Praxis: Friendship in Prophetic Action for Shalom

As I reflect on the meaning of praxis in relation to development within my current context, a very special friend comes to mind: Mr. JB. I met JB ten years ago as I served with Alabama Rural Ministry (ARM) for a summer leading home repair mission teams. My encounter with JB is likely the single-most influential factor in my decision to return to ARM in 2014 to join the full-time staff. In this context of ministry with ARM, my understanding of praxis – generically defined as “a unity of theory and practice” (Ledwith, 2009, p. xiv) – has been shaped by the stories of families in rural Alabama who strive to live lives of dignity and purpose in spite of their poverty housing conditions. These stories reveal how Alabama fails to be a “sweet home” for so many of its residents. Unlike my privileged experience as a middle-class, Euro-American, raced as white, able-bodied male, the experiences of families I have come to know through ARM are marked by various struggles with systemic injustice and marginalization due to race, class, gender, and (dis)ability. My friendship with JB was my informal introduction into this new, bewildering reality of poverty in my own backyard. As I try to be friends with JB, I am led into situations that call for a special kind of action – prophetic action – inspired by the Spirit of Jesus who still anoints God’s children to “preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, [and] to liberate the oppressed” (Lk. 4:18b, Common English Bible). This prophetic action is founded on the hope of “the day of the Lord’s favor” (Lk. 4:19), which is a day of joy, peace, holistic and dynamic flourishing, and perfect community with God, neighbor, self, and all creation – a day of shalom. These three themes – friendship, prophetic action, and shalom ­– inform the praxis I am seeking to embody. After reviewing common definitions of praxis, this essay will briefly explore an understanding of praxis as friendship in prophetic action for shalom.

In most cases, praxis refers to a synthesis of thinking and doing, acting and reflecting. The term arose as a response to modern, Western culture which is rooted in “a dualistic post-Kantian epistemology which presumed a fundamental dichotomy between… thought and action” (Markey, 1995, p. 193). However, praxis can also take on broader, less specific meanings. Markey (1995) finds at least three fundamental understandings of praxis in common usage.  Following Aristotle, praxis can be synonymous with practice or any kind of “direct activity.” Second, following Kant, praxis becomes “any ethically relevant human behavior” (Markey, 1995, p. 180-1). These two understandings remain ambiguous since neither explains the purpose or goal of praxis. However, the third way of understanding praxis as identified by Markey’s (1995) analysis is more explicit about its purpose. Following Marx, praxis is seen as “human creative activity” that transforms history and people, as social praxis that shapes culture, and as revolutionary praxis which “works to subvert, counter, and overturn the existing social praxis” (Markey, 1995, p. 181).  This particular understanding of praxis is the most applicable to the aims of development, which seeks the transformation of individuals and socio-economic processes including subversion of the status quo in contexts of systemic injustice and oppression.

My friendship with JB and reveals the need for the kind of revolutionary praxis that Marx suggests. Even though he and I grew up in the same county in rural Alabama, our life experiences could not be more different and more unequal. JB is an African-American man, raced as black, twice my age, who is unemployed, and lives alone in a severely dilapidated mobile home where he gets by on a very low income from government assistance. JB has been diagnosed with schizophrenia, has struggled with alcoholism, and has not been able to keep healthy relationships with his family or his surrounding community. JB’s home is very close to the town where I grew up in a very comfortable home, received a decent education, and was given all the love, support, and opportunity I needed to thrive. If not for my service with ARM’s home repair ministry, I would not have crossed JB’s path because social life in Sumter County is still sharply divided by race. My church, my school, my neighbors, and my friends were virtually all white in a town where African-Americans made up nearly 75% of the population. This oppressive reality of social division and inequality stands in opposition to the will of God who desires an abundant life of justice, love, and community for all people in all places, Sumter County included. A truly Christian praxis, which will be even more radical than Marx’s understanding of revolutionary praxis, is desperately needed to create a space for God’s healing and redemption to unfold in Sumter County and other rural communities across the state. This Christian praxis will be characterized by friendship in prophetic action for shalom.

