Consider The Puppies

For the past few weeks, my apartment has been under attack by an intruder.

While I usually experience the intruder’s attacks head on, I sometimes don’t discover her dastardly deeds until days later. I’ve suffered injuries and had valuable possessions destroyed. I’ve been woken up in the middle of the night by yelling, and have forgotten what it’s like to sleep past 5:30am. The most amazing thing? This intruder is three months old, weighs six pounds, and is unbelievably cute.

You see, just over a month ago, my girlfriend and I went to a local animal shelter to pick up the cutest Dachshund puppy we had ever seen. We had no idea that Shiloh Becker-Noble would eventually become what I call the “tiny canine terrorist who lives in our home.”

Now don’t get me wrong: I love this dog. She’s mostly well-behaved and friendly, and I don’t know what I did with all of my daily stress before puppy snuggles. But it certainly hasn’t been all sunshine and rainbows. She chews our carpet and pees anywhere she sees fit. In the past month alone, we’ve lost a lamp cord and a computer charger when she ripped them to shreds, and my laptop when she decided to take a potty break on the keyboard. Our baseboards, hands, and toes are marred with teeth marks, there’s a new hole in our bedsheets, and one corner of our carpet has been sufficiently shredded. She barks at planes flying overhead, and attempts to eat every piece of plastic she finds outside.

Although the damage, destruction, and noise haven’t been my favorite thing, the time commitments of a puppy have been far worse. Work and social commitments are constantly interrupted by the need to go home and take Shiloh out to do her puppy business. Without long walks, she sprints around our apartment, howling and whining until we take her down three flights of stairs to the small patch of grass outside. A timer is constantly running in the back of my mind: how long has Shiloh been home by herself? When should I head back to let her out again? When’s her next vet visit?

These commitments have been most challenging when they conflict with my schoolwork. As a divinity school student, most of my time is spent writing papers, reading long books, and frantically reviewing Hebrew flashcards. However, it seems like Shiloh has a built-in hyperactivity timer that consistently coincides with the time I’ve reserved for studying. Sitting down with a book or flashcards almost guarantees that Shiloh will instantly be biting at my ankles, peeing on the carpet, or climbing something she’s not supposed to.

Shiloh’s constant activity can feel like a burden on my daily schedule. While I tend to get excessively frustrated with Shiloh and her need for attention and stimulation, my girlfriend offers much more grace to our canine companion. “Remember,” she’ll often tell me, “She’s just a puppy. She doesn’t know any better.”

And it gets me thinking: what does Shiloh know? Mostly, she knows about the daily functions of her body: when she hurts, when she’s tired, when she’s curious. She does her best to communicate those knowings to us by barking, running, and playing. Since she’s teething, she knows that her gums hurt and she needs to chew on something. She knows when nature calls: when she needs to do her business and sometimes even throw up.

What Shiloh doesn’t know about are the systems that she and her owners live in. She doesn’t know that peeing on a laptop or ripping up the carpet means that her owners have to pay their landlord or a computer company extra money. She doesn’t know that we leave during the day because our economic system makes us choose between quality time with our loved ones and labor. She doesn’t know that wanting to play all the time can’t happen because her owners have to put in long hours at work and school to work for the possibility of a secure future.

Shiloh doesn’t know that the scary noises that wake her up are military planes that wreak death and destruction flying overhead, paid for by her owners’ tax dollars. She doesn’t know that the plastic packaging she tries to eat outside is the result of a wasteful consumer culture and corporate agriculture that threatens her health and the planet’s. She doesn’t know that it’s hard to find expanses of grass because of gentrifying urban sprawl that decimates poor communities and communities of color.

You see, Shiloh doesn’t actually impose on my way of life. The way I act, the way humanity acts, imposes on her way of life. Our systems of domination, oppression, and exploitation are grounded in what Rosemary Ruether calls a “patriarchal anthropology.” In this view of the cosmos, humans are destined to a life of “ruling over others, superior to them, and escaping our common mortality.” Our priorities and desires come first, and we subjugate the needs of the Shilohs of the world to uphold our middle-class comforts. We replace biological harmony with technological colonization of the natural world and our fellow living beings. We replace social harmony with social sin.

During Lent, we are called to repentance, to “turn away from sin and be faithful to the Good News.” In the Hebrew Bible, repentance is described as teshuva, from the root word shuv, which means “to turn.” So how can we turn from structures of domination and towards a life-giving model of collaboration and symbiosis?

In the Gospel of Matthew , Jesus instructs his followers to cast off the worries of human life. He calls them to “consider the birds of the air” and “consider the lilies of the field,” since they aren’t bound to the sowing, reaping, toiling, and spinning of human existence. Perhaps in our 21st-century context, we should “consider the puppies,” and the world of right relationship and mutual respect they call us into.

