By Bill Wylie-Kellermann, an excerpt from the newly released Principalities in Particular: a Practical Theology of the Powers .
The New York Times has begun to sell “truth.” Advertisements come to my email. You can read them in print. You can see them on TV: “The truth is hard. The truth is hard to find. The truth is hard to know. The truth is more important than ever.” (Even “The truth is: alternative facts are lies.”) Though I myself have railed against the paper and know it needs to be read critically as liberal or neo-liberal corporate media, I’m actually thinking of getting a real world paper subscription. The truth is, as a paper of record, I’ve relied on it in this writing.
Will the attacks on journalistic integrity, on mainstream news as fake news, on the media as the “enemy of the people,” actually prompt a yearning within the fourth estate for the renewal of the journalistic vocation?
I do pray in this present situation for the renewal of investigative journalism as a sometimes risky calling and rigorous vocation. Say that for mainstream media and for the likes of Catholic Worker papers. I can give thanks that there some such in Detroit. Yet even moreso, I pray just now for the renewal of all vocations, personally and powerly. What does that mean or look like?
One glimpse comes from a famous little logion of Howard Thurman’s, “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
Along the same lines, Stringfellow regarded vocation as distinct from career, that each human being is called to be fully who they are uttered in the Word of God to be. In effect, to be fully and freely human. Come alive, as it were. In that sense, his ethics were vocational: to live humanly in whatever circumstance or history one might be found. So, for example, in the Nazi era he was struck how resistance consisted of day to day small actions which in and of themselves seemed all but hopeless – too weak and temporary, haphazard and trivial to be effective. And yet people persisted even at great risk. He concluded “that the act of resistance to the power of death incarnate in Nazism was the only means of retaining sanity and conscience. In the circumstances of the Nazi tyranny, resistance became the only human way to live.” For him, living humanly in the Word of God is the vocational ethic. Put broadly as a call to faith:
“In the face of death, live humanly. In the middle of chaos, celebrate the Word. Amidst babel, I repeat, speak the truth. Confront the noise and verbiage and falsehood of death with the truth and potency and efficacy of the Word of God. Know the word, teach the Word, nurture the Word, preach the Word, define the Word, incarnate the Word, do the Word, live the Word. And more than that, in the Word of God, expose death and all death’s works and wiles, rebuke lies, cast out demons, exorcise, cleanse the possessed, raise those who are dead in mind and conscience.”
That is the sense in which I pray for the renewal of vocation among us now. Prayer, by the way, is itself a substantial and significant practice of resistance when the domination of these principalities is taken into account. A friend of mine, Rose Marie Berger, writes that prayer “helps decolonize your mind.” It combats the assaultive spirits so unleashed. It confronts the powers out there and the powers that have gotten in our heads and hearts. Whether one is oppressed or privileged (as the majority of us are), structures and spirits like white supremacy, patriarchy, domination are within us, embedded invisibly in our psyches. Name them and pray them out.
This calls to mind some simple suggestions, other spiritual practices for resistance and transformation. I aspire to them myself.
Intercede. Bonhoeffer wrote that intercession is to feel another’s sin or need so deeply that we pray their prayer, in their stead, for their sake – as if it were our own. Intercession in this sense is as much a form of solidarity as it is of advocacy. This applies to persons, collectives, creatures, even creation itself.
Speak. Audre Lorde says that our silences won’t save us, won’t protect us. Break the silence of the night. Speak from the heart of who you are in complete honesty and even confession. Speak to community. Speak to the powers.
Get trained in non-violent direct action, in rapid response intervention, in accompaniment, in violence de-escalation.
Organize and undertake non-violent direct action, rapid response interventions and accompaniment. You know where they’re needed.
Fast. Some spirits can only be cast out by prayer and fasting. Fasting is a primary expression of non-cooperation and resistance. Fast privately to purify and free yourself from bondage and renew your relationship to all of creation. Fast as a public ritual of solidarity on behalf of those targeted and violated. Fast from food. Fast from gas or electricity. Fast from the internet. Fast from any form of compulsive consumption.