Through my experiences with JB and many others I have come to know in rural Alabama, I have been convinced that Christian praxis must begin in friendship because praxis is, first and foremost, an embodied response to the God who is Love. As Gustavo Gutierrez (1988) makes clear, “if there is no friendship with [the poor] and no sharing of the life of the poor, then there is no authentic commitment to [the praxis of] liberation, because love exists only among equals” (p. xxxi). Beginning with friendships makes space for people to learn to give and receive from one another, to trust one another, to care for one another, and to share their stories from the heart. This foundation of love, trust, equality, and mutuality are essential to Christian praxis. What’s more, in order for these praxeological friendships to be truly Christocentric, they should be shaped by God’s option for the poor “not because Christ is with the marginalized but, rather, Christ is the marginalized” (De La Torre, 2004, p. 57). For me, this means trying to be friends with someone like JB who reveals Christ to me in uniquely powerful ways. I have come to learn that “Jesus doesn’t have any good news for those [like me] who serve the poor,” because “God is not manifest in our ability to heal, but in our need to be healed” (Oliver, 2009). Those who pursue friendships of solidarity with the poor as part of their praxis must be involved in the transformation they seek to see in others and their communities, and be ready to be transformed themselves. As Ledwith (2009) notes, praxis is not an individualized experience because “in praxis, my journey comes together with others in the quest for critical consciousness: making sense of the world in order to transform it as a collective experience” (p. 41).

Christian praxis begins in deeply personal friendships, but it must move on to prophetic action. As stated previously, praxis is understood generically as a unity or synthesis of theory and practice. This dynamic is usually described as the action-reflection cycle. For Freire (2000), the two are inseparable such that “true reflection… leads to action… [and] that action will constitute an authentic praxis only if its consequences become the object of critical reflection” (p. 66). However, this is not a linear, step-by-step process. Instead, according to Freire (2000), “action and reflection occur simultaneously” (p. 128). This cycle is articulated well within Brueggemann’s (2001) concept of prophetic ministry which seeks to “to nuture, nourish, and evoke [an alternative] consciousness and perception” that simultaneously “serves to criticize in dismantling the dominant consciousness… [while,] on the other hand, [serving] to energize persons and communities by its promise of another time and situation toward which the community of faith may move” (p. 3).

Christian praxis is prophetic to the extent that it employs a critical analysis of power, ideology, and hegemony. This reflective analysis will reveal how power “is located within a multidimensional system of oppressions in which we are all simultaneously oppressors and oppressed” (Ledwith, 2009, p. 143). In response to these death-dealing systems of oppression, prophetic Christian praxis will invite a “public sharing of pain,” which “seeks to penetrate the numbness in order to face the body of death in which we are caught” (Brueggemann, 2001, p. 117). This lamentation goes deeper than political protest, and allows the voices of those who suffer most to be heard the loudest.

At the same time, prophetic Christian praxis will bring people together to work for concrete changes in their lives and communities. This will mean interacting with and possibly challenging “the political and social structures that normalize injustices” (De La Torre, 2004, p. 47). However, this political action, founded as it is in friendships, will begin locally and, over time, extend to develop “a [global] reach that aims to transform the structures of oppression that diminish local lives” (Ledwith, 2009, p. 3). This transformative action will look different in every context, but will, in every context, consist of “offering an alternative perception of reality and in letting people see their own history in the light of God’s freedom and his will for justice” (Brueggemann, 2001, p. 116). Christian praxis as prophetic action must build upon its personal relationships to inspire movements for structural change that can adequately criticize the status quo while energizing diverse groups to pursue in unity a renewed common good where “justice [rolls] down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24).

Finally, Christian praxis that begins in friendship and leads to prophetic action will be inspired by a vision of shalom. Or, as Gutierrez (1998) says it, praxis is “the activity of “peacemakers” – that is, those who are forging shalom” (p. xxx). This Hebrew concept found in the writings of the prophets is usually translated as “peace,” but its original meaning is much richer. According to Myers (2011), shalom summarizes God’s “kingdom vision for the better human future”, and describes a community of “just, peaceful, harmonious, and enjoyable relationships with each other, ourselves, our environment, and God” (Kindle loc. 3778). All Christian praxis must be evaluated in the light of this holistic, comprehensive vision of redemption.

