Reset the Heart: Unlearning Violence, Relearning Hope

Reset the Heart: Unlearning Violence, Relearning Hope

by Mai-Anh Le Tran

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781501832468
Publisher: Abingdon Press
Publication date: 03/07/2017
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 178
Sales rank: 868,876
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Mai-Anh Le Tran is Associate Professor of Christian Education at Eden Theological Seminary.

She is a member of the Curriculum Review Committee of The United Methodist Church and The United Methodist Publishing House as well as the International Association of Practical Theology. The focus of her writings has been local/global intersections of race, gender, and class in religious identity formation and practices. Her current research focuses on religion, education and violence.

Read an Excerpt

Reset The Heart

Unlearning Violence, Relearning Hope

By Mai-Anh Le Tran

Abingdon Press

Copyright © 2017 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-5018-3246-8


The Problem of Faith in a Violent World

Summer Reveries

"So are you going to do something?"

It was August 13, 2014, and I had just gotten back to St. Louis from New York City, and there I stood in a hair salon catching up with Martha, a colleague and friend, for a few minutes between her appointment and mine. I had no idea what her question meant.

"You know, there's talk of activities being organized around what happened over the weekend. Are you going to participate?" my friend continued with patience, as if she knew too well what it takes to recalibrate one's frame of mind after sabbatical exploits.

"You know, the shooting in Ferguson ...," Martha helped out.

It was breaking news, and I had not yet caught on to the names "Michael Brown" and "Darren Wilson." Martha clued me in: a White police officer fatally shot an unarmed Black teenager in a suburb less than fifteen miles north of where I live and teach. The fact that I remained oblivious to the news is egregious only in hindsight. After all, doesn't our social imaginary consider violent shootings involving Black youth "normal," especially for an urban metropolis like St. Louis?

Three days later, I found myself on the sidewalk of Canfield Drive, staring at a makeshift roadside memorial in the middle of the street, at the spot where a teenager's body was left lifeless and exposed for over four hours before grief-stricken, bewildered, indifferent, vulturous eyes. People were just beginning to gather for what was to be the first vigil for the fatal shooting by local law enforcement of yet another African American youth — but something was different in the air that day. Vigil keepers positioned themselves quietly. A woman evangelist with a bullhorn was proclaiming muffled words about salvation. It began to rain. Someone nearby muttered, "Rain cleanses ..."

August 9 means different things to different people — and perhaps nothing at all to some — but it disrupted my world. I was in New York City when Eric Garner died under the chokehold of a police officer, and I had just left the San Francisco Bay Area when Oscar Grant was shot by a BART officer who mistook his own gun for a Taser. So why does the body of Michael Brown lifeless on the ground disrupt and disturb me so? Why did the moment at which I nervously sat on the public "mourning bench" become for me the ominous zero-hundred-hours that marked both an ending and a beginning of something — of what I knew not at that moment?

For one, it disrupted my professional world because as soon as news broke out, members of the seminary community at which I teach as well as religious professionals and faith groups in all of greater St. Louis knew that we were going to have to snap to attention and spring into action. As facts remained muddied with stories and counter-testimonies, feet took to the streets; vigils and forums were improvised everywhere; teach-ins, preach-ins, and eat-ins were organized by local leaders, in concert with experts and partners from all over the country. In the following months, what seemed to be dramaturgical performances of religious ritual (from ecumenical Christian worship to interfaith prayer services), faith-based action, and intentional consciousness-raising efforts gave evidence of a social collective being spiritually reconfigured by tragedy. The activities tested the capacity of faith communities to engage in disciplined improvisation: after all, we are in the business of "making disciples for the transformation of the world" — can we walk the faith talk at such a violent time as this?

As the context-specific actions of Ferguson merged with the larger #BlackLivesMatter protest movement, local lay and clergy leaders learned anew what it takes to "put some feet to their prayers." However, as improvisational efforts continued to rally and organize churches toward the enduring work of confronting the insidious violence of systemic social injustices in their own backyard, these leaders ran head-on into a familiar yet perplexing wall: the incapacity and unwillingness of their faith communities to respond with some form of faith-driven action. In many cases, the resistance was (and still is) fierce, eerily reminiscent of the stand-offs that divided racialized religious communities and civic leadership in the 1960s civil rights era. If the church's teaching, learning, and practice of faith is purportedly transformative, then where is that faith when it is needed most? If "good" religious formation had been happening all along — or had it? — then why the indifference, paralysis, apathy, exasperation, and even downright resistance when a calamity occurred that could have used a faithful response? Why does it appear as if collective moral consciousness has once again been anesthetized, and the hope for which church folk love to sing and pray suddenly debilitated in the face of actual struggle? The problem is perplexing. Anemic prayers for peace seem impotent, and steady obedience to the long haul of faithful action seems dissatisfying when the very foundations of faith seems to be quaking due to human tantrums.

