. Denying women their divinely ordained place in our churches harms the Church’s much needed voice against the many injustices which disproportionately harm women, and to which women are often the most capable agents for social change. There are so many people who know they are called by God to lead our Church in renewal and into its finest age as a mediator of God’s love and grace for all.  Without all and by denying some, we as the Church, in so many ways, severely wounded in our consistent defense of life and dignity.

Lastly, in perpetuating an exclusionary vision of ministry, the Church commits a sin of its own making by denying women their full dignity. The Church perpetuates the sin of sexism that it has condemned in many other contexts. This sin’s structural occupation of our community causes the personal corruption of too many Catholics’ understandings about God, Christian anthropology, ecclesiology, etc. Ordaining women and restoring them to rightful positions of leadership, for they were the ones who remained at the Cross while Jesus lay dying and the men fled, is a necessary action by which the Church can begin to truly undermine sexism in our religious community and in our world.

Pope Francis: I implore you to end the prohibitions against women’s ministry, ordained and otherwise, in our Church. Until that moment when all are welcomed to the Church as the person God created them to be and able to minister in the manner in which God calls them, I refuse to leave the Church’s margins for ordination.

In Christ’s peace,

Bob Shine

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Jesus Wanders Wall Street

DSC_0191I’ve recently begun the book Jesus: A Historical Approximation by Spanish priest Jose Pagola. In it, Pagola examines Jesus’ life through different lenses, starting with “A Galilean Jew.” This first chapter lays out the Galilean context in which Jesus grew up and ministered. When read in light of my contemporary world, there are striking comparisons to be drawn between 1st century Galilee and 21st century America.

In 1st century Galilee, nearly 90% of people were peasants farming the incredibly fertile lands or fishing in the Sea nearby. Land ownership in such an agrarian society is the central question, and in Galilee most belonged to wealthy landowners. Pagola describes further:

“These large landerowners usually lived in the cities, rented out their lands to peasants in the area, and supervised them through administrators acting in their name. The leases were almost always very burdensome for the peasants. The owner demanded half or a significant portion of their production, which varied according to the results of the harvest…There are signs that in Jesus’ time, these large landowners were expanding their hldings with new lands from debt-ridden families, and coming to control a good part of Lower Galilee.”

Those farmers who owned their land desperately defended it. Indigent day laborers wandering for work became common. The producing majority provided for the ruling minority, with less and less in return to meet their own family’s needs. Through tributes, taxes, fees, and corruption hefty portions of any harvest disappeared to Rome, Jerusalem, and regional capitals — between a third and half of a given family’s production.

Debt loomed large as an inevitable result of even the most aggressive defenses against such collections, including a turn to monoculture for the most profitable crops. Pagola writes that “The Galilee Jesus knew was trapped in debt.” Losing one’s land meant losing a means of income, and many people turned to itinerancy, slavery, begging, and prostitution, or crime, which all rose in Jesus’ time.

The hallmark of Jesus’ Galilee was this massive (and growing) inequality between the peasants and the urban elite, composed of civil, economic, and religious leaders made rich by a brutal combination of exploiting the poor and violent oppression. Two new cities appeared in Galilee further straining the peasants as elites grew their wealth and prestige by appropriating more and more of the surrounding harvests. Courts ruled for the elites routinely when land foreclosures increased.

Pagola notes of all this that “…this economic organization did not promote the common good of the country, but favored the growing well-being of the elites.”

You can see how Jesus ministered in a Galilean context similar to America today: economic inequality grows due to unjust policies set out by a ruling elite with little regard for the common good.

While not an agrarian society, recent decades have seen an increase in worker productivity for America’s industries not met with a commensurate rise in income. Wages remain stagnant, salaries low, and purchasing power dropping. Predatory lending and unaffordable higher education that is necessary for careers today has led to exorbitant debt for most Americans. Home foreclosures are similar to the land confiscations of Galilee, casting families into itinerancy and instability. Job losses and unemployment from an economy serving profit and not the common good compound all this.

Yet, for the top earners in America there are few problems. They have benefited from the economic system which favors unbelievable profits from risky investment practices while denying mothers the most basic food assistance for their hungry children.

What Pagola wrote of early 1st century Galilee, that”…this economic organization did not promote the common good of the country, but favored the growing well-being of the elites” is similarly true of America today.