However, the light of shalom shines into the present from the future that God and God alone is working out. Shalom is the hope of those who pursue Christian praxis – not their reality – and “hope must be an inherent part of our present commitment in history” (Gutierrez, 1988, p. 11). The pursuit of Christian praxis will face challenges, setbacks, and obstacles at every turn. The structures of social injustice it seeks to transform are deeply embedded, and change will sometimes be slow. And, hardest of all, Christian praxis “will always be practiced through our own conflicted selves,” which are just as caught up in systems of oppression as those oppressed (Brueggemann, 2001, p. 118). Ultimately, our praxis towards shalom can only be a participation in God’s much bigger praxis towards shalom. Praxis, therefore, is a gift received by grace through faith. For now, this gift of shalom is only seen in part – “a reflection as in a mirror” – but on the coming day of the Lord “we shall see [it] face to face” (1 Cor. 13:12).

What does this understanding of Christian praxis as friendship in prophetic action for shalom mean in my context of ministry among children and families in rural Alabama? First, it means making friendship with those I serve not only a personal priority, but a matter of organizational culture and ethos. It can be easy to see ARM as just another “social service agency” where people with “needs” go to get their needs met and where people who like to “meet needs” go to volunteer. In pursuit of Christian praxis, ARM will need to be transformed from a social service agency to a social capital enterprise where friends – not “needs” – are met. Second, it will require creating a space for with whom we serve to voice their grief and struggles. Both myself and ARM’s volunteers need to hear and come to know the depth of suffering that is endured by families in rural Alabama who live without adequate housing. Third, Christian praxis will require an expanded advocacy role, especially on the state level, which engages and challenges Alabama’s political structure. ARM is already involved in this work in very small, indirect ways, but a deeper commitment must be made. This commitment to political change must be informed by and even led by those families with whom we serve. Finally, the gift of shalom as our hope reminds us to rest, enjoy, and celebrate God’s faithfulness together. Along with all the “doing” of ministry, there must be time simply for “being” together in God’s presence. ARM already tries to incorporate rest and times of fellowship between families and volunteers into its ministry design, but this practice must continue to grow even more widespread. As I recall my friend JB in light of this essay, I wonder: how can I be his true friend? How can I listen, amplify, and share in his pain? What are the socio-economic powers at work in his life and community? Who can come together to challenge these powers? What does shalom look like for JB?

Bibliography

  • Brueggemann, W. (2001). The Prophetic Imagination, 2nd edition. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.
  • De La Torre, M. (2004). Doing Christian Ethics from the Margins. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.
  • Freire, P. (2000). Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 30th anniversary edition. New York: Continuum.
  • Gutierrez, G. (1988). A Theology of Liberation, 15th anniversary edition. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.
  • Ledwith, M. (2011). Community Development: A Critical Approach, 2nd edition. Birmingham, United Kingdom: Venture Press.
  • Markey, J. (1995). “Praxis in Liberation Theology: Some Clarifications,” Missiology: An International Review XXIII (2).
  • Myers, B. (2011). Walking with the Poor: Principles and Practices of Transformational Development [Kindle version]. Retrieved from Amazon.com
  • Oliver, C. (2009). “Why I Stopped Serving the Poor” (unpublished essay).

Pentecost: We’re All Prophets Now

Moses heard the people crying throughout their clans, each at his tent’s entrance. The Lord was outraged, and Moses was upset. Moses said to the Lord, “Why have you treated your servant so badly? And why haven’t I found favor in your eyes, for you have placed the burden of all these people on me? Did I conceive all these people? Did I give birth to them, that you would say to me, ‘Carry them at the breast, as a nurse carries an unweaned child,’ to the fertile land that you promised their ancestors? Where am I to get meat for all these people? They are crying before me and saying, ‘Give us meat, so we can eat.’ I can’t bear this people on my own. They’re too heavy for me. If you’re going to treat me like this, please kill me. If I’ve found favor in your eyes, then don’t let me endure this wretched situation.”