Related: go feral. This is a practice learned from the fallow years of jubilee and Sabbath. Many these days are being tutored by the edge of the Wild
Nurture community. When so much is under assault, it may actually be the most important thing of all to do. In congregations, movements, on the block, in action affinity groups, households. Work at it. Community is hard work. Sometimes it harder to love one another in community than it is to love your enemies. Have a dining room table, keep it clear, host guests and break bread. Build community for its own sake. Build community to act as one in the works of resistance and transformation.
Offer gratitude. Community runs on gratitude. Thank people. Make a list of your own gratitudes as a spiritual practice. Include them in your prayers.
Contemplate. Pay attention. Focus your mind and heart on who and what is right before you. Open your eyes, your ears, your senses, your mind. Notice the gift beneath everything. Daniel Berrigan said contemplation was the one thing the Powers that Be can’t commodify or co-opt.
Grieve. Consider it a form of love. Grieve personal losses; grieve the victims from whom the land is taken and on whom the culture is built; grieve the land itself and planet. Make rituals embracing and keening it. Death and loss, not so far below the surface, are hidden and denied at great cost. As St. Paul says, “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.” What if the great unacknowledged storehouse of grief is a power of hope and transformation waiting to be unleashed?
Confess your fears – to your closest community. Fears kept inside rule us and hold us, they end up being at the service of the powers. Sometimes fears name the very things we are being called to do. Fears confessed can be at the service of conscience and the spirit.
Count your gifts, personal and communal. Take stock of what resources you have. Know what you can offer and also what your limits might be. Though, to be honest, sometimes you start a work trusting on faith that the gifts will come.
Practice hospitality. In home and community. Do so quietly for those threatened with violence or deportation. Make safe spaces for the homeless. Declare sanctuary publicly as a congregation to go on record.
Be ready to take the heat. Count the cost. Be disabused of naivete. Know that if you stand somewhere for real, the trolls or the authorities may come for you, as they’ve come for others.
Read the Scriptures together and alone. Read them critically yes, but always in the end read them engaged with your life and spirit. Read them for what lights up and what calls to you. Read them to remember the big story of which we are part, the conversation which we join. Read them to recall where we come from (we’ll never know where we’re going if we don’t). Read them to recognize and unmask the powers. Read them in order to recognize the Word active and militant now and in this world. Reading them is a primary, practical tactic of resistance.
Read. In a world saturated with images and tweets, read essays beginning to end. Read books. Read poetry and novels. Read analysis of the present crisis. Read movement history. Read children’s books to children you love. Tutor. Honor libraries by use. Practice literacy also as resistance.
Make culture. Write. Perform poetry – free verse, hip hop. Paint and draw by hand. On paper or on walls. Make liturgy as art. Publish a paper, a newsletter. Open and protect safe spaces for music, for theater, for story-telling (art is targeted and under attack as well). Learn the healing arts of your ancestors (the memory is not that far back).
Rest. This is another practice related to biblical Sabbath, the seventh year, the seventh day. Don’t make an idol of self-care, also easily done, but you neglect it at the peril of movement and community. Any number of the practices urged here require slowing down and sitting still. Dreams and healing come in sleep. Letting go in rest and sleep is a way of trusting the world to God.
Re-member. Put the news, in the dailies or social media, in the context of the larger story, lest today’s news be nothing more than tomorrow’s cold omelet.
Honor and recall movement history. Biblical history. Learn from them. At every gathering summon the ancestors and saints to be present and alive in our midst.
Bless. Bless and do not curse, even those who curse you.
Judge not. At least don’t waste your time critiquing what every other faith or movement group is doing wrong. Work together with whomever good faith and conscience will allow. You don’t have to like everyone to treat them with respect. Basic non-violence.
Oh yeah, Practice Non-violence. Practice. Practice. Practice.
Honor the truth. Tell the truth. Teach the truth. Live the truth.
Let your Yes be Yes and your No be No.
This article is a portion of a larger essay from a forthcoming book by Bill Wylie-Kellermann, Principalities in Particular: a Practical Theology of the Powers (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, October 2017).