Spring/Summer 2009 (Vol. 37, Nos. 2 & 3)

Spring/Summer 2009

The Stories within Our Stories by Wendy McDowell
Noticing the stories within our stories.

Good Samaritans in a World Economy by Douglas A. Hicks and Mark Valeri
A Christian vision of neighborly obligation is more important than ever.
Faith in the Face of Abuse by Nancy E. Nienhuis
Religious leaders need to be helpful to victims of domestic violence.
Obama's High Wire by Matthew Weiner and Varun Soni
Barack Obama's interfaith approach to public religion holds risk and opportunity.
An Uncomfortable Mormon by Taylor Petrey
Recent events have countered the hope that anti-Mormonism in American culture was thawing.

Disobedient Ancestors by D. Y. Béchard
Québec's priests, tricksters, and 'runners-of-the-woods' as seen through one family's history.
Life in a Godless Place by Nicolas Langelier
New religious immigrants are challenging the resolute secularism of Québec.
Listening to the Small Voice by Elizabeth J. A. Siwo-Okundi
With rising numbers of orphans worldwide, it is time to develop a theology that places their concerns at the center.
When Child Soldiers Become Filmmakers by Kurt Shaw
The frontlines of the Colombian civil war may seem an unlikely place for children to reflect on ethics, but with cameras in hand, they reveal a world where evil has become normal.
O Thou Mastering Light by Christian Wiman
For the believer, spiritual innocence remains the only condition in which intellectual truth can occur, and wonder is the precondition for all wisdom.

In Review:
Ethics and Vulnerability in Watchmen by Jonathan Schofer
Ethics and the many dimensions of vulnerability interweave in Watchmen.
Young Evangelicals Rock by Amy Sullivan
Christian youth culture in Eileen Luhr's Witnessing Suburbia.
A Homeland Imagined and Consumed by Richard Delacy
Swades: A nonresident Indian rediscovers 'home.'

Feverish by Joanna Klink
Two Poems by Paula Bohince

See also: Past Issue

A Homeland Imagined and Consumed

Richard Delacy

In Review | Film Swades: We, the People. UTV Motion Pictures/Ashutosh Gowariker Productions, 197 minutes.

The film Swades (Homeland) rendered into English as "We, the People," was written, produced, and directed by Ashutosh Gowariker, who was responsible for the earlier and arguably more successful Lagaan in 2001—if an Oscar nomination indexes success. Swades starred the most influential actor of the 1990s and first decade of the twenty-first century, Shah Rukh Khan, in the role of Mohan Bhargava, a NASA project manager and nonresident Indian (NRI) who decides on the death anniversary of his parents to return to India in search of his elderly nanny. The film ostensibly is about Mohan's journey back to India, and his ultimate decision to forsake his career and comforts in the United States to return to the swades for good.

The first thing to note about the film is that it was not a "hit." While this reveals no more than the fact that it did not realize a healthy economic return, it would seem to suggest that the film was not popular among South Asians in India. For a commodity (the significance of which is predicated on its potential for consumption), absence of financial success immediately compels us to question its value as a social or historical document. Surely, if the film did not "resonate" with the population in India, this must mean that it has little to tell us about the nation, subjectivity, and so on, in South Asia. However, Jurassic Park succeeded in India (as well as in the United States, but no one here questions its relationship to the average citizen's sense of cultural identity), which does not necessarily immediately make it a worthy subject for studies of commercial cinema in South Asia. Indeed, the failure of a film commercially may also have little to do with how many people actually consumed it.

However, as it stands, most who study commercial cinema in India justify their focus on particular films on the basis that they were "hits" at the box office, which in reality says very little about what it means to consume a film. The fact that a film, made intentionally for a broad "Indian" audience, does not succeed makes that film perhaps more interesting than a film that does. This is particularly so with a film like this, which touts itself as being about the very people who are presumably also its primary consumers. It also happens to contain the most bankable star of the last 15 years. Finally, a quick search of Wikipedia informs us that the film was critically acclaimed and the recipient of numerous awards from various organizations.

Swades is a film supposedly about the rediscovery of India by the nonresident Indian. It can be said to fall into that genre of films, produced since the early 1990s, in which Indians living abroad have been featured. It is often argued that the primary reason for this focus is because of the growing economic importance of the "NRI market" for those who produce films in Mumbai. It has also been argued that filmmakers are increasingly turning away from the traditional primary audiences in north India as a source of revenue. This would seem to be an oversimplification, particularly with the transformation of the consumer cinematic experience in north Indian towns and the growing construction of multiplex cinemas in the newer context of burgeoning shopping malls. Nevertheless, it seems a point worth pondering, and an effort to target a more lucrative market would certainly seem an entirely reasonable move on the part of film companies.

The point that is salient for my discussion is that such films are accessible to much wider audiences and, for this reason, are more susceptible to analysis in a broader discursive realm than older culture-commodities produced entirely in languages other than English. In other words, in addition to the significant increase in the use of English in the film (one wonders what to make of the opening scenes that are almost entirely in English), it is also the case that modern technology has meant that even those without training in the so-called vernacular can access this text in an unmediated manner. But how should we understand a film produced in Mumbai, seemingly targeted at an audience situated in the United States, and which would, on the surface at least, appear to be all about the consumption of culture, and an authentic idyllic, village culture at that?

How should we understand a film produced in Mumbai, targeted at an audience in the U.S., which appears to be about an idyllic, village culture?

The narrative of Swades is, at its core, extremely simple. As I mentioned, it is the story of Mohan Bhargava (Shah Rukh Khan), who returns to India after many years to search for his former nanny, Kaveri Amma. In a clearly diegetic move in the opening scenes, the viewer is informed that Kaveri Amma—who was jointly responsible, with Mohan's mother, for his upbringing during the first 17 years of his life—was like a second mother to this only child. Mohan has lived in the United States from the time he attended college, returning to India only in his final year, following the sudden death of his parents in a car accident. This was the point at which he had his final contact with Kaveri Amma as well, and the film opens with him explaining to Vinod, his close friend and colleague at NASA, that his subdued behavior, on a day when he should be celebrating the successful completion of an important stage of the project he manages, is due to the fact that it also happens to be the death anniversary of his parents. It is then revealed that Mohan feels great remorse over having lost contact with his nanny after returning to the United States, and that in order to make up for this, he is considering returning to India and bringing Kaveri Amma back with him.

It is possible to place Swades comfortably in the category of films that target the nonresident-Indian audience—and especially that part of the audience which resides in the United States.1 While it is of course debatable as to what actually constitutes an "NRI film"—that is, a film targeted directly at first- or second-generation South Asians settled in the former metropolitan centers—it is understood that the U.S. and U.K. markets for Bollywood films have been considered lucrative territory in their own right for several years now. For this reason, it is entirely feasible that filmmakers have selfconsciously constructed narratives in order to appeal to an "imagined" NRI audience.

On the surface, then, this is the story of the journey back to the homeland, but not just the homeland one left in the pursuit of material advantage. Rather, the protagonist of this film is compelled to return to village India, on the understanding that his sojourn simply a brief one to retrieve his former nanny. It is evident from the narrative that our protagonist lived a privileged urban life before emigrating to the United States, and was unacquainted with the rural world to which he now travels.2 Thus, in this narrative, the village is immediately placed in the foreground as the repository of an authentic and valorized life, more so than the city, which remains almost completely absent from the film. This is in accord with a long tradition in commercial Hindi cinema of privileging the village over the city as the domain of tradition and culture. While the village is not without its problems (to which I will return), it nevertheless functions, in contrast to metropolitan areas, as the "real" India, reminiscent of Jawaharlal Nehru's "discovery" of India more than half a century earlier. Nehru wrote in his Discovery of India that it was while traveling in the villages that he discovered the "real" India, contained in the people themselves. "The mountains and the rivers of India, and the forests and the broad fields, which gave us food, were dear to us, but what counted ultimately were the people of India, people like them and me, who were spread out all over this vast land."3

Thus, our protagonist travels to a village that he never knew and a world he had little intention of experiencing. During his stay, as he attempts to convince Kaveri Amma to join him in the United States, he is compelled to confront a world that is plagued with seemingly insurmountable problems of underdevelopment and poverty, as well as by age-old issues of caste and gender discrimination, illiteracy, and child marriage. Unable to tolerate the oppressiveness of the status quo, and the apparent apathy and unwillingness of the villagers to change, Mohan decides to get involved in order to improve the quality of life of the villagers. The film culminates with him designing and constructing a small hydroelectric power plant to provide continuous electricity and make the village self-sufficient. Although he returns to the United States, and to the project at NASA, Mohan has come to the realization that he belongs in India and that he should settle in the village of Charanpur.

It is possible to read this film as an exhortation to the nonresident Indian to return to swades, both because it is the veritable repository of his or her culture and because it is an act of patriotism to contribute to the development of the homeland. This was my initial interpretation when I first saw the film. How, then, does it transform our understanding of the film to consider that it was "inspired" by the return of an actual couple, Dr. Ravi Kuchmandi and his wife Aravinda Pillamarri, several years earlier? How does our understanding change, to realize that the film may be not so much an appeal to the nonresident Indian to abandon the material prosperity of "the West" in order to contribute to his country of origin as the telling of the actual story of just such a couple? How should we interpret the significant changes from the actual lives of the two people who inspired Gowariker to create the film?

To begin with, the fictional Mohan Bhargava returns to India with no intention of contributing to its development, but simply to take his elderly ayah back to the United States with him. A seemingly benevolent act could thus also be interpreted as an attempt to acquire some of the spiritual essence of swades, and to transplant this spiritual swades to the material West. The fact that it is a mother figure that Mohan seeks to bring back with him from India is not lost on the observer, given the long-established tradition of understanding swades as female (Bharat Mata), as well as the notion prevalent since at least the colonial period that women are the very embodiment of culture and tradition in South Asia. Indeed, the suspicion is even raised at one point in the film that Mohan's motive for wanting to bring Kaveri Amma to the United States is so that she can become his housekeeper. Of course, the original (and misguided, as it turns out) motive that brings our fictional protagonist back to swades represents a significant departure from the actual details of the lives of the couple whose story is said to have inspired the film.

It is clear that the figure of Kaveri Amma functions in the narrative in a critical manner. In the absence of parents and siblings, Kaveri Amma represents the only family that Mohan has. In a manner, Mohan's remorse and desire to care for the now-aged ayah may be understood as the displaced desire to care for aged parents, something that is privileged in discourses on the family in South Asia. Gowariker even offers a critique of a modern social order that has begun to abandon its elderly to retirement homes in a manner that goes against Indian tradition. Kaveri Amma's familial status is further underscored by the fact that Mohan chastises his friend and colleague Vinod, when he refers to Kaveri Amma as tumhaare bacpan ki daaii (your childhood nanny). Eliding the very real economic relationship of wage labor that is at the heart of their relationship, Mohan insists that Kaveri Amma was equal to his mother. This displaced desire and longing also acts to sublimate the desire to consume culture in the form of a bride, a trope that has previously been employed in Hindi cinema, perhaps because there is an understanding that it mirrors a similar desire among nonresident Indians. The displacement of this desire would seem a strategy on the part of the filmmaker to avoid this obvious implication. To have reduced the narrative to the search for conjugal love in the manner of films such as Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jaenge or Pardes would perhaps have risked weakening any didactic force that Gowariker may have sought for the film.

However, perhaps the most interesting aspect of the film is the dichotomy that Gowariker sets up between swades and its opposite, pardes (foreign land). Here he attempts to reinforce the age-old tension between East and West, the spiritual and the material, and culture and capital, as well as invoke the now traditional cinematic nostalgia for the village as the ideal community. Ashis Nandy has written of how Hindi cinema invokes the village as the repository of the ideal community in opposition to the city, which is seen as the site of the corrupting modern.4 Gowariker's village is very much the village of Gandhi. It is no surprise that another inspiration for the film was a little-known book on rural development and the stories of 12 people who turned their backs on lucrative careers in urban India to work in the rural countryside and devote themselves to the Gandhian ideal of the autonomous village community.5 In the film we can see that Gowariker's swades, village India, is also the site of considerable tension. It is swades, the people (that is, ordinary Indians living in the villages), that represents the "real India." Mohan's journey back to swades must take him to the village rather than to the city, in spite of the fact that the village is a domain that even in his 17 years growing up in India, Mohan perhaps never experienced. This in itself is problematic. What is even more problematic, however, is the very real circumstances in which urbanization in South Asia is taking place at what some would suggest is an alarming rate.6

It is caste discrimination which is to be understood as the divisive force holding back the people from achieving their true potential as a united community.

Thus, the village may represent the real India, but it cannot be divorced economically from the city, and it is increasingly the case that urban Indians have less and less of a relationship with rural India. While it may be idyllic, the village, as represented cinematically, is far from ideal. But the problems that plague the swades that Gowariker highlights in the film would seem to be perennial problems that date back at least to the colonial period: caste and gender discrimination, illiteracy, child marriage, and crushing poverty. In particular, it is caste discrimination which is to be understood in this narrative as the divisive force that is holding back the people from achieving their true potential as a united community. The current economic relationship between the country and the city is almost completely elided in this cinematic representation of rural South Asia. What is missing, in particular is the following: the economic exploitation of rural areas by urban areas, which has made it increasingly difficult for farmers to eke out a living; and the transformation of the agricultural domain, with the shift from subsistence farming to the production of cash crops as well as the development of large-scale agro-farming, which has made it almost impossible for smaller farmers to survive and has driven countless thousands to the cities in search of employment. In addition, the demise of traditional industries, such as pottery and weaving (the farmer from whom Mohan is sent to collect overdue rent is a weaver who was forced to abandon his profession and turn to farming), cannot be divorced from the impact of urban, large-scale industries. Finally, pollution from industries has had a profound impact on the river systems in India and caused further damage to the natural environment and resulted in the loss of the livelihood of literally thousands of people.

In spite of the filmmaker's efforts to restrict the problems faced by the ideal swades to the problems that seemingly faced Gandhi's village community over half a century ago, certain tensions in this characterization of village life as economically removed from the urban world and as a repository of culture and tradition nevertheless emerge in the film. When Mohan debates Geeta (the school teacher and the film's heroine, with whom Mohan falls in love) over the problems India faces, he argues that the government is the cause of the failure to provide infrastructure, mostly on account of rampant corruption. When Geeta responds that the government is simply a system and is constituted by the people, she recognizes that the state obviously plays an influential role in the process of development and providing equally for all of its citizens, even though her point is that the primary responsibility should be taken by the citizens themselves. When Mohan attempts to convince those of the potter caste to educate their children, he uses the economic argument that they would not be exploited by urban clients if they were aware of the true value of their wares. Finally, at the celebration to welcome new students (many of whom come from underprivileged backgrounds or are Dalits) to the primary school, when Mohan argues with the members of the panchayat that it is precisely the age-old argument that India possesses a cultural and civilizational superiority to the West that is holding back the country, he effectively undermines the idea that the village is the repository of a spiritual/cultural dimension or difference. Moreover, by responding that America, too, has its own particular culture and values, he collapses the distinction that for close to 200 years set South Asia apart from the materialist West in nationalist thinking.

While Mohan is compelled to learn about the village, its politics and social relations, and its community values, his resolute determination to get involved and make a difference, particularly through the construction of a hydroelectric scheme, endears him to the villagers and helps them to see the "error" of their ways in excluding certain minorities and girls from education and practicing age-old discrimination on the basis of caste. Though he returns to the United States, he very soon realizes that his future is in rural India, and specifically in the village of Charanpur; for it is in the now-enlightened (literally and figuratively) village that a certain spiritual essence exists in opposition to a world that is supposedly given over to rampant materialism, conspicuous consumption, and high-end individualism.

Thus, the film underlines the notion that this certain intangible essence contained in swades cannot be "consumed" in the manner of commodity culture in the West. With both Kaveri Amma's and Geeta's refusals to return with Mohan to the United States, the idea that Indian culture itself can be consumed, or that India can be transplanted to foreign soil, is also rejected. Yet this problematizes the idea that a commodity, such as a film, can itself actually become a vehicle for the consumption of culture or, in other words, the "nation." According to the "message" of Swades, one cannot experience that certain intangible spiritual essence of the homeland other than through physically returning to it. However, it seems to me that in order to succeed, the film must deny its own status as a culture-commodity to be consumed for the realization of economic capital. It is no surprise that the film must scrupulously avoid the world of modern, urban India, as well as suppress the actual exploitative nature of the relationship between the country and the city in South Asia.

How then should we understand Swades as a culture-commodity that seemingly tells the tale of two real-life nonresident Indians who decided to return to India and use their training and skills to improve the lives of ordinary citizens in rural India? In producing a culture-commodity for consumption, as entertainment, in both domestic and international markets, how has the social and historical content been tapped and refashioned? How should we understand the place of a commodity, like a particular film, among so many commodities that saturate the market for the exchange of culture-commodities in the current age? How should we experience a film that would, on the surface at least, appear to present us with a positive message about transforming the social order and producing a form of sustainable development for rural South Asia?

One way of understanding this film and its rendering of actual social and historical content is to suggest that it participates in a complex process that is part repression and part management of desire. Fredric Jameson has written of these twin drives in his Signatures of the Visible, and it seems to me that this formulation could be useful here in relation to understanding this film.7 Invoking Freud's notion of repression, Jameson writes that this mechanism "comes into play only after its object—trauma, charged memory, guilty or threatening desire, anxiety—has in some way been aroused, and risks emerging into the subject's consciousness." But he also writes that the classic Freudian model of the work of art "was that of the symbolic fulfillment of the repressed wish, of a complex structure of indirection whereby desire could elude the repressive censor and achieve some measure of a, to be sure, purely symbolic satisfaction." Thus, on the one hand, repression functions to protect the psyche from dangerous desires, and anxieties, while works of art (even those that are said to be for mass consumption) serve a wish-fulfilling function. The vocation of the work of art, according to Jameson (invoking Norman Holland's Dynamic of Literary Response) "is to manage this raw material of the drives and the archaic wish or fantasy material."8

Thus, we can understand the various forms of displacement and repression we find in Swades, as the transformation of certain "social and political anxieties and fantasies" on the part of the filmmaker, particularly over the very real exploitative relationship between the rural and the urban domains in contemporary South Asia. It could even be said that the most significant displacement in Swades, on the pretext of telling the story of two real-life nonresident Indians who made the decision to return to India and work for rural development, is that by which the critique of South Asian culture and civilization comes to be articulated by the nonresident Indian, an idea that has held currency in South Asia since the early colonial period.9


  1. These films go back at least as far as Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jaenge (The Brave Heart Gets the Girl, 1995) and may be said to include the following: Pardes (Foreign Land, 1997), Dil To Pagal Hai (The Heart is Crazy, 1997), Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (Something Happens, 1998), Aa, Ab Laut Chele (Come, Let's Go Home, 1999), Kabhi Khushi, Kabhi Gam (Sometimes Happiness, Sometimes Sadness, 2001), Kal Ho Na Ho (Tomorrow Come What May, 2003), Salam-Namaste (2005), Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna (Never Say Farewell, 2006).
  2. We learn this by being told that he was raised in Delhi and from his reluctance to travel to village India without a suitably equipped mobile home.
  3. Jawaharlal Nehru, The Discovery of India (Oxford University Press, 1982), 60.
  4. The Secret Politics of Our Desires: Innocence, Culpability and Indian Popular Cinema, ed. Ashis Nandy (Oxford University Press, 1998), 1-19.
  5. Rajni Bakshi, Bapu Kuti: Journeys in Rediscovery of Gandhi (Penguin Books, 1998), 8.
  6. The idea of "urbanization" in India is complicated somewhat by the fact that the population has also increased by almost 200 percent since independence. This means that there has been a greater burden on resources nationwide, and that populations across both urban and rural India must have changed significantly. A rough estimate of urbanization in India, however, would suggest that the village-city ratio, in percentages, at independence was 85:15 percent. Now it is closer to 60:40 percent. This has resulted in a drastically transformed agricultural sphere.
  7. Fredric Jameson, "Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture, in Signatures of the Visible (Routledge, 1992), 11-46.
  8. Ibid., 32-33.
  9. On the evolution in the nineteenth century of this idea of a certain spiritual/cultural domain that was different from that of the colonizer, and that had to be protected at all costs, see Partha Chatterjee, The Nation and Its Fragments (Oxford University Press, 2000).

Richard Delacy is a preceptor in Urdu-Hindi in the Department of Sanskrit and Indian Studies at Harvard, and a doctoral candidate in the Department of South Asian Languages and Civilizations at the University of Chicago. His dissertation is on culture-commodities in South Asia in the post-liberalization period.

Please follow our Commentary Guidelines when engaging in discussion on this site.

An Uncomfortable Mormon

Taylor Petrey

The year 2008 was a terrible one for Mormons. Perhaps we should have known it would be, since the year started off with the death on January 27 of Gordon B. Hinckley, who had been the leader of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) for nearly 13 years. Hinckley oversaw an extensive expansion of the Church, as well as a public-relations overhaul and, during his tenure, Mormons enjoyed a relative amount of good press and social acceptance. I daresay most of us thought this would continue, but the media had other ideas.

Not even a full year after Hinckley's passing, Tom Hanks, the executive producer of HBO's polygamist series, Big Love, chose the night of its premiere to make this comment: "The truth is [Big Love] takes place in Utah, the truth is these people are some bizarre offshoot of the Mormon Church, and the truth is a lot of Mormons gave a lot of money to the Church to make Prop-8 happen." He continued, "There are a lot of people who feel that is un-American, and I am one of them."1 In this public statement, Hanks brings together polygamy, Proposition 8, and, in a Palin-esque rhetorical move, the assertion that Mormons are not quite American. Despite the pluralistic ideology of American identity, this construction of Mormons as "un-American" has a long history in American discourse,2 an unfortunate history that has been brought back to us forcefully in recent months.