This is why Jesus message can be so powerfully proclaimed today: his ministry condemns the same excess and trends, while holding up the same people who have been marginalized and cast out. I find it helpful to quote Pagola at length here:

“Jesus’ activity in the Galilean villages and his message of the reign of God amounted to a strong critique of this state of affairs. His firm defense of the indigent and hungry, his preferential embrace of the least in that society, and his condemnation of the sumptuous life of the urban rich, were a public challenge to the socio-political program of Antipas [the ruler of Galilee]…his calls to have compassion on those who suffer and forgive their debts; and many other sayings can help us understand even today how Jesus shared the suffering of his people and how passionately he sought a new, more just and loving, world in which God would reign as Father of all.”

Having just returned from the Holy Land, the beauty of the Galilee is fresh in my mind. It is a land of unparalleled vegetation where Scriptures words of ‘a land of milk and honey’ comes vividly to life. Yet, when I meditated on all of this after reading Pagola’s chapter what came to mind was Jesus ministering in America. There is the Son of God walking down Wall Street casting out the investment bankers and perusing Congress’ halls  questioning why Republicans cut food stamps. There is Jesus healing the many homeless people I pass by while walking through DC and railing outside the Treasury building against anti-Gospel policies.

Why do we make the message so distant, as if 1st century Galilee and 21st century America are more different than they are similar. Sure, 2,000 years and host of cultural nuances separate my world from Jesus’ world — but the humanity in it all remains a constant thread. The inclination to narcissism and greed, apathy and indifference, fear and isolationism.

Most pointedly in the meditation, there is Jesus sitting across the table from me, staring as he asks why I continue to obfuscate Scripture’s message to justify my own unjust excesses.


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Review: “My Peace I Give You: Healing Sexual Wounds with the Help of the Saints”

Dawn Eden and I met unexpectedly. For a free burrito, I had agreed to attend her talk sponsored by a friend’s organization. As someone who works professionally for gay and transgender justice in the Catholic Church, I never expect much from these lectures besides the dinner. Eden’s talk surprised me.

In fact, it surprised me enough that after a conversation with her I ended up reading My Peace I Give You: Healing Sexual Wounds with the Help of the Saints.

Eden’s work is authentic and raw, able to provide necessary detail establishing her experiences with childhood abuse while foregoing an unhealthy indulgence into one’s past.This is not a salient tell-all, nor is it strictly an academic work. In weaving her story amid the tapestry of saints and confronting challenging issues, Eden writes a book encompassing more than can be strictly categorized. My Peace I Give You is a spiritual autobiography, a theological text, but primarily it is a narrative of God’s love, applicable for all who read it.

My Peace I Give You emerges from Eden’s own faith perspective, employing traditional devotions and the hierarchy’s documents in framing discussions. Readers with affection for the Sacred Heart of Jesus or saintly relics will likely find added benefits in the work than more progressive Catholics might. The theology is high quality, but stunted for those looking to expand beyond scholastic formulations. That said, there is nothing stale in Eden’s engagement of faith as she portrays devotions in new ways and saints in new lights.

Aside from her own story’s power, Eden masterfully exposes the saints’ lives in her exploration of suffering and abuse, healing and reconciliation. Well-known figures like Ignatius of Loyola and Thomas Aquinas are given fresh perspectives, while lesser-known saints like Karolina Kozka are highlighted. It is evident that Eden has not only researched, but also prayerfully engaged the witness of each person about which she writes.

However, this more traditional approach lends itself to problems for readers like myself. Use of male language for God is a stumbling point, but more problematic is Eden’s use of purity and virginity concepts that I reject outright. Other questions I have about Eden’s presented theodicy or the value of redemptive suffering linger with me. I criticize her use of the term “transvestite” and choice to offer a dangerously anti-gay ministry in the resources section.

Yet, it is evident in the book – and when I heard Eden speak – that she is an uncompromising advocate for women and for victims of sexual violence. These quibbles I have are not fatal flaws for the book, or I would not have been able to write a review. Eden is correct where it most matters – God’s love is at the core of our lives, forgiveness properly understood can liberate us, and a relationship with Christ among the saints is what must sustain us.

I cannot say how others with more knowledge and experience about childhood sexual abuse might respond. I offer my comments as a Catholic invited to read this book who finished impressed with what Eden has produced. I admire how she strove not to answer every question the reader might have or write a perfected treatise. She opened her own brokenness to the reader, and from this wound shared wisdom with doses of devotion and theology intermixed.