Still not thrilled about that laptop, though.

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Rebuilding the People’s Church

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(Image via Christians for Socialism)

I recently completed a research project on the ecumenical dialogue between the Roman Catholic Church and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). As a Roman Catholic student at a Disciples of Christ seminary, I am interested in the historical relationship between these two communions and the broader complexities of ecumenism and dialogue across lines of difference. This research interest led me to remarks by World Council of Churches ecumenist Aram I, who serves as the Catholicos of Cicilia and head of the Armenian Apostolic Church.

Aram spoke in 2005 to representatives of the Joint Working Group (JWG) dialogue between the Roman Catholic Church and the World Council of Churches. In this dialogue, he offered a challenge to ecumenical workers, urging them to make their work relevant to the Church universal:

“How many churches, clergy or theologians are aware of the work of the JWG? Its work is confined to a limited circle of ecumenists. To address this situation, the work of the JWG must be related to the life of the church on the local level, and must be appropriated by the churches through a process of ecumenical education. Reaching the local churches: I consider this a major task before the ecumenical movement for the years to come.”

 Aram’s call for a relevant ecumenism that speaks to the needs of the local church reminded me of another challenging call to the Church by Sheila Briggs. At the 2000 gathering of the Women’s Ordination Conference, Briggs challenged dominant views of ordination:

“Sheila Briggs, an African American Catholic religious studies scholar, stated that ordination is by its very nature an elitist practice, one that by definition excludes women (and men) who are not highly educated. She asked, ‘when will the poor begin to celebrate the Eucharist?’

Like Sheila Briggs, Roman Catholic labor leader Dolores Huerta challenged the elitism of Roman Catholic power structures in negotiations with the Catholic Conference of California. When César Chavez asked for a priest to support striking farmworkers, corporate interests convinced bishops to take the priest away.

“Dolores Huerta lead a group of farm worker women into Bishop Manning’s office in Fresno and asked, ‘Why did you take our priest away from the farm workers? We’re not going to leave until we get an answer.’ Bishop Manning said ‘I’m going to go now and pray.’ Two hours later, he came back and said ‘I’ve been praying to the Holy Spirit.’ Dolores and the women said ‘We are the Holy Spirit incarnate. We are the poor!’ He thought about it and agreed.”

The words of Huerta, Briggs, and Aram challenge people like myself who are invested in the world of academic theology. They shake our ivory towers, reminding us that God’s transformative reign of global flourishing, peace, and justice will not be brought about by academic elites. The good news cannot be proclaimed on high from comfortable seats of abstract theological discourse. Our theological debates are meaningless if they have nothing to say to the poor and exploited, to lay members of the local church, and to those whose voices and priestly callings are repressed by the Church because of their gender identity or sexual orientation.

How can we debate the two natures of Christ without resisting the exploitation of nature itself? How can we examine the intricacies of the Eucharistic meal without working with those who have no food to eat? How can we wonder about the details of God’s embodiment in the Incarnation without demolishing the material oppressions that the United States’ racist warmongering, policing, and deportations inflict on the bodies of people of color at home and around the world? How can we inquire about the metaphysics of Jesus’ healing while our neighbors die because they cannot afford healthcare? In the words of St. John Chrysostom, how can we see Christ in the chalice, but not in the beggar at the church door?

If we believe Dolores Huerta’s words, that the Holy Spirit is incarnate in the lives of the poor, oppressed, and exploited, then we must change the voices we value:

  • Instead of uncritically praising Pope Francis, we must turn to the survivors of clergy sex abuse he has harmed, the women whose priestly calls he has denied, and queer and trans people who have suffered under the church’s oppression.
  • Instead of centering popular Catholic voices who have the backing of hierarchs and celebrities, we must turn to academic thinkers, church workers, and revolutionaries who have faced excommunication and marginalization for questioning the racialized, gendered, and economic power imbalances of our Church.
  • Instead of believing that the Good News can only flow from respectable institutions of Catholic higher education, we must turn to those workers whose union rights have been denied by Catholic colleges and universities. We must turn to those whose neighborhoods have been gentrified by Catholic schools, and to those who suffer under the boot of US imperialism while Catholic colleges allow military training on their campuses.
  • Instead of presidential candidates, priests, and popes, we must turn to the witness of workers and the laity, knowing that “faith without works is dead.” (James 2:17)

We must revive the call of liberation theologians, re-building a “theology from below” that forms the foundations of a “People’s Church.” When it comes to war and the environment, we must stop thinking like Catholic hierarchs and start thinking like Catholic Workers.