As it turns out, Mitt Romney's presidential candidacy was a mixed blessing in that it both challenged and exposed popular sentiment about Mormons. Even for many Mormons who disagree with Romney's politics, and/or who were disappointed by what they viewed as his calculated move to the right on social issues (seen by some to be an attempt to appease an evangelical base who was greatly concerned by his Mormonism), it was still a proud moment for Mormons to have a member of the tribe in the running for the presidency. It was a tantalizing thought that we might have Romney as the highest-ranking leader in the land, at the same time we had Harry Reid (also a Mormon), as the Senate majority leader, the highest-ranking Democrat in the country. How would that have been for demonstrating the internal diversity within Mormonism?

After all, it was a hopeful election, because of the many boundary breakings it symbolized. As the United States was facing down racism and sexism, there was hope that the latent anti-Mormonism that has been so constitutive of American culture was finally thawing, too. In a country where there had once been an extermination order on Mormons, and a hot and cold war between the federal government and the Utah territory, the idea that a Mormon could be considered for president was a source of hope and pride.

The letdown was all the greater, then, when the press coverage of Romney's religion was anything but warm toward Mormons. This disappointment was captured in a Boston Globe editorial by Whitney Johnson: "[W]e have worked so hard to assimilate, we have even been able to convince ourselves that we are accepted. With Romney in the national spotlight, it has become all too clear we aren't. This is a discovery we would have preferred not to make."3

The next public relations challenge that hit the Mormon community was the high-profile raid in Texas on a polygamous compound of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (FLDS), a group that splintered from the LDS Church in the early 1900s, not long after the main body of the Church abandoned polygamy in 1890. While this story had absolutely nothing to do with Mormons, the link between these polygamous sects and the main branch of Mormons is still quite close in the popular imagination. Polls show that as many as 36 percent of Americans believed that Mormons operated the polygamous compound.4 Press coverage persistently encouraged these associations, implicitly and explicitly connecting the two.

Finally, there was Proposition 8 in California, a proposed state constitutional amendment designed to overturn the Supreme Court of California's decision to legalize and protect same-sex marriages. The LDS Church officially encouraged its members in California to "do all you can to support the proposed constitutional amendment by donating of your means and time to assure that marriage in California is legally defined as being between a man and a woman."5 In my lifetime, no other issue has so divided Latter-day Saints from within than the official opposition to same-sex marriage. Many Mormons feel torn between their commitments to marriage equality and their spiritual and social community. Many more feel defensive about the deliberate, strategic targeting of Mormons by proponents of same-sex marriage, both pre- and postelection. The result was that very little ground was left for Latter-day Saints who support same-sex marriages.6

In the aftermath of the referendum's passage by California voters, the LDS Church was the target of bitter protests by a subset of activists at temples all across the country. Such a response had the unfortunate effect of appearing to confirm the fears of many who worried that same-sex marriages would infringe on religious exceptions of conscience to perform such unions. These efforts were ineffective if the goal was to persuade Mormons, though they did effectively exploit Mormon vulnerabilities as a suspect group. In a related example, Rosemary Radford Ruether said of Mormon feminism in 2007: "I do not intend to engage in ideology critique of Mormonism because I regard this as the job of Latter-day Saints, not that of persons outside the LDS tradition. The purpose of ideology critique of a religious tradition is for the sake of pruning away its distortions in order to reclaim its liberating core and potential. This work can be done only by those within and committed to particular communities and traditions, not those outside and against them."7 Radford Ruether offers not only a warning on the limited value of outsider critique, but also calls on insiders to take up this challenge themselves, which remains to be done in the LDS Church.

Instead, I fear that the broad brushstrokes applied to both sides of this issue only entrenched them further. The unfortunate "culture war" rhetoric polarized the issue by depicting each side as engaged in an attempt to destroy the other's way of life, but the reality was more complex. Though many activists unhesitatingly portrayed the LDS Church as a homophobic and bigoted institution, this had been a time of some progress for the Church on gay rights issues. The LDS Church had publicly reversed its opposition to civil unions and supported California's domestic partnerships, which was a moderating departure from the original stance of ProtectMarriage.com, the official Yes on 8 website, which had initially opposed domestic partnerships and civil unions.

I do not intend to depict Latter-day Saints as simple victims in this situation. Certainly many of those involved in the Prop 8 debate provoked a response. Often the LDS Church is its own worst enemy in its public image problems. However, I do feel that the troubling ways that Mormons were portrayed (and the ways Mormons sometimes portrayed others) this past year underscored our collective desires for a neatly divided world where we recognize the good guys from the bad guys, the goats from the sheep.

The world as it is challenges this. If we are honest with ourselves, we have to admit that the luxury of moral absolutes is something that we rarely enjoy. This is not to say that there is no such thing as good and evil, only that the boundaries are not as clearly marked as we sometimes like to think. History is filled with great, inspiring personalities whose ideas or actions were responsible for problematic outcomes. All of our heroes are morally ambiguous to some degree. Even for Mormons, to claim Joseph Smith was a prophet by no means claims that he was a perfect person.

At the same time, such a condition of necessary imperfection can be redemptive. For Christians, if we take seriously the Pauline notion that "all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23), we are called to grapple with complexity, ambiguity, and the gray areas, to do the hard intellectual and spiritual work of the responsibility of Christian life. In doing this work, we are able to develop the virtues of faith, hope, and love (I Corinthians 13:13). We develop compassion, forgiveness, patience, and understanding, not only for our perceived enemies, but also for ourselves.

For me, the experience of being a Mormon in the United States in 2008 contained within it a powerful spiritual lesson. I learned how to be more comfortable with being uncomfortable in the ambiguity and ambivalence of the world. Above all, I came to see the great, gaping need for love and understanding if we are to move forward.



  1. Tom Hanks later retracted his remarks in People magazine.
  2. Terryl Givens, Viper on the Hearth: Mormons, Myths, and the Construction of Heresy (Oxford University Press, 1997).
  3. Whitney Johnson, "Romney, Mormons, and Me," The Boston Globe, February 9, 2008.
  4. Howard Berkus, "Polygamist Raid Is PR Nightmare for Mormons," National Public Radio, June 30, 2008.
  5. "Preserving Traditional Marriage and Strengthening Families" June 29, 2008, newsroom.lds.org/ldsnewsroom/eng/commentary/california-and-same-sex-marriage.
  6. Many LDS members sought to create this ground within the Church. For instance, see mormonsformarriage.com.
  7. Rosemary Radford Ruether, "A Dialogue on Feminist Theology," in Mormonism in Dialogue With Contemporary Christian Theologies, ed. David Paulsen and Donald Musser (University Press, 2007), 297-298.

Taylor Petrey, who received his MTS in 2003, is currently a ThD student at HDS. He is studying New Testament and Early Christianity and is writing his dissertation on the resurrection. A version of this article was delivered at Wednesday Noon Service on January 31, 2009, in Andover Chapel.

Please follow our Commentary Guidelines when engaging in discussion on this site.

Disobedient Ancestors

A son grapples with the complex social and religious history of Québec.

D. Y. Béchard

My father was born in 1938, in Rivière-au-Tonnerre, Québec, a town on the north coast of the Saint Lawrence and a 17-hour drive northeast from Montréal on modern highways. There, the river joins the gulf and is over 70 miles wide. In the early twentieth century, ferries plied the seaway during the few clement months before ice choked it and small airplanes were needed to carry men across to timber camps. Blizzards closed the coastal roads and only the mail made it through in a truck with caterpillar treads, creeping along rises like a prehistoric insect.

Rivière-au-Tonnerre was a Jersey-run village that, because of its plentiful cod stocks, boasted telephone lines and occasional electricity, and was managed by Robin, Jones and Whitman, a family company from the Channel Islands. My grandmother, Yvonne Duguay, was born in 1908, one of five sisters whose mother died when she was a child. At 20, Yvonne married Étien Boudreau, a young accountant for les Robins, as the company was known, and the couple had two daughters and a son before Étien died suddenly of an ulcerated stomach. After several years as a widow, Yvonne married my grandfather, Alphonse, a dark-skinned fisherman from Gaspésie who had a reputation for fighting and for having once gotten drunk and blown up a large black bear with a stick of dynamite. Soon after, my aunt, Colette, was born and then my father, Edwin Béchard. A year later, Alphonse decided to return to his family land and paternal fishing waters, and moved them all to the south shore, to a village called Les Méchins, on the southwestern cusp of the Gaspé Peninsula, where it meets the region known as Le Bas Saint-Laurent.

My grandmother, who is now 101 years old, still laments that move to the impoverished landscape of Gaspésie, to a house without electricity or telephone or running water, on a ledge of flat land above a narrow road that threaded the ragged coast. Below was a steep descent to the shore and a series of rocky islands, where Alphonse built a salmon weir. From the house, another steep path led up to a range of mountains on which he maintained his potato fields and where my father worked from spring to fall each year until he was 16.

The name of the village, Les Méchins, was a bastardized version of les méchants, "the mean ones," which some say was taken from a folktale about a bellicose giant that once lived there and terrified the Native Americans before missionary priests drove it off; another version claims that it was the Native Americans who needed taming. There, the Saint Lawrence spans almost 30 miles, and for those working in the high fields on clear days, the stony face of the north coast appears from beyond bulked water, distantly, like the moon.

My father hated Québec. He'd broken contact with his family before I was born in 1974, and I never set foot in Québec or met my father's family until after his death, when I was 20. Thanks to his stories, the province had occupied too great a place in my imagination and it took me years to see it not as a land of hardship and oppression, but as the modern, secular, highly educated, and prosperous society it is today.

Church soon became state and government, managing daily life in villages and trading posts as well as moderating colonial relationships.

When I was a child, the stories he liked to tell best were those of hard work in mines or on dams, or of his travels in the Yukon and Alaska, or through Nevada and California to Tijuana. He described fights, sometimes over women, or random confrontations that sounded more like sport. Working, he'd seen a logger sheared by a frozen tree that split and spun suddenly into what he called a barber chair. At a uranium mine, each miner was obliged to drink two glasses of milk to protect the lungs before he went underground. That first week my father laughed at the free drinks and gulped them down, but he saw no pleasure on the tin-colored faces of the older men. A couple months later, when the occasional cough filled his mouth with coarse, sooty phlegm, the odor of milk was enough to make him gag. The desire for a better life stayed in his gut like an inexplicable hunger.

My father rarely spoke of his family in these stories, only occasionally making reference to an uncle or cousin, and just as quickly he would look down, his dark eyes distant, and would change the subject. From all that he told, he seemed to have lived in the company of men, and the stories he liked best were of clever men, those capable of outsmarting police or bosses on construction projects, the tough in his village who, after a few whiskeys at the local pub, would jump up and kick the ceiling with both feet for everyone's entertainment. He told and retold his own feats: his escape from a lumber camp before the arrival of a flood, or how he won a brutal fistfight with a big German by biting his nose and holding on with his teeth until the man began to cry.

Much later in his life, when he was less certain of his wit and lived alone in failing health, he told other stories without joy. He mentioned his family now, the less charming violence of his father, the poverty of his village or the first time he saw electric light and indoor plumbing. He was no longer the trickster, the clever, self-sufficient adventurer who'd crossed the continent repeatedly, but an aging man recalling a boyhood in a Catholic village, haunted by a history so complex that it would take years before I could understand how it had shaped his life. He spoke of the absence of his family as if it were a mystery to him. He spoke of it with great effort, and within that mystery, behind it, in everything he said about Québec, was the Church.

Gaspésie comes from the Micmac word gespeg, which means "the end of the land." In Gaspé Bay, French explorer Jacques Cartier found safe harbor in 1534 and erected a cross to claim the territory for King Francis I, but not until 1603 did Samuel de Champlain establish the first permanent settlement at the site of present-day Québec City.

As it was for the Puritans in New England, the New World seemed to the Roman Catholic Church a call from God to create a model society. But this frontier religion would have much to withstand. As a colonial and missionary faith, it strove to mitigate the perceived savagery of the indigenous inhabitants as well as the brutality and licentiousness of the unruly profiteering colonists. If the Native Americans were to be converted, the Church believed it needed to present impressively pious colonists as role models. It soon became state and government, managing daily life in villages and trading posts as well as moderating colonial relationships with Native Americans and with Europe. While thousands of seasonal French workers arrived seeking furs and cod, priests came in droves, just as serious about souls.

Yet New France failed to build as substantial a population base as New England partly because of its climate and partly because seasonal workers lacked motivation to immigrate permanently. The educated and wealthy came only in the summer, and permanent colonists endured not only harsh winters but the military encroachment of the British and the occasional piracy from the not-yet-independent Americans. In 1758, when General James Wolfe raided and took control of coastal settlements in Gaspésie, many of the French returned to Europe, leaving the poorest and least educated with only the Church for guidance. In 1759, Québec City fell, and with the last naval confrontation, the Battle of Restigouche in 1760, the British had opened the way to the conquest of North America.

For the Church in Québec (the region that the British designated as Lower Canada from 1791 to 1841), the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were the most difficult. From 1763 until 1774, the British attempted to assimilate the remaining French, excluding Catholics from public office and banning the recruitment of priests. British authorities wanted to promote the Church of England and stomp out popery, and only with the beginning of the American Revolution did the British see the benefit of the Church. The threat of French Canadians siding with the American revolutionaries was great, and in part because the Roman Catholic Church opposed democratic ideas, the British Parliament passed the Quebec Act, which gave recognition to French law and language as well as to Catholicism. This move served both to pacify the French and to cement the role of the Church in British rule.

For those, like my grandparents and great-grandparents, who lived 3,000 miles of blustery North Atlantic winds away from Paris, in as remote a place as Gaspésie, it was difficult to imagine that the French Revolution had so greatly shaped their lives. But while revolutionaries in Paris were reconfiguring the deck of cards, replacing the kings with images of Rousseau and Voltaire and destroying religious monuments, the priests they had exiled were arriving in Québec, determined to create what they saw as the last bastion of true Christianity. Just as it had struggled against British rule, the Church now sought to prevent the spread of nationalist and democratic ideas from France and the United States. It already had a policy of encouraging population growth, with the aim of absorbing or outnumbering other ethnic groups who had smaller families. The priests determined that the best barrier against the infiltration of French and American ideas would be large agrarian families who did not enter the merchant class and remained relatively uneducated. Until the 1840s, the Church struggled to provide priests for a population that doubled every 25 years and confronted a growing educated elite that sought leadership within Québec and espoused nationalist and liberal values as well as freedom of speech. In order to stay in power, the British sided with the Church on all of these issues, and when British troops crushed the nationalist rebellions of 1837 and 1838, the Church was positioned to solidify its power.

While revolutionaries in Paris were destroying religious monuments, the priests they had exiled were arriving in Québec, determined to create what they saw as the last bastion of true Christianity.

For the next 120 years, it sought to Christianize every aspect of life in Québec. It built convents and colleges, ran schools and hospitals and charity organizations, trained thousands of new priests and created a Catholic political elite. Québec became a virtual theocracy. The Index Librorum Prohibitorum was enforced, movies censored or bowdlerized, and conservative newspapers published for the masses.

In Gaspésie, the priests struggled to preserve order during the long frustrating winters when the cod fisheries shut down and there was no work. They hung black flags before the houses of men who drank to shame them into abstinence and protect families from the threat of brutality and incest. However, if a married woman went two years without having a child, the curés refused to let her say confession, insisting that childbirth was a woman's duty and that failing to maintain this duty constituted a sin against the family. They demanded greater tithes from noncompliant families. My grandmother had done her part with 10 children from two marriages, and women even had broods twice that size. As a result, some have claimed that the population of Québec grew more rapidly than any other in recorded history.

Whereas in Europe the Church often vied with state power, it became the authority in Québec, guaranteeing the docility of its people to the British in exchange for near autonomy. In resisting so much, it had grown stronger than its European counterpart. It had endured hardship, lawlessness, and revolutionary ideas as well as English colonialism, a new wave of immigration, and the encroachment of Protestantism. It created a homogenous French-speaking people from what it saw as a mongrel crowd of Acadian and Norman, French and Métis, Irish and English and Scot, and in doing so it preserved a spoken French more likely to resemble the language of Choderlos de Laclos than anything to be heard in or near Paris. As vessels carried men across the Atlantic, Catholicism became the vessel that would carry the French language into North America's twentieth century.

My paternal lineage traces itself not back to France but to the Isle of Guernsey, another piece of land that, like Québec, the English and the French contested. The Channel Islands, however, were passed back and forth far more frequently and over many centuries before ending up under English sovereignty and serving as a buffer against attacks from the French, who briefly occupied them during both the Hundred Years' War and the War of the Roses. Much later, James, Duke of York, sought refuge in Jersey during the English Civil War and later, upon his ascension to the throne, granted George Carteret, the island's governor, a land grant in the American colonies that was to be named the Province of New Jersey.

The Channel Islanders had long taken interest in the New World. Skillful sailors and merchants, they had spent centuries as middlemen between the French and English, and had exploited the cod fisheries in Newfoundland since the seventeenth century. With the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1763, they found themselves in a privileged position. Many of them spoke both French and English and, as British subjects, could manage the French populations in the Saint Lawrence, once again in the familiar role of middlemen. The companies of Charles Robin and the Le Boutillier brothers managed cod shipping for so long that my grandmother still speaks of her Jersey village and les jerseys who ran it.

Thomas Béchard, my first ancestor to arrive from Guernsey, was a 14-year-old orphan. He debarked on May 6, 1835, and later married Helen Henley, the daughter of a family whose ancestors had presumably fled to Gaspé during the Irish Famine of 1740-1741. Their eldest son, also Thomas, had another Thomas, who was the father of my grandfather Alphonse. Over that half-century, the Béchard family spread down the Gaspé Peninsula, many of them along the Baie des Chaleurs and into northern New Brunswick where they mingled with Acadian refugees from the British deportations. Over the years, the Béchards gained an infusion of Native American blood, my uncles occasionally mentioning their New Brunswick cousins who "walked like Indians" and my grandmother once, in insisting that my grandfather's darkness did not indicate métissage, mused that she had always wondered at his lack of body hair, a trait common to Native Americans.

Like the first French settlers of the history books, my grandfathers and uncles—sailors and fishermen and merchant marines—are portrayed as hardy travelers. In them, I have found echoes of le coureur des bois ("the runner of the woods"), les Canadiens fur trappers. Québec's eighteenth- and nineteenth-century authorities wanted its people to stay in agricultural zones and leave the lucrative trapping to the Native Americans, but les coureurs des bois refused and journeyed deep into the continent, interbreeding with the Native Americans, learning from them the art of voyage and survival.

In the nineteenth century, the term Canadien was used for any French-speaking North American, whether from New Orleans, Québec, or the Great Lakes. Les Canadiens were known for itinerancy, many born of Métis and Native mothers, their identities as close to the bloodlines and demarcations of the original inhabitants as to the Europeans whose studied mapping had yet to reveal the continent's interior. The American government often employed them for their skills, as when they served as watermen to take Lewis and Clark west. In the 1804 expedition, les Canadiens were enlisted as temporary, as engagés, in the U.S. Corps of Discovery. My favorite character, Pierre Cruzatte, was the principle waterman who piloted the canoes and keelboats during the long journey. He was a lover of dog meat and a fine fiddler who entertained both his own men and their native hosts with his skill. Blind in one eye and nearsighted in the other, on one hunting expedition he accidentally shot Captain Lewis in the left thigh, mistaking him for an elk.

My grandmother's piety is unflinching, her prayers and devotion constant. . . . Yet my father was unable to speak of the village curé without rage.

Two hundred years later, it is easy to forget how so much history is distilled into a ramshackle village on a desolate coast in Gaspésie, a place now reasonably sedentary, though centuries before it was the site of endless crossings and miscegenation. In many ways the Church was both the flame and alembic in the process of homogenization. Today, my grandmother's piety is unflinching, her prayers and devotion constant, and without knowing it she repeats centuries of doctrine learned from priests who themselves were taught that men do not have rights, but rather duties, and that change leads only to secular chaos and immorality. She insists that the modern world has failed us and that someday, so that people can return to wholesome lives, we will embrace the Church again and the old ways of living.

But those old ways also bred men with grammar school educations and a love for profanity and stories and revelry—and above all, a hatred for authority. My father was the person I have known who most powerfully expressed his hatred of religion, unable to speak of the village curé without rage, without at least once referring to him as the fucking priest.

"Those priests," he would say, gritting his teeth when speaking of the Québec that he hadn't visited in over a decade, "those fucking priests."

When my father was 15, the only winter industry was logging on the north coast so he lied about his age, a 16-year majority being required in order to join the men who would be leaving. The village priest, Curé Félix-Jean, heard what he had done and informed the company recruiters, thereby forcing my father to spend another long winter with the women and children.

"He wanted to be with the men," my aunt told me. "He hated being trapped in the house and having to do children's chores."

In Les Méchins snow arrives as early as October, and trees do not bloom until June. My father managed the farm, taking care of pigs and horses and chickens, and the next winter he finally crossed the Saint Lawrence in an airplane and worked in a logging camp. The summer after he was hired on a dam on Northern Québec's section of the Canadian Shield, an immense watershed whose many hydroelectric projects now power the cities of Canada and New England. He sent 70 to 80 percent of his paychecks home so that his five younger siblings and the children of his sisters could have better educations.

By age 19, he'd worked in a uranium mine and on a high-rise construction site alongside teams of Iroquois iron workers. Then, after his best friend fell to his death, he quit and broke contact with his family, changing his life as if the reels of two very different films had been spliced together. His youthful journey of exploration and freedom from winter and home and church was transformed into the life of a criminal. He spent the next 15 years safecracking and carrying out armed robberies, working his way west across Canada and then south through Montana to Las Vegas and finally to Los Angeles. He robbed jewelry stores and banks, and laundered hot items and cash with the mafia, or so he claimed when he bemoaned their bad rates. Not surprisingly, there were occupational hazards to such a life, and he spent half of that time in Canadian prisons and American penitentiaries before he was deported to British Columbia. He lived there until his death at the age of 56.

