Daybook, from Episcopal News Service February 3, 2006 -- Friday Forum
Reconciliation is hard but necessary work, say Trinity Institute speakers
By Daphne Mack and Mary Frances Schjonberg
[Episcopal News Service] This year's Trinity Institute conference--on the theme "The Anatomy of Reconciliation - from violence to healing"--brought together five strong voices who spoke from the crucible of their own experience that reconciliation is not easy work.
The conference, Trinity's 36th national gathering, began January 30 at Trinity Church on Broadway at Wall Street in New York City and ended February 1.
Set against what the institute called deep divisions in the United States and the world over issues of personal and cultural values, a growing chasm between the wealthy and the dispossessed, and the clash of religious traditions, the conference aimed to "explore freshly the meaning of reconciliation under these pressing circumstances," according to information on Trinity Church's website: http://www.trinitywallstreet.org/institute/?2006
Keynote speakers and preachers included Roman Catholic priest and author James Alison; Bishop Michael Bruce Curry of the Diocese of North Carolina; anti-death penalty advocate and author Sister Helen Prejean, CSJ; Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons, a professor of religion who specializes in gender issues; and systematic theologian Miroslav Volf.
"As the world and the creation lives into the loving purposes of its creator [and] as we live in the communion and love in the relationship with God and with each other, we will discover that that is the context for life that not even death can destroy," Curry said during his sermon to the gathering's opening Eucharist.
Alison said that the work of reconciliation is filled with temptations that can distract us from its main goal.
"Faced with the various extremely painful and distressing circumstances in our lives and in our world where reconciliation is needed we run the great danger, I think, of falling into the trap of seriousness and even worse of talking morals," he said during his talk on January 31.
Simmons, who also spoke on January 31, said that reconciliation creates justice. "A part of our struggle, as people of faith, is to create a world where people are judged by their deeds, not by their ethnic, religious or sexual labels--in brief, a world of justice," she said.
Volf spoke of his attempt to love the men who interrogated him during his military service in the former Yugoslavia.
"At times it would not have taken much to get me to switch sides except that loving those who do me harm was precisely the hard path Jesus called me to follow," he said.
Prejean told her audience on February 1 that reconciliation must begin by trying to understand other people's life circumstances. She said she never really understood the poverty of New Orleans until she moved into a housing project near her convent.
"It was witnessing their suffering that transformed me," she said.
The keynote addresses and panel discussions were interwoven with theological reflections in small groups. The group process was designed in partnership with the widely used Education for Ministry (EFM) program of the School of Theology of the University of the South. The technique was new to the conference this year and intended to "open the possibility of the inner work of reconciliation" to participants and help them explore the call to be agents of God's reconciling work, according to the website.
Trinity Institute is a continuing education program for clergy and laity that is part of Trinity Church. Founded to provide theological renewal for clergy in the Episcopal Church, the organization broadened its focus to include the work of emerging theologians of divergent thought and from diverse parts of society.
The institute now describes itself as a "think tank exploring pieces of the post-modern puzzle, trying to make sense out of a new epistemological model."
-- Daphne Mack is staff writer for Episcopal News Service. The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is national correspondent for the Episcopal News Service.
Roman Catholic theologian, American Muslim explore reconciliation at Trinity Institute
By Daphne Mack
[Episcopal News Service] The search for reconciliation will fall short of the mark if it is not undertaken from within "the sensation of sheer luck and spaciousness," author-theologian James Alison told those gathered for the morning session at Trinity Institute on January 31.
"Faced with the various extremely painful and distressing circumstances in our lives and in our world where reconciliation is needed," he said, "we run the great danger, I think, of falling into the trap of seriousness, and even worse, of talking morals."
Alison, a Roman Catholic theologian, priest and author, advocates a vision of non-violence based on an understanding of a theology of resurrection and the transformation of human desire. He lived with the Dominican Order between 1981 and 1995, and is a self-described itinerant preacher, lecturer, and retreat giver. His books include: "Knowing Jesus, Raising Abel: The Recovery of the Eschatological Imagination," "The Joy of Being Wrong: Original Sin through Easter Eyes," "Faith Beyond Resentment: Fragments Catholic and Gay" and most recently, "On Being Liked."
In his address, entitled "Blindsided by God," Alison used the scene of the presentation of Christ in the Temple, which is celebrated on February 2, to "help make clear" his meaning of good luck and spaciousness.
