Ripples

New 606 contributor Ben Wideman Ben1.jpg grew up in Canada, went to college in Virginia, and seminary in California, before finding a new home in Pennsylvania. When he’s not working with young adults, he spends his time enjoying his spouse and three incredible kids, and collects hobbies like homebrewing, gardening, playing disc golf, watching baseball, cycling, podcasting, and lots of other random things. You can follow his ministry at www.3rdwaycollective.org

 

At last summer’s National Campus Ministry Association conference attendees focused on a quote from Mother Theresa which reads, “I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples.” It is a compelling quote for a moment in time where our global connectivity can makes the scope of need feel paralyzing for those who want to make a better world.

My own work as a Mennonite campus minister at a large state school can include moments of paralysis when I take in the scope of need on the Penn State campus. During my short time here I have recognized a pressing need to create spaces for students to feel a sense of belonging. I’ve also become aware of the increasing political polarization, heightened intolerance toward students from underrepresented communities, and an increased awareness that our campus and community are struggling to respond to the mental health needs, substance abuse problems, economic inequality, and ongoing sexual violence experienced in our community. Needless to say, solutions to these problems feel unattainable, especially for a single campus minister or campus ministry.

My own reflection on this Mother Theresa quote has reminded me that when the challenges have felt overwhelming, slowing down to listen to the needs of my community and where God is leading me ends up starting the process of creating those first ripples.

My arrival at Penn State in the fall of 2014 coincided with the rise in awareness about racial injustice, and a visible #BlackLivesMatter movement here on our campus. I approached this moment with some pause. After all, what could I offer to hurting students as a person of heightened privilege – a middle class, white, straight, Christian male? I approached a young student at one of the early rallies and asked if my presence was appropriate. With a smile he told me it was more than appropriate, it was essential. And the task he had for me was a simple one – just stand next to the students offering your presence as a way to support. I had assumed that I may not be needed, and expected that if I was needed my task would be overwhelming. What I found that the first ripple toward a better future was a small step, like casting a small stone. This movement, and the many small stones cast by our community, has lead to powerful changes in how our community understands racial injustice. It has led to the creation of campus-wide efforts to break down intolerance, launched student and community organizations focusing on racism in our community, and started down a path toward cultural change. None of these transformative moments would have been possible with these small first steps.

Within my first months on campus I also met several LGBTQ Christian students who lamented that while their Christian identity was welcomed by their peers in the spiritual center, their sexual or gender identity was often not. Similarly, in the LGBTQ center, their sexual or gender identity was affirmed while their faith commitment was often not. They needed people to come alongside them as they created Receiving with Thanksgiving, Penn State’s first LGBTQ Christian Network. It didn’t take much effort – just a willingness to stand up for those who were feeling marginalized, and in doing so, join the Spirit’s movement in my community.

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This first ripple in my campus ministry with these Christian LGBTQ students led to many others. My participation in this Spirit movement – what I like to call that first “ripple” – with the creation of Receiving with Thanksgiving meant that I was invited to preside over a communion service in their early worship services. This led to an invitation – a second ripple – to officiate at a funeral when one student passed away (with the family acknowledging that I provided a pastoral presence for their child who did not have an affirming church home). Awareness of my willingness to participate in the funeral of an LGBTQ student led to an invitation – a third ripple – to officiate at a same-gendered wedding for two young women who were struggling to find a clergy person in central Pennsylvania willing to enter into their lives in that way. I helped empower these same Receiving with Thanksgiving students to offer a transgender clothing exchange – forth ripple – as a way to meet the needs of a vulnerable community as they enter their personal transitions. A fifth ripple appeared last year when a student invited me to preside over their transgender renaming ceremony using biblical illustrations and metaphors for that moment in this student’s life. This past spring our Penn State LGBTQ center permanently established a transgender clothing exchange (sixth ripple) and this fall will offer a limited number of clergy hours in their physical space for spiritual direction and mentoring (seventh ripple).

I do not know where the next ripples of the Spirit’s movement in my work will come from, but I am convinced that choosing to walk alongside the people who are in need of a spiritual presence in their lives is a way to take that first step. I arrived on campus with many lofty dreams of how I might make an impact, but few of these practical moments and possibilities were in the range of my imagination and hope. It was only after taking those first small steps that the the ripples began to form, and I was able to join the work of God’s Spirit in my context.

–Ben

Most Christians don’t think much, or often, about mercy.

Researchers at the evangelical research company Barna has some new research out that might explain something that something about the terrible reputation of American Christians today:

  • Nearly 50% of practicing Chrsitians in the US say that mercy doesn’t influence how they think or act–or else they haven’t even considered whether it does
  • Christians  are virtually indistinguishable from non-Christians in terms of their attitudes about mercy and whether they act mercifully

In some ways, this research is a relief to me–it means that what I’ve been looking for in American Christians isn’t there, not that I’ve just missed it.