As sensational as his life seemed when he told it, a simple question remains, and yet it is one that has long haunted me. How does a young man from a fishing village in rural Québec align himself with such ambitions? Other questions tumble from this one: What was the source of his audacity, his longing (even desperation) to escape and to erase all traces of the past, driving him to find a new place in an unfamiliar landscape? Where did that revolution occur? Even now, 14 years after his death, I recall his hatred of his home, his hatred of Québec, and above all his hatred of the Catholic Church.

Curé Félix-Jean animated many of my father's stories and many that my uncles and aunts still tell. His vigilance kept them from smoking or drinking or trysts. He especially disliked the young men of the village. Whenever he spoke with one he particularly disdained, he cleared his throat noisily, took out his handkerchief, and hung it by two corners like a veil before the face of the boy while still speaking to him. Then he spat into it, the dirty fabric jerking with its load of phlegm.

Some of my father's stories, though, were more typical, such as his rage at being punished for having no sins to tell at his first confession. "We worked," he told me. "We did nothing but work, and that fucking priest made us invent sins. We didn't have toys. All we did were chores. We got up and fed the animals and picked up wood or worked in the fields. When was there time to sin?"

In the 1960s, the Quiet Revolution released decades of pent-up desire for change. Within a decade, the province was transformed.

As with the English "breakfast," the French déjeuner means to break fast, meaning "un" or "undo," and jeuner "to fast." The French have eliminated this by having un petit déjeuner, their déjeuner now meaning lunch—a nonsensical notion—whereas the Québécois call their three meals déjeuner, dîner, and souper. The first Friday of each month, my father and his sister (and eventually his younger siblings) walked over a mile to the church for mass and then home for breakfast, and then walked back to the village for school. During confession, the curé berated sins so loudly that those who were waiting heard everything. If a young woman confessed to losing her virginity before marriage, he yelled, excoriating her in such precise terms that the entire congregation knew the place, time, man, and general mood of the deflowering.

Once, after morning confession, my father's older sister Colette realized that they would not have time to return home for breakfast, and not wanting to risk the ferule from the nun who taught her class, she skimped on Hail Marys to take my father home for breakfast. Curé Félix-Jean noticed and not only berated her but made her remain in penitence until after school began. She and my father went the day without food and were also punished by the nun who taught their class. The story my father told of his ultimate disillusionment occurred when he was only 7, during a Sunday Mass sometime near the end of the Second World War. In the village, a man had left his wife, and a woman her husband, and the two had moved in together in a small house not far from the church. Curé Félix-Jean was so incensed about this immorality that he preached fiercely on the sanctity of marriage and then on God's wrath against sinners. He told the congregation that the couple would burn in hell. They all knelt, heads bowed as he commanded them to pray that the fire of heaven would descend and destroy the two sinners. The image he painted was so clear, so compelling, that my father slipped from the pew where his family sat near the door and let himself out of the church, escaping the attention of the congregation. Before his mother could notice his absence, he was running to the house of the condemned couple. He crouched on the forest side and peeked into their window. The man and woman sat at the table, having breakfast and talking. "They looked happy," he said. "There was no fire. I kept waiting for the fire to come down and burn them, and I was worried I was too close to the house and might get burned up, too. But when the fire didn't come, I knew that fucking priest was a fake."

The next nine years were shaped by his determination to leave. The revelation, as simple as it was, had left him certain, he said, and free. He blamed the Church for selling out the impoverished French Canadians to wealthy industry and told me how, on election day, men in suits arrived and gave the children pop and each fisherman five dollars to let the strangers cast his ballot for him. This, too, he insisted, was the fault of the Church.

My father's last visit to his family was in 1967, after a significant bank heist and shortly before a seven-year prison sentence of which he would serve half. Thirty years later my aunt told me how, during that stay, Curé Félix-Jean died.

"Edwin hated the curé," she said. "We joked that maybe Edwin killed him. But that's silly."

In the 1960s, the quiet revolution released decades of pent-up desire for change, the exultant antiauthoritarian energy of the time pouring in. Much of this was due to the modernization of communications and the facility with which ideas were transmitted, but the death of Maurice Duplessis in 1959 was the catalyst. Duplessis, often simply called le chef, dressed in black and ruled (this being the better word than governed) from 1936 to 1939 and 1944 to 1959—almost 20 years in total, a period sometimes referred to as la grand noirceur, "the great darkness." The Roman Catholic Church supported his programs, at one time employing the slogan, Le ciel est bleu; l'enfer est rouge—"heaven is blue, hell is red," blue being the color of his party and red being that of the liberals against whom he ran.

In 1960, the province elected the liberal government of Jean Lesage, whose slogans were Maîtres chez nous and Il faut que ça change—"Masters at home" and "There must be change." The revolution had no precise beginning or end. The desire for new ideas and freedoms already existed, though they had been long suppressed. French Canadians wanted a stronger place in Canadian society, as well as social, economic, and political advancement. Within a decade, the province was transformed: institutions were secularized and nationalized, ministries were created to replace Church-run institutions, and private and foreign interests no longer dominated trade. The birth rate dropped to the lowest in Canada, and Francophones distanced themselves from both Canada and the Church. By the 1970s, they no longer referred to themselves as Canadiens français, but as les Québécois.

By this time, my father had embarked on his decade of crime. While he was learning safecracking and pulling armed robberies, Québec was becoming polarized, separatism was taking hold, and the Front de libération du Québec (FLQ) was growing. Operating out of Montréal and trained in Palestine, terrorist cells hoped to start a Marxist Anarchist revolution and establish independence and a workers' society. Between 1963 and 1969, an average of one bomb was planted in Québec every 10 days. The FLQ targeted businesses, banks, armored cars, McGill University, and the homes of wealthy English families. They destroyed a statue of Queen Victoria and set off a bomb in the Montréal Stock Exchange, injuring 27 people. An FLQ member was even apprehended on a mission to destroy the Statue of Liberty. The only similarity between this episode of history and my father's life is the FLQ's bank holdups, though I'm pretty sure the perpetrating members didn't run off to casinos afterward.

In October 1970, what was to be termed the October Crisis occurred. The FLQ kidnapped James Cross, the British trade commissioner in Montréal, and, five days later, Pierre Laporte, Québec's popular minister of labor and immigration. The Québec government requested the help of the Canadian Armed Forces, and Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau proclaimed the War Measures Act. Civil liberties were suspended and hundreds arrested. Troops lined sidewalks and roofs, and tanks roamed the streets. In an arena, 3,000 students gathered in favor of the Front de libération du Québec, chanting F-L-Q. Columnist, politician, and future premier of Québec, René Levesque, wrote his approval of the government's response in the Journal de Montréal: "L'armée occupe le Québec. C'est désagreable mais sans doute necessaire aux moments de crise."

The day after the War Measures Act was invoked, the FLQ killed Pierre Laporte and left his body in a car trunk near Montréal. James Cross was later released, and in return his kidnappers were allowed to leave the country. Several of the FLQ's leaders were exiled to Cuba. Around that time, my father's own period of chaos and uncertainty came to an end, and after incarceration for a bank burglary in Los Angeles, he was deported back to Canada.

History and his untraceable journeys leave me trying to understand his ideals. He wanted success, to live like the wealthy Anglos, but this longing grew in absentia from the culture that had created it, and lasted well after that culture had changed. When he spoke of Québec, he did so with distaste, telling me that it was poor and violent, that priests ran everything, though he sometimes admitted that it was no longer the same. He'd seen it changing when he'd last visited his family during the 1967 World Fair.

In the final year of his life, he told me many stories, among them one about two brothers splitting wood in his village. One brother would set a piece on the block and the other would split it. They had been working for a while when, just as the axe was coming down, the first brother put his hand under the blade, yelling "Stop." But the axe took his hand off and embedded itself in the wood. The brother claimed that the face of Christ had appeared to him in the wood grain, more perfect and beautiful than any image he'd seen in church. The curé himself went to look at the wood. After prying the axe loose, he washed the blood off, but saw nothing. The brother died from loss of blood and at his mass Curé Félix- Jean spoke of the beatitude that carried him away, Jesus having called him to his breast.

Telling me this, my father sounded distant, dreamy even, as if he believed it, as if the story and the act of telling a story, of imagining, still had power over him, and then his tone changed.

"I grew up with that guy," he reflected gruffly, but quietly, as if afraid to undermine his story. "He didn't seem any better than the rest of us."

History forgives. Reading through records of the past, I have found a gradual absolution, a few explanations for centuries of hardship and brutality. Framed by these stories and in the light of so many lives and years and changes, humanity seems less disconnected and therefore less mysterious, and yet the mystery of individuality remains despite our insignificance. History cannot quite account for one man's unreasonable actions or his unrelenting desire for freedom, nor can doctrine contain a people forever.

My mother once told me that in the first year she and my father were together, they lived out of a van and drove across Canada, and finally through Québec. They followed the southern coast of the Saint Lawrence, passing through one community after another until they reached his village. He had grown a large beard and said he would be unrecognizable to his family, and yet he refused to stop. Hearing this story, I tried to sense how he had felt seeing his home, the coast of his youth, the village where he grew up and where his mother lived—and not stopping.

Québec French uses religious terms for expletives. The Québécois take not only the Lord's name in vain, but all of his utensils and trappings as well.

In thinking about this, I slowly began to understand that his journey was not a return, but rather an extension of his flight and quest. In this, he greatly resembled the historical figures who preceded him: the travelers, the sailors and hunters who left France and journeyed to other lands in hopes of riches, who gave up their homes and families, many of them never to return—and whose children continued to journey: to the Francophone cultures of the Great Lakes, to Oregon or California or Maine, down along the Mississippi to la Nouvelle-Orléans, or west among the Métis of Manitoba.

More and more, he has seemed emblematic of a certain past and less of an anomaly. He loved to swear and tell stories, and in both cases I have found an older Québec. The profanity there responds to the Church, an eighteenth-century expression of frustration and a form of resistance against the oppressive clergy. Québec French uses religious terms for expletives: tabarnak and câlice and ciboire and ostie and crisse (tabernacle, chalice, ciborium, host, and Christ), among many others. The Québécois take not only the Lord's name in vain, but all of his utensils and trappings and family as well.

Reading books of French-Canadian folktales, I found hints of my father's humor and adventures in the deeds of the trickster, Tit-Jean, "Little John," who fooled the devil on numerous occasions while being devilish himself. The more I read, the more I wondered how many of his stories were inventions or exaggerations inspired by those old tales. Though he'd tried to cut himself off from his past, it had lived more fully within him than he realized: his journeys and words were echoes of resistance.

The model for my father was precisely the sort of man the Church had spent centuries trying to tame and on which it had nonetheless depended for its spread. Missionaries followed trade, trying to domesticate the very people who opened the path for them. They needed the brave and self-sufficient voyageurs, and so wanted those men to need them in return. French-Canadian stories and profanity are the negotiations of an older culture with a new repressive authority, the traces of who a people were before or have always been, the encoding of old values and narratives into new expressions. The trickster becomes all the more necessary when faced with such authority. He is a reminder of the strength of the people, one of those who stands against the rich and thumbs his nose at the puritanical. The heroes of Québec's Wild West, its coureurs des bois, could not be so easily forgotten.

Gradually, I have come to understand that my father's working man's humor was that of the trickster who wagered the world on his wits. The seductive daughter of the idle and obese rich man returned in his stories as models and actresses in casinos and at resorts. The wealthy Anglo became the bank owner. The devil himself was recast as a diabolic pimp paring his fingernails beyond the glitter of the dance floor. And the harsh priests found themselves embodied in stern policemen and prison wardens. The trickster, the handsome criminal, eyes impassive behind sunglasses, straightened his tie before picking up a gun.

Until the end of my father's life, he and I lived in a state of almost perpetual conflict. Years later, when listening to me describe my childhood, my aunt once said that Québec had changed, but my father had not—that he'd raised us as if still living in Québec before the days of the Quiet Revolution. He hated school and our greatest conflict grew from this: his insistence that I quit when I was 15 and my insistence that I continue.

The themes of the talks and conflicts between my father and me lasted until the final weeks of his life. He wanted me to drop out of college and live with him. At this time he was using heroin regularly, and he told me that he hoped to end his life in this way. In his voice I heard the desperation for escape and change that must have always been there for him, his need to leave and be set free, far from whatever haunted him. He asked me to research religions and tell him what they said about suicide and the afterlife, about what was next and whether it was good. The North American traveler thinks of riches and a new life, and my father was still dreaming of a better place, just one beyond this world.

We often talked all night. He told stories and then asked what I'd learned about Buddhism or Hinduism. When I would share what I'd read, he'd interrupt to say, "Drop out of college. You don't need an education. Education is useless. I never needed one. Come work with me. We'll go fishing."

"I can't," I told him, and continued to explain the beliefs of each distant culture, their punishments and heavens.

Shortly before Christmas he gave up on the heroin and took his life. Two years later, I found the strength to return to Vancouver to get his ashes and his few remaining possessions. There was a single plastic suitcase with a nylon and acrylic jacket and a pair of jeans and a few shirts. In the jacket's inside pocket were three pieces of paper: a recipe for homemade beer written on several notepad sheets, in a woman's neat hand; the corner of a page torn from Playboy advertising a calendar with a photo of Miss January, a naked blonde arched back onto her shoulders; and a pamphlet from a church, with a New Testament verse and a place to sign one's soul over to Jesus—signed by my father.


D. Y. Béchard's, first novel, Vandal Love (Doubleday Canada, 2006), won the Commonwealth Writers' Prize. He currently lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and is finishing his second novel.

Please follow our Commentary Guidelines when engaging in discussion on this site.

Ethics and Vulnerability in Watchmen

Jonathan Schofer

In Review | Required Reading Watchmen, by Alan Moore (Author), David Gibbons (Illustrator). DC Comics, 416 pages, $19.99.

Watchmen is considered one of the great comics of the twentieth century. Created by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, it has generated, and continues to generate, a deep reconsideration of the superhero and a large following. Watchmen appeared in 1986-87 as a series of 12 comic books and was soon gathered into a graphic novel of 12 chapters. Recently it came out in theaters as a feature film and received mixed reviews, but also raised the profile of the work. I would like to introduce and reflect on the story from a particular angle, a set of problems that I care deeply about: the significance of physical and psychological vulnerability for ethics.

Ethical theory today struggles to address the lived realities of the ethical life, the possibilities and limitations of embodied action in the world. In recent decades ethicists have increasingly emphasized that ethical theory cannot presume a continually free, autonomous, healthy, strong agent who encounters weak, needy others. Rather, all people are susceptible to harm, and ethical theories are distorted when they ignore the fragilities of a person engaging in contemplation and action. Vulnerability has many dimensions, including physical and emotional. Perhaps most striking, the very bases for ethical claims, and the possibilities of attaining ethical ideals, may themselves be fragile and susceptible to harm.

Ethics and vulnerability interweave in many ways. Foregrounding vulnerability may mean giving great weight to how individuals and institutions should treat the young, the old, the sick, and the disabled—for each person was, is, or probably will be in those states. Or, when we consider how we should treat others, we should emphasize that persecution, warfare, and environmental destruction are possible for all and actual for many. More subtle issues surround the fragility of our own ethical ideals and practices. Do we have theoretical grounds to support our ethical ideals? In practice, are we able to fulfill those ideals in ways that are truly good? Does the goal of right action enable us to flourish, or injure us?

The world wounds the persons and plans of those who try to act well, yet we find no alternative but to keep trying.

Vulnerability pervades Watchmen. World war and nuclear annihilation permeate the background. Grotesque, vivid violence permeates the foreground. Blood. Guts. Pain. Perversity. The world wounds the persons and plans of those who try to act well, yet we find no alternative but to keep trying. Conspiracy schemes and hidden plots are everywhere. Those who ignore them appear naïve, yet those who search them out seem crazy. In the process of inquiry, they hurt others, they may hurt themselves, and their very inquiry may further the scheme itself.

Watchmen is a comic about comics, whose greatest strength may be its exploration of the medium itself. A comic book provides relatively minimal stimulation compared with film, and the drawings of Watchmen show great control. Precise images on a nine-square grid cover each page. Each square is exactly the same size. Moore and Gibbons push the possibilities of the comic medium quite far. Time and perspective shift quickly from frame to frame. In some cases, subsequent frames alternate between dates, or interweave two scenes or stories. The words of one narrative may appear with images of another, indicating that the two stories gloss one another. Sequences have tight transitions, where the words that end one begin another.

These formal features convey several ideas about time, narrative, and the self. The story states explicitly that the past and the future all exist but can only be seen by superhuman beings. For one who can see all, the temporal shifts are quite natural. Closer to our experience, Watchmen conveys that human memory condenses time. Our minds can erase historical sequence, grouping images by theme and emotional memory such that other patterns arise. Both of these points are well developed in the film, but a third is largely covered over: a common theme in Moore's work is that narratives have significant causal impacts upon our lives. We not only tell narratives but discover them and live them out. The interlacing of narratives in Watchmen shows multiple characters to be enacting variations of the same story. The primary story told over and over is that a man goes to extraordinary lengths to save what is most dear to him, and in the process he loses his own capacity to act with justice and love.

The most explicit statement of this theme is in a comic-within-the-comic, a pirate story titled "Marooned" that was omitted from the film, but apparently will be released on the DVD. Watchmen presents a world with real costumed heroes and people reading comic books about pirates. We read "Marooned" over the shoulders of a young man sitting by a newsstand while his mother is working. A horrific story portrays a man who has survived a pirate attack, does everything he can to save his family, and in the end becomes the evil he hoped to stave off. The details are fascinating and gory, winding their way to the man's question: "How had I reached this appalling position, with love, only love, as my guide?" Characters in Watchmen have many guides—love, ambition, insecurity—but those who espouse lofty ideals end up in some version of an appalling position (a contrast to this pattern is Bernard the news vendor—watch his growth closely if you read the book).

The main plot of Watchmen takes place over the course of three weeks, from the murder of Edward Blake on October 12, 1985, until the night of November 2, with a brief follow-up on Christmas Day. Through flashbacks and other subnarratives, the story ranges much more widely. Soon after comic book publishers create the figure of Superman in 1938, people begin to dress up in costume and independently fight against crime. A year later, a group of these aspiring superheroes gathers as the Minutemen. All are ordinary and flawed human beings, though they train hard and some gain extraordinary abilities—the most prominent Minuteman in the plot is Blake, known as the Comedian. They work together for a decade before disbanding. After the Minutemen dissolve, one truly superhuman creature emerges. In August 1959 Jonathan Osterman, a young physicist, is caught in an experimental test chamber and seems to die. Over the course of the next few months, he reappears with great physical, intellectual, and perceptual powers. Soon Osterman takes on a significant role in world politics working for the United States as Dr. Manhattan.

In 1966 another group forms, inspired by the Minutemen, and they call themselves Crime Busters. These characters take center stage in Watchmen, particularly Walter Kovacs (Rorschach), Daniel Dreiberg (Nite Owl), Adrian Veidt (Ozymandias), and Laurie Juspeczyk (Silk Spectre). Crime Busters operates until 1977, when their independent battles inspire a strike by the New York police, riots in the streets, and then a legal act that prohibits vigilantes. Most of the Crime Busters retire their costumes. The Comedian goes to work for the government along with Dr. Manhattan. Rorschach refuses to stop, however, leaving a dead rapist at the door of a police station with a piece of paper on his chest saying, "neveR." When the Comedian is killed in 1985, at the same time as nuclear tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union reach a critical point, the retired heroes slowly gather, recall their histories, and become embroiled in an adventure that may end with the destruction of humanity.

Throughout their activities, the Minutemen and Crime Busters find evil difficult to identify and defeat. They know pulp adventure fiction and comic books that present "absolute values where what was good was never in the slightest doubt and where what was evil inevitably suffered some fitting punishment." By contrast, their human world is messy and inconsistent. The aspiring heroes first take on ordinary criminals and then costumed enemies. Things get more complicated when they need to address organized crime, and all the more so when they see their obstacles as linked with the cultural changes of the 1950s and 1960s ("promiscuity, drugs, campus subversion"), the cold war and nuclear threat, and environmental destruction.

The costumed heroes show a wide span of political views and impact. The presence of Dr. Manhattan enables the United States to win the Vietnam War, and Nixon remains president for multiple terms. The Comedian probably killed Woodward and Bernstein, and possibly also Kennedy (the movie makes this assassination explicit). Both the Comedian and Rorschach are compared to Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan. Ozymandias, by contrast, leans to the left and criticizes his fellows on the right. Watchmen ultimately criticizes heroic projects on all sides. The title emphasizes suspicion of people claiming high ideals, and the epigraph quotes the epigraph of the Tower Commission report:

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes. ("Who watches the Watchmen?") Juvenal, Satires VI, 347, quoted as the epigraph of the Tower Commission Report, 1987.

Moore and Gibbons probably direct our attention more to the real world politics of the 1980s than to the first two centuries CE. The quotation contrasts with John F. Kennedy's famous expression, "Watchmen on the walls of world freedom." What are the boundaries and limits of those who claim to guard others' freedom? Watchmen presses this question over and over again, and the words, "Who watches the watchmen?" appear throughout the book as graffiti. Perhaps most poignant is a small detail. One frame presents Rorschach right after he has beaten up a man, and on the alley wall we see in spray paint, "Who watches the wa. . . ."