Though Eden cites Fr. Daniel Lord of The Queen’s Work fame in the opening, it is another 20th century saint that came to my mind. Henri Nouwen was himself an author who wrote from his own woundedness, and this insight from him seems most apt for Eden today:

“I am deeply convinced that the Christian leader of the future is called to be completely irrelevant and to stand in this world with nothing to offer but his or her own vulnerable self.”

My Peace I Give You is an offering from Dawn Eden of her vulnerable self, that most powerful gift in our modern world, and as such the book contains lessons for every Catholic. Whether they themselves are a victim of childhood abuse, love someone victimized by sexual violence, or simply seek to learn more about these topics which have ravaged the Catholic Church and many in our world this book will offer wisdom for our common journey in Christ.


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Mental Health Isn’t Why We Have Shootings

I tire of a particular argument that has emerged when gun violence happens: if we can’t act on guns, let’s focus on mental health. Once again, those of us with mental illness are appropriated for society’s catharsis — except this time, mental health advocacy groups like the National Alliance for Mental Illness have taken the bait.

How does this myth even emerge?

Pinning mental illness to those who commit mass shootings and other horrific crimes is commonplace in the US today. The stigma surrounding bipolar disorder and other ills remains extremely high, and it assuages communal fears that only a ‘crazy’ person would kill innocent shoppers or gun down a classroom of first graders. It isn’t our neighbor or co-worker (or ourselves) because they’re not mentally ill; they’re ‘normal,’ ignoring the reality that so many are or will at some point struggle with their mental health. You can see why mental illness is so readily tied to gun violence by the media, society, politicians, you name it.

And yet, the problem remains the guns.

These deadly weapons allow a single person to take out that classroom of first graders or the moviegoers or the innocent bystander or the police officer or the…or the…or the… Without the guns, the lethal capacity of an individual is greatly reduced. Sure there are other deadly weapons we hear pro-gun people say, but it’s much harder to create as much carnage in so short a time as these shootings happen with knife or baseball bat. Admittedly, some who commit violent acts have histories of mental illness, but acting upon their illness in destructive manners again becomes much harder without free-flowing weapons floating about.

Addressing mental health in the gun violence debate is merely ducking the real issue. It shouldn’t take mass murder for our society to provide affordable, accessible, high-quality psychiatric and therapeutic care for those, like myself, suffering from mental illness. That should be a reality already, gun violence or not.

So, if we’re going to address the epidemic of gun violence, let’s address the problem: guns. It’s not video games or a violent culture, it’s not mental health support or unsecured schools (what a term in the first place). These are aggravating factors, but they’re not the problem. It is guns and until we fix the gun violence issue in America, 30 or so people will be killed each and every day.

Do we really want to keep talking about mental health and all these other tangential side notes until it is our loved one or ourself gunned down while we simply go about our lives?


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When Gun Violence is the Standard

September 11, 2001: 19 terrorists kill 3,000 people triggering the ‘War on Terror’ with multi-trillion dollar wars leading to more than a million deaths, mass government re-organization, the use of torture and drones, and inane civil liberties curtailments and outright racist policies enshrined into law to defend against terrorism.

Today: Guns kill Americans in droves, day in and day out like the sun rises each morning. Terror is ever present for too many in simple acts of going to school, enjoying a movie, or just walking a city street. Trauma lingers for the thousands left wounded and without loved ones; these are lifelong scars. There’s been no response besides empty expressions of sadness. Everyone prays, but few move their feet to stop the hemorrhaging of our fellow human beings at the hands of these terrorists: those wielding guns.

Yet, even universal background checks or limiting the sale of military-grade weapons is too much for those who worship not God, but the holy Gun. Those who support gun rights without restriction make daily offerings to the Gun on the altar of the misunderstood, and deliberately misrepresented, Second Amendment. They want Americans to accept that gun violence is standard and the cost of ‘freedom,’ but what is freedom when thousands of children won’t live to graduate school and grow into adulthood.

Today’s shooting at the Columbia Mall in Howard County, Maryland keeps up America’s streak for 2014; a half-dozen school shootings so far and gun violence everywhere else we work and live. 30,000+ people are victims of gun violence every year, repeating the September 11th terrorist attacks ten times annually ad infinitum until something changes.