At the same time, of course, it’s deeply disturbing, especially because Barna isn’t focusing on people who merely self-identify as Christian; the research group focuses on those who are active in their faith. That means that they are engaging in faith activities like going to church but not learning about mercy there.

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Above, Eugene Kazimierowski‘s painting of Divine Mercy, under the direction of Saint Faustina Kawalska, a Polish saint who died in the 1930s. 

Or maybe it’s worse. Maybe they are going to church and learning about mercy–how to deny it to refugees or victims of sexual violence.

Teacher Appreciation Week: Dr. Parvin

I’m generally not a sentimental person, but Teacher Appreciation Week makes me dopey. In my defense, I am the beneficiary of the work of some wonderful teachers at every level, and it’s not too much to say that without the academic foundation, and more importantly, the encouragement and love that Mrs. Roark, Mrs. Kreeger, Ms. Sangrey, Mr. Lewis, and others showed me, I would have ended up… well, maybe not in the gutter, but definitely not where I am now.

They probably didn’t know that they were creating a  future educator, but my teachers made school so good for me (even though, to be honest, my attendance wasn’t all that great) that I’ve never had a career apart from education. Even on days when teaching is frustrating, I can’t see myself doing something else; especially these days, introducing students to difficult ideas and supporting them as they work through them has never felt more important.

In college, I learned that teaching could include research. A first generation college student, I had no idea that academia even existed; the few people I knew with college degrees were my own teachers and my doctor. I didn’t know that graduate school existed or why you went or how you got there. Kathleen Parvin, professor of English at Juniata College, is the person who showed me that ideas could matter to people beyond your professor. That my professors treated them like they mattered was affirming enough–so the idea that they could matter to others was ecstasy.

Above, notes that Dr. Parvin made on some of writing from a class on D.H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf. At left, she calls me out on my effort to fudge margins to give myself more space to write, an early sign of my calling to scholarship. At right, she encourages me to think about publishing my writing; she saw me in a way I didn’t see myself at that point, and I’m so grateful for her vision. 

Kathleen’s encouragement went a long way. Like many of her former students, I am sure, I tucked it away (not just in my mind, but in a folder of undergrad writing that dignity dictates I should have tossed out long ago) and have brought it out many times since then when I needed the reminder that, somewhere along the way, someone thought I was worth investing in. Her words of encouragement fed many of my own future words of writing. That is what, I think, good teachers do: amplify. In the end, if we do our jobs well, we get to see our work in the larger world.

Rebecca

Share your own stories of your favorite teachers this week in honor of Teacher Appreciation Week. We’d love to hear them!

 

Justice Thomas Believes that Oaths Inhibit Lying. He’s Wrong.

I rarely overestimate Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, but this one still caught me by surprise: his recent argument, delivered at Pepperine University, that Christians are more likely to uphoad their oaths of as lawyers:

I think it’s interesting in a profession where we all take an oath, that they would look at people who have strong faith as somehow not good people, when, if you’re an atheist, what does an oath mean? If you are a Christian and you believe in god, what is an oath? . . . You’ve taken an oath to God. . . . [religion] enhances your view of the oath.

Presumably, Thomas would extend this to lawmakers, presidents, judges, police officers, and everyone else who takes an oath of office.

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When I think that Clarence Thomas replaced Thurgood Marshall, I begin to doubt whether the arc of the universe is actually bending toward justice.

The problems with this are myriad.

First, it’s naive to think that nonbelievers lie or deflect their duties more than people of faith.

Second, liars will break an oath. Requiring an oath to God just rules out people too honest to make one. It doesn’t rule in honest people.

Third, if the only reason you are being honest is because you made a promise to do so, your character is already poor. This is one reason why Jesus tells people not to bother with oaths–to just let your yesses be our yesses and your noes be your noes. Making a promise on top of your plain words suggests that any time you aren’t making that promise, you aren’t required to live up to your word.

It’s also ignorant of the Constitution, which doesn’t require an oath of office for the presidency but permits an affirmation instead.

The founders had the option of creating a religious test for office. If they thought that people of faith were superior politicians, they would have required it. Instead, in Article VI, they specify that what is most important is fidelity to the Constitution:

The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the members of the several state legislatures, and all executive and judicial officers, both of the United States and of the several states, shall be bound by oath or affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.

We settled this at the start. When Justice Thomas says he’s an originalist, he’s lying. And his religious belief doesn’t seem to have prevented it.

Rebecca

 

Brief Lessons from Buddhism about Hate

At 606, we write a lot about Christianity and hate. Today, I want to draw from another religious tradition to enhance the conversation.

Thanks to my friend Katy for bringing this helpful article from the Zen Studies Podcast to my attention.

The author identifies the relationship between fear, anger, and hate–something affirmed by psychologists who study hate as well.

