Fragments and Collisions

Timely Courage

So often, the week begins, and I have all these ideas to write about. I have these poems and prayers bouncing around my soul, my Bible and my spirit open to the lectionary text for the week.

But, so often, the world intervenes and hands us injustice, war, hatred, violence. And I think, Can I stay silent? Can I pretend these words, this Word, speaks nothing to this? Can I pretend that Love and Truth do not outshine Power?

Can I speak only of resurrection, without ever speaking of crucifixion? Easter cannot be so soon dead in my memory. We are yet reading of the disciples forming their deep community, grieving their leader, losing their very lives for what they believe. Martyrs. Witnesses. If I have already forgotten the power of that story, the courage of that testimony, then perhaps I never truly heard it to begin with.

Last weekend, I celebrated commencement for my graduate degree. All these years studying religion, culture, society, and ethics. And now, I commence — I begin — to carry that theory into the world. They give me an award for an essay written about globalization, development aid, debt. An essay, written two years ago, about the need to change those monolithic structures that sit like mountains on the backs of poor. Can I carry that message into the world? Can I commence that change?

And as the professional photographer takes my picture, with my plaque and my robe, a woman leans to me and says, What a timely essay you have written! And it takes my brain a second to understand what she’s saying, what she’s referring to.

And then I remember, because I read the news. I remember that another tycoon and another abuse have been another blip in the media. And the word “paternalism” takes shape in my mind, next to the word “slavery.” I wonder how this stranger has made the connection before I have, and I decide to tell a different story, or at least fragments of the stories that have now replaced all those lofty ideas I had to write about.


One: Poor

I remember writing the essay, a few years ago.  I was spending afternoons around a table with my colleagues, discussing theology and globalization. It was complicated and all tied up in debates about power and culture, inter-connectedness, colonization, economics, and poverty. In our group of twelve, I was the only white woman. There were two other women: one Asian and one African American. Most of the class was made up of African men: from Burkina Faso, from Madagascar, from Tanzania. And I remember how full I would feel leaving that class, like I was going to explode from the cognitive dissonance. I remember the buzzing in my head, the pushing of limits, the learning.

And I wrote a paper about why we should make Jubilee debt-relief into policy, why we should change our structure and paradigm of global aid, why we should micro-lend, why we should consider the connection between development and freedom.

Two years later, the same week as the head of the IMF resigned in disgrace after being accused of sexually abusing the immigrant woman who cleaned his hotel, that essay would win an award. And I would almost miss the connection because I wasn’t paying attention.

“Can’t Stop the Leak” by Sara Alavikia

Two: Immigrant

Last year, I went to Washington DC to learn about faith-based advocacy. We listened to stories of immigrant families being separated by deportation, of immigrant women being too afraid to report sexual abuse, of immigrant grandparents dying of minor illness because they could not get treatment. And I sat in our Representative’s office, wearing a suit, and I asked her to support the DREAM Act to make it possible for children of immigrants to have a future, children who had no choice, who had broken no law. Children who have no home.

“I will not leave you orphaned,” Jesus said.
“I execute justice for the orphan and the widow… you shall also love the stranger,” Yahweh said. “Love them as yourself.”

So said He. What do I say?

When I came home, I tried to talk to my Christian community about it. I tried to ask questions about justice and love and scripture, but we ran into propriety and law and could go no further. It is difficult. I keep my faith out of politics, she told me. I don’t personally know any immigrants, he said. And then, months later, I would learn that there are over 2 million immigrants in the San Francisco Bay area, half of whom are not citizens. Do we not know them because they are invisible — because they are harvesting our food, making our meals, sewing our clothes, cleaning our homes and hotels?

After all, she was cleaning his hotel room.

“Yo Trabajo” by Vibiana Aparicio-Chamberlain

Three: Women

A month ago, I read Proverbs of Ashes, by feminist theologians Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Parker. And I sat with their questions about the cross, the Passion story, and its implication for violence against women, their challenge of the virtue of sacrifice. And I cried about suffering — my own and that of others — across the lives of women. I read:

Violence denies presence and suffocates spirit. Violence robs us of knowledge of life and its intrinsic value; it steals our awareness of beauty, of complexity, of our bodies. Violence ignores vulnerability, dependence and interdependence…
We can resist and redress violence by acting for justice and by being present: present to one another, present to beauty, present to the fire at the heart of things, the spirit that gives breath to life. (9-10)

A few weeks ago, I cried again while listening to female prostitutes in Nashville tell their harrowing stories of survival. Then I wrote a blog post about Mary, which was supposed to be a blog post about power and sexual exploitation. But it’s hard to even speak of such things.