To be clear, September 11th was an awful day and one which demanded a response, even if we can’t all agree on how best to respond. Why though, does this true terrorism of gun violence at foot in America persist unimpeded by even the simplest efforts to stop 30,000+ deaths each year?


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Let’s Talk About Tactics…

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One of more than 50 tweets I received…

Yesterday’s March for Life was the sixth that I’ve been present for, though not always on the National Mall. Attending The Catholic University of America, my college campus was overtaken each year around this time by tour buses in the dozens and school groups in the thousands. I’ve wondered down to the Mall a few times to see what happens at the March, to dialogue with participants, and to earnestly find common ground with them — which wouldn’t seem so hard, given we both oppose abortion.

And yet…

Each year, as the March for Life winds down I am left with a bitter feeling about what has happened and whether this is really something which stands for life. The messages are clear, and there’s always an abundance of signage and literature littered on the Mall in the aftermath if it wasn’t for you. However, the tactics don’t seem consistent with respecting human dignity — and I’m not even talking about those graphic depictions of aborted children.

As I see it, abortion is a wildly complex issue, or rather serious of interconnected issues, and there’s widespread agreement among Americans more than we concede. The movement, both anti-abortion and pro-choice, are led by the radicals on each side — and the rest of us are left somewhere mixed in. Yet, it is those most radical who set the tone and receive media attention and it is those who damage the cause of ending abortion and standing for life.

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Called heretical for suggesting that anti-abortion movement had a history of violence it did not adequately address…

I highlight one incident from last night, which is more typical than I want to admit, of interactions I’ve had online and in person with those participating in anti-abortion efforts. I readily admit, I began the interaction with one of the participants by tweeting at them; I commented that suggesting pro-choice activists had killed anti-abortion ones was extreme. I stand by that.

In response, I received a barrage of ad hominem tweets, accusations that I was lying, and an unwillingness to engage civilly — and this was with someone with whom they agreed on abortion! The anti-abortion community needs to stop assailing those with whom it does not agree and question whether its tactics are consistent with its message because, in far too many, but not all, instances these two just don’t coincide.


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Hugh of St. Vic…

Hugh of St. Victor (1078-1141) and Richard of St. Victor (1123-1173) wrote that humanity was given three sets of eyes, each building on the previous one. The first set of eyes were the eyes of the flesh (thought or sight), the second set of eyes were the eyes of reason (meditation or reflection), and the third set of eyes were the eyes of true understanding (contemplation). They represent the last era of broad or formal teaching of the contemplative mind in the West, although St. Bonaventure (1221-1274) and Francisco de Osuna (1492-1542) are some rare examples who carry it into the following centuries. But for the most part, the formal teaching of the contemplative mind, even in the monasteries, winds down by the beginning of the fourteenth century. No wonder we so badly needed some reformations by the sixteenth century.

I cannot emphasize strongly enough that the loss of the contemplative mind is at the basis of much of the shortsightedness and religious crises of the Western world. Lacking such wisdom, it is very difficult for churches, governments, and leaders to move beyond ego, the desire for control, and public posturing. Everything divides into oppositions such as liberal versus conservative, with vested interests pulling against one another. Truth is no longer possible at this level of conversation. Even theology becomes more a quest for power than a search for God and Mystery.

Is contemplation, rather than dialogue, the key to healing the Church’s wounds? Is it some mix of both — perhaps dialogue guided by contemplation?

Adapted by Richard Rohr from The Naked Now: Learning to See as the Mystics See, pp. 28-29. 

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December 21, 2013 · 11:35 am

Learning True Prayer

Driving along to lunch with a friend, I turned to C-SPAN radio as I drove south on the Beltway. Their broadcast of live floor debate from the House closely resembled some of the more unruly Model UN conferences I attended in high school.

Moderating this debate was a fatiguing task for the chairwoman, who quickly called successive representatives out of order, then yielding, more disorderly conduct, yielding again, outright shouting. Gaveling down unanimous consent requests, the situation devolved into a chaotic banter.

Disheartened, I listened on as our elected officials in the House held a nation captive in their petulance guised as ‘politicking’ and bickering passed off as floor debate. Suddenly, the chairwomen gaveled this buzz into recess. The airwaves silenced and I assumed the House simply shuttered itself to regain composure. A beat passed.