When we dare to dream of a liberating future for all of humanity, we must turn to the witness of the People of God enacted through groups like Christians for Socialism, the Movement for Black Lives, the Catholic Committee of Appalachia, and the Poor People’s Campaign. Instead of dancing around controversial issues in the Church, we must fully affirm the lives, loves, reproductive freedom, and priestly callings of women and LGBTQIA+ people.

It is time to break free of institutions that stifle, and to enact God’s live-giving presence against oppression and exploitation in our local and global communities.

White Christians-Our Silence

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[This piece was originally submitted to the Des Moines Register as a letter to the editor]

Across Des Moines, Christians such as myself are gathering in churches, awaiting the coming of a child with song and prayer. Yet, there is also a deafening silence enveloping the institutions where my fellow white Christians gather. While we celebrate the birth of a child, we all too often ignore the death of Black children, like Tamir Rice and Aiyana Jones, killed by police.

Fellow white Christians: when was the last time race was discussed in your church? Has your pastor ever spoken the name of Tamir Rice or Aiyana Jones, of Eric Garner, of Deshawnda Sanchez? Do our church leaders speak publicly against racial disparities in Iowa’s justice system, called “the worst in the nation” by the ACLU? Do we uphold a narrative of a white Savior or the more truthful narrative that Rev. Serene Jones recently called “the story of a black body being killed by the most powerful nation in the world”?

White Christians must do racial justice work now. We must centralize the voices of Black and Womanist theologians like James Cone and M. Shawn Copeland. We must engage books like Jennifer Harvey’s “Dear White Christians” that call for racial reparations. We must work with and support racial justice groups like AMOS Iowa, the NYC Justice League, Hands Up United, Millenial Activists United and the Dream Defenders. We must take to the streets and attend rallies and marches to transform our racist criminal justice system. Until we affirm that Black lives matter, we are complicit in the sin of racist state-sanctioned violence.

Building Connections

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Recently, while scouring my “people you may know tab” on Facebook, I found a few surprising suggestions. Not a relative or a new Drake student, Facebook was suggesting that I friend request one of the following people:

1. A director of a church justice organization

2. An activist nun

3. The author of my Contemporary Ethical Problems textbook

4. A prominent feminist theologian

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Talkin’ Bout A Revolution

“Now in the people that were meant to be green there is no more life of any kind. There is only shriveled barrenness. The winds are burdened by the utterly awful stink of evil, selfish goings-on. Thunderstorms menace. The air belches out the filthy uncleanliness of the peoples. The earth should not be injured! The earth must not be destroyed!” -Hildegard of Bingen
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Over 400,000 activists, both religious and secular, descended upon New York City last Sunday for the People’s Climate March. On Monday, over 1,000 activists attended the “Flood Wall Street” protests, which called for radical economic and structural change to end the climate crisis. These protestors gathered under the banner of “Structural Change, not Climate Change”. Refusing to accept small reforms as a solution, the protestors demanded complete economic and political revolution. In my opinion, the Catholic and Christian Left could take a page from Flood Wall Street’s book. Continue reading

Seeking Justice, Speaking Up

MikeBrownProtest“For what else shall we pray?”

Father stretched out his arms, inviting the congregation to share their petitions. This was it: the only part of Mass in our parish that allows individuals other than the priest or lector to speak. My prayer lingered on the tip of my tongue:

For an end to police brutality and racism in Ferguson, Missouri and around our country, let us pray.

 I hesitated. Taking a deep breath, I decided that I would let someone else say their prayer before I said mine. I sat, fidgeting in silence, awaiting someone else’s words. Surely there would be enough-

“For all of these things, we pray.”

I had missed my window. My hesitation had prevented me from speaking the words I knew needed to be spoken to our overwhelmingly white congregation. At that moment, I felt less like the Gospel’s Canaanite woman defying societal norms to speak out and more like Peter, denying what he knew to be true.

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“Big C”, “little c”, Hurt and Hope

nobleRecently, I returned to the Motherland. This trip did not take me far across land and sea, just a few hours from my Nebraska home to several very small and very Catholic towns in western Iowa to visit family over the 4th of July. Although this trip seemed familiar, it was also wrought with interesting changes from my previous visits. These changes ranged from my newfound status as a semi-adult at family events to my refusal of burgers and hotdogs as a vegetarian.

However, the most interesting change I experienced was my return to my “big-C Catholic” heritage as a self-professed “little-c” progressive catholic who isn’t the biggest fan of institutional Church systems and doctrine. For the first time, I approached the rituals and goings-on of institutional Catholicism as a semi-outsider. After nearly 5 months worshipping in an intentional community, I returned to a big-C Catholic big-M Mass. Armed with the tools of critical analysis, I half-expected to storm in and deconstruct every abusive, heteronormative, patriarchal, gender-binary-enforcing Euro- and white-centric aspect of the institutional church.

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