Nearly a year ago, I had one of my first in-person conversations with Christine Caine. If you don’t already know Chris, well, get ready – she’s an over-caffeinated, fast-talking, Pentecostal Aussie who is filled with the Spirit and leaves most of us slack-jawed while she preaches her face off around the world and sets the curtains on fire. And I love her. But in this story, we were just chatting quietly in the back of a room, getting to know each other. She was kind enough to encourage me in my work, particularly as Jesus Feminist was just weeks away from releasing. Off hand, she mentioned that she feels like we need to create pipelines for people to move towards God’s idea of equality and justice.
In a way, we all start at a different point in our journeys. If I imagine this journey towards God’s full realization of justice as an alphabet, some of us start at Point A and others start at Point S.
At the end of our lives, some of us might finish far away from Point Z perhaps but it took a tremendous amount of courage and faith to end up at Point P. And so we can celebrate any movement towards justice and wholeness in each other, however far from perfect.
We all need a way to move forward. We need an invitation or a way to onboard to the journey. We need the bridges to be able to cross over.
Even if, in our lifetime, we only move from Point A to Point M, at least we are moving towards God’s heart for justice, at least we are being moved. And I think so often in our work for justice, we lack patience for those who are on different points of the journey, we want to leap them from Point A to Point Z. Sometimes I want to make that leap myself or leapfrog someone else to where I am already – forgetting that it took a lot of pipelines, bridges, prayers and conversations for me to end up where I am.
I find the true and long-lasting work happens when we take the time to walk with each other in that journey. I have needed men and women to walk with me as I move on this made-up idea of the justice alphabet, they are the ones who have created bridges for me to cross, space for me to grow in real and meaningful ways. I have been discipled.
We are all moving from different places and experiences, backgrounds and teachings, contexts and privilege. But I have hope still that God is moving us forward – if we are open to the Spirit and to each other.
I think this is also the holy work of justice and peace-making.
I’ve thought of that metaphor so much since our conversation. Because the truth is that we do all start from different places on different issues of justice. And I felt like Chris articulated much of how I feel about that little yellow book, and even my own ongoing work: I want to create the pipeline, to build the bridge, to hold out my hand and say walk a while with me and see for yourself. (I’m always so thankful for those disciples who are ahead of me in the journey.)
Wherever people find themselves in their journey, am I creating pipelines or building bridges? am I inviting my brothers and sisters further out into the holy and wild work of redemption?
I believe that our God is at work in the world, setting things right. I also believe that God accomplishes this in our world through, well, us. God’s redemptive movement, the slow and steady arc towards justice. We are learning that there is no fear in love – as of 1 John 4 says, we are letting “love have the run of the house.”
My friendships in Haiti have changed a lot of my theological opinions just like my friendships here at home or the ones built throughout a lifetime. (This is the way of community, I think. If our theology doesn’t evolve and change during our lives, then I have to wonder if we are paying attention.) I have written often about the man who moved a mountain so that a school could be built. The metaphor of moving a mountain as it relates to doing the work of peace-making and justice-seeking since my first visit to Haiti crops up often in my life and work – in fact, I ended up dedicating an entire chapter of my book to this beautiful idea).
And with every day that passes, it takes on new meaning and nuance to me. Because sometimes, yes, we speak to a mountain and it will lift up and be cast into the sea. What a glorious image! But I’ve also learned over my lifetime that it is just as holy and just as ridiculous and just miraculous for the people of God to pick up their own small shovels and shoulder into that mountain with faith.
Sometimes the mountain is cast out and other times, I believe, we see that mountain move by blood, sweat, tears, and patience, by joint effort, a million small stones at a time.
I have decided that, rather than be someone who denies the existence of the mountain entirely – whatever that represents in the moment – or simply gives up in despair, that I will be a woman who picks up small stones and moves them. Small acts of faith are still acts of faith. I will be a woman who slowly and over time and alongside of many others will make that mountain move.
But it will also be an act of love.
I’ve been thinking about the women of Exodus a lot lately. I lay the blame – okay, fine the credit – for that squarely on the shoulders of one of my best friends, Kelley Nikondeha. She has always been enthralled with the Old Testament. In fact, her work and her whole life centres around the themes of Isaiah through Communities of Hope in Burundi. Jubilee, justice, swords into ploughshares, all for the restoration of both lives and the land.
Kelley taught me about the women of Exodus, how they quietly turned over the empire in their own ways, paving the way for Moses and the exodus of Israel from Egypt. She writes here about the midwives, Pueh and Shiphra, who subverted Pharaoh in their own way. They were meant to murder any boy babies that were born to the Hebrew women but instead they quietly delayed their arrivals or “forgot” to look if the baby was a boy. All this to ensure that mothers delivered their healthy babies. When Pharaoh challenged them, they blamed the strength of the Hebrew mothers. And they kept right on delivering life to the people of Israel. This is why Moses survived. The mountain of slavery for the Hebrew people was moved in the big ways – the parting of the Red Sea, for instance – but that mountain also moved in the small and secret ways, like the midwives.
It was behind the scenes work. Small stones work. By the very nature of midwifery, it is holy work that is done in secret and in intimacy. But the result is life and hope, stretching for generations, changing the trajectory of the story.
I think that the work of the Spirit is often silent work. Perhaps that’s why it’s so rare – silence is so rare.
We don’t see what is going on in each other’s lives and hearts, as the Spirit moves among and within each of us. I think the greatest work of the Spirit happens in the secret places of our lives. We’re moving and changing, slowly being scrubbed clean on the inside. Who cares if we give all of our attention to the outside of the cup if the inside is filthy? (Matthew 23:25-26)
Not all of the redemptive movement of God is visible to our judgment.