Then the C-SPAN announcer reported shots fired at the US Capitol building. Driving along I glanced to the right and saw the Capitol’s dome rising above a large office complex closer to me. I was far enough away to drive along unaffected, but close enough to begin tearing up at the violence ravaging this city.

Obvious examples like today’s incident when the ‘pop, pop, pop’ sounds were reported or the Navy Yard shooting only weeks ago come to mind, as do the ravages of gun violence in our communities that more frequently take lives by homicide and suicide.

Less obvious is the culture of DC filled with the violence of words and dehumanization that leads a Tea Party-backed Congressman to attack a Park Ranger for enforcing the shutdown he caused. It is a town fueled by a currency of profit and power over people’s lives when we literally allow people in the US to die daily because spending “must” be cut.

Minor partisan gains, or even simply ego, is hoisted as the god we worship in the District while we allow millions to go unfed, unclothed, uncared for, and unloved day after day after each fucking day. The dozens of homeless and marginalized individuals only yards from the offices and chambers of those who are leaders in name only cannot stir the consciences of politicians long ago purchased with corporate donations.

Perhaps almost six years trying to act justly and love tenderly in DC leaves my cynical and frustrated, but…

Is it really too fantastical to believe all would be welcomed with wide arms and open hearts? That all would be given their ‘daily bread,’ such that poverty’s afflictions were no more? That love is abundant enough our world could place the person first before all else, ending alienation from and enmity towards one another?

Lately, I’m unsure how to respond, how to act in changing DC’s violent dynamic – but in that, I’m learning true prayer. Driving along the Beltway to dinner, I can only tear up and offer God simple, visceral prayers. They’re not the polished prayers I’ve learned in theology nor crafted for ministry, and all they say is this:

We need Christ’s reconciling love.


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Responding to Syria in the Spirit of Loretto

Statue at the Loretto Motherhouse, part of the Seven Sorrows of Mary brought over in the 19th century

Statue at the Loretto Motherhouse, part of the Seven Sorrows of Mary brought over in the 19th century

Chemical weapons. Napalm bombs. School children slaughtered. 100,000 dead. Violence in a most raw way pierces our otherwise sanitized media reporting and shakes world consciences as collectively we ask, “How did this happen, again?”

Talking with a close friend in the anti-mass atrocities community, he has repeated these past months that no one in government, no one in nonprofits, no one anywhere knows how to respond. All the writing, scholarship, plans, programs, funding, and political will conjured up by those who cried, “Never Again!” after the Holocaust, Cambodia, Rwanda, Serbia, Darfur…the litany is unending, and all this is for nothing. The Syrian regime and the Syrian rebels persistently assail life without true challenge.

We simply cannot think up, never mind agree on, a viable solution to end the killings and begin a path to peace. This war and violence a world away brings spiritual turmoil in my deepest recesses. I am terrified with my personal inaction, with America’s apathy for three years, with a world paralyzed in the face of evil incarnated in massacres and gas attacks. What to do? It seems simple to affirm military intervention because it is something, rather than nothing. I know that it won’t lead to peace though, only greater destruction. The haunting question, “How to promote peace and nonviolence in Syria?” remains.

For guidance, I turned to the Sisters of Loretto. First called the “Friends of Mary at the Foot of the Cross,” compassion is an enduring trait of this religious community who have been present on margins of all types. The word “compassion” is rooted in the Latin for “co-suffering” or “suffering with,” and this is precisely what so many Loretto sisters and co-members have offered to the world for two centuries. Educating ourselves is a first step, but we must follow by entering into others’ suffering through prayer and spiritual companionship. This is how we can be like Mary at Christ’s Cross, unable to cease his pain or to prevent his death, but radically present as he endures suffering. It is what I hope to offer to the people of Syria in my prayers.

Yet, Loretto members would fault me for ending there. Prayer has implications  that lead us to work for justice and act for peace, and the African proverb “When you pray, move your feet” is one lived out by these sisters and co-members. Coupling compassion with practical plans to seek change is not optional. But how to act when Syria is oceans away and my limited voice cannot change the course of an Obama administration bent on making war? Again, I look at the Loretto Community for guidance.

Many sisters are now retired (technically, because nuns never stop witnessing to God’s love) at the Motherhouse in Kentucky, leaving behind  careers and communities that altered our world for good. New circumstances have not stopped them from living peaceful witness, building up sustainable lifestyles, speaking out for justice (see their campaign against the Bluegrass Pipeline). These sisters educate me deeply in how we can live at the foot of others’ crosses even from a distance. Instead of focusing on my own impotence regarding Syria, I must focus on what I can do in this moment, this day, this weekend to create a peaceful planet.