The Lord said to Moses, “Gather before me seventy men from Israel’s elders, whom you know as elders and officers of the people. Take them to the meeting tent, and let them stand there with you. Then I’ll descend and speak with you there. I’ll take some of the spirit that is on you and place it on them. Then they will carry the burden of the people with you so that you won’t bear it alone. To the people you will say, ‘Make yourselves holy for tomorrow; then you will eat meat, for you’ve cried in the Lord’s hearing, “Who will give us meat to eat? It was better for us in Egypt.” The Lord will give you meat, and you will eat. You won’t eat for just one day, or two days, or five days, or ten days, or twenty days, but for a whole month until it comes out of your nostrils and nauseates you. You’ve rejected the Lord who’s been with you and you have cried before him, saying, “Why did we leave Egypt?” ’”

Moses said, “The people I’m with are six hundred thousand on foot and you’re saying, ‘I will give them meat, and they will eat for a month.’ Can flocks and herds be found and slaughtered for them? Or can all the fish in the sea be found and caught for them?”

The Lord said to Moses, “Is the Lord’s power too weak? Now you will see whether my word will come true for you or not.”

So Moses went out and told the people the Lord’s words. He assembled seventy men from the people’s elders and placed them around the tent. The Lord descended in a cloud, spoke to him, and took some of the spirit that was on him and placed it on the seventy elders. When the spirit rested on them, they prophesied, but only this once. Two men had remained in the camp, one named Eldad and the second named Medad, and the spirit rested on them. They were among those registered, but they hadn’t gone out to the tent, so they prophesied in the camp. A young man ran and told Moses, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.”

Joshua, Nun’s son and Moses’ assistant since his youth, responded, “My master Moses, stop them!”

Moses said to him, “Are you jealous for my sake? If only all the Lord’s people were prophets with the Lord placing his spirit on them!

Numbers 11:10-29

Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory

All we say to America is, “Be true to what you said on paper.” If I lived in China or even Russia, or any totalitarian country, maybe I could understand the denial of certain basic First Amendment privileges, because they hadn’t committed themselves to that over there. But somewhere I read of the freedom of assembly. Somewhere I read of the freedom of speech. Somewhere I read of the freedom of the press. Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for right. And so just as I say, we aren’t going to let any dogs or water hoses turn us around, we aren’t going to let any injunction turn us around.

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. :: April 3rd 1968 :: Memphis, TN

God of Wrath vs Wrath of God

angryGodGod’s wrath and judgement must somehow be reconciled and correlated with God’s concern for justice and righteousness. It appears that the former is produced by human sin – the failure to manifest justice and righteousness (cf. Is 5:1-7; Amos 5:21-24); divine judgment often is presented in direct contrast with and in equal measure to human sin… This means that one must reckon not with a Deus irae (God of wrath) but rather with the ira Dei (the wrath of God). God’s wrath is instrumental, intended to bring about a result: repentance and reform. In linguistic terms, God’s wrath is not stative (such that God is angry, ontologically or dispositionally, especially not always) but rather is transitive (God is angry about something). But when the object of wrath is tended to – the offending sin or circumstance removed – the wrath disappears as well… Divine wrath and judgment are never simplistic but rather are “the outcome of a complex process of divine wrestling, anguish, attempted overtures to the people, calls for repentance, warnings that keep the door open” (P. Miller, “‘Slow to Anger’: The God of the Prophets” in The Way of the Lord: Essays in Old Testament Theology, 276)… the prophetic texts writ large suggest that “the Lord’s bent toward compassion is a part of what it means to be God, not just an option among other possibilities… Reticence to wrath in favor of compassion is what it means to be the Lord” (P. Miller, 276).

B. A. Strawn and B. D. Strawn, “Prophecy and Psychology,” The Dictionary of the Old Testament Prophets, 620.

In summary, according to the prophets, God is not wrath in the same way that God is Love. God has wrath – momentarily – but it can always be averted through repentance. Wrath is never God’s last word because God does not simply have love – God is Love.