He asked participants to imagine themselves as ordinary inhabitants of Jerusalem "hanging around for evening prayer" in the crowded and imposing Temple, with a variety of sacrifices in progress, "priests doing their stuff with impressive seriousness," and money changing hands amid clouds of incense, cattle, caged birds and people in prayer in groups and alone, "making deals with the Almighty with much bobbing and bowing." All this is going on, he said, with "some, but not too much reference to the apparently indifferent gaze of the One who dwells there." God's arrival on the scene was barely noticed, "not even enough for us to talk about the temple authorities having been blindsided by God, since they remained unaware of what had happened."
"My fear is the necessary seriousness of our ethical and political searches may lead us to miss out on the extraordinary sensation of being in luck, of having fallen despite ourselves on our feet in the midst of a piece of ridiculously good fortune," Alison said.
"For us, the first and root meaning of reconciliation is not an ethical demand," he explained. "In the understanding of the Christian faith, it is first of all something which has triumphantly happened in a sphere more real than ours and which is tilting our universe on a new axis, whether or not we understand it."
This means that what we think of as being real, as stable and as ordered, he said "is not so." And [that] what is real, and true, and ordered, and stable is not what is behind us "but what we can become as we learn to undergo being set free from our imprisonment in what we might call 'social order lived defensively.'"
Alison contended that our starting place in reconciliation is not "of good people who are going to do something good" but of people who are undergoing the process of being forgiven.
"Forgiveness is not something which is in the first instance a moral imperative," he said. "Forgiveness is the shape of being inducted into the real. In the case of all of us human creatures, who basically are good, we find ourselves being caught up in an addiction to being less than ourselves."
Alison concluded by asking the conferees "not to forget the spaciousness...and discovering that our reception of an enflamed heart passes unashamedly through the quest for reconciliation."
To create a world of justice
Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons, the afternoon's featured speaker, is an assistant professor of religion and affiliated faculty in the Women's Studies Department of the University of Florida who served on the staff of the American Friends Service Committee for 23 years. She was a disciple of the Islamic mystic tradition known as Sufism from 1971-1986, and now describes herself as an American Muslim.
Speaking on "Communal Reconciliation and Healing through Fundamental Social and Individual Personal Change," Simmons said she was fortunate to have been an active participant in the civil rights movement of the 1960s and '70s. Participating in sit-ins as a freshman at Spelman College in Atlanta, traveling to Mississippi with thousands of other college students to be a part of the Mississippi Summer Project (an initiative that exposed the unethical treatment of Black people in that state) and working with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) were all part of her experience.
"Our nation, that shining beacon of democracy, had some dirty little secrets that the project exposed to the world," she said.
Those secrets she said included the "denial of the franchise to Black Americans, the literal entrapment of thousands of Blacks in a sharecropping system which was just a bit better than slavery, and the daily fear and terror under which Blacks lived caused by lynching, beatings, cross burnings, and false arrests."
It was during this period, Simmons said, she and several others joined the Nation of Islam under the leadership of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad.
"I did so out of my growing rage with white America, and my evolving belief that white America would never give the African-American justice or equality, no matter how much we marched and protested," she said.
She admitted that her disillusionment led her to believe that the only solution was the separation of the races and for America to give African-Americans economic reparations, as called for by the Nation of Islam.
But her post-Civil Rights experiences have led her back to the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., as the "only way out of the cycles of violence and revenge and feeling so much of the turmoil in our world today."
"I don't want to suggest that we've reached a racial nirvana in the South or anywhere else here in the US," she said. "I just want to acknowledge that there are positives."
Simmons said the conference theme was "evidence of the organizers desiring for us to engage honestly and openly with these problems and to share possible solutions" to issues of sexuality, personal and cultural values, the war on terror and in Iraq, and the dichotomy between wealthy and poor nations.
Simmons spent 17 years spent with the Sufi teacher Bawa (Father) Muhaiyadeen, who she said helped her with the internal changes she needed to address.
"Bawa and Sufism teach that the human being comes to this world as a spotlessly pure ray directly from God to learn right from wrong, truth from falsehood and to return to God at the end of our time on earth as that spotlessly pure radiant ray that we were when we came," she explained. "To do this, we must die 'the death before death.' The I, ego, mind, and desire must be subdued so [that] only the divine qualities within us manifests in our thinking."