The killing of Michael Brown disrupted my professional world, but it also disturbed my very psyche, triggering a crisis of faith if you will — albeit a variety suffered by those who can afford to call existential certitude into question and not have to worry about what to eat, where to live, whom to love, or whether or not we would survive the next day. Nonetheless, it was a crisis of faithful meaning-making: What does it mean to be a person of faith in a violent world? What does it even mean to "have faith" in this world that is so violent? What does it mean for vulnerable bodies — victims of systemic and systematic abuse, neglect, and indifference — to continue believing that this world exists for them, for their future, for their flourishing? What does it mean for any of us to continue about our daily business of eating, praying, and loving, when the world continues to be punctured and ruptured by violence? If faith is a verb, then how do we "do it" in such a world that we have today?

Resetting the Heart

The above questions and the larger-than-life issues they convey are vexing for me as a person of faith, an ordained minister in a church that proclaims commitment to transformative work in the world, and a scholar of religious educational praxis. Unfolding world events reflect both the fertility and fragility of our everyday chronos time. Religions teach love of neighbor, but reality reminds us repeatedly that it is hard to know who is neighbor and who is enemy. After all, in many times and places, we are both neighbor and enemy to one another. Despite forecasts about rising secularism and post-religious, post-Christian movements in North America, we have empirical descriptions of exploding charismatic spiritualities and groundswells of new "Christendoms" in the global south. The transnational flows of peoples have collapsed contexts, but have also exposed the fierce reflexes of physical and social immune systems triggered by risky human contact. Opportunities to share meals, fellowship, and prayers with new friends across the globe remind us of the early Christian communities' seemingly ideal habits (Acts 2:42). But the allergens and pathogens — biological and social — contracted during border-crossings also remind us of how these basic human activities of eating, praying, and loving challenge our notions of what it means to be "redemptive community." Every now and then, standing in liminal, chronos time, we gasp for kairos hope, because "we can't breathe." ... Attending to such moments, scholars-practitioners of religious education ask, What does it mean to teach for faith in such a time as this?

I have had several occasions to drive pass the spot — marked now by a memorial plaque — where Mike Brown's body lay for over four hours. When the world is not watching and the theatricality of news-reporting has left, the place is quiet, even serene. Yet, Canfield Drive and other blood- and rain-soaked grounds like it continue to give off "ghost flames," haunting the public conscience with grief and rage that calls for a less violent, more just world. The paradigmatic event of #Ferguson — an event that reflects the current implosive outrage against structural inequities in society and culture — raises questions for religious leadership and religious teaching and learning. For many such leaders, the demands for change from the streets are challenging our existing "curriculum" for "faith as practice." The world is demanding from people of faith — Christians in the United States, in particular — an account of how our faith is evidenced in the gritty and murderous materiality of everyday life.

Perhaps over the years, teaching and learning in Christian religious communities have obsessed too much with the structure, contents, and infrastructures of faith. That is to say, we dissect the constitutive elements of meaning-making that help us make sense of certain faith positions (structure); we debate about what is the correct object of our spiritual allegiance and moral-ethical bearing (content); and we fret about the sustainability of our resources to transmit our faith systems (infrastructure). Amid these efforts, we sometimes forget that the lifelong and lifewide processes of forging, fashioning, nurturing, and exercising our faith require relational, evolving, and even revolutionary commitment to our surrounding contexts. We neglect the Christian tradition's long-held reverence for phronesis — or, as Don Browning defines it, the "wisdom that attends to lived experience, is transformative and change-seeking and always interprets the lived context in the light of the values and virtues of sacred tradition." It is this commitment to practical wisdom that keeps our teaching, learning, and practice of faith incarnational. This commitment makes us want to see how faith actually (re)orders our way of life. Theologically speaking, we are eager to "trac[e] the form God wears in this material world," and we believe that such discovery of and participation with "God in our skin" — Immanu-El — is what it would take to mend the broken shards of creation (tikkun Olam). With this primordial human desire to repair our world we muster up faith, to "set our hearts" upon things that are at once material and ethereal, s**** and holy, momentary and eternal, this-worldly and other-worldly. It is this gritty kind of faith that helps us not to be flummoxed when confronted with the question, "Are you going to do something in response to this violence?"

Theologians and educators have persisted in articulating the enduring pursuit of both faith and understanding, in pondering whether there will be faith in the coming future, and speculating about the nature of emergent faith forms. Time and again, I return to the eloquence of James W. Fowler, who, to the chagrin of many, dared to propose structure to Mystery through the empirical sciences, but who, borrowing the theological constructs of his contemporaries, gave language to a human phenomenon that many of us could only timidly describe as "gift":

For most of us, most of the time, faith functions so as to screen off the abyss of mystery that surrounds us. But we all at certain times call upon faith to provide nerve to stand in the presence of the abyss — naked, stripped of life supports, trusting only in the being, the mercy and the power of the Other in the darkness. Faith helps us form a dependable "life space," an ultimate environment. At a deeper level, faith undergirds us when our life space is punctured and collapses, when the felt reality of our ultimate environment proves to be less than ultimate.