“For a brief moment I abandoned you,
but with deep compassion I will bring you back.
In a surge of anger
I hid my face from you for a moment,
but with everlasting kindness
I will have compassion on you,”
says the Lord your Redeemer.

Isaiah 54:7-8

Will Campbell on Hope and Discipleship

[Jesus] never demanded of the people who wanted to follow him that they must first know this or that, this creed, or that catechism, the nature of the Trinity or the plan of salvation, or subscribe to an Abstract of Principles to the satisfaction of the Sanhedrin. He had not insisted on any systematic belief whatsoever.

He talked of such things as a cup of cold water. Ah, but we must build a global sprinkler system. And while we are appointing committees and electing boards and creating giant agencies to build the global sprinkler system the one near at hand perishes from dehydration as we pass by on the other side.

The inherent danger in creed, in belief over faith, Edith Hamilton said, is that belief is passive. Faith is active and leads to discipleship. Creed, or belief, simply requires recitation. What’s the point in believing a whale swallowed a man unless we understand that it is a story about justice?

The problem with biblical literalism is that it is biblical illiteracy. The words are known but not the tune. The Bible is a book. A book about who God is. It is not a scientific dissertation to be required in Caesar’s academy. But again I wander.

Where, then, is there hope? If not in institutions, in bigness, in belief, certitude or creed, where is it? In freelance acts of discipleship, I believe. Certainly grace abounds and there is hope.

…There is hope, for there the star of Christmas shines again and there the Star of David glows anew. For there is Immanuel: God with us.

Will Campbell, in remarks given to the Associated Baptist Press in 1994.

A tough word for a seminarian to hear, but a good word nonetheless.

Fackre on the Necessity of Glossolalia for the Church

"Glossolalia" by James Roper

“Glossolalia” by James Roper

Within the broad institutional life of the Christian community there is a place for a subcommunity of special visionaries. Just as the body part of glossolalia serves the function of keeping the Corinthian church off balance, so the Church in every period needs those who talk the strange language of the Not Yet, those who peer further into the Future and strain toward that goal in their attitude and behavior. These visionaries are not necessarily more advanced in their spiritual and moral life, for the sin of pride and self-righteousness visits them more habitually and intensely than most, precisely because of their intensity of purpose, keeping them also in the company of sinners. Rather, their role calls the Church away from its easygoing accommodation to the world… The visionary role is always exercised as part of the Body and is not to be mistaken for the whole… The visionary is part of an inclusive community of those who see and serve the light that shines on them. “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I do not need you…'” (1 Cor. 12:21).

Gabriel Fackre, The Christian Story

The Vision of Oscar Romero: His Pastoral Letters [Part 4]

oscar-romero-iconRomero published his first pastoral letter on the occasion of Easter 1977 only a few months after his installment as archbishop in February of that same year. He would go on to write three more pastoral letters; all three would be published on the occasion of the Feast of the Transfiguration celebrated in August 1977, 1978, and 1979. In his first letter, Romero defined the church as “the sacrament of Easter”: “a church that is born of Easter and exists to be a sign and instrument of Easter in the world.”[1] His three subsequent letters would build on this foundation as Romero worked out the consequences of his vision of the church for the suffering, persecuted people of El Salvador.

While his vision of the church was uniquely embodied in his ministry, it did not arise out of a vacuum. In all four letters, Romero reveals his deep regard for the church and his dependence on its teachings; specifically those teachings put forward by the Second Vatican Council and the Conference of Latin American Bishops in Medellin, as well as Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Evangelii Nuntiandi. In this way, Romero’s visionary leadership was a shining example of what L. Gregory Jones has called “traditioned innovation”: the kind of transformative leadership that preserves the wisdom of tradition and knows how to adapt it to empower the proclamation of God’s reign in a particular time and place.[2] As I examine Romero’s vision of the Easter church set forth in his pastoral letters, four interwoven themes arise as its foundational pillars, which will be explored in further detail: a continual conversion, a pilgrim journey, a liberating evangelism, and a persecuted service.