Simmons said part of the struggle people of faith encounter "is to create a world where people are judged by their deeds, not by their ethnic, religious or sexual labels--in brief, a world of justice."
NOTE: To listen to Alison and Simmon's addresses, visit Trinity Institute's website at: http://www.trinitywallstreet.org
-- Daphne Mack is staff writer for Episcopal News Service.
'We have a mission': Bishop Michael Curry of North Carolina begins Trinity Institute's annual conference
By Daphne Mack
[Episcopal News Service] Bishop Michael Bruce Curry of North Carolina opened Trinity Institute's national conference with a stirring call to reconciliation as the mission of the church. Curry, the first African-American bishop to serve as the head of an Episcopal diocese in the south, approached the conference topic, "The Anatomy of Reconciliation--from violence to healing," from "a perspective of mission, from a perspective of the urgent necessity of the human species and of the creation of itself."
"I want to speak tonight on the subject, very simple, not complex: we have a mission," he told those gathered. "We have work to do, we have life to restore, we have death to destroy, we have a mission."
Curry used Isaiah 40:3-5 as the text for his sermon, the story of Nebuchadnezzar's army seizing Jerusalem and making slaves of its inhabitants.
"Thus began a midnight in their social and spiritual hour," he said.
Curry explained that the experience of exile caused later generations to reflect on their hard times and "interpret it through the lens of the exile experience."
"Exile is like being in the lion's den, and the lion's hungry," he said. "It's like being Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in a fiery furnace of a life."
Curry said that Babylon captivity was "a period of hardship, dislocation, suffering, and wrong."
But it revealed God's intention for all of his children, said Curry, because "God is in the business of reconfiguring the landscape of reality."
St. Paul grasped this concept, Curry said, and realized that the reconfiguration of the nature of life by God was what Jesus was talking about--that anyone in Christ is a new creation, and that "he [God] has given us the ministry of his reconciliation."
"This mission of reconciliation is about God's reconfiguration of the landscape of our realities," he said. "From the nightmare that it often is into, as [lay theologian] Verna Dozier would say, the dream that God has intended for the foundation of the world."
"The ministry of reconciliation is about participating in God's work of reconfiguration," he said. "The work of reconfiguration is calling the creation back to itself, to its origin, to its momma, to its roots, to God, to each other and when that happens, life can flourish."
"Reconciliation is about the very life of the world," said Curry. "As the world and the creation lives into the loving purposes of its creator [and] as we live in the communion and love in the relationship with God and with each other, we will discover that that is the context for life that not even death can destroy," he said.
He added that "this mission, this work is the difference between civilization or mutually assured self-destruction."
Admitting the journey "is not easy," Curry shared the story of an African-American man in Winston-Salem, who was released from prison, completely exonerated after serving 20 years for murder. Curry said the man has never expressed resentment because he said he "had a choice."
"My friend, the secret of surviving this place is to realize that we have a choice," he said.
Curry quoted Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who said, "We shall either learn to live together as sisters and brothers or we will perish together as fools."
"This work of reconciliation, this mission that we have been given is for the very life of the world," he concluded.
[NOTE: To listen to Bishop Curry's sermon in its entirety, visit Trinity Institute's website at: http://www.trinitywallstreet.org/calendar/index.php?event_id=38874
-- Daphne Mack is staff writer for Episcopal News Service.
Both arms of the cross can reconcile everyone, Prejean tells Trinity Institute
By Mary Frances Schjonberg
[Episcopal News Service] Reconciliation begins when we venture into places of poverty and despair, Sister Helen Prejean, CSJ, told Trinity Institute on February 2, and we are given the grace to practice that reconciliation, not before we begin, but while we are on the path.
Prejean, author of "Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in America," advocates for restorative, rather than retributive, justice. She serves as spiritual advisor both to convicted prisoners and to the families of their victims. She began working in prison ministry in New Orleans in 1981. Her 2005 follow-up book is "The Death of Innocents."
Early in her life, Prejean said, she believed the theology that she had been taught: that humanity's true home is in heaven and that while the poor suffer in this world, they will be comforted in heaven. Then she heard a nun say that Jesus' good news was, in fact, that the poor would be poor no longer.
That theology changed her view of her work in this world, Prejean said. She moved into a New Orleans housing project near her convent and listened to the residents.
"It was witnessing their suffering that transformed me," she said.