There are moments in our lives when we are silent because the Spirit is at work. Midwifery happens in the hidden places.
The paradox is that the Spirit is also a movement, a mighty wind, a rushing river, a burning tongue of fire setting our mouths and our minds and our hearts on fire. There is usually movement – change perhaps? – after an encounter with the Spirit of the living God. The Spirit never calls us to apathy.
We think of a revolutionary as a holy warrior and it is exciting to be angry and to turn over tables. I bless the ones who are called to that work.
Peace making is not passive aggressive.
Some of us are called to the combative and visible work, but here’s my quiet word of caution: don’t look down on your brothers and sisters whose work in the Kingdom may well be done in secret, in quiet, in kind ways.
There are a lot of ways to challenge the empire. My way is not the only way. Your way is not the only way.
Revolution doesn’t look like changing diapers or making meals, right? Kind people don’t change the world. We can’t imagine overturning the empire through these small stones that we lift up, one after another, through the small lives we spare, through our words and our prayers.
But some of the most Christ-like people I have known in my life, the ones who have changed the world, are doing it in ways that we often think are beneath us. I know we’re dazzled by social media platforms and conferences stages, bullhorns and accolades. We take liberties with them, perhaps.
Jesus often spoke of the Kingdom of God in small ways: a seed that grows to a mighty oak, a mustard seed of faith, a bit of yeast that causes the whole loaf to rise.
I have a bit of a preference for the grassroots folks, I admit. I see the ones far from the usual power and leadership narratives as the heroes.
The Kingdom is often taking root in small ways – in our kitchens and in our parish halls, in our streets and our subsidized daycares, in youth group mentoring relationships and after-school care, in prayer circles and by-law meetings at city council.
We walk right past each other, never knowing we’re in the presence of a peace maker, never knowing the full ways that we are each engaged in the radical work of reconciliation, rescue, and redemption.
And I think we underestimate the bridge builders, the ones caught in the middle with their arms outstretched.
I think we underestimate the kind and the foolish ones.
I am aware of power differentials and privilege, of systemic injustice and evil, of my own anger and my gross tendency towards an evangelical hero complex.
So of course I want to name the empire for what it is: crippling and soul-sucking, dehumanizing and evil. Whether it’s racism, patriarchy, war mongering, dehumanizing, it’s counter to God’s Kingdom. But the people caught in those systems are rarely the enemies – often they are just as caught, just as longing for a rescue as the rest of us. We don’t battle against flesh and blood, not really, but against the powers and principalities that hold us all captive.
And so I believe that we – as the people of God – are called to prophetically live out the Kingdom of God in our right-now lives. So that means setting up our lives as an outpost for the Kingdom way of life, the life of a disciple, the life and life-more-abundant of our God’s dream for humanity.
There’s room for the ones who dismantle and the ones who plant gardens in exile. There’s room for the midwives and the Moses.
I’m also suspicious of empire tactics being baptized and employed to “build the Kingdom of God.”
My soul recoils from the use of the very tactics of the empire – silencing, bullying, judging, other-ing, dehumanzing, mocking, name-calling, ganging up and piling on, violence - used against the oppressed and marginalized now somehow being used for “good purpose.”
I see this tendency in my own soul and it grieves me. The Spirit often calls us to repentance before we are called to our ideas of revolution.
My friend Kelley that I mentioned above here tells me that sometimes we think we’re called to fighting but really we’re called to farming.
This is the very nonsensical part of discipleship that our need for power bumps up against. It’s all very well to talk about “the upside down kingdom of God” until that discipleship asks us to actually live it out.
To the world, it’s foolish to choose peace instead of war. It’s foolish to forgive. It’s foolish to be kind. It’s foolish to hope. It’s foolish to offer grace and conversation.
It’s foolish to care for your weaker brothers or sisters, let alone change our own behaviour to accommodate their growth and discipleship, their freedom and their journey.
It’s foolish to live without legalism and “clear boundaries” that apply to everyone. It’s foolish to make it our business to pursue a quiet life. It’s foolish to lay down our power. It’s foolish to be silent and listen to others instead of rush to make our own point (after all we have things to say! important things!). It’s foolish to recognize your own privilege and walk softly. It’s foolish to believe that your life matters. It’s foolish to honour one another.
Foolish things will confound the “wise” of our world.
Those things all do seem foolish to me. So much of what Jesus and then the early church calls me to in Scripture seems foolish to the world. They confound me. They often go against my very real instincts to burn down bridges and shut down dissent and pick fights and turn over tables. But I think we are being foolish in the ways of a disciple. We are living prophetically into the Kingdom of God.
We can prophecy a better world with our very words and actions, even in the ways that we overturn the empire.
The Spirit transforms our hearts and minds and then our lives: regardless of our past, regardless of our context, regardless of our privilege or lack thereof. If we are disciples, we are participating in the life of Jesus now. And the way in which we engage in our lives matters. The way in which we engage our enemies matters even more perhaps.
This is how we will be known: by our love.
I want my work and witness to be marked by who I build up, not who I tear down. I want to be known as one who speaks life, not death; who empowers and affirm and speaks even the hard truth in love and invitation. I want us to be the ones who boldly deconstruct and then, with grace and intention and inclusion, reconstruct upon the Cornerstone.
I want to embody the character and nature of the kingdom of God, of our holy God, even when it seems so foolish.
I guess I’m foolish enough to believe it, they will know us by our love.