Here’s what I conclude from all of this. Tonight, as I follow reports on Syria and keep pestering government leaders to walk us back from war, I will continue with my weekend plans. I will switch over from chemical cleaning products to homemade green ones. I will build up relationships with some new friends over dinner. I will join other Catholics at Mass on Sunday and pray, pray, pray in every moment. I will celebrate past labor victories this weekend, present of how much work remains. I will act for justice and work for peace where possible, and where I cannot I will sit like Mary, like the Loretto Community, at the foot of the Syrian people’s crosses in prayerful, present witness.

It is not a perfect fix, nor a solution to Syria (or the larger problem of mass atrocities and political violence), but it is what I can offer in this moment. I welcome your thoughts, criticisms, and  suggestions on how we respond to suffering when we cannot directly alleviate it or work to combat injustice.



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Antoinette Tuff’s Lessons in Nonviolence

Antoinette Tuff

“But what about Hitler…” Anyone arguing for nonviolence is probably confronted with the ‘Nazi problem’ by those who insist violence is a necessary evil or even a good for our world. How else could the treacheries of the Nazi’s have ceased without a massive war, so the argument goes and thus nonviolence is debunked. Case closed.

“But what about Tuff…” I would respond. Antoinette Tuff is the Georgia women who prevented untold deaths in an Atlanta school  using nonviolence, and her witness informs the conversation far more than arguing stale historical points. Most of us will never find ourselves talking down an armed person. Still Antoinette Tuff can teach us about daily being a nonviolent person of faith. Nonviolence demands (at least) three things from its practitioners: vulnerability, hope, and an openness to the Spirit.

Vulnerability – Antoinette’s first lesson is that in encountering others, we must make ourselves vulnerable. Antoinette exemplifies Henri Nouwen’s “Wounded Healer,” wherein we must access our own current wounds as we minister to others. Nouwen writes:

“…none of us can help anyone without becoming involved, without entering with our whole person into the painful situation, without taking the risk of becoming hurt, wounded, or even destroyed in the process…[we must] make one’s own painful and joyful experiences available as sources of clarification and understanding.”

The armed man is upset and struggling with his mental health. Antoinette exposes her wounds to connect with the man over his, mentioning that her husband left her after 33 years and she has a disabled son. She risks further pain and death in entering this relationship, but Antoinette’s initial vulnerability allows the de-escalation that follows.

Hope - It is cliche, but bears repeating that nonviolence is not an acquiescence to evil. Vulnerability is complemented by an unshakeable conviction that alternatives exist and life is a good, which I would call hope. Face to face with a gun, Antoinette refuses to accept that this man must kill children and then himself, as America witnesses all too often. She offers her own suicide attempt as an example that though “we all go through something in life, ” life improves. Fate for this man is not sealed; a less violent ending to this scenario exists and a brighter future for him is still possible. Never does Antoinette concede to fatalism in this most deadly of scenarios, but endures in talking, building a relationship, and figuring out a solution with the police.

Openness to the Spirit – In an interview on CNN, Antoinette Tuff explains she never should have been at the school’s front desk when the armed man entered. She received devastating news moments before, which caused her to linger a bit longer at the desk. Antoinette attributes all this as a movement of God, who called on her then to set aside personal struggles and encounter the armed man. She was ready to answer ‘Yes’ to God’s will without notice or preparation. Trusting the Spirit would work through her in God’s way of peace, rather than responding to violence with violence, allowed Antoinette to save many lives.

Nonviolence demands much more from practitioners (which should be all of us!), such as bodily presence (Antoinette offered herself as a human shield at one point) and the cultivation of inner peace (which I cannot comment on other than she remained calm the entire time). Nonviolence is not about stopping the Nazis for most of us, but about responding to the smaller acts of violence in language and in action we confront daily.

It is time for Catholics to seriously affirm nonviolence as a way of living, not merely an intellectual exercise over wars. While certainly important to talk about strategic nonviolence for geopolitics and social movements, we are empowered by Christ to reduce daily violence as we move through this world. Antoinette Tuff is a living witness to the power nonviolence possesses in saving lives and bringing about the peaceful Kingdom.


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