One day in 1982, someone asked her if she wanted to write to a man on death row. "Talk about the sneakiness of God. This is Part One," Prejean said.
So she wrote, and "you know the problem? He wrote back. He wrote back and it was an encounter over two people across huge lines of division."
Then she decided she ought to visit Patrick Sonnier, facing the death penalty for killing two teenagers. The "sneaky part of God, Part Two," is that Sonnier welcomed a visit and suggested that she could be his spiritual advisor.
She had no idea of how to do what he was suggesting she should do. "Grace unfolds under us, the way you bring the ship through locks. You don't get grace ahead of time; I didn't get the grace ahead of time," she said.
"But God gives us like this little penlight and the grace comes up under us as we need it. And that was where my path went. It was plunging right to that place."
The grace of reconciliation comes in the meeting. "So when I go visit the man," she said. "The shocking thing: I looked up and he had such a human face. What did I think, huh?"
Prejean said her experiences have taught her not to look at the cross in the same way. For her now, it is a symbol of execution. Yet, she said, we wear it as a "great ornament."
Eddie Sonnier, Partick's brother who was also convicted for the murders, bought Prejean the cross she wears by selling his plasma in Louisiana's Angola Prison to earn money to pay another prisoner to make it. "I wear a cross around my neck [purchased by] someone involved in a heinous terrible murder of two teenaged kids. The symbol of our redemption."
Prejean knew she had to face the families of the two teenagers, but she didn't approach them at first--"a terrible mistake," she said.
Finally she met them at a public pardon board meeting. The parents of Loretta Borque would not speak with her. Lloyd LeBlanc, father of the murdered David LeBlanc, and his wife Eula, did.
"I expect the same anger and rejection, but was surprised by grace and [the fact that] human beings never fit in a box," she said. LeBlanc simply asked her to come and see them. "He was the gracious one," she said.
Later she prayed with him and realized that she was kneeling next to a man who lived the Gospel of Jesus. "He'd been thrown into the fire of losing his son and the prayer he prayed was for everyone" in his family and for the Sonniers, she said.
LeBlanc told her about praying over his son David when he went to identify him at the morgue. He said that when he got to the part of the Lord's Prayer asking God to forgive his sins as he forgives others who sin against him, "I didn't feel the words but I know that Jesus called me to forgive and I am going to do what Jesus said. I know some people think forgiveness is weak."
But, he told Prejean, "they killed my son but I am not going to let them kill me."
"It was the love in him that transformed him," she said, as he prayed that he would not want to retaliate in kind, because "then he knew he would have lost himself."
"The true path of reconciliation is not acquiescence; it is not passive," she said. "It's spiritually active, and a call is received from people like Lloyd LeBlanc, in the midst of it, that he will continue to be a person of love. He set his face to walk down that path and the grace of God met him on that path. He is our teacher."
She said LeBlanc taught her that Jesus' arms outstretched on the cross embrace everyone, declaring that all are beloved. That embrace runs counter to the message of the wider culture, which makes us think that we cannot stand on the side of both victims and their killers. Instead, we tell people that we must use "redemptive violence" to make things right by honoring the victim and balancing God's love with God's justice, Prejean explained.
What Prejean called the "secret rituals" of death sentences carried out at midnight have given society an "impossible burden." The burden is that of believing in a process that says "we have the wisdom to know when life should be terminated because people are not redeemable, they are not human like us and we can terminate their lives. We can determine that, in fact, God is finished with them and that it is time for them to enter eternity and we have the wisdom to be able to get the truth and to be able to know that."
Prejean said she believes the gospel of Jesus requires her to do the work she does. "The reconciliation the Jesus calls us to is not to make peace with government-imposed death," she said.
[NOTE: To listen to Prejean's presentation in its entirety, visit Trinity Institute's website at: http://www.trinitywallstreet.org/calendar/index.php?event_id=38892
-- The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is national correspondent for the Episcopal News Service.
Forgiveness is God's work done through us, Volf tells Trinity Institute
By Mary Frances Schjonberg
[Episcopal News Service] Forgiveness and reconciliation pave the "hard path" that Jesus calls Christians to follow, Yale Divinity School's Miroslav Volf told the audience on the concluding day of "The Anatomy of Reconciliation--from violence to healing," a conference sponsored by Trinity Institute.