Along with ambivalent politics, the heroes display flawed ethical sensibilities. The Comedian and Rorschach immerse themselves in the horror and pain of life. From burning a murderer who dismembers his victim and gives the bones to his dogs, to burning Vietnamese villages, these men dive into the violence. Rorschach in particular sees life as meaningless, with "no meaning save what we choose to impose." His response is to "scrawl" his own design on a "morally blank world" and to impose an uncompromising picture: "There is good and there is evil, and evil must be punished." An independent vigilante with no sense of due process, Rorschach inspires terror among those in bars and alleys. He has a penchant for breaking people's fingers. In many ways he is the most disturbing of the heroes. Rorschach is also the closest that Watchmen has to a central figure and, on the gravest moral issue of the book, his judgment may be right.

The medium enables Watchmen to link the story of personal destruction in "Marooned," the comic-within-the-comic, with the story of Malcolm and Gloria.

Other characters are highly intellectual. Seeking an objective standpoint from which to act, they lack ethically significant emotional responses. They fail to have compassion for individuals, for particular humans, because they are immersed in some version of a big picture. Ozymandias is the smartest person on earth and believes that intelligence will solve all problems. This outlook ultimately leads him to take on a disturbing utilitarian stance. He is willing to kill masses of people based on the calculation that he would save many more. Dr. Manhattan can solve complicated problems in physics, dismantle weapons without lifting a hand, travel between planets, and know what will happen in the future. Yet he also grows more and more distant from human needs. He forgets that humans must breathe. He sees life and death as "unquantifiable abstracts." Dr. Manhattan's inhumanity is most vivid in a story of the Comedian, which the film portrays effectively. During the Vietnam War the Comedian has a romance with a Vietnamese woman who becomes pregnant. He leaves her, she finds him and strikes him, and the Comedian shoots her. In this moment of cold harsh violence, the Comedian sees that Dr. Manhattan had the power to stop the bullet and the murder, but did not. He accuses: "You're drifting out of touch."

Daniel Dreiberg and Laurie Juspeczyk are wounded, undirected, alone or in unsatisfying relationships, and do not know what to do with themselves. Both of these figures, though, bring out the humanity in others. More generally they represent balanced emotion and reason, caution and action. Over the course of Watchmen Daniel and Laurie grow and strengthen, yet in the end their prudence may reflect dangerous tendencies in ethical reasoning. They think themselves into complicity with atrocity, for inaction appears to be the best option.

Nothing in Watchmen undermines subtle philosophical theories of ethics, but through these characters we repeatedly see ethical ideals invoked to justify and often sincerely motivate deeply problematic action. Watchmen explores many other limits to the ethical life, in body and psyche. The heroes age, gain weight, and lose their strength. Some express doubts and regrets. Daniel comments, for example, that attempting to be a superhero is "a schoolkid's fantasy that got out of hand." He also describes a protective piece of equipment that broke his arm, and Laurie comments, "Jesus. That sounds like the sort of costume that could really mess you up." Daniel replies, "Is there any other sort?"

Costumes mess up their psyches. Perhaps most complicated is Rorschach. Emerging from a horrible childhood hating his mother, at age 16 he starts working in the garment industry: "Job bearable but unpleasant. Had to handle female clothing." A young Italian woman ordered a complicated dress: "Viscous fluids between two layers latex, heat and pressure sensitive. . . . Black and white moving changing shape . . . but not mixing. No gray." The woman said the dress looked ugly and did not collect the order, so Rorschach took the dress home and cut the fabric so "it didn't look like a woman anymore." Two years later he learns that she was raped, tortured, and killed outside her own apartment, while the neighbors looked on. He then takes the remains of the dress "and made a face that [he] could bear to look at in the mirror." Repressed desire, revulsion, aggression, misogyny, horror, and vengeance all intertwine with a deep search for humanity in Rorschach's costumed face (the film does not explain the origin of Rorschach's mask but still does an amazing job of portraying the fabric).

Watchmen explores not only the weakness of those in costume, but also ways that the world can uproot anyone acting with good intentions. I find this theme best developed through a minor character who is all but omitted in the film. Rorschach (Walter Kovacs) is imprisoned, and psychiatrist Malcolm Long takes on the case. Malcolm has a cheerful disposition, an apparently happy marriage with his wife, Gloria, and describes himself as fat and contented. He is also ambitious, hoping to gain a sense of the "syndrome" that leads to masked vigilante activities, and plans to "keep notes with an eye to future publication." The dynamics of race and class are complicated. Malcolm Long is a successful African American doctor. Walter Kovacs is a white red-haired son of a prostitute. Kovacs looks down on Malcolm, accusing him of being fat and wealthy, of not understanding pain, and of seeking prestige under the guise of helping. Malcolm's assessment of the situation is: "It's as if continual contact with society's grim elements has shaped him into something grimmer, something even worse. If only I could convince him that life isn't like that, that the world isn't like that. I'm positive it isn't."

The doctor becomes increasingly preoccupied with Kovacs's case, staying up late, ignoring his wife, and ultimately becoming unable to socialize without bringing the horrors of Kovacs's life into his own. After Gloria walks out on him, he looks at his own Rorschach blots, hoping to find a spreading tree. He first sees a dead cat and then the real horror: "In the end, it is simply a picture of empty meaningless blackness. We are alone. There is nothing else." Things don't end there. Malcolm resigns, and Gloria finds him on the sidewalk just as a fight breaks out down the street. She tries to say that she will consider coming back, if he will work with less demanding patients. Malcolm sees the fight and goes to help: "It's all we can do, try to heal each other. It's all that means anything. . . . Please, please understand." She is enraged: "I'm warning you! You let yourself get drawn towards another heap of somebody else's grief, I don't want to see you again!" As he leaves, he says with apology, "It's the world . . . I can't run from it." Is Malcolm a true hero, doing his best to help others in a modest, sincere manner? Or is he a true victim, driven by a mix of ambition and compassion to try to make a difference in an indifferent world while neglecting the intimate relations whose emotional vitality he needs? Malcolm, like Rorschach, ultimately chooses to scrawl his own design on a morally blank world, and, like Rorschach, he winds up isolated.

The characters and events of Watchmen are extreme and exaggerated, but the issues are real for many of us. The story addresses challenges brought by living with ethical ideals, by trying to maintain a robust sense of good and its relation to bad or evil. Watchmen reminds us over and over that attempts to act well are easily susceptible to deformations that damage others as well as ourselves: in fact, the grander our attempts at goodness, the greater the risks of destruction. This awareness does not legitimate inaction or withdrawal. Rather, the failed attempts at heroism point toward the need for humble engagement with others in support of what we can best assess to be good. At the end of the story, great destruction in fact occurs, carried out to further an ethical and political goal whose results are unpredictable and unstable. The central figures wind up dead, gone, alone, or in disguise. One character is perceptive enough or disturbed enough to ask: "I did the right thing, didn't I?"

Jonathan Schofer is Associate Professor of Comparative Ethics at Harvard Divinity School. His research and teaching center on the ethics of virtue and character. His current book is a study of classical Jewish Rabbinic ethics titled Confronting Vulnerability (forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press). The author would like to thank Jeff Dean, Brett Rogers, Maura Kelly, Anne Monius, and Ada Brunstein for their comments and suggestions.

Please follow our Commentary Guidelines when engaging in discussion on this site.

Faith in the Face of Abuse

Nancy E. Nienhuis

Though most of us want to believe intimate partner violence (often referred to as "domestic violence") is on the decline, and that we are getting more enlightened on this issue, statistics indicate otherwise. Because of the continued stigma and secrecy surrounding this problem, the percentage of those living in violent relationships in the United States is often underestimated, but the numbers are disturbing. Studies show that one out of four women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime.1 Consider for a moment that in the six years of the current Iraq war, the United States has suffered the deaths of 4,179 service members and the wounding of 30,182.2 During that same period there have been 9,000 murders (75 percent of which are women) and approximately 28.8 million assaults and rapes of women by intimate partners.3

Religious beliefs play an important role in how people respond to intimate violence. People who are battered will often bring their religious background and teachings into the incident—as do the batterers. Some women believe (or their spouses argue) that their religious faith entitles a man to enforce submission, or to access her for sex any time he wishes, even without her consent (i.e., rape).4 The survivor's crisis is physical and emotional, certainly, but it will also often be spiritual. Survivors often have deep questions about their faith in the face of such violence. And while women may rank churches as the highest rated resource for support, the majority of their specific experiences are negative. Church leaders and congregations either are not sympathetic or they don't know enough about the law to be helpful. In a 2004 study, only 37 percent of clergy who counseled those involved in intimate partner violence referred them to agencies in their communities that offered services to victims of domestic violence.5

Marie Fortune, a pioneer in the field of religion and domestic violence, explains that women who are in life-threatening relationships often get unhelpful "advice" from religious leaders in the following ways: Submit to your husband; pray harder; try to get your husband to church; be a better wife; lift the abuse up to God; forgive your abuser and take him back. These responses blame the woman, suggest it's her responsibility to fix the relationship, and require forgiveness of the abuse without justice. They make the woman responsible for stopping the violence, and they do nothing to hold the perpetrator accountable.

It is not surprising, then, that survivors often feel they must choose between their beliefs and their physical safety, that they can't have both, because they understand their faith to require them to stay in abuse. In Christian sources we find recurring theological messages that reinforce this bind survivors are in, including a theology advocating suffering and patience regardless of one's situation, a theology of obedience and subordination to male authority in marriage, and a theology of ownership and power, where husbands are understood as responsible for the behavior of wives.

Theological responses of religious leaders to abuse are often a critical factor in a victim's willingness to leave an abusive relationship, and thus in her ability to survive. Yet too many religious leaders act as roadblocks, reinforcing beliefs and theologies that encourage victims to stay in abusive relationships. But this influence can also work in the opposite direction. Leaders in faith traditions can be critical resources for survivors, and can even set women free to leave abusive marriages. A few years ago I co-taught a class with Beverly Mayne Kienzle called "Historical Narratives of Battering and Their Theological Implications." A woman in the class told us how she had repeatedly gone to her priest seeking help from her husband's abuse. The priest told her that marriage was a sacrament, and she was bound to it. Eventually a new priest came to her parish, and she somehow gathered the courage, once again, to go and ask for help. This particular priest told her, "The first time your husband hit you, he violated the marriage sacrament and you were no longer bound by it." The woman looked at us and said, "It was like he opened my prison door and I walked through." That's the kind of power faith leaders can have for victims of violence.

We cannot underestimate the potential of clergy responses to violence. A 2007 study showed that "[c]ompassionate clergy counseling can have a positive influence on psychological outcomes of women in abusive relationships."6 The researchers studied 476 women who were still living with their batterers, all of whom had sought assistance from shelters. Researchers asked the women about their experiences with religious leaders. When clergy had responded to them in helpful and compassionate ways, as judged by the women themselves, there was a positive impact on the women's self-efficacy and sense of self-esteem. This study also found that of women who consulted clergy for help, 79 percent found that interaction helpful. There is a huge potential for positive outcomes when clergy respond in supportive ways.

Clergy can also be important resources for batterers. When clergy refer batterers to intervention programs, they are much more likely not only to attend such programs, but eventually to graduate from them, as compared with batterers who are referred solely by the judicial system. If the courts and the clergy both refer a batterer, he is even more likely to stay in and complete the program.7 When batterers are held accountable by their faith communities, it's good for the batterers and for the survivors.

Those of us with religious commitments can turn roadblocks into resources by focusing on the understanding that we are all created in the image of God, and equal in God's eyes. Religious leaders can make a particularly significant difference in this issue simply by becoming informed on how to respond to survivors and batterers alike. Think of how much more could be accomplished if clergy were well informed on this issue and had information on hot lines and local shelters at the ready in their offices. Intimate partner violence has been at epidemic levels for far too long, but this is one epidemic we can all do something about.



  1. Patricia Tjaden and Nancy Thoennes, "Extent, Nature and Consequences of Intimate Partner Violence" (National Institute of Justice and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, July 2000). Men are also victims of intimate partner violence. Approximately 7.5 percent of men report being raped or assaulted by an intimate partner in their lifetimes.
  2. Military estimates of American casualties from March 2003 to February 2009 are available at www.globalsecurity.org/military/ops/iraq_casualties.htm.
  3. See "Understanding Intimate Partner Violence" (The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2006), www.cdc.gov/ViolencePrevention/pdf/IPV-FactSheet.pdf.
  4. In Beijing in 1995, all countries in the UN voted to "abolish the marital privilege to sex on demand." Also see Seth Faison's "Women's Meeting Agrees on Right to Say No to Sex . . . ," The New York Times, September 10, 1995. In January 1995, religious leaders across all faiths, across the U.S., made a public statement declaring a woman's right to consent in their faith (see Roy Rivenburg, "When the Laws of God and Men Converge," Los Angeles Times, February 5, 1996).
  5. Rob J. Rotunda et al., "Clergy Response to Domestic Violence: A Preliminary Survey of Clergy Members, Victims, and Batterers," Pastoral Psychology, 52, no. 4 (March 2004): 363.
  6. Barbara A. Anderson et al., "Women Experiencing Intimate Partner Violence: Effects of Confiding in Religious Leaders," Pastoral Psychology, 55, no. 6 (July 2007): 773-787.
  7. Nancy Nason-Clark, "When Terror Strikes at Home: The Interface Between Religion and Domestic Violence," Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 43, no. 3 (September 2004): 303.

Nancy E. Nienhuis is the dean of students and community life at Andover Newton Theological School. This article is adapted from a March 2009 talk she gave at the Center for the Study of World Religions at HDS.

Please follow our Commentary Guidelines when engaging in discussion on this site.


Joanna Klink

Too hurt to understand
too feverish to wonder

as when wonder spreads
through a grove of white pines

and the whiteness hums.
Those who move too fast

see the world around them as
static and calculate even the skin-

cells and tree-duff as a single
stream of gathering loss.

When the evening smoked
around the branches I felt

my face go quiet and a water
draw through my spine.

Orphan of every despair,
were you here

with me you would see
the whiteness in the matted

grasses, form and gold
where the darkness cannot

touch us. Because
we are separate

now, and the night
arrived, I must bear it myself.


I woke into the rainy day
thinking there was a window

through which I might climb.
Heavy dreams where sunlight

races over stones and the people
I've known come and go.

So much hurry and transport,
as if a wind gliding into the yard

were just another item on a
list. Mesas and savannas—

what happened to us
happened because we could not

stop. Needing time
for nicknames, belief in un-

inhabited wildernesses, in the
twelve hours of thunder

over these hills. Hope is a place
held for the unknown,

where you are beyond
anything I can say. Like animals

who form a quiet lake in the grass
long before scattering.


To ward off fear we could
listen for the burble of

the hermit thrush or else
learn joy in the chickadees'

three-dot-note. Outwardly
you make safety in anonymity

but I know some part of you
opens as the day opens,

as the tomcat stretches then
marches lion-like through

the neighbor's wet weeds.
At times I have sensed no change

through the valley's haze
and felt the dozing stranglehold of

stillness. At times for years.
But the lines drawn in books

are the lines etched in cliffs by
the river and the swallows burrow

in them. River-cortège, cortège
of each living thing that unfolds—

a bird its wings, a forest,
an old man his eyes.


Wasp at the nest under
the garden table, smashed

a barrette. A minute
to stare at these black

grooves in my hands.
To be worthy of the dirt

that will one day surround my
body I say a blessing to

constancy, friendship, hammocks
and meals. Joy was never

our birthright. But it was an honor
to have loved you, to have woken

into you, to have been wide-
awake in you. I'm more

at ease now, when the day goes
astray as it does, and sometimes

let those around me be. Perhaps
the way to despair is based in

certainty. Having lived
with you, I move through

this yard slowly, most evenings,
knowing very little.

Joanna Klink is currently the Briggs-Copeland Poet at Harvard University. Her third book of poems, Crisis Lyrics, is forthcoming from Penguin in 2010.

Please follow our Commentary Guidelines when engaging in discussion on this site.

Good Samaritans in a World Economy

Douglas A. Hicks and Mark Valeri

Today's economic crisis presents new and complex challenges for religious ethicists. A few years ago we initiated a year-long colloquy on Christian faith and neighborly obligation in a global economy. Including economists, ethicists, theologians, and business leaders, our discussions centered on the relationship between real market practices and moral ideals for human solidarity. We framed the relationship in light of the temptations to overconsumption, inequalities of income and wealth in expanding markets, and the dangers of American commercial power to developing regions. We recently published our essays in a volume, Global Neighbors, in which we offered a Christian ethical perspective for such a world economy.

However, new conditions have reframed the economic context, and they call for further reflection on near and distant moral obligations. Now we are faced with constricted markets and underconsumption, devastation of an investor class and the consequent loss of jobs (that is, a decline in income and wealth across all classes), and the dangers of American financial demise to Asian and European economies. The most vulnerable people in this time of crisis are those who were already impoverished: the almost three billion people earning less than two dollars a day, and especially the one billion people—those in extreme poverty by the global standard—earning less than a dollar a day. These are the persons with the least room for error. They are the first casualties of the cruelest kind of trickle-down economics: the loss of economic opportunities, public services, and jobs.

How do we act as humane neighbors given the peculiar narrative of American exceptionalism?

President Barack Obama's February 24, 2009, speech to Congress offers one occasion to reformulate our economic dilemmas. Obama certainly infused his speech with mandates for a national economic recovery. The massive scope of his proposed plan demanded the invocation of a peculiar American narrative. "History reminds us," he claimed, "that at every moment of economic upheaval and transformation, this nation has responded with bold action and big ideas. . . . It is time for America to lead again." Obama assertively stated that "[t]he answers . . . exist in our laboratories and universities; in our fields and our factories; in the imaginations of our entrepreneurs and the pride of the hardest working people on Earth. Those qualities that have made America the greatest force of progress and prosperity in human history we still possess in ample measure." Obama's use of American exceptionalism allowed him to argue that the chief intent of government intervention into our financial crisis is to reestablish a prosperous economy in America.

Yet, more is at stake than American interests. Economic prosperity here not only funds a distant and disparate struggle against terrorist violence; it also provides the social confidence and financial anchor for economies throughout the world. The collapse of the American market system would mean the demise of capital markets everywhere, and global calamity. As Obama put it, "[T]he world depends on us to have a strong economy, just as our economy depends on the strength of the world's. As we stand at the crossroads of history, the eyes of people in all nations are once again upon us—watching to see what we do with this moment; waiting for us to lead."

The idiom of "the eyes" of all nations watching America evokes an oft-quoted passage from John Winthrop's 1630 speech to English Puritans about to embark for the New World.1 That speech, titled "A Modell of Christian Charity," also was about America, in a sense, and especially about American economic leadership. For Winthrop, the settlers of Massachusetts Bay fulfilled their mandate to the extent that they instituted just economic practices (no bribery in the courts, fair allotment of land, equitable treatment of Native Americans), avoided usury, and shared resources among themselves in a spirit of charity. Puritan founders looked to the settlement of the New World as an experiment designed (by God) to reform England and, by extension, all of Protestant Europe. Their heirs in the late-colonial period reconfigured the notion of this errand into the wilderness: as an extension of the British nation, whose commercial prowess served to spread liberty and Protestant virtue throughout the Atlantic world.

The notion of American economic exceptionalism continued to develop and spread through the long history of the nation's expansion, the American Civil War, and the period of industrialization. As Daniel Walker Howe has so thoroughly shown, nineteenth-century Americans who built the transportation inventions, communication devices, and market networks that integrated the nation did so fully confident that providence had selected the United States from all nations to be a force for godliness.2 So, too, we can recall other iterations of the Redeemer Nation, from Woodrow Wilson through the postwar NATO alliance and Ronald Reagan's evocation of the "city on a hill"—also a crib from Winthrop's speech. Throughout, American exceptionalism has been tied by its proponents to American economic prosperity.

U.S. Citizens with a commitment to global neighbors must communicate their concern for those hardest hit by the economic crisis.

At the same time, there is a deep tradition within Christian ethical thinking that would eschew such nationalistic agendas. The dream of the Social Gospel was not, ultimately, for only an America so prosperous that there was no poverty; rather, it was a dream for a peaceful world lifted up by industrial and technological progress. Indeed, the German American Walter Rauschenbusch died despondent, crushed by World War I's trenches filled with German and American bodies. Reinhold Niebuhr may have accepted, in a fallen creation, a cold war ethic based on countervailing national powers, but he never lost sight of the Christian call to a less violent world. His brother H. Richard, of course, had a more skeptical view of nationalism and a greater dependence on a sovereign God who would act, often despite human actions, to bridge divides. And, in distinctive ways, liberation theologians and Christian communitarians today warn of the dangers of American hegemony, and they call Christians to live in more just and humane communities in contradistinction to political power.

Should Obama have avoided the flag-waving? The answer is complicated. Protecting the interests of the United States is in his job description. The president is charged by U.S. citizens to further American interests. Of course, as Terry L. Price has argued, leadership motivated by political interests runs a high moral risk precisely because patriotism appears to be more noble than individual self-interest. Political group identity can, if misused, justify inhumane policies.3 Still, it would seem strange, in our system of nation-states, for a leader not to be partial to the interests of his or her followers.

Those very followers, however, especially if informed by a Christian global conscience, might understand their own interest to be inextricably linked to the needs of the economically vulnerable—in the United States and abroad. Adam Smith argued 250 years ago, in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, that it is a mistake to see the self-interest of individuals as independent from that of other individuals: "How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it."4 Because of the nature of their office, leaders may have less flexibility than citizens in expressing concern for people beyond their own borders. For their part, though, citizens might well communicate that they want their leaders to address international needs. In such cases, it becomes that leader's obligation, being responsive to follower interests, to take action, say, against global poverty.

