Empire Cracking: Reflection from Joanna Shenk

joannaThis interview was taken by Lydia Wylie-Kellermann as part of a writing project for Geez Magazine entitled “She is Breathing: Listening for Another World and an End to Empire.” It was published in the Winter Issue.

Lydia Wylie-Kellermann: Where are the moments for you where you are beginning to see a crack in the empire? Where is resurrection alive and being practiced? What is the story that lingers on your heart and keeps you moving forward? Is this the moment we’ve been waiting for? Is another world being birthed before our eyes?

Joanna Shenk: This spring and fall our congregation is engaging in a two-part learning process. In the spring we took a couple months on the theme of Recognizing Structural Sin/Injustice. This fall we’re focusing on Transformation Structural Injustice. Traditionally, Christianity has almost entirely emphasized personal sin — greed, sloth, lust, lying — with little notion of “structural sin” or “systemic evil.” We wanted the congregation to begin to understand that the sin in which we engage is structural or systemic in nature, not personal. It’s encoded in unjust power arrangements that form our economic, political and cultural systems.

So we decided that since structural injustice is relatively invisible to many of us with various kinds of privilege, our first step was to literally see structural sins such as racial and economic injustice. In the spring we honed our moral vision, to begin to see structural injustice and develop a common language and understanding together.

The second step is to transform ourselves and these structures so that they more closely resemble the realm of God that the Hebrew prophets and Jesus proclaimed. Our fall series, Transforming Structural Injustice, we will begin to explore themes related to this transformation, namely: resilience, resistance, re-imagining, restitution, rebuilding, and recreation.

So often we are hindered in our work for justice due to a lack of awareness of the systems that uphold oppression. By understanding our identities and formation by these systems we are liberated to function in life-giving ways. This means taking responsibility for how we are complicit and naming ways we have been oppressed. Hence our salvation is wrapped up in this ongoing journey of transformation.

It’s exciting to be a part of a congregation that is delving into this work and recognizing how it’s at the core of what it means to follow Jesus. It’s not always comfortable, but we are deepening our relationships with each other and our capacity to be a part of transformation in the world.

Recently when a Black congregation in San Francisco was targeted by racist vandalism our church rallied in support by writing notes of support and collecting an offering for the congregation. Although we have not been connected with them previously, we recognized our solidarity as we fight for a reality in which Black Lives Matter. Out of our study and focus this year, we are able to mobilize and reflect on what it means for our salvation/liberation to be wrapped up with those who are oppressed in our city.

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