Fear, anger, and hatred are all intimately related, and they’re essentially different stages of the manifestation of ill-will with delusion mixed in. The arising of these negative states starts with fundamental fear that you won’t get what you need, or that you’ll be harmed in some way. Anger arises as an instinct to protect. Throw in a good dose of delusion – the belief that our well-being is separate from that of other beings, and that clinging to the self results in happiness – and we start “othering.” We think of the people we blame for our misfortune, or those we feel threatened by, and conclude they must be fundamentally different than we are. For some reason (frequently based on superficial differences like race or cultural background) the other is less than we are, and somehow deserves misfortune. This conclusion overrides our natural empathy and compassion and our attitude can harden into hostility and hatred.

In other words, by denying the fact that our well-being is the well-beings of other people–that, in some way, there are no other people-we begin to create the ground where hate can grow.

Image result for hate in buddhismAbove, monks outside the Tree of Life synagogue.

How much of the pro-life movement is about controlling women?

Abortion rights advocates often argue that the pro-life movement isn’t really about protecting life itself, given conservative support for war, denial of climate change, refusal to support universal health care, gun ownership, and enthusiasm for the death penalty. Instead, they argue, it gives cover to a broader goal of controlling women’s bodies.

I know and respect many people in the pro-life movement, and I know that many of them consider their work to be pro-woman. Many even understand it as a feminist endeavor.

But they need to look more closely at their co-belligerants in this part of the culture war.

Recently, Obria (formerly called Birth Choice), a faith-based anti-abortion chain of clinics, has agreed to take more than $5 million  in Title X funds from the Trump administration in support of its work. Here is its mission:

“Being led by God, we offer medical services pertaining to primary care, pregnancy and reproductive health, including education and support for marriage and family, consistent with the inherent value of every human life.”

This has meant that Obria promotes abstinence and Natural Family Planning, the only kinds of pregnancy prevention acceptable to its largely Catholic donors.

Acceptance of Title X funds, though, means that it must provide contraceptive services.

In response, many in the pro-life movement have been critical of Obria, decrying its acceptance of Title X funds as a deal with the devil. This suggests that the movement isn’t so much (or, more graciously, is at least only partly) about stopping abortion. Access to affordable contraception decreases, not increases, the rate of abortion. So when abortion foes also attack contraception, they are attacking the best means we have of curtailing the abortion rate.

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If pro-lifers are willing to sacrifice government funds to support clinics that are primarily about discouraging abortion, then this indicates that the goal isn’t really abortion but an end to all birth control.

If you think that contraception is a mortal sin, I get it. I don’t expect conservative Catholics to accept the “evil” of contraception as the solution to the “evil” of abortion. And many explicitly religious anti-abortion clinics have refused federal funding on this principle.

But, for those in the prolife movement who don’t think that contraception is evil, it’s time to take an honest accounting: there are those among you whose goal is to make both abortion and contraception impossible for women to access. And that doesn’t look like a pro-life position but like an effort to control women.

Hate Opponents Grow Exponentially in Response to Rising Hate Group Activity

I was fortunate this past Sunday to get to participate in a walk for peace and justice in State College, Pennsylvania. Organized by 3rdWay Collective, a campus ministry at Penn State supported by local peace churches, the event included musical performances, singing, reflections, the collective creation of prayer flags, and prayer from local leaders from a variety of congregations and interfaith groups as well as participation from local political leaders.  It concluded with a ceremony of penance at a local synagogue as Christian groups, in particular, expressed sadness, shame, and apology for Christianity’s role in promoting anti-Semitism, with a focus on the use of Palm Sunday as cover for anti-Semitism.

I was invited to provide brief comments on the theme of “tearing down walls of hate.” I share my prepared remarks here.

Thank you for the invitation to be here, and for your presence here. It’s wonderful to celebrate today with a community of people with deep commitments to peace and justice. For me, it’s especially joyful because, as campus pastor Ben Wideman said in his introduction, much of my day is typically spent listening to and observing people engaging in hate. So it’s a tremendous encouragement to me to see you here.

But I have another reason to be encouraged. In my study of hate groups, I also witness opposition to them. When a hate group pickets or marches or rallies, there are always people who oppose them, and there are always more people who are opposing than supporting them. When you see a close up photograph of a hate event, such as the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, you will miss this. Only when you zoom out, looking at the scene from a wider angle, do you see that for every hate actor, there isn’t one or two people opposing them, but twenty people standing up to hate for every one promoting it. When white supremacists tried to organize a Unite the Right 2 event in 2018, the 20-40 of them who showed up were met with hundreds of counterprotestors.

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Above, counterprotestors meet the few dozen Unite the Right 2 protestors that met in DC in 2018.

This means that the rise of hate groups has also given us an exponential rise in the number of people combatting hate. And this moment of hate will pass, but the many people who are coming to peace and justice work may stay. There is no silver lining to hate groups, but there can be goodness that rises in response to it, and that goodness can be part of who and what we are as a nation for a long, long time. We may be blessed from this with a generation of people who have thoughtfully engaged peace and justice, learned the skills to support it, and developed the stamina to do this work. In moments when anti-hate work is hard in all kinds of ways—emotionally, mentally, physically, spiritually—we can look to the incredible number of people who are taking up this challenge and feel encouraged as we walk in peace and for justice.

Rebecca