There is little danger that any level of commitment to supporting a global "safety net" would create serious conflicts with necessary expenditures to stimulate the U.S. economy, even if that commitment rose to a flurry. Leading economist Jeffrey Sachs estimates that the cost of global aid to free all people from absolute poverty and meet all basic development goals is in the magnitude of $200 to $300 billion annually, and the figure would decrease toward zero by the year 2025.5 This is real money, of course. But shared among all industrialized nations, it would mean that the United States would need to contribute only 0.7 percent of our national income, the international standard long agreed upon for foreign assistance.

Ethicists should recognize that we are not talking about an either-or trade-off between U.S. economic stability and the wellbeing of the global poor. Obama was right to state that the United States depends on the world economy, and the world depends upon ours. Yet an obligation to global neighbors requires more than mere trickle-down benefits to the poor. Our economic bail-out and stimulus plans should include targeted stimulus and social support for those with the greatest needs in U.S. and global markets.

The citizens of the United States, particularly those embracing a commitment to global neighbors, must continue to communicate their moral concerns—especially for economic support for those hardest hit by the crisis—to Obama and their other leaders. For we face another danger in the current moment: placing too much trust in any one person or institution. We see a real temptation to invest too much hope in the current administration to solve all of our problems, from religious and racial bridgebuilding to the global economy. From Max Weber onward, scholars of charismatic leadership have chronicled the liabilities when followers lose their critical edge and cede too much authority to the leader. Though we share the enthusiasm of many for Obama's reengagement with the world, among other priorities, we want to emphasize the importance of accountability and citizens' continued participation.

In the current economic crisis, we evaluate the case for American exceptionalism as an ambiguous one. Applying an ethic of global neighbors in this context calls us neither to "baptize" American self-interest as a Christian priority nor to condemn a president for appealing chiefly, albeit not exclusively, to America's special status. A Christian vision of global neighbors invites people to engage their social realities, systems, and leaders always in an effort to create more humane economic and political conditions for persons in various parts of the world. Consistent with the parable of the neighborly Samaritan, it requires particular attention to people in need. In the coming months and years, the task of Christian economic ethics will be to align that neighborly attention to a complex economic crisis. We will have to interpret the meaning of this reality carefully, since global economic well-being will depend in large part upon American economic recovery. What appears at first blush to be merely a nationalistic agenda may help create the conditions for a more humane economic order, even for our neediest local, national, and global neighbors; but it is up to those of us with global ethical commitments to advocate persistently for those neighbors.



  1. In the Winthrop Papers, ed. Samuel Eliot Morison, Arthur Meier Schlesinger, et al., 6 vols. (The Massachusetts Historical Society, 1929-1992), 2:295.
  2. Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought (Oxford University Press, 2007).
  3. Terry L. Price, Leadership Ethics: An Introduction (Cambridge University Press, 2008).
  4. Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Glasgow Edition of the Works and Correspondence of Adam Smith, ed. D. D. Raphael and A. L. Macfie (Clarendon Press, 1776 [1759]), 9.
  5. Jeffrey D. Sachs, The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time (Penguin, 2005), 288-308; Sachs, Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet (Penguin, 2008), 246.

Douglas A. Hicks and Mark Valeri are the editors of Global Neighbors: Christian Faith and Moral Obligation in Today's Economy (Eerdmans, 2008). Hicks teaches leadership studies and religion at the University of Richmond and Valeri is an American religious historian at Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, Virginia.

Please follow our Commentary Guidelines when engaging in discussion on this site.

Life in a Godless Place

Nicolas Langelier

For me, as for as for the vast majority of Quebecers of my generation (I was born in 1973), religion was an abstraction, something that happened to inhabitants of less modernly inclined countries, like Pakistan, say, or the United States.

Obviously, you can't expunge 350 years of Catholic fervor in the matter of a generation, and religion was still faintly visible, like a watermark: in the steeples that punctuate the Montréal skyline and the tin-roofed churches that dot the countryside; in our profanity that consists of strung-together religious terms such as tabernacle and ciborium; in our national literature, dramaturgy, and cinematography; in historical accounts, be they about politics or social issues or apparently unconnected subjects like colonization or botany; in the childhood stories of my parents, with their scary tales of convent life and boarding-school education. But religion had become a purely cultural factor, as much a part of my heritage as my eighteenth-century accent or my maple syrup habit, but without any actual connection to the modern world. The last churchgoing generation—that of my grandparents—was slowly disappearing.

At school, it was still possible to get religion classes where, for an hour a week, you could at least learn the basics of the life of Jesus and what was a ciborium, anyway; but many, like me, opted instead for "moral education," where you were taught how to be a morally responsible citizen in a world where God was dead. Politicians never made any reference to divinity, lest they appear to be a throwback to "the great darkness" of the pre-Quiet Revolution era. At award shows, singers and actors didn't thank God for their success. Couples didn't even bother to get married anymore, and having their children baptized was done out of habit, when at all. This was a postreligious society.

And then, around 2006, religion started to make the news again in Québec, though not because of a dramatic return to Catholicism for the old-stock, white, French-speaking majority. The churches weren't any less empty than they had been for the past 40 years—they were still being turned into condos and bars and concert halls. The news stories revolved around the religious life of the néo- Québécois, those immigrants who had settled here in recent decades. These often very religious individuals and communities were finding it difficult to adapt to a society where secularism had become something of a dogma.

New examples of this problematic integration seemed to come out in the media every week. The Supreme Court of Canada, for example, ruled in favor of a Montréal Sikh teenager who wanted to wear his kirpan (ceremonial dagger) to school. The Port of Montréal had to review its workplace rules after orthodox Sikh truck drivers objected to wearing safety helmets instead of their turbans. A Montréal YMCA frosted the windows of an exercise room in response to its Hasidic Jewish neighbors who wanted to protect their children from the sight of lightly clad women. Montréal policewomen were advised in a training brochure to let their male colleagues take charge when visiting Hasidic neighborhoods. Elections Canada decreed that veiled Muslim women would be allowed to vote in all upcoming national elections and referendums without showing their faces. A Jewish teenager refused to play several key matches for his Gatineau junior hockey team because they fell on a Jewish holiday.

Religion was back in public life with a vengeance. Populist commentators got in on the action, as did politicians, who sensed votes could be garnered in denouncing the situation. Soon, it was the number one subject of discussion, with sometimes absurd results. In January 2007, the small village of Hérouxville published its "code of life," in which foreigners were advised that public stonings and female circumcision were not allowed in the community. That no foreigners lived in Hérouxville, or would have wanted to even if you paid them, didn't seem to make any difference; the noble village aldermen had stepped in to uphold Western civilization.

To calm things down, Québec premier Jean Charest announced in February 2007 the appointment of a royal commission on the matter: the Consultation Commission on Accommodation Practices Related to Cultural Differences—more commonly known as the Bouchard-Taylor Commission. Over three months, the commission held public audiences all over Québec, hearing from individuals, unions, political parties, religious organizations, and community groups. All kinds of things—some good, some bad, some plainly ridiculous—were said at these hearings, which in many respects became a kind of public therapy between new and old-stock Quebecers.

In May 2008, the commission released its final report. "The foundations of collective life in Québec are not in a critical situation," the commissioners wrote. The media reports of the last couple of years were a "psychodrama." Nonetheless, the government must adapt to a pluralist, secular society and play a leading role in establishing better guidelines for "interculturalism" and an "open secularism." Many of the 37 recommendations regard secularism and how it must be protected. One of them, for instance, prohibits judges, Crown prosecutors, police officers, and prison guards from wearing religious signs and clothing while on the job.

The report was generally well received. Premier Charest promised to respond quickly with measures reflecting the commission's recommendations and stressing Québec society's "profound" values, including the "rule of French, gender equality [and] the separation of church and state." A year later, it is as if the "psychodrama" never happened. It is never mentioned in conversation, and rarely if ever by the media. Maybe this is a tribute to the commissioners' nuanced and balanced report, or the result of a great lassitude that took hold of Quebecers after months of debate, but I suspect it's because other matters have taken precedence in news coverage: the economic meltdown, a federal political crisis, the centennial of the Montréal Canadiens hockey team.


Nicolas Langelier is a freelance writer and social commentator. He lives in Montréal.

Please follow our Commentary Guidelines when engaging in discussion on this site.

See also: Christianity

Listening to the Small Voice

Toward an orphan theology.

Elizabeth J. A. Siwo-Okundi

I am a Luo woman from Kendu Bay, Kenya, a small town located near Lake Victoria. When I was completing my master of divinity degree at Boston University School of Theology, I was required to select a field education site. I wanted to return to Kenya and work in my community. My mother knew of my love for children, so she encouraged me to inquire at the Homa Bay Children's Home, located near the school that I had once attended and near the hospital where my mother had worked as a nurse. I rushed to complete my final papers and submit them early so that I could travel to Kenya with my father and visit the site during the December holiday. My father, uncle, and I met with the leaders of the home to learn how they cared for orphans. They were surprised and delighted that a community member would rather volunteer at home than abroad.

In summer 2004, I returned to Luoland and began my fieldwork. Each day was filled with success and sadness, hope and despair. It was not unusual for my colleagues and me to travel for two or three hours by foot, bicycle, and bus to visit one child. Wherever the children were, there we took ourselves: schools, hospitals, courthouses, burial sites, marketplaces, and remote villages. The work required us to transcend professional boundaries as well as geographic ones, because the children were so many and their needs were so great. By necessity, I became at once minister, social worker, nurse, lawyer, teacher, advocate, and parent. I held underweight newborn twins in my arms and joined my colleagues in prayers for them. I talked with teenagers who were determined to care for their younger siblings so that they would not be separated from each other. I listened to a poor widow beg us to help her care for her grandchild, for whom she obviously had no means of support. I went on a cross-district chase to urge a father to care for his child upon the death of his estranged wife. I negotiated with schools to allow us more time to gather school fees so that children would not be dismissed from classes. I watched as tradition clashed with modernization and accusations of witchcraft caused division. I held an expressionless child with severe malaria and tried to comfort him as the doctor worked to revive his body. And at times, I simply bathed, fed, and played with the babies. Each child became my own.

I returned home each evening and was welcomed by crowds of children who were gathered at my family's homestead, eagerly awaiting my return. They were anxious to learn about the children I had encountered and the places I had traveled. One afternoon, I received the painful news that one of our babies had died. The child's mother and older sibling had already died, leaving the young father all alone. I was overcome with grief to the point that food became tasteless and nothing could comfort me. I sat at the side of my grandmother's kitchen and began to draw figures on the ground with a short stick. One of our village children came over, sat down next to me, and asked me what was the matter. He had never seen me look so sad. I told him that one of my babies had died. He remained quiet beside me. Imitating me, he picked up a stick and drew figures on the ground. Another child ran toward us and, in the usual style of greeting me, began to sing my name. The first child said, "Shhhhh! Her baby died." The second child also sat quietly beside me. One by one, other children heard the news and came to sit quietly beside me. Within minutes, a crowd of children had gathered to attend to me in my grief and to do so in the only way they knew how. It later dawned on me that they were all too familiar with death. All of them were orphans.

Summer 2004 was not my first encounter with orphans, nor was it my first opportunity to care for them. My parents have long demonstrated to me the importance of caring for orphan-children1 and vulnerable community members. Year after year, I have watched them quietly pay school fees for orphans, build homes for them and their widow-women caretakers, host them in our home, assist widow-women with funeral expenses, and provide counseling and basic needs. It was my parents' compassion and commitment that first led me to understand more fully the complexity of orphan status. Though my experience had already made me aware that the numbers of orphan-children had reached crisis levels, my research confirmed my worst fears.

There are more than 140 million orphans in 93 countries around the world.2 In past times, orphan status was more random and sporadic, and communities were mostly able to care for their orphan-children. But recent years have witnessed the global increase of orphan status because of multiple, interrelated crises: natural and environmental disasters, wars and civil wars, acts of terror, political instability, and pandemics. The HIV/AIDS pandemic alone has had a devastating impact. According to a UNICEF report: "The number of orphans in sub-Saharan Africa would be declining were it not for HIV/AIDS. But because of the disease's spread, the number of orphans is increasing exponentially." Africans are especially vulnerable to the orphan crisis, since "8 out of every 10 children who have lost parents to HIV/AIDS live in sub-Saharan Africa."3 In Kenya alone, by the year 2010, the total number of children orphaned by HIV/AIDS is expected to more than double, increasing the number of orphans there to 2.2 million.4 Countless families and communities are struggling to cope with this dramatic increase of orphan-children. These children need support, protection, food, shelter, clothing, education, and health care.

After my time at the Homa Bay Children's Home, I decided to do something active and practical to address these troubling conditions, so I created a foundation, Orphan Wisdom, Inc., which provides care and support to orphans in Kenya in times of peace and in times of crisis. During this same time, I came to see the great need for Christians, theologians, and religious leaders to be prepared to address the orphan crisis publicly, and to do so from a culturally relevant, biblically informed, and theologically responsible perspective.5 Though the Bible specifically mandates care for orphans, Christian theological engagement concerning orphans is lacking. Some scholars have mentioned orphan status when writing about biblical figures, but none have devoted significant attention to it.

I find myself drawn to bring forth the voices of orphan-children wherever they are to be found. I seek to engage what I call the "small voice"—the unnoticed, unnamed, silenced, and marginalized voice in biblical texts—and to place that engagement within African religion and theology. My current research interests involve developing a theological framework for identifying and examining the small voice, preaching with the small voice, and understanding the implications of the small voice for homiletics, ministry, and social policy. In bridging practical theology and homiletics, I seek to address the silencing of African women and children, particularly orphans, widows, and victims of violence in Kenya, and to advocate with and for them. I aim to do this by drawing upon my personal experiences and the stories of orphans in my community, analyzing biblical mandates and passages concerning orphans, and examining the findings through a culturally specific and sensitive framework that calls for advocacy and public policy focused on orphans. Through hearing and responding to the small voice, I seek to develop what I call an "orphan theology."

Relationship to African Theology
Liberation theologies, including African theology, were developed in part because the existing and dominant theologies of the time could not adequately capture the particular experiences of each community. It was necessary to develop theologies that placed the concerns of different communities at the center in order to legitimize their experiences and help them to harness the power of their own theological interpretations. Orphan theology follows the pattern of development established by liberation theologies, with this group needing its own expression rather than simply fitting within the framework of existing theologies.

This crisis of children who possess orphan status has placed tremendous pressures on communities and has attacked traditional response systems.

What are the unique claims of orphans in such a project? Orphans are a group specifically and frequently named in the Bible as needing care and protection. Indeed, individual and communal consequences are spelled out for not caring for them. Moreover, orphans are present throughout the world and not limited to a specific region, and, as I have already described, recent events have led to an explosion of children with orphan status. Thus, the explicit biblical call to care for orphans, the contemporary corporate nature of events and situations leading to orphan status, and the crisis therein demand a theology specific to orphans. Given its newness, this work is preliminary, yet it has implications for numerous communities who are struggling to care for orphans and are seeking guidance through critical theological reflection.

As an African woman, I enter orphan theology from an African perspective that is informed by orphans in my community. I therefore find it critical to unearth African definitions of orphan status and responses to orphans. I, like Daisy N. Nwachuku, accept John S. Mbiti's (1979) unapologetic definition of African theology to mean "theological reflection and expression by African Christians" through oral theology, written theology, and symbolic theology.6 For me, the term "Christian" includes both the various ways in which Africans identify as Christians and aspects of traditional African religions and worldviews.

African Definitions and Responses
In Western contexts, the term "orphan" is nearly extinct—it seems antiquated and taboo. When the term is employed in the West, it is largely considered to be a child who has lost both parents and has been absorbed by an institutionalized foster-care system. Yet most studies in Africa concerning African orphans use the term frequently and base their definitions of the term on two factors: parental loss and age. In such resources, an orphan is defined as a child, less than age 15 (or 18, depending on the study), whose mother, father, or both parents have died. I extend this definition to include situations in which the primary caregiver and/or members of the kinship group are alive but absent, unable, or unwilling to care for their children. Despite there being legal definitions of "child" that vary from nation to nation, many African communities (mine included) traditionally based age upon one's social maturity and economic independence rather than on the changing of a calendar year. Because this worldview is evident in the lived reality of orphans, I tend to dismiss the age range provided in the majority of studies.

It is widely argued that traditional African societies did not have "orphans," since the care of children whose parents had died was generally absorbed in one of many ways: by the kinship group/extended family, through various forms of marriage, by the greater community, and through other creative and socially acceptable arrangements. However, many such arguments were made well before the impact of HIV/AIDS was felt in Africa. The HIV/AIDS pandemic has led to the weakening (and in some cases total collapse) of traditional family structures. Traditional arrangements assumed the stability of the kinship group/extended family and community. They also assumed random and sporadic death, not deaths on a massive scale, from numerous causes. But these are no longer the realities for African orphans and communities, given HIV/AIDS. Describing the recent changes in orphan care, a Luo widow-woman in her 50s stated:

In the past, people used to care for the orphans and loved them, but these days, they are so many, and many people have died who could have assisted them, and therefore orphanhood is a common phenomenon, not strange. The few who are alive cannot support them.7

This crisis of children who possess orphan status has placed tremendous pressures on communities and has attacked traditional response systems. In attempting to respond, families and communities are struggling with the degree and size of the crisis. Studies reveal that in "nearly every sub-Saharan African country, extended families have assumed responsibility for more than 90 percent of orphaned children," and many of them care for more than one orphan. It is also important to note that assuming responsibility for an orphan does not necessarily mean "adequately caring for" an orphan. Numerous studies indicate that basic needs, including food, medical care, clothing, and education, commonly go unmet among these children. For example, among households with orphans in a region of Tanzania, almost 40 percent of them could not meet their basic needs. Moreover, "households with orphans are more likely to become poorer,"8 especially since orphans are increasingly more likely to be living in female- and grandparent-headed households—whose status is vulnerable in many societies.9 Other orphans live with non-relatives, in institutions, or on the streets. Caring for orphans has placed a great strain on the emotional and economic systems of families—pointing once again to the need for an orphan theology that comes from African realities but is based in biblical sources.

Biblical Definitions and Responses
In an interview with Jon D. Levenson, the Albert A. List Professor of Jewish Studies at Harvard Divinity School, he informed me that orphan status in the Ancient Near East was determined by parental loss, primarily the death of a father. Further complicating this definition, orphan status was claimed only after all family support structures had been exhausted—a child could be fatherless, but the presence of an extended family meant that the child did not technically qualify as an orphan. Thus, someone defined as an orphan was the most vulnerable person in society, because she or he had lost all options for protection and support ordinarily provided by the family and extended family.

How did an orphan receive care in the Ancient Near East? Levenson explained that, ideally, the king/monarch and other leaders assumed the responsibility of caring for orphans (and widows),10 because they were the most vulnerable and defenseless in society. However, if the monarch failed to protect orphans, they called upon God. The God of the Hebrew Bible is the defender of the vulnerable and is explicitly described as a "father11 of orphans and protector of widows" (Psalm 68:5).12 Since God is intimately concerned about the welfare of orphans and widows, it is not surprising that these groups are mentioned at several points throughout the Bible. Yet the Ancient Near Eastern model of orphan care in its ideal form places emphasis on the government's responsibility to care for the orphans. Such a model challenges present-day governments (in Africa and elsewhere) to respond to the increase of orphans by assuming the responsibility of caring for this vulnerable group.

The Bible is filled with orphan imagery. At least 13 books of the Bible mention the fatherless—typically alongside widows, aliens, sojourners, and/or the poor. The first mention of the fatherless is in Exodus 22:21-24, in which God warns:

You shall not abuse any widow or orphan. If you do abuse them, when they cry out to me, I will surely heed their cry; my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children orphans.

In this command, which takes the form of social legislation and is part of the Book of the Covenant, God assumes the position of protector of the defenseless orphans and widows. Given the command's status as law and the dire consequences that will result from disobedience, God is depicted as having extraordinary concern for the orphans and widows of the time, and demanding that the people also share and act upon that concern. At the end of the long list of commands (of which this is one), Moses13 takes the Book of the Covenant, reads it to the people, and they respond with the commitment: "All that the Lord has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient" (Exodus 24:7).

The prophet Isaiah also describes orphan status and the consequences for mistreating orphans. He exhorts the people of Israel to "seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow" (Isaiah 1:17). The corruption of the people and their leaders has led them to abandon the vulnerable in society, and for that, they are brought to account: "Your princes are rebels and companions are thieves. Everyone loves a bribe and runs after gifts. They do not defend the orphan, and the widow's cause does not come before them" (Isaiah 1:23). There are stated consequences from God for this lack of empathy: "I will pour out my wrath on my enemies . . . I will turn my hand against you . . . rebels and sinners shall be destroyed together" (Isaiah 1:24-31). As in Exodus, God's particular and extraordinary concern for orphans is explicit here, and anyone who does not share this concern is subject to judgment and severe punishment.

Orphan imagery is further evoked to express the defenselessness of people who are not necessarily orphans but who can relate to the orphan experience because they have been marginalized or displaced. When the people of Israel lament the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, they liken themselves to orphans: "We have become orphans, fatherless; our mothers are like widows" (Lamentations 5:3). In their grief, they describe their own orphan status as one in which their inheritance has been given to strangers, their homes have been given to aliens, they must pay for water to drink, and they have no rest (this description is all too similar to present-day experiences of African orphans). Once again, people who are in positions of vulnerability and defenselessness appeal to God for help.

Although most references to orphan status and occurrences of orphan imagery are found in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, the New Testament book of James (1:26-27) provides the final biblical mandate concerning orphans:

If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.

This mandate to care for orphans and widows is rightly placed within a larger exhortation to be doers and not just hearers of God's word. This is why orphan theology must be a theology of activism.