Faith, it seems, is this primal capacity to inhabit our world, and to imbue our muddling through it with some sense of meaning and purpose, even if provisionally. Faith is what undergirds us when we confront the vicissitudes of life — the murder of an innocent teenager by an officer of the law, for example — and allows us to grapple with the full scope of human (and planetary) suffering and hope. In Christian theological dialects, we could call this the range between theodicy and ecstasy. Faith nourishes a courage — the root word for which is coeur, the heart — for a re-enchantment and resacralization of this world. It allows us to ask a blunt question: What does it mean to reset the heart for faith — and for love and hope (1 Cor 13:13) — in the afterburn of violence, in the afterburn of whatever is this week's #Ferguson?

Theodicy and Ecstasy in the Afterburn of #Ferguson

"Afterburn" became a haunting expression after a seminarian brought to me a section from an old training manual that she had kept from her days in the police academy in the state of Colorado. The term afterburn appears in the section on "street survival":

There's a psychological violence connected with gunfights that can be a dangerous enemy, as well as the physical violence. ... Sometimes the effect makes itself felt almost immediately. ... Most often, though, the impact is not so swift for the officer. It's likelier to set in days, weeks, even months after the shooting, through a phenomenon some therapists call "afterburn." This refers to the tendency of the human mind to dwell on unpleasant, emotion-charged events in the wake of their actual occurrence. In after-burn, you relive and react to an experience, churning over and over what you and others did and what you might or should have done different. This continual reminding and reassessing can be as vivid as the original event — and even more psychologically upsetting.

Here, therapeutic advisement to members of law enforcement makes it plain that the taking of human life is empirically disturbing, unsettling, and traumatic, even for individuals involved on the "right" side of the law, the "winning" side. One wonders, what of the afterburn for the wider socio-cultural psyche in the aftermath of events like #Ferguson, in which unjust state actions and merciless social reactions continue to churn, to haunt, to re-image themselves as vivid reminders to a suffering people of the enduring problem of theodicy: "If God is on the side of the [oppressed] — why don't they win?"

How will the teaching of faith assist people in addressing such a question?

Now, the grammar of Christian theology insists that to speak of suffering is to foreshadow hope, and I am drawn to reframing Christian hope in terms of ecstasy, persuaded by Philip Wexler's proposal for a "reenchantment" or "resacralization" of education. In this paradigm, educators might imagine themselves as magicians who — "endowed with charisma" ("that extraordinary personal power") and elevated above the realm of the ordinary in their ecstatic state — offer some sense of meaning and order to "a world disenchanted and losing magical significance." What if religious educators were also to imagine themselves endowed, not so much with the extraordinary prototypical charisma to be singularly elevated from the rest, but rather with the charism to facilitate the ecstatic reenchantment, resacralization of lives "cut dead" by society?

Such questions frame the agenda for this book. The 1960s and '70s yielded prodigious theories and theologies for revolutionary social change in US contexts. And yet, on August 9, 2014, religious folks once again found lumps in their throats. As unrest ensued over that one death, a death that many other violent outbreaks around the world have joined since then, we wonder whether there will ever be change for good. If transformative religious teaching and learning had been happening all along, then why the indifference, paralysis, apathy, exasperation, resistance, vitriolic public discourse and micro-aggressive exchanges on social media, altogether symptoms of corroded moral conscience and debilitated hope, every time violence occurs among us in varied forms and magnitudes, in such places as Nice, Baton Rouge, Dallas, Orlando, Ansbach, Istanbul, Davao?

One answer may come in a searing indictment: that in our pluralistic yet also politicized, polarizing, and racialized world, even progressive Christian faith communities are still culturally captive and our stories/ theologies and rituals/practices of the faith continue to anesthetize moral agency and debilitate courageous action for hope and change.

This book invites risky exploration of the above premise. Three paradigmatic questions guide our practical concerns:

1. What does it mean to educate for faith in a world marked by violence?

2. How are Christian faith communities complicit in the teaching and learning of violence?

3. What new (or renewed) practices of faith and educational leadership can help us unlearn violence and relearn hope?

This exploration is driven by a hope-based conviction: that violence challenges our Christian communities to regenerate radical forms of prophetic, (pro)tested faith, and to hone those skills and instincts through public conscientization and participatory action, whose goal is insurrectional, resurrectional hope.


Excerpted from Reset The Heart by Mai-Anh Le Tran. Copyright © 2017 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments vii

Chapter 1 The Problem of Faith in a Violent World 1

Chapter 2 DisImagination Land 21

Chapter 3 The Violence of Religious Educational Practice 47

Chapter 4 Practicing Communicability 77

Chapter 5 Practicing Redeemability 105

Chapter 6 Practicing Educability 129

Conclusion: "World Turned Upside Down" 155

Appendix 165

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