The Easter church envisioned by Romero lives in the redemptive power of Christ’s “passage from death to resurrection” through the Holy Spirit in a process of conversion whereby the church is transformed by a “paschal tension” which calls it “to destroy whatever is sin and to bring into being ever more powerfully all that is life, renewal, holiness, justice.”[3] Romero suggests that conversion must begin within the church itself, which is driven to inward examination by its encounter with the evil of the world through its ministry to the lowly, poor, and weak.[4] Romero offered this “change of heart that makes a person more human” to all people – rich, poor, and middle class, oppressed and oppressor – as an invitation to the kingdom of Jesus Christ.[5] For Romero, only the church engaged in the continual work of conversion can live out its true identity and therefore make its prime contribution to the life of the world: “to be itself.”[6]

The journey of the Easter church in the world is the journey of a pilgrim, of “a body of men and women who belong to God, but who live in the world.”[7] The process of conversion is essential to this journey because the life of the pilgrim church must be an illuminating presence in the history of darkness wherein God is at work.[8] As a bearer of light in a specific time and place in human history, the church is called to shine into all the dark places of sin – both personal and social – that it encounters in the world.[9] The church’s confrontation with sin, especially in its structural forms, may necessitate and inspire political action.[10] However, the church must be vigilant to navigate a middle-way between its political or socio-economic mission and its spiritual vocation; the church “must link true evangelization and human advancement” as it works out its conversion as the body of Christ in history.[11]

As it travels in history as a pilgrim being continually converted into the image of its final destination, the church’s “paschal origins” in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ place it under obligation to respond to the cries of a needy world with a liberating word “from the only Redeemer who can save them.”[12] Like Jesus, the church is to proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God at hand, “especially for the great majority who, in worldly terms, have been estranged from it.”[13] The liberating evangelization of the church brings an awareness of true freedom and an empowerment for the work of liberation by involving the whole person, centering on the kingdom of God, proceeding from a scriptural vision of humanity, demanding conversion, and excluding violence.[14] At the same time, the church’s work of evangelization must not be reduced to either its religious, transcendent elements or to its temporal, immanent elements; both must be held in tension.[15]

Finally, as the Easter church proclaims its liberating message of good news to sinful persons and structures, it will face persecution. As the servant is not greater than his master, so the church of Jesus Christ will be persecuted as Jesus was persecuted.[16] The church is persecuted when it is barred from proclaiming the justice, peace, love and truth of God’s kingdom, when the sin of the world cannot be denounced, and when the rights of the people to whom the church is bound are abused.[17] When the church “is faithful to its mission of denouncing the sin that brings misery to many, and if it proclaims its hope for a more just, humane world, then it is persecuted.”[18] However, as the church suffers together in faithfulness to its common mission, it partakes of “the precious fruit” of unity, which is essential for its credibility and effectiveness in service to the liberating gospel of Jesus Christ.[19] This life of unity, of Christian love, as the fruit of common suffering, is the ground of Christian hope.[20]


[1] Archbishop Oscar Romero, Jon Sobrino, and Ignacio Martin-Baro, Voice of the Voiceless: The Four Pastoral Letters and Other Statements, trans. by Michael Walsh (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1985), 56.

[2] L. Gregory Jones, “Traditioned Innovation | Faith and Leadership,” accessed December 15, 2012, http://www.faithandleadership.com/content/traditioned-innovation.

[3] Romero, Sobrino, Martin-Baro, 57.

[4] Ibid., 69.

[5] Ibid., 72, 111.

[6] Ibid., 128.

[7] Ibid., 66.

[8] Ibid., 67.

[9] Ibid., 68.

[10] Ibid., 100.

[11] Ibid., 60.

[12] Ibid., 58, 59.

[13] Ibid., 74.

[14] Ibid., 98, 99.

[15] Ibid., 130.

[16] Ibid., 72, 79.

[17] Ibid., 80.

[18] Ibid., 80.

[19] Ibid., 81.

[20] Ibid., 82.