A Small Voice Reading of Biblical Passages
Critical, creative, and culturally relevant engagement with the Bible is essential to developing an orphan theology. A "small voice" exploration of biblical texts intentionally uses language and imagery that is accessible to all people and comes from within their own cultural settings. To show how this kind of reading can be done, I will engage three biblical stories concerning orphans—2 Kings 4:1-7, Esther, and 2 Kings 5:1-5—from the small voice perspective. These three texts exemplify the tremendous challenges faced by orphans and speak specifically to the African context.14 They raise important small voice issues, including poverty, sexual violence, and political violence, and pose questions concerning the care of orphans, given these perils.

Readings of 2 Kings 4:1-7 often use the text to illustrate the obedience of a nameless widow-woman to Elisha's instructions, focusing on the miracle that results from her faith and obedience. A small voice engagement with this text shows that the miracle occurs because the woman's orphan-children—we are not told how many children she has or how old they are—are intimately involved in helping her complete the prophet's instructions. In such a reading, this text illustrates the inseparability of orphan and widow status. When the widow-woman learns that her orphan-children are going to be sold into slavery unless she pays off her debt, she immediately calls upon the prophet Elisha. We are not told the nature of the debt, but an African reading might attribute it to exhaustive funeral costs. It is common in African societies for people to have to spend tremendous resources in hosting funeral guests. After learning that the widow-woman has "nothing in the house, except a jar of oil," Elisha gives her a list of instructions and tells her to shut the door behind her. The family, including the orphan-children, follows Elisha's instructions and the oil miraculously multiplies. They are able to sell the oil, pay their debts, and live on the remainder of the money.

What is most important about this story from an orphan theology perspective is that it highlights the severe economic poverty experienced by many orphans. Moreover, it suggests that orphans are necessary participants in rescuing their families from economic debt. The widow-woman had "nothing in the house, except a jar of oil," no food, no water, no money for school fees—"nothing." This story also shows the extreme vulnerability of a family in this situation as they struggle to pay their debts, and the stigma associated with asking for help from neighbors and others. Because of the transformation that takes place, the widow-woman was able to keep her orphan-children. In Africa and other areas with profound poverty, many families end up sending their children into the deceitful hands of those who promise to relieve them of debt, only to discover that their children are endangered and never to return. It is also important to note that in her plight, the widow-woman turns first to a religious leader, not to any other source of potential support. Her act is true to today; many African families expect religious leaders, and by extension the church, to be able to assist them in some way. The church must be prepared to respond to the pleas of orphans responsibly and compassionately, by taking into account the family's limited resources. Basic material needs are among the first needs that must always be addressed for orphan-children.

In developing an orphan theology, the story of Hadassah/Esther has particular implications for orphaned girl-children and children who are double orphans (that is, both their parents have died). Orphan-girls are more likely to become the objects of sexual violence, given their double marginal status as female and orphan. This is precisely what happens in the story of Esther.

In the verse introducing Esther, we learn—twice in one verse (2:7)—that Esther is an orphan:

Mordecai had brought up Hadassah, that is Esther, his cousin, for she had neither father nor mother; the girl was fair and beautiful, and when her father and her mother died, Mordecai adopted her as his own daughter.

Esther's orphan status precedes the reference to her beauty and overwhelms this verse. Yet scholars rarely mention Esther as orphaned. Even when they do, they fail to give particular attention to her orphan status and focus instead upon her physical beauty. We are not told how Esther's parents died, but for double orphans in Africa today, the cause is often HIV/AIDS. According to studies, "an especially important and distinctive characteristic of HIV/AIDS in regard to orphaning is that aids is more likely than other causes of death to create double orphans."15

Although the story of Esther has been romanticized, her life story is fraught with difficulties. When Queen Vashti is banished from the throne, Mordecai—whose intentions are hotly debated by scholars—seems to be looking out for Esther's best interests by granting her the opportunity to become the king's new wife. However, the "application process" consists of girls engaging in sexual activity with the king and being judged for their beauty and performance, the price of which is deemed to be small in comparison to the opportunity to become queen. The story suggests that through this avenue, Esther can save herself, have a better life, and save her people.16

In a small voice reading, Esther's story reminds us that sex for potential salvation is daily presented to or forced upon orphan-girls. Just as Esther was subjected to sexual abuse as the way to salvation, it is not uncommon for prostitution and sexual slavery to become the means of income for some orphan-girls in Africa, who are then exposed to sexually transmitted diseases and physical violence. Rape, sexual exploitation, and loss of identity are often their plight. Adoptive caregivers and communities may not always know how best to support these girls, but they must learn to be vigilant so as not to find themselves in a predator's twisted plot disguised as salvation. Moreover, there is a lesson here for those in power. Rather than sanctioning the sexual abuse and exploitation of girls (as did the king in Esther's time), present-day African governments must care for and protect these girls. This care includes providing them with opportunities for education rather than exploitation.

In 2 Kings 5:1-5, a girl who is taken captive from a military raid is made to serve the wife of Naaman (the commander of the army of the king of Aram). The girl's voice is buried in the story of Naaman's miraculous cure from leprosy, but if we engage this text in a small voice reading, we learn that it is her voice that leads Naaman to seek and secure a healing from the prophet. We can infer that the girl's parents have been killed in the war or left behind during a raid. As such, her story is particularly important for children orphaned by war and political crisis, which is all too common today. We are led to ask the kinds of questions that need to be asked about children in similar circumstances today: What kind of violence did she witness and experience in the midst of the war, and how did that impact her psychosocial state? As a forced domestic servant/slave, she may also have been subjected to some form of sexual servitude. In spite of all of these traumas, this nameless girl somehow manages to use her faith (perhaps the faith of her family) to comfort her and to offer hope to her master. We never learn if her status improves as a result of her having helped Naaman, or if she is simply forced to return to her daily duties.

War and political violence have a profound impact on the lives of many orphaned children. Children orphaned by war and political violence are deprived of food and education, forced to cross national borders at gunpoint, and exposed to diseases and physical abuse, including gang rapes by military leaders and officials. They themselves are forced to participate in violent acts, often being trained as child soldiers. It is perhaps not surprising that the highest percentage of orphans is in countries with high HIV/AIDS populations, where armed conflict also exists.17 I have seen these realities firsthand. Immediately following the December 2007 presidential election in Kenya, many children were separated from their families in the midst of postelection violence. These children witnessed the killing of their parents, siblings, and neighbors. Many were left speechless as the horrors of the violence expanded to include hunger, homelessness, sexual assault, and countless other crimes. Their voices (and those of the orphans in northern Uganda, Liberia, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and other areas) lead us toward an orphan theology. The devastating grief and suffering these children experience is calling for us to protect them.

Toward an Orphan Theology
In their original contexts, the biblical texts focus on the voices of the adults and leaders, privileging those voices over those of the orphan-children. Two of the three orphans are nameless. Yet the adult-centeredness of the stories and the namelessness of the orphan-children indicate all the more that a small voice engagement is essential. These texts point to power differentials that determine who gets to speak and be heard, and who does not. The silencing of orphan voices, and the way these children are only allowed to speak through or because of adults or leaders, needs to be named and addressed. Orphan theology learns from the small voice of orphans and uses their experiences to build a meaningful dialogue that leads to advocacy with and for orphans. It places the personal experiences of orphans at the forefront of the story and uses their voices to inform social justice policies and public Christianity. Just as Naaman listened to the voice of the orphan-girl and was fully able to demonstrate his religious faith, those of us who claim to be believers must also listen to the voices of orphans and follow our biblical mandate to act responsibly with and for them.

What orphan theology does not do is to create a hierarchy of orphan status. At no point should the death or absence of a particular parent/caregiver, or the particular cause of orphan status, be a measure of the legitimacy of orphan status or experience. My small voice examination of biblical definitions leads me to notice that a hierarchy of orphan status has been created in the past as follows: class one orphans: death of father (fatherless); class two orphans: death of father and mother; class three orphans: death of mother. Class three orphans are not explicitly mentioned in the Bible, though we can reasonably assume that they existed at the time, even if they were not acknowledged. There are many problems with this classification system: it privileges the economic contributions and legal status of male-headed households, does not acknowledge the contributions of female-headed households, and dismisses the fact that the emotional loss experienced by a child is deep, whether he or she loses mother, father, or both parents. The above classification reduces orphan status to merely an economic strain placed on a male-headed household.

With a small voice engagement, God's concern for the entire being of the orphan is made evident, including material needs, safety, and protection. Orphan theology does not seek to encourage children to imitate the actions of orphans in the Bible. Rather, it seeks to provide space for their voices to be heard in conversation with biblical orphans, thereby encouraging oral retellings of their own experiences. The voices of African children are critical in a small voice engagement; this cannot be a theological conversation confined to academic circles.

In this preliminary work, I have only touched upon the most central ideas concerning the development of an orphan theology. There are many questions that still need to be explored, including the implications of orphan theology for Christology (what was Jesus' consideration of orphans?), and the implications of the use of adoption language in the Bible (particularly throughout Romans, Galatians, and Ephesians), since adoption is typically associated with orphan status. Moreover, I have not been able to discuss at length the various challenges that often come with orphan status, such as disability, rural/street/urban life, and multiple orphaning (which happens to children when caregiver after caregiver dies or is unable to care for them any longer).

The urgent need for the development and expansion of orphan theology is evident in the voices of the orphans themselves as they seek love, mercy, recognition, and protection. The more than 140 million orphans in 93 countries around the world and the scores of others who may not be counted are calling on religious leaders and theologians to examine biblical mandates and to read and preach about stories concerning orphans, with the voices of the orphans at the forefront of their efforts. Perhaps most important of all, they are crying out to communities to demonstrate their understanding of God as parent to the parentless and defender of the orphans.



  1. At times, I intentionally use the term "orphan-children" to emphasize the orphan aspect of the children's experience. I do so cautiously, because I do not want to stigmatize children further and reduce them to the label, "orphan." It would be best simply to call them "children," or at times "children orphaned by . . . ," but, as I note, the worldwide crisis of children with orphan status sometimes necessitates a focus on the orphan aspect of their experience. I also use "widow-woman" rather than simply "widow" for similar reasons—to emphasize the multiple dimensions of vulnerability women who are also widows experience.
  2. These figures only include children (ages 0-17) in sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean; Children on the Brink 2004: A Joint Report on Orphan Estimates and Program Strategies (UNAIDS, UNICEF, and USAID 2006), 7.
  3. Africa's Orphaned Generations (UNICEF, 2003), 9. This study notes, though, that "even without HIV/AIDS, the percentage of children who are orphans would be significantly higher in sub-Saharan Africa than in other regions of the world."
  4. What Parliamentarians Can Do About HIV/AIDS: Action for Children and Young People (UNICEF, 2003).
  5. Though it is based in African Christian theology, this essay has implications for non-Christian faith traditions. For example, the prophet Muhammad was an orphan. An "orphan theology," as such, could provide opportunities for interreligious dialogue and activism. It also has implications for other cultures besides African ones. "While sub-Saharan Africa has the highest proportion of children who are orphans, the absolute numbers of orphans are much higher in Asia, which had 87.6 million orphans (due to all causes) in 2003, twice the 43.4 million orphans from all causes in sub-Saharan Africa." Africa's Orphaned Generations, 3.
  6. Daisy N. Nwachuku, "The Christian Widow in African Culture," in The Will to Arise: Women, Tradition and the Church in Africa, ed. Mercy Amba Oduyoye and Musimbi R. Kanyoro (Orbis Books, 1992), 56.
  7. Erick Otieno Nyambedha, Simiyu Wandibba, and Jens Aagaard-Hansen, "Changing Patterns of Orphan Care Due to the HIV Epidemic in Western Kenya," Social Science and Medicine 57 (2003): 306.
  8. Africa's Orphaned Generations, 15, 20, 17.
  9. In Kenya, 65 percent of households caring for orphans are headed by females; Africa's Orphaned Generations, 52. Because most current economical systems no longer support traditional means of caring for orphans, it is imperative that women (and grandparents) have the support and education to survive and thrive.
  10. In African societies, as in the Ancient Near East, it is nearly impossible to discuss orphan status without discussing widow status. The two are inextricably bound, as evidenced by the numerous biblical passages linking them and the lived experience of African communities. Moreover, widow status is not age-sensitive: widows are young and old. Karen L. King, Winn Professor of Ecclesiastical History at Harvard Divinity School, provided me with particular insight on the status of widows; Karen L. King, interview by author, Cambridge, Massachusetts, December 5, 2007.
  11. I have intentionally retained "father" language for God, because the Ancient Near East culture defined orphan status based on the death of the father. My doing so emphasizes the point that losing a father was the only way to be orphaned according to the criteria of the time. It further emphasizes the legal powers of men at the time and the disregard the culture showed for the death of the mother. Lastly, it lays the foundation for my later argument that we should not privilege the death of one parent over the other.
  12. All biblical citations are from The New Oxford Annotated Bible, With the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books [New Revised Standard Version], 3rd ed., ed. Michael M. D. Coogan (Oxford University Press, 2001).
  13. It is fitting that Moses, who was forced into an adoptive maternal relationship to save his life (Exodus 2:1-10), is the one selected to present to the people God's care and concern for orphans.
  14. Africa is large and the African experience is diverse. However, there are some experiences that are common to many Africans.
  15. Children on the Brink, 11.
  16. As queen, Esther makes a decision that results in the killing of thousands of people (9:11-15). One must wonder if her own sexual abuse and the process of becoming queen had an impact on her development, such that she would be more likely to encourage violence.
  17. Africa's Orphaned Generations, 11.

Elizabeth J. A. Siwo-Okundi, ThM '08, is completing a PhD in practical theology with a concentration in homiletics at Boston University School of Theology. She is founder and president of Orphan Wisdom, Inc., a nonprofit organization that supports orphans in Kenya (orphanwisdominc.org). The author acknowledges and appreciates the contribution of Matthew Myer Boulton, Jacob K. Olupona, and the Rev. Septemmy Lakawa to this work.

Please follow our Commentary Guidelines when engaging in discussion on this site.

O Thou Mastering Light

Spiritual innocence is a state of lament and exultation.

Christian Wiman

Intellectuals and artists concerned with faith and belief tend to underestimate the radical, inviolable innocence required. We read and read, write long elaborate essays and letters, engage in endlessly inflected philosophical debates. We talk of poetry as prayer, artistic discipline as a species of religious devotion, doubt as the purest form of faith. These ideas are not inherently false. Indeed there may be a deep truth in them. But the truth is, you might say, on the other side of innocence—permanently. That is, you don't once pass through religious innocence into the truths of philosophy or theology or literature, any more than you pass through the wonder of childhood into the wisdom of age. Innocence, for the believer, remains the only condition in which intellectual truths can occur, and wonder is the precondition for all wisdom.


To be innocent is to retain that space in your heart that once heard a still, small voice saying not your name so much as your nature, and the wherewithal to say again and forever your wordless but lucid, untriumphant but absolute yes. You must protect this space so that it can protect you. You must carry it with you like the most precious cup of trembling through whatever milieu in which you find yourself: the superficialities and skepticism of secularism, the numbing certainties of fundamentalism, the sterile sophistication of so much scholastic theology. Something in you must remain in you, voiceless even as you voice your deepest faith, doubt, fear, dreams . . .


Spiritual innocence is not naïveté. Quite the opposite. Spiritual innocence is a state of mind—or, if you prefer, a state of heart—in which the life of God, and a life in God, are not simply viable but the sine qua non of all knowledge and experience, not simply durable but everlasting. Consider these lines from the Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh, who has returned, in imagination or in fact, back to the land of his childhood:

I do not know what age I am,
I am no mortal age;
I know nothing of women,
Nothing of cities,
I cannot die
Unless I walk outside these whitethorn hedges.
                                        —from "Innocence"

The poignancy of these lines inheres precisely in the fact that, in the world outside of the poem, the poet is acutely aware of his age, has experience of women and cities, and knows that he will most definitely die—all because he did one day walk outside the whitethorn hedges of childhood. But the poem is not some facile, nostalgic assertion in defiance of this knowledge. It implies the annihilating powers of age, death, romantic failure, industrial destruction, and admits, within the context of linear time, its inadequacy as a bulwark against these things. At the same moment, though, it asserts the powers of youth, life, love, memory—powers which, paradoxically, exist only if they have been lost. To experience these lines fully is to feel at once a deep lament from outside of the poem, and an utter exultation from within it, and no necessary contradiction between these two truths. Any man who would save his life must lose it, Christ said. He could have been talking about—perhaps he was talking about—spiritual innocence.


When I was young there was a notion among the believers I knew, all of whom were conservative Christians, that to feel the presence of God required that one seek God constantly, that one's spiritual instincts demanded the same sort of regular exercise, were subject to the same degeneracy and atrophy, as the muscles of one's body. The great fear was not exactly that God would withdraw, but that one's capacity to perceive him would become impaired, inert. I think of this when I hear people say that they have no religious impulse whatsoever, or when I hear believers, or would-be believers, express a sadness and frustration that they have never been absolutely overpowered by God, never felt that mastering presence that makes, they suspect, the banalities of life more manageable, the sloughs of despond less deep. To which I always want to respond: Really? You have never felt overpowered by, and in some way inadequate to, an experience in your life, have never felt something in yourself staking a claim beyond your self, some wordless mystery straining through words to reach you? Never? Religion is not made of these moments; religion is the means of making these moments part of your life, rather than merely radical intrusions so foreign and perhaps even fearsome that you can't even acknowledge their existence afterward. Religion is what you do with these moments of mastery in your life, these moments in which you are utterly innocent; it is a means of preserving and honoring something that, ultimately, transcends the elements of whatever specific religion you practice.


                                   O hunger
Where all have mouths of desire and none,
Is willing to be eaten: I am so glad
To come accidentally upon
My self at the end of a tortuous road
And have learned with surprise that God
Unworshipped withers to the Futile One.
                    —from Kavanagh, "Auditors In"


The frustration we feel when trying to explain or justify God, whether to ourselves or to others, is a symptom of knowledge untethered from innocence, of words in which no silence lives, of belief occurring wholly on a human plane. Innocence returns us to the first call of God, to any moment in our lives when we were rendered mute with awe, fear, wonder. Absent this, there is no sense in arguing for God or belief in order to convince others, for we ourselves are not convinced.


The spiritual efficacy of all encounters is determined by the amount of personal ego that is in play. If two people meet and disagree fiercely about theological matters but agree, silently or otherwise, that Christ's love kindles the love of man, and that whatever else may be said of God is subsidiary to this truth, then even out of what seems great friction there may emerge a peace that—though it may not end the dispute, though neither party may be "convinced" of the other's position—nevertheless enters and nourishes one's notion of, and relationship with, God. Without this radical openness, all arguments about God are not simply pointless but pernicious, for each person is in thrall to some lesser conception of ultimate truth, and asserts not love but a lesson, not God but himself.


I have read so much theology in the past few years, yet in conversations with other Christians I am consistently made conscious of being in some way balked when trying to describe my notions of the nature of God, the meaning of the cross, Christianity's place with regard to other religions. It isn't that these conversations aren't productive, but inevitably their benefit, for me at least, inheres wholly in the communion established with another believer rather than in any new foundation of knowledge. I am less frustrated with this state of affairs than I once was, so perhaps I have learned something from all those years of forcing myself to formulate my positions on poetry, from convincing myself that I knew my own mind—namely, that any statement about faith, any knowledge of God, that does not contain within itself an awareness of its ultimate insufficiency is doomed to decay. And perhaps the relation of theology to belief is roughly the same as that between the mastery of craft and the production of original art: one must at the same time utterly possess and utterly forget one's knowledge in order to go beyond it.


The great mystery of all spiritual knowledge in this life is that, even if it expresses an abstract truth about God or humanity, if it is not expressed with a concern for particular people, then it is a lie. This does not mean that some are not called to prophesy against the calcified self-regard of man, but if there is not specific and self-incriminating compassion in those cries, if there is even a tincture of vindication, separation, self-exaltation, then even the staunchest of God's prophets are merely the mouthpieces of destruction.


To say that one must live in uncertainty doesn't begin to get at the tenuous, precarious nature of faith. The minute you begin to speak with certitude about the nature of God, he is gone. We praise people for having "strong" faith, but strength is only one part of that physical metaphor: one also needs flexibility.


An admission. I have no problem believing in God, if "belief " can be defined as some utter interior assent to a life that is both beyond and within this one, and if "assent" can be understood as at once active and unconscious, and if "God" is in some mysterious way both this action and its object, and if after all of these qualifications this sentence still makes any effing sense. Clearly, I do have something of a "problem." Poetry, fiction, meditative or mystical writers along the lines of Thomas Merton, Meister Eckhart, Simone Weil—these things tease me toward belief, make me feel the claim on my being that is much stronger than the "I" that needs to believe, the "I" for whom belief is doctrine rather than identity ("You are in me deeper than I am in me," as Augustine puts it). Hardcore theology, on the other hand, tends to leave me cold, even when, perhaps especially when, it convinces me. I truly don't know whether I am describing something essential about the way we know God, or merely my own weakness of mind.


There is no merely intellectual coherence, no abstract ultimate meaning, to be found, and if this is not recognized, then the compulsion to find such certainty becomes its own punishment. This realization is not the end of theology but the beginning of it: trust no theory, no religious history or creed, in which the author's personal faith is not merely in play, but actively at risk.


You know the value of your doubt by the quality of the disquiet that it produces in you. Is it a furious centrifugal sort of anxiety that feeds on itself and never seems to move you in any one direction? Is it an ironclad compulsion to refute, to find in even the most transfiguring experiences, your own or others, some rational or "psychological" explanation? Is it an almost religious commitment to doubt itself, an assuredness that, in modern times, absolute doubt is the highest form of faith? There is something static and self-enthralled about all of these attitudes. Honest doubt, what I would call devotional doubt, is marked by three qualities: humility, which makes one's attitude impossible to celebrate; insufficiency, which makes it impossible to rest; and mystery, which continues to tug you upward—or at least outward—even in your lowest moments. Such doubt is painful—more painful, in fact, than any of the other forms—but its pain is active rather than passive, purifying rather than stultifying. Far beneath it, no matter how severe its drought, how thoroughly your skepticism seems to have salted the ground of your soul, faith, durable faith, is steadily taking root.