Volf, a native of Croatia, used his struggles to deal with the psychological abuse he experienced in 1984 at the hands of a Yugoslavian army security officer as a way to explain his understanding of the practice of reconciliation.
Volf is the director of Yale Center for Faith and Culture and Henry B. Wright Professor of Theology at Yale Divinity School. He is the author of nine published books and more than 60 scholarly articles, including "After Our Likeness: The Church as the Image of the Trinity," "Exclusion and Embrace: Identity, Otherness, Reconciliation" and "Haunted and Healed: Mistreatment, Memory and Reconciliation," due to be published later this year.
Volf, who was serving a compulsory stint in the disintegrating country's army at the time, said he was viewed as a national security threat because his father was a pastor, he himself had studied in the West and was married to a U.S. citizen.
He was interrogated by the officer, Captain Goranovic, and others for weeks in an attempt to get him to confess to what they told him they believed was true about him and his intentions. He said he was never physically abused but that he spent most of this time in constant, almost paralyzing terror, "trembling before the false gods of power run amok."
When the interrogation inexplicably stopped, Volf found that he saw the world "through the lens of abuse" and that Goranovic was still "colonizing my interior life." He tried to put Goranovic aside, or at least "banish him to the basement of [his] interior home," with varying degrees of success.
Often a "cold, enduring anger" that wanted to exact sadistic vengeance battled with Volf's determination "not to lose what I believe is best in human nature" and what he believed he was called to do as a "person created in the image of the enemy-loving God."
Many people believe they can have no other response to those who wrong them but that of "strict enforcement of retributive justice."
"Now, I understand the force of that position. At some level I am tempted by it, but I don't share it," he said. "It tramples underfoot the most beautiful flower of our God-given humanity: the love of the enemy."
Volf said this notion of love must not be confused with "mushy sentimentality unconcerned with the demands of justice."
Evil, Volf told the conference, wins when two things are accomplished: the act of original abuse and the decision of the abused to return the evil in kind--or worse.
"In my own situation I could do nothing about the first victory, but I could prevent the second," Volf said. "Captain Goranovic would not mold me into his image. Instead of returning evil for evil, I determined to heed the apostle Paul by trying to overcome evil with good. After all, I myself had been redeemed by the God who in Christ died for the redemption of the ungodly."
Volf made it clear that he was not only speaking about physical revenge but that he also had to decide how he would treat the memory of Goranovic's wrongdoing. The central question, he said, was not whether never to forget the abuse, but how to remember it rightly.
The answer to that question for Volf began with reading the Psalms. He realized that if Christians pray the Psalms asking that God will not remember them according to their sins, then he needed to remember Goranovic "the way I prayed for God to remember me and my wrongdoing."
As he began trying to remember Goranovic's abuse "rightly," Volf said he realized that his answer would shape not just his future stance towards his abuser but towards every person and setting he encountered. Thus, his answer could not be a private, interior exercise.
Volf realized he would have to try to understand Goranovic's life and motivations, so he invited Goranovic into his attempt to remember rightly. Volf allowed Goranovic to listen to his remembering and to speak, and Volf agreed to listen, knowing that neither of them would have the ultimate last word. The last word, he believed, would come on the last day and be spoken by the Judge who knows each of us completely.
"It is not that I agonized about whether or not this was the right decision. I think it was the right decision," he said. "The problem came with sticking to it. When I granted that I ought to love Captain Goranovic, and I mean love not in the sense of warm feelings, but in a sense of benevolence, beneficence, searching for communion, when I made that commitment . . . every time I said 'loving Captain Goranovic,' a small-scale rebellion erupted in my soul."
"At times it would not have taken much to get me to switch sides except that loving those who do me harm was precisely the hard path Jesus called me to follow," he said. "Failure to follow in that path would be both a betrayal of the one from whom, through whom and for whom are all things, and a reckless squandering of my own self."
Volf said he also had to concede that his belief in God's salvation meant that he and Goranovic would some day be eating and drink together at the heavenly banquet. It was "a very scary thought but not an unlikely scenario," he said. It forced him to ponder if he would remember his abuse at the banquet table and every time he saw Goranovic in that life.
In response to a question Volf said that reconciliation and right remembering must always be handled as a possibility given to us by God's salvation. "What I really do not want is to think of forgiveness as a must that is laid as a burden upon the one who has suffered the wrong," he said.
-- The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is national correspondent for the Episcopal News Service.
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