It’s hard to hold so many fragmented stories in two small hands.

“Schehrazade” by Vibiana Aparicio-Chamberlain


What do we do with this collision of fragments? With a man who preys on women, who preyed on this woman. With greed that preys on poverty and claims collateral damage. With violence that preys on fragile bodies, on color, on anyone but us.

How do we pray back?

“Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet!” Isaiah declares (58:1). This is how we pray; this is how we fast; this is how we worship.

Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rearguard.
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.

If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.
The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places,
and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.
Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in. (58:6-12)

This hope is messy and difficult. But this love is loud enough, strong enough, to speak back. This God is big enough to hold us all, even when we disagree, even before the change comes.

I am grateful that this God holds me even when it takes too long to connect the fragments, even when I am a coward and a fool. So make our bones strong, God. At least strong enough that we can commence rebuilding the ruins, raising the foundation, repairing the breach, and restoring the streets.

How do you handle the messy collision between faith and politics? Where do you find hope when the news is difficult and discouraging? What do you desire to be more courageous about? Tell us your story, offer your prayers.

Hoping my friends will stick with me through my imperfection:

Art found at the Women Artists on Immigration blog



Filed under Ethics, My Faith Journey, Theology and Faith

6 responses to “Fragments and Collisions

  1. a messy hope… oh bristol, how your heart bleeds for the world… you are beautiful, friend.

    • Thank you for always coming by to comment, Emily! The courage to speak up and write honestly always comes more easily with a supportive community.

  2. If I have already forgotten the power of that story, the courage of that testimony, then perhaps I never truly heard it to begin with.

    such a challenging thought…

    But this love is loud enough, strong enough, to speak back.

    This is something myself and my husband having been learning…the power of God’s Love.
    Thanks for sharing.

    • Thanks for stopping by, Melissa! I’m looking forward to reading more about your family’s journey at your blog and sharing in what you all are learning.

  3. Thank you for a very beautiful post. This is probably my favorite of all the work of yours that I’ve read.

    Faith and politics are difficult… They are certainly very intertwined for me in my life, and the thought of separating them feels really uncomfortable. It brings forth another thought: how dearly held can your faith be if it is not reflected in your politics? From listening to Greg Boyd, the way I would put it would be this: it is right that your faith inform your politics, but don’t make politics your faith work. Politics is just politics, in all its imperfection. It can (and should) be a place where we apply our faith, I think – but it’s ultimately not the arena that is really conducive to faith work.

    It’s easy for me to think of examples of conservative politics with which I disagree and how faith is tied up with them and how much I dislike what’s going on there. But, if I turn my attention to liberal politics and really pay attention to what I notice, I most often observe a kind of selling-out. Beautiful ideals and faithful impulses are transformed into (at best) clunky bureaucracy or legalistic policy with unforeseen negative consequences. Politics is the arena of compromise rather than creative collaboration. It is the place that our ideals are stamped down to the acceptability of the lowest common denominator of acceptable society.

    When the news is difficult and discouraging, and when it is positive, I try to hold it lightly. The news is generally information about things over which I have no power or influence. It may inform how I vote or whether or not I write a letter to someone – but that is minimal influence, at best. (Which does not mean that those actions are not worth taking – on the contrary. But I try to stay sober about what they can actually accomplish.) The place that I can have the most impact is in the course of my own life – not trying to insert myself into a powerful arena of which I am not part.

    And, so, I desire more courage in my own life to be present, like Brock and Parker talk about. It is difficult, revolutionary work, and I pray that I may keep my attention on it and not get distracted by all the news of faraway things and places and people – from news outlets or my own head. May it be so.

  4. Thanks, Tom! You, my faithful supporter!

    You raised an issue I hadn’t addressed here: facing the daily barrage of (bad) news. It is such a challenging and critical balance both to “hold lightly” the news, so that it doesn’t overwhelm your hope or agency, but also to stay engaged and responsible, to live out radical love, yes? I think I am still on the long journey to finding that balance. I appreciated that you connected it back to being present. I, with you, pray for courage to be present — not distracted, not overwhelmed, not checked out… but present.

    I am reminded:
    “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies.” (2 Cor. 4:8-10)

    We carry death in our very bodies, that we may reflect the truest life of deepest love, even in our breathing, bleeding bodies. mmm hmm.

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