The gospels vary quite a bit in their accounts of Jesus' resurrection and the ensuing encounters he had with people, but they are quite consistent about one thing: many of his followers doubted him, sometimes even when he was staring them in the face. There are a couple of rather obvious morals for modern believers here. If the disciples of Christ could doubt not only firsthand accounts of his resurrection but the very fact of his face in front of them, then clearly doubt has little to do with distance from events. It is in some way the seed of Christianity itself, planted in the very heart of him (My god, my god, why has Thou forsaken me?) who is at once our God and our best selves, and it must be torn terribly, wondrously open in order to flower into living faith. But how does that happen? That's the second "lesson" to be learned from these particular Gospel stories. Just as some of Jesus' first-century followers could not credit the presence of the risen Christ, so our own blindness, habit, and fear form a kind of constant fog that keeps us from seeing, and thereby believing in, the forms that Christ's presence takes in our everyday lives. We may think that it would be a great deal easier to believe if the world erupted around us, if Christ himself came down and offered as evidence the bloody scars in his side, but what the Gospels tell us is that this is not only wishful thinking but willful blindness, for in fact the world is erupting around us, Christ is very often offering us the scars in his side. What we call doubt is often simply dullness of mind and spirit, not the absence of faith at all but faith latent in the lives we are not quite living, God dormant in the world to which we are not quite giving our best selves.


Yes, but . . . the waking and the sleeping, the sludge of email and appointments, the low-temperature life that is, for the most part, life: even if there are moments of intensity that seem to release us from this, surely any spiritual maturity demands an acknowledgment that there is not going to be some miraculous, transfiguring intrusion into reality. The sky will not darken and the dead will not speak; no voice from Heaven is going to boom you back to a prereflective faith, nor will you feel, unless in death, a purifying fire that scalds all of consciousness like fog from the raw face of God. Is faith, then—assuming it isn't merely a form of resignation or denial—some sort of reconciliation with the implacable fact of matter, or is it a deep, ultimate resistance? Both. Neither. To have faith is to acknowledge the absolute materiality of existence while acknowledging at the same time the compulsion toward transfiguring order that seems not outside of things but within them, and within you, not an idea imposed upon the world but a vital, answering instinct. Heading home from work, irritated by my busyness and the sense of wasted days, shouldering through the strangers who merge and flow together on Michigan Avenue, merge and flow in the mirrored facades, I flash past the rapt eyes and undecayed face of my grandmother, lit and lost at once. In a board meeting, bored to oblivion, I hear a pen scrape like a fingernail on a cell wall, watch the glasses sweat as if even water wanted out, when suddenly, at the center of the long table, light makes of a bell-shaped pitcher a bell that rings in no place on this earth. Moments, only, and I am aware even within them, and thus am outside of them, yet something in the very act of such attention has troubled the tyranny of the ordinary, as if the world at which I gazed gazed at me, as if the lost face and the living crowd, the soundless bell and the mind in which it rings, all hankered toward—expressed some undeniable hope for—one end.


And now I doubt the premise with which I began: that art is the source of my instinct toward unity, rather than—like the theology I read, like Scripture, like these all-too-inadequate fragments—a means of preserving and honoring that instinct. I distrust those skeptics who admit no spiritual element into their most transfiguring experiences because I am so easily and so often one of them, stepping outside of my own miraculous moments to inspect, analyze, explain.

Having confessed, he feels
That he should go down on his knees and pray
For forgiveness for his pride, for having
Dared to view his soul from the outside.
                              —from "Having Confessed"

Kavanagh again. And that is the real issue, that the link not be broken, that every intellectual growth remain rooted in that early experience of ultimate insight, ultimate unknowingness, every word about God both responsive and responsible to the silence that is its source. For all but the holy fools among us, rational thought, or viewing the soul "from the outside," is inevitable, whether through theology, philosophy, science, or simply the narratives by means of which we describe and understand our lives. But what sort of understanding could be emptier than one that diminishes or erases the moments that made understanding essential in the first place? What discipline more dubious than learning to see every logical flaw in the light that once mastered you?

Christian Wiman's most recent book is Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet. He is the editor of Poetry magazine.

Please follow our Commentary Guidelines when engaging in discussion on this site.

Obama's High Wire

Matthew Weiner and Varun Soni

What does it mean for Barack Obama to be an interfaith president?

The religious historian Martin Marty described presidents as the priests of public religion, but every president navigates this high-wire act differently. They all have something to say about their faith and the role of faith in the public sphere, and their public religiosity reflects the spiritual mood of their times. Throughout presidential history, we see how the religious pulse of the nation influences the highest office as much as the holder of that office shapes the public's perception of public religion.

George Washington argued that religion and morality were indispensable foundations for the success of a new nation. Thomas Jefferson emphatically declared the self-evident truth that all men are created equal, and Abraham Lincoln boldly asserted during the Civil War that both sides prayed to the same God. In more recent memory, the spirit of the times still shapes how presidents speak about faith. John F. Kennedy, the first Catholic president, felt compelled to declare that his faith would not influence social policy, while Jimmy Carter was the first to declare that he was born again and to mobilize an evangelical base. Since the religious right brought George W. Bush to power, the role of public religion is as unquestioned as it is hotly debated. In all these examples, presidents articulated a religious belief born from their personal Christian faiths, but acknowledging America's public Protestantism.

Based on this presidential narrative, how will America's current globalized religious diversity shape Obama's public religiosity? How will Obama's personal multifaith and multicultural experiences impact the national discourse around religion and the public sphere?

For all intents and purposes, Obama is a conventional liberal Christian when it comes to his theology. He is deeply inspired by Martin Luther King, Jr., and Reinhold Niebuhr, who inform his sense of history and justice. While both of these theologian-activists worked with Jews, neither developed an extensive theology of pluralism. Furthermore, Obama has said that while he respects others' faiths, Christianity is the only faith for him.

This is good news. The last thing we need is someone who claims to speak for all faiths. Instead, Obama is in a position to understand that while religions are different, their public interaction serves a moral, pragmatic purpose for our civil society and our democratic tradition. In this context, an interfaith stance is not primarily about theological dialogue or spiritual exploration, nor is it a religiously diverse but liberal coalition. Instead, it signifies a public religiosity that is inclusive, complex, interactive, and evolving.

From a legal perspective, a creative interfaith approach to First Amendment jurisprudence could have profound implications for religious pluralism, community empowerment, and public education. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the White House's Faith-Based Initiative, a program most liberals and strict secularists oppose because it distributes federal funds to religious organizations and institutions. Under George W. Bush, the Faith-Based Initiative's federal funding went almost entirely to Christian organizations, which arguably "endorsed" Christianity over other religions and was possibly a violation of the Establishment Clause. However, by federally funding different faith groups in addition to Christian ones, the state would not necessarily establish any one religion over another. Instead, it would recognize the diverse social service programs and citizenship-building opportunities that both majority and minority religious communities offer. If the Obama administration took a further step and encouraged faith groups to apply for joint funding, it would stimulate partnership across difference, reduce the fears of proselytizing by faith-based groups, and educate each group, and the nation, about the positive role faith can play in civic engagement.

To complement pragmatic changes, Obama also has symbolic opportunities for an interfaith approach to public religion. His inauguration was a good start, for even though it was steeped in Christian liturgy and shaped by Christian themes, it also embraced the plurality of faith traditions that create America's religious landscape. From Obama's choice of Pastor Rick Warren to deliver the inauguration invocation, to his inauguration declaration that the United States is a country that includes Muslims, Hindus, and atheists, to his interfaith prayer service at the National Cathedral, Obama's inauguration was replete with powerful symbols and provocative images that are emblematic of the profound religious diversity of the United States.

Besides his response to the economic crises, Obama's approach to Islam holds the most risk and the most opportunity. His circumstance in this case is unique—having lived in a Muslim nation, with a Muslim middle name, being perceived by many to be Muslim, following a president who was considered to be antagonistic to Muslims—and he has the extraordinary opportunity to reach out to the Muslim world in a way that no other American leader can. His interview on the Arab TV network Al Arabiya, where he offered himself as a bridge between the United States and the Muslim world, was a courageous first step. A continued high-profile interfaith approach to public religion, through the Faith-Based Initiative and symbolic civic events, would hold a powerful message for the world to see: American Muslims work and stand with other faiths; they possess, and defend, religious freedom; and they build our democracy.

Interfaith engagement could also provide Obama with a new strategy for the genuine bipartisanship and proactive engagement he values. While most interfaith forums speak about common ground, they tend to be politically and theologically liberal. Their examples show hand-holding among Jews, Hindus, and Muslims, but rarely include a Hasidic rabbi, Pentecostal Christian, and conservative imam (in part because they may not hold hands). Yet, for interfaith to move beyond a liberal partisan enterprise, and really encounter difference that remains different, it must take place across religious and political lines.

Just as Obama built an unprecedented grassroots movement of diverse political constituents and empowered the millennial generation during his presidential campaign, so, too, can he inspire a similar movement with community engagement across traditional religious divides. For Obama, an interfaith approach involves the galvanizing of resources at his disposal, in either direct pragmatic ways or ones more rhetorical and symbolic. Obama's interfaith opportunity could ultimately challenge assumptions of polarized politics and the "culture wars"—not through arguing for moderation and compromise, but instead by finding frameworks that allow people to be different, to continue disagreements, and yet to point toward something greater than themselves.


Matthew Weiner, MTS '00, is program director at the Interfaith Center of New York, and is writing a book about interfaith and civil society.

Varun Soni, MTS '99, is dean of religious life at the University of Southern California.

Please follow our Commentary Guidelines when engaging in discussion on this site.

The Stories within Our Stories

Wendy McDowell

In my previous job for the National Council of Churches, one of my most memorable assignments involved accompanying Nobel Peace Prize laureate Rigoberta Menchú Tum on a Manhattan press tour. The tour had been sponsored by human rights organizations to allow her to defend herself against academic and media attacks on the "truthfulness" of her testimony Me llamo Rigoberta Menchú y así me nació la conciencia, which had been transcribed from taped interviews by Elizabeth Burgos, translated into English, and published in 1984 as I, Rigoberta Menchú: An Indian Woman in Guatemala.

At stake were complex issues and struggles related to the history of land, politics, and ideology in Guatemala. Yet the "Rigoberta Menchú controversy" was only able to gain momentum by exploiting the power differential that already existed between two different narrative styles: the written, fact-based, product-focused style of the elite Western media and academia, and the oral, collective, process-oriented style of storytellers outside the European tradition. In indigenous accounts such as Menchú's, as anthropologist Michael Jackson describes in The Politics of Storytelling, "far less emphasis is given to the heroic career of individuals or the delineation of personal identity, and . . . lives are depicted as inescapably embedded in social, political, and historical affairs, as well as deeply integrated with worldviews and physical environments." In these storytelling traditions, a telling of one's "personal" journey is supposed to incorporate the stories and experiences of others, as did Menchú's account of the violence visited upon her family and her fellow indigenous Guatemalans.

The very narrative strategies that allow for a more socially embedded, collective account of individual existence were used to attempt to disqualify this K'iche' Mayan woman from speaking for her people, even though Menchú never intended for her oral testimonios to be a written "autobiography" in keeping with European conventions. Perhaps not surprisingly, this "controversy" proved to have little to no influence on the opinions of the indigenous peoples throughout the world to whom Menchú considers herself to be accountable.

Since then, I have become more suspicious of stories that claim to have a corner on "truth," even well-intentioned ones. I am aware that narratives, and certain narrative styles, can be used as weapons as much as they are tools of revelation and meaning-making. Though I believe in the value of fair, accurate news reporting, I have come to wonder if, as poet Joanna Klink so poignantly puts it in her four-part poem "Feverish," ". . . Perhaps / the way to despair is based in / certainty. . . ." At the same time, I have become more appreciative of narratives from any tradition, and in any literary form, which explicitly acknowledge their social and political embeddedness.

I was surprised and excited, then, when two contributors to the Dialogue section asked me (separately from each other) if they could co-author pieces with colleagues. This seemed especially appropriate since their respective topics had to do with economic global neighborliness and interfaith dialogue. I was equally delighted when I read through initial drafts from Elizabeth Siwo-Okundi and Kurt Shaw. Though written in isolation from each other and addressing two different urgent situations (orphans in Kenya and child soldiers in Colombia), they seemed to be in close conversation. Both pieces call us to listen to the prophetic voices (and stories) of marginalized children, and both are clear exhortations to consider our own lives and fates to be linked to those whose struggles render them vulnerable and hidden from our view.

Though many of the pieces in this current issue suggest that we should embrace a collective, global ethic, they also critique some of the ways we tend to imagine our collective groups (families, nations, or religious groups). Nancy Nienhuis asks religious leaders to place the physical safety of family members over certain theological notions. Richard Delacy questions the image of an idealized village (the "real" India) in Swades that doesn't acknowledge economic exploitation. Amy Sullivan explores how suburban evangelicals in the U.S. have drawn firmer or more porous boundaries around their communities.

It also strikes me that many of the pieces in this issue are actually stories about storytelling, and as such they are transparent to the "social process of storytelling" (Jackson again). Shaw even uses the term "collective autobiography" to describe how child soldiers create a redeemed story of themselves through film. Siwo-Okundi reads new texts and subtexts in some well-known biblical stories. Christian Wiman willingly accepts that all attempts to make narratives about God or faith are necessarily insufficient.

Jonathan Schofer provides some thought-provoking ethical reflections on Watchmen, which, as he explains, "is a comic about comics." One of the themes that Schofer finds in this work "is that narratives have significant causal impacts upon our lives. We not only tell narratives but discover them and live them out." D. Y. Béchard's cover article about Québec is a living, breathing example of this theme, and is itself a narrative about several kinds of narratives: stories his father and relatives have told him, historical accounts of the region, and French-Canadian folktales.

Though Béchard's work is the product of laborious research and literary craftsmanship, it manages to point to the inchoate and mysterious, never resting on certitude or definitiveness. These are my own favorite kinds of works of art, because they act as signposts to "the silence that is . . . the source" (Wiman) of all of our attempts to describe and order human experience.

I hope you will notice the various narrative sources and styles represented here. Perhaps you will respond to, or even "live out," one of them in a way that alleviates the suffering of others. The Bulletin, too, is always engaged in a "social process of storytelling," and the more social, the better.


Wendy McDowell is senior editor of the Bulletin.

Please follow our Commentary Guidelines when engaging in discussion on this site.

See also: Editor's Note

The Stories within Our Stories

Wendy McDowell

Two Poems

Paula Bohince

Owl in Retrograde

In truth she must move more
like a rodent: claws scuffling the puny branch
without pity, and feathers
fetid as newspapers closed around the decaying field
mouse in the garbage.

She's not been cleansed
of malice by her open face, even when the kill
is clean: prey swept from its running
like a plane pulled up at lift-off,
punctured on both sides, flown swiftly
through the phantom dark.

My poor puppet, embodied

Giver of a few luscious moments
in a lifetime: a husband hearing the ghostly blowing
first, shushing his wife. Both of us
listening hard,

the soft column of silence
between us meaning, You've made me a home. Where self-
loathing used to reside, it has been
, the roof of us enameled and moon-
struck as a compass.

Though the owl is homeless, forever,
isn't she also moonstruck? And glad, I hope,
to return, flaring like a match
in all this sadness.


After Hardy

At my bitterest, she became less
starling than black hole, eating matter—
what Hell is—in the tender
phlox and teardrop-
shaped asters.

What stood her among the years
of embedded shrapnel,
the bullets' flung
red jackets?

The day risen into stained glass
for any vandal
to smash. Memento
mori, heeled in the field, standing in
for the flown or downed
or damned.

Paula Bohince is the author of a poetry collection, Incident at the Edge of Bayonet Woods (Sarabande Books, 2008), and the recipient of a 2009 fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Please follow our Commentary Guidelines when engaging in discussion on this site.

When Child Soldiers Become Filmmakers

A call to break from normalized evil.

Kurt Shaw

My wife and I went to Bogotá to teach a group of teenagers who had been guerrilla and paramilitary soldiers how to make movies. Our hope was that a film made by teenagers who had been in the war, and not one simply about them, would help the public see these children as human beings, not merely as the icon of fear and pity that we have come to associate with the catchphrase "child soldiers." The movie that they made, Ruleta de la Vida, or Life's Roulette—transforming the stories of their lives, so that Bogotá's urban underworld serves as a metaphor for the war—turned into something more: it became a prophetic text.

The frontlines of the Colombian civil war may seem an unlikely place for children to reflect on ethics. Children and teenagers recruited as soldiers in this brutal and unforgiving war have seen evil turned into something normal. Paramilitaries, guerrillas, and the army all massacre civilians if they think it will advance their strategy. All of the warring armies finance their struggle by selling cocaine, stealing land and cattle, and kidnapping. Rape has become just one more form of social control. Many observers believe that the warring armies recruit children because they are morally malleable, easier to manipulate into the war crimes that play a strategic role in the conflict. After working closely with these kids, I think exactly the opposite is true. In fact, for many child soldiers, war stimulates profound ethical and theological reflection.

When the young filmmakers talk of their time in the war, they describe a world where evil has become normal. Murder and rape and theft become so commonplace that no one thinks them strange: it's just what soldiers do. In hindsight, the kids repent what they have done; some say that even at the time, they knew that what they were doing was wrong. Nonetheless, they did things they recognize to be evil. It makes sense that one fundamental question lies under almost every scene of the movie: When evil has become normal, how can you escape it?

It may sound paradoxical, but many of the kids insisted that ethics had been central to their decision to join the guerrillas or the paramilitaries.1 Though we heard many reasons for joining the armed groups, almost all of the young filmmakers mentioned one of two motivations: they wanted to help their mothers by sending them the salaries they would earn as soldiers, or they wanted justice for a wrong done to their families by the enemy army. Their time as soldiers followed a predictable path of disenchantment as they learned that they would not be able to get the justice they craved and that their mothers were not getting the promised salaries. In place of the adolescent ethics that had motivated them to join, their captains and colonels offered a group ethos. This ethos grew out of shared complicity—shared guilt for a massacre or rape would bond a company together, for instance2—but it also exercised a strong force to control group behavior and to normalize evil into something jejune and necessary. Yet even when evil became normal, the kids felt something was wrong. In the film, they wanted to show the moment when the weight of this wrong fell on them, forcing them to flee the armed groups and look for a better future.

In much recent theology and philosophy, Emmanuel Levinas's concept of hineni has become the touchstone for this moment of ethical recognition, the break that constitutes the ethical subject. Levinas develops his idea through reflection on the prophetic call, when an otherwise ordinary person answers God with hineni, "here I am," showing that he is willing to obey Yahweh's command. The prophet, like children immersed in war, lives in a world where evil has become normal, where people have forgotten the word of Yahweh; in terms the young filmmakers might use, people have come to accept evil and oppression as a normal, necessary part of life and politics. To break the hold God must call a prophet to remind them to do justice, treat others with loving kindness, and walk humbly with their God (Micah 6:8). Levinas's eloquent and powerful philosophy begins at the moment when a person hears that call from God, or, more accurately, sees his responsibility in the suffering face of the widow, orphan, or stranger.3 Many Talmudic authorities insist that Abraham accepted the call of God "joyfully" or "without question."4 Like them, Levinas writes mostly of the challenge to gain the courage to say hineni when we hear a call to responsibility. The young filmmakers who made Life's Roulette offer an important preface to this ethics, wondering how one can even hear the call to responsibility amid the deafening tumult of war.

The life stories of these young filmmakers give an idea of how complicated it can be to hear the call of Yahweh, let alone to say hineni. Imagine a young woman whose father was murdered by the paramilitaries, whose family has been forced from their home in the countryside to a shantytown outside Bogotá. She knows that the courts will never give her justice, because the judges are allied with the murderers. Without her father's pay, the family goes hungry. By joining the guerrillas, she thinks she may have a chance to get justice against the paramilitaries and at the same time earn money to buy food for her mother and little brothers. Though she may recognize that she will have to do bad things in order to help her family, she can still believe that she is a good person, because she is doing good things for them.

Though the guerrillas may force the girl to do much she considers wrong, each single action can be justified by the long-term goal of justice for her father and food for her little brothers. She will not condemn a massacre, because the victims sympathized with the paramilitaries. She keeps watch over civilian prisoners, but because they were kidnapped to earn a ransom to support the struggle, she understands the necessity. She is raped, but she tells herself that suffering is necessary to get what she wants.5 And with these little justifications, she soon becomes a person her earlier self would not have recognized. She has accepted evil as normal.

Life's Roulette transplants these stories onto the urban landscape, building a movie out of several interlacing tales. As a metaphor for the story of being forced from one's home in the countryside by the paramilitaries, one plot line follows a girl who escapes from an abusive father and comes to live on the street. Lost and without friends, she wanders the labyrinth of Bogotá looking for her brother, who had left home before her. In despair, she enters a bar to look for work, even though she knows that the only jobs available are for prostitutes. Seduced by whiskey and money and beautiful girls dancing, she is almost ready to sell her body when she sees the waiter at the bar: her brother. With the shock of recognition, she flees.

Many of the young filmmakers told of friends, and even brothers, joining enemy armies and coming to battle against each other, so the second plot line of the movie tells the story of best friends who become enemies when they join rival gangs. The climactic scene follows these two characters, each leading a gang that wants to take power in a certain neighborhood. The camera traces Andrés as he walks up the hill with a girl he has always tried to protect, lamenting the turn his life has taken, and telling her, "I know we will be able to solve this problem by talking." His words are eloquent and he offers a sharp criticism of the life he has come to lead, but when he sees his enemy on the top of the hill, his first reaction is to threaten him, and his second is to pull his gun. As the two rivals draw their pistols, the girl throws herself between them. The frame freezes as the gun approaches her head, and then fades into the image of waving grass.

When they thought about moments of ethical recognition, teenagers who have experienced how war normalizes evil saw such opportunities only in the most extreme circumstances. While Levinas might use Abraham or Elijah as the metaphor for the capacity to say hineni, these kids did not find it so easy to hear the call of conscience, let alone respond to it. Their story is closer to that of Jonah, who could only respond to God after he had been thrown from the boat and swallowed by the whale.

Both stories in Life's Roulette end happily; after all, the movie is a sort of collective autobiography, and the filmmakers wanted to show how their lives are changing for the better. In the first plot line, the girl and her brother leave the brothel and run into a pair of documentary filmmakers who offer them work; in the second, the two friends stop before they shoot. At the most extreme point, the characters—and the teenagers who created them—were able to pull themselves back from the ethical abyss.

Most of us may not find a model for our own ethical transformation in the lives of these child soldiers' stories. Even so, we live in a world that has normalized evil. Whether it is the way we invest our money, the petroleum we use to get to work, or simply the way we treat our parents, we fail to pay attention to the bad things we do every day. They become a kind of white noise; if asked about it, we probably know that what we do is wrong, but we just don't think about it. We don't have the sort of cinematic moments represented in the film. Our ethical call has to come from somewhere else.

Two years ago, I worked with a group of young rappers from the most violent favelas of the Brazilian city of Recife, where 70 murders in one weekend barely raises eyebrows.6 In the midst of that kind of violence, most people would bolt their doors and huddle behind concrete walls, but these poor mothers and fathers don't have that option; if they don't go to work, they and their children will starve. In order to give themselves the courage to go out the front door, they invent stories to convince themselves that they will be safe in spite of the battle raging around them. In the favelas of Recife, we heard the same phrase time after time: "He deserved to die because he was in debt to the crack house, and you know what they say, 'if you can't pay with money, you pay with your blood.' " This was a simple, comforting syllogism. People die because they are guilty. I am not guilty. Therefore, I am safe.

In the rap album the kids recorded to condemn the violence in their communities,7 they examined exactly this logic. The message the kids wanted to convey through their music is a relatively simple one. The profundity of the art comes not from its content, but from its speaker; in christological terms, not from the message, but from the messenger. We all know that child soldiers and young gang members are human beings with the possibility for good, but some of us still cross the street when we see a black kid walking down the sidewalk toward us. Their message does not aim to teach us anything new, but to demand that we bring our actions into agreement with our beliefs. These kids call us to enter a relationship with them, to see them as real human beings. To do so places our own hypocrisy into stark relief, showing us not only that we are doing wrong, but that those actions have consequences.

The denouement of Life's Roulette points us to a similar process. In the movie, drugs and crime serve as a metaphor for life in the war, but the kids also wanted the camera to represent where they saw themselves in the future. In the final scenes, several characters come together to use the ill-gotten gains from drug-trafficking to make a documentary showing the virtues of their neighborhood. By drawing attention to the fact that they themselves made the film, this conclusion makes it clear that these children have a lesson to teach with their movie. In the brief documentary where the actors describe how they made the film, one of the young men insists: "Kids like us, kids who fought in the war, we have a lot to teach. . . . We are normal people, just like anyone else. We have a heart. And we have put all of that heart and effort and enthusiasm into this movie. . . . So that when people see where we come from, they'll see we are people of peace. Not like the majority of people think, that we're always violent."8

One of his friends adds: "Now that we have this project done, fabricated, and ready, as we show it, I think that the way people think will change. They'll look at us in a different way. They'll see that we have these difficulties, but also these qualities that matter more than what's bad. What's good about every human being is that we have bad qualities, but we also have good qualities that overcome the bad."

Conversion—or to use more secular language, the break from the normalization of evil—demands prophesy. Young men and women who were soldiers have found a new purpose: not only to integrate themselves into society and teach others about the war,9 but to create a world "where no kid has to go to war," as the protagonist of the film told us. For them, as for Elijah or Jonah or Paul, when one hears the call of God, hineni does not merely mean "I will repent," but "I will work to make the world more just."

When I read Levinas, I feel he expects all of us to be prophets, individually hearing the call to responsibility when we see the suffering of the widow, orphan, or stranger. That makes sense for a man like Levinas, who suffered through the concentration camps. What about those of us who haven't spent much time in the Wadi Cherith with Elijah, or in the belly of the whale with Jonah, or in the war with the children who made Life's Roulette? When we have a certain degree of privilege, we are insulated from such direct experiences. The evil in our daily lives has become so normal and boring that it doesn't even open the possibility of a plot twist. With our cars and office cubicles and quiet vacations, we have isolated ourselves from the face of the other that might call us to responsibility, from the need to say hineni.

Then again, most people in ancient Israel were not prophets. Most of them lived their lives from day to day, working to feed their families and care for their parents, and often forgetting their duty to care for the widow and the orphan and to do justice for the poor. However, from time to time God would call someone to speak for him, and sometimes people would have the courage to listen to a prophet. Prophecy was a social practice, a relationship between people, not merely between the believer and God or the ethical subject and the face of the other. Levinas doesn't stress this detail, but the kids in Colombia and Brazil do.

Who, then, are our prophets? To whom do we have the responsibility to listen? My vote is for children and teenagers from the margins of society: child soldiers and street kids and gangsters and Indian kids selling arts and crafts to support their families. Kids from the periphery can still say hineni. They still see the evils and violence and oppression we have assimilated into our ethical blind spot, in part because they are the victims of that hypocrisy, and in part because they take seriously the ethical lessons that their mothers and fathers teach them.

We generally portray prophets as men with long beards, but the truth is that most adults have developed great skills at not hearing the call of God, of accepting the normality of evil. It isn't the noise of war that makes us deaf, but the repetition of our normal lives. This isn't conscious; it is simply the ability to overlook things that might make life difficult for us. Children and teenagers haven't learned those lessons yet. As hard as we may try to teach them, they haven't learned that murder victims in the favela are guilty, or that killing someone else in a war is justified. Even with a gun in their hands, they can't quite believe it.

For most of us, the call to ethical responsibility doesn't come from the death of a friend in a gang war or from running into our brothers in a brothel. So we have a responsibility to listen: to teenagers who have escaped the war, to the kids from the favela, or to our own children when they point out our elegantly constructed hypocrisies. Though they may be small, they are the prophets of our age, challenging us to break with the quotidian evil we have come to see as normal or necessary.



  1. The stereotype of the child soldier, based largely on stories of the Lord's Resistance Army in Uganda, makes us think that children only join armed groups when they are forced or kidnapped. In fact, most of the teenagers with whom we worked insisted that they had chosen to join the guerrillas or the paramilitaries, some for the ethical reasons listed here, others because they wanted to get away from an abusive father or stepfather, others because they wanted adventure in their lives or because they had been recruited by an attractive soldier of the opposite gender.
  2. According to Slavoj Žižek, what joins a community together is not the public law that everyone affirms, but the way that everyone is obligated to break the law together. By participating in this "counter-law," everyone joins in a kind of "solidarity-in-guilt." See Slavoj Žižek, The Metasteses of Enjoyment (Verso, 1994), 54-57; and my Agony Street (Shine a Light, 2007).
  3. See Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority, trans. Alphonso Lingis (Duquesne University Press, 1969).
  4. See especially Genesis Rabbah, Vayera LV. 6. Cited in Jill Robbins, Prodigal Son/Elder Brother: Interpretation and Alterity in Augustine, Petrarch, Kafka, Levinas (University of Chicago Press, 1991).
  5. These notes integrate the stories of many of the participants.
  6. In Rio de Janeiro, wars between gangs in the 1990s had a higher mortality rate than almost any civil war during the same period (Luke Dowdney, Crianças do Tráfico [ISER, 2002]), and during the last several years, Recife has become more violent than Rio. I particularly remember a conversation with the proprietor of an internet café, who, after a particularly violent weekend, told me, "I don't know why people are making such a big deal out of 70 murders last weekend. Fifty is average, after all, and it was a long weekend with a vacation day on Monday."
  7. City of Rhyme/Ato Periférico, produced by Shine a Light and DJ Big. The rappers who recorded the album won the 2008 Freedom to Create Prize as the best young artists in the world working for human rights. Available for download at www.shinealight.org.
  8. "We Are People of Peace: How We Made the Movie Life's Roulette" (Shine a Light and Taller de Vida, 2009).
  9. While almost half of the thousands of children who attempt to leave the war end up returning to the guerrillas or paramilitaries ("Gobierno perdió la pista de 212 niños desmovilizados de las autodefensas," El Tiempo, October 6, 2007), not one of the 15 teenagers who made Life's Roulette has gone back to battle.

Kurt Shaw, MTS '97, is the founder and executive director of Shine a Light, a 300-member network of organizations serving street and working children in Latin America.

Please follow our Commentary Guidelines when engaging in discussion on this site.

Young Evangelicals Rock

Amy Sullivan

In Review | Books Witnessing Suburbia: Conservatives and Christian Youth Culture, by Eileen Luhr. University of California Press, 280 pages, $19.95.

The 1970s and early 1980s were good times to be a young Jesus geek. Christians may have endured periods of persecution and ridicule from ancient times through the Scopes Trial and beyond. But in the suburban evangelical church where I grew up, being Christian was not just expected—it was actually cool.

VeggieTales hadn't been created yet, but we had Psalty, the anthropomorphic singing praise-songbook. We read Spire comics, a Christian offshoot of the secular Archie series, in which Archie, Jughead, and the whole Riverdale gang go on mission trips and talk about the Beatitudes. We grew our hair long, not to copy Marcia Brady but Amy Grant. And we strutted down our public school hallways in T-shirts from the latest Michael W. Smith or DC Talk concert.

My youth group friends and I didn't realize it at the time, but we were part of the first wave of evangelicals to consume Christianity as a brand in addition to a religious and theological tradition. It was the moment when Christian popular culture took off, and a new Christian identity—of pride, not persecution—formed. The era is at the heart of Eileen Luhr's recent book, Witnessing Suburbia, a fascinating look at the emergence of Christianity™ and the development of Christian popular youth culture.

The story Luhr tells about the growth of Christianity into a global marketing force is unfamiliar for the simple reason that it took place at the same time as the more controversial rise of the Religious Right. The bombastic Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson commanded media attention, whereas the enterprising pastors who founded megachurches and changed the face of evangelical worship went largely unnoticed. Book burners and lyric banners generated debate; Christian music producers and concert promoters generated profits but little notoriety.

And yet without the background and context that Luhr, a history professor at California State University, Long Beach, sketches in detail, it is nearly impossible to understand the current American evangelical community and the seismic changes that may reshape it for a new generation.

As evangelicals moved into the latter half of the twentieth century, many remained in a self-imposed exile, intent on following the biblical injunction to be "in the world but not of it." This meant abstaining from temptations and corrupting influences, including secular popular culture. These conservative Christians had begun to develop their own parallel institutions, including entertainment outlets, but the offerings were largely limited to programs such as "The Radio Revival Hour" or "The Family Bible Hour."

The separatist impulse held firm into the 1960s when it ran into the youth revolution. In the face of changing cultural mores and newly popular music forms like rock and roll, evangelicals were divided. One camp responded by condemning popular culture and seeking to limit its influence. But the other, sensing an opportunity to keep young evangelicals engaged, sought to appropriate the culture for Christian themes and purposes. The two conflicting approaches—let's call them separatist evangelicals and engagement evangelicals—vied for several decades, and the ultimate triumph of one over the other directly explains the vibrancy of American evangelicalism today.

The first group of evangelicals, Luhr argues, was driven by two main beliefs about youth and culture. "Beginning in the late 1970s," she writes, "youth came to be viewed as endangered, rather than dangerous. While the paradigmatic youth of the 1960s was a young hippie or student protester, that of the 1980s was a younger, innocent white child capable of devout belief but in need of parental guidance and protection." This conviction that teenagers and young adults were not themselves threats to Christian morality, but were instead passive victims of a dangerous culture, allowed the separatist evangelicals to focus on battling popular culture, not their own children.

The emphasis on protecting children also enabled separatist evangelicals to mainstream their efforts by speaking as parents, not just as theological conservatives. As Luhr notes, a variety of organizations such as the Parents' Music Resource Center, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, and the National Federation of Parents for Drug-Free Youth were all formed around the same time and also promoted the idea that America's youth were imperiled innocents.

At the same time, separatist evangelicals were convinced that the problem with popular culture was not just the content or message, but the medium itself, particularly rock music. Luhr quotes a music professor at the fundamentalist Bob Jones University who, in 1971, made the case that rock was inherently dangerous, attracting—among others—"drug addicts, revolutionaries, rioters, Satan worshippers, drop-outs, draft-dodgers, homosexuals and other sex deviates, rebels, juvenile criminals, Black Panthers and white panthers, motorcycle gangs . . . and on and on the list could go almost indefinitely."

The university's president, Bob Jones III, trained his fire on other aspects of the counterculture that he viewed as incompatible with a Christian lifestyle. Jones criticized the Jesus Movement, the most visible Christian youth movement at the time, because it allowed converts to retain their hippie dress and embraced more modern worship styles. Sounding for all the world like a stock character from the movie Footloose, Jones wrote: "Revival is not spawned in pot parties, love-ins, hippie pads, dens of iniquity, and rock orgies; but that is where the Jesus Movement was spawned."

Not even seemingly innocuous secular entertainment for children was safe from judgment. Decades before Jerry Falwell denounced Teletubbies for supposedly including a secretly gay character, anti-rock critics like David Noebel went after a series of children's folk recordings that had been endorsed by such upstanding outlets as Good Housekeeping and Parents Magazine for promoting radical political messages by communist folk singers. Noebel and others reserved a special contempt for Bob Dylan and his leftie sympathies—until the musician became a born-again Christian during the 1970s and recorded several Christian albums. (Once Dylan returned to Judaism a decade later, he became fair game again.)

The goal of separatist evangelicals was to limit the exposure of children—and, occasionally, all citizens—to objectionable pop culture. Activists affiliated with Parents Against Subliminal Seduction (PASS) successfully lobbied for a San Antonio ordinance that restricted attendance at "obscene" rock concerts to those above the age of 14. In 1983, Ronald Reagan's evangelical secretary of the interior, James Watt, banned rock acts from the annual Fourth of July celebration on the National Mall. The previous year, concert performers had included such subversive acts as Wayne Newton and the Beach Boys.

While some evangelicals worried about satanic subliminal messages in rock songs, others were adapting cultural forms for their own purposes.

While separatist evangelicals were busy bashing folk musicians or wringing their hands about possible satanic subliminal messages in rock songs, another group of evangelicals was more interested in adapting cultural forms for their own purposes instead of condemning popular culture outright. These engagement evangelicals drew inspiration from the theologian Frances Schaeffer, who urged them to compete in the "marketplace of ideas" rather than the "hidden censorship" of separatism.

In the aftermath of the 1960s, Luhr writes, "these evangelicals sought to fit within, rather than react to, suburban consumer culture." Like their secular peers, young evangelicals thought in terms of rebellion against the larger culture. But, for them, the maverick path involved proudly proclaiming their Christian identity at a time when many believed the United States was becoming a post-religious society. These evangelicals reclaimed rock music for themselves by identifying its roots in gospel music. Elvis, they noted, came from a Pentecostal background, as did Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash, and their earliest musical influence was gospel. Young evangelicals saw that it was possible to embrace rock music while rejecting the content.

Separatist evangelicals argued that rock music destroyed the Christian message— one critic said that listening to Christian music was like "trying to get my meals from the garbage can"—but engagement evangelicals saw a way to appropriate the art form and even infuse popular culture with Christianity. "Proponents of Christian rock," writes Luhr, "argued that the genre provided a tool for evangelism and a way for believers to enjoy contemporary entertainment while enhancing their faith."

Christian music really took off in the 1980s, aided by the fact that rock music had become so commercial that it was no longer easily associated with rebellion. In 1984, Christian artists sold 20 million albums, and the next year they outsold jazz and classical music combined. Christian radio stations expanded across the country, providing platforms for artists ranging from Sandi Patty to the metal band Stryper, while also promoting themselves as outlets for "family-friendly listening." Some evangelicals even started looking for ways to sanction acceptable secular music for their children. One article for Christian parents argued that parents who played their kids' records backwards in search of evil messages were missing a valuable opportunity to engage productively with youth culture. "Believers should scrutinize secular music for Christian—not satanic—content," wrote the author. "Should Madonna's repulsive ideals and behavior invalidate the profoundly anti-abortion message of 'Papa Don't Preach'? Do Janet Jackson's recent sleazy videos make her bold song urging sexual restraint, 'Let's Wait Awhile,' any less true? We think not."

And while music was the most visible part of Christian popular culture, other merchandise—including clothing, toys, and books—was aggressively developed for and marketed to evangelical Christians as well. Luhr notes that Christian bookstores "cater[ed] to a growing evangelical population that believed Christianity was a lifestyle as well as a belief system." Between 1965 and 1975, Christian bookstores grew from 725 nationwide to 1,850, and in 2000 alone, Christian merchandise produced $4 billion in sales. (The advent of online shopping has shuttered many independent Christian bookstores, as has the sale of books from evangelical authors like Rick Warren and Tim LaHaye through Wal-Mart and other mainstream stores.)

Just as megachurch pastors have learned to co-opt elements of popular culture to spice up their worship services—weaving clips from Saturday Night Live into multimedia sermons or rewriting the lyrics of popular songs to tell Bible stories—Christian songwriters have adapted every conceivable musical genre, from pop to rap to punk to metal. For the more popular artists, a tension sometimes exists between them and their fans, many of whom fear that the bands will be tempted to water down their messages in an attempt to break into secular markets. Yet it is through that cross-over that Christianity has gained a foothold in popular culture. In summer 2008, the Southern rock band Third Day became the first Christian act to land on the cover of Billboard magazine. That same year, millions of Americans listened at home as the contestants on American Idol sang "Shout to the Lord" for a special fund-raising episode.

Christian culture has undoubtedly provided a way to make the Good News palatable for secular listeners. But its booming popularity is due in large part to the fact that it allows—and in fact encourages—evangelicals to focus on themselves.

Outdoor music festivals have become perhaps the most popular way for young Christians to pursue that goal of affirming their religious identities. Dozens of gatherings take place around the country every summer, each featuring lineups of Christian artists and drawing tens of thousands of young Christians. Importantly, they are not revivals—altar calls may be issued for those who feel moved to become Christians, but events like Cornerstone or the Sonshine Festival are more about giving existing Christians a place to socialize and worship together.

They have also, I discovered a few summers ago while covering Creation Fest in central Washington State, become a magnet for conservative political causes. The subtitle of Luhr's book is "Conservatives and Christian Youth Culture," and she writes about the conservative tilt and influence of suburbs in the postwar era in her exploration of Christian culture. But, in truth, there's nothing inherently conservative about Christian pop culture. As a child I spent hours at Logos ("The Word") bookstore just off the campus of the University of Michigan and the flagship location for a chain of more than two dozen Christian bookstores with a theological, not political, mission.

I arrived at Creation Fest hoping to revel in the same Christian culture I'd grown up with, maybe picking up some Moses Bobblehead dolls or Samson action figures at the same time. But when I scouted out the vendor tents, I was surprised to find that the Christian kitsch was swamped by booths for conservative causes. The first stand I came to featured a petition to sign supporting the people of South Dakota in their efforts to ban abortion. Next to it was a book with photos of abortions, a handmade sign warning that it should only be viewed by those "13 and up." Available for sale were T-shirts bearing slogans like "Abortion Is Selfish" and "There's nothing intellectual about believing you and I evolved from hydrogen gas."

Yet as I walked the grounds of the festival, I saw very few teenagers wearing political shirts. (The most popular T-shirt read, "Hug Me If You Love Jesus.") Nor were the people I spoke with preoccupied with banning gay marriage or protecting prayer in schools. Crystal, a student at Ecola Bible College, talked about wanting to go to Africa when she graduated. She had seen a movie about boys in Uganda who were abducted and forced into a rebel army, and she wanted to help them. If she saved some souls along the way, that was a bonus, but Crystal was more concerned about their physical safety. Even one T-shirt vendor told me he wanted to add some shirts with pro-environment messages to his inventory. "It's really ignorant and arrogant not to take care of God's creation, this gift we have," he said, while behind him boxes of anti-evolution wear overflowed.

The bands at Creation Fest were perhaps most vocal about acting on their faith to help others. Members of The Myriad talked about traveling to Haiti when the tour ended and their plans to build an orphanage there. "It would be fantastic," lead singer Jeremy Edwardson said, "to get socially involved and inspire audiences to care as well." It was hard not to wonder whether conservative political causes have become associated with Christian pop culture by default, because conservatives have shown up and engaged with the culture and liberals have not.

Witnessing Suburbia is an invaluable read for those wondering how a religious tradition that once shied away from dancing and card-playing embraced electric guitars in the sanctuary and video games about the Rapture. And because Luhr is a historian, it is most useful in understanding how American evangelicalism became the version we know today. As evangelicalism continues to evolve, we will need to wait 20 years for a look back at the role Christian pop culture is playing today.

Amy Sullivan, MTS '99, is a senior editor at Time magazine. Her first book, The Party Faithful: How and Why Democrats Are Closing the God Gap, was published by Scribner in 2008.

Please follow our Commentary Guidelines when engaging in discussion on this site.