Renouncing Violence: A book review

Renouncing Violence book photo

 

Mary Margaret Funk’s latest book, Renouncing Violence, was born out of the fractious discourse across the world, but particularly in the United States. She writes in the preface: “The intent of this book is to gentle down. Calmness prevents and scatters violence. When violence is tamed, we find peace of heart. A working definition of violence is ‘form or forces that cause harm’.”

Funk has written ten books, primarily on training the mind which in turn converts the heart, including Thoughts Matter, among others. In Renouncing Violence, Funk clearly articulates how she trained her mind to convert her heart away from damaging thoughts and feelings which were impacting her life. She describes her purpose: “We can do something about violence …. Through renunciation, both individually and together, we can reduce, redirect, refrain, and reprogram our instinctual propensities toward retaliation, recompense, and rage.”  (xi)

Funk is conversant with the classical monastic writings, particularly the desert ammas and abbas from the 3rd and 4th centuries, which influence her understanding of training our minds in order to convert our hearts. Additionally, her knowledge of scripture, nurtured by years of practicing lectio divina informs her approach of inner heart movement from violence to nonviolence.

She describes her process of writing this book in three phases: first phase was listening and hearing that something new was happening these recent years: “The new normal [in our culture] was anxiety from within and fear from without.” (xi)

The second phase was listening to her own “disquietude.” After the U.S. presidential election in November 2016, “I realized that I was saturated with the affliction of anger.” A few months later Funk went on a weeklong retreat with a nun who “prayed out my anger.” But, Funk realized that she needed to guard her heart of anger returning “bringing seven more demons stronger than the first.” (xii)

Funk’s third phase was waiting on the Spirit to direct her to something that she should do about this new normal as “We are in a global bad mood.” She believes Jesus reversed violence through his death and resurrection and that there is “no anger in Jesus, only love.” Additionally, Funk is confident there is no wrath in God and the church was commissioned to extend God’s reign of love, peace, and shalom. From this foundation she wrote Renouncing Violence.
In the first chapter, Funk explores both the word “renunciation” and how to live a life of renunciation. She tells of her experience of choosing a vowed life in a Benedictine order. She had to renunciate her previous life in order to become a nun, she yields to the other members of her community, and devoting her life to God. “Renunciation is also a way to focus energies,” she writes.

Renunciation is also an opportunity to go beyond oneself for the sake of others. It is sweet to take on responsibilities that ensure other people’s desires are fulfilled, maybe even at some sacrifice.” (3)

But, she warns, “renunciation, in and of itself, will seem to have a missing piece if, indeed, there isn’t an overarching and underpinning belief.” (3)

For Funk, this “overarching and underpinning belief” is rooted in Jesus, whom she identifies as “the way out of violence.” She surveys 22 pericopes from all four gospels of Jesus as healer from which she concludes that,

Jesus’ healings show that he is the presence of God in the world enabling humanity to live a new life. Those healed by Jesus become free to become who they are meant to be, part of a community that lives in gratitude and praise, extending God’s work of restoration and healing to the world. (17-18)

She delves into the question if Jesus was ever angry stating “If Jesus was angry and did harm intentionally, then this narrative runs counter to all episodes where Jesus supported, healed, and restored life.” (18)

Furthermore, Funk reminds readers that none of the gospel accounts describe Jesus as angry but they do describe the priests and scribes as angry. The John account of Jesus clearing out the synagogue was an example of nonviolent prophetic action in the tradition of the prophetic witness displayed throughout the Old Testament: Jesus frees the birds, drives out the large animals, turns the tables, and strikes no one.

She summarizes the theme in the chapter “About the Practice of Renouncing Violence” of moving from violence to nonviolence; however, the structure of the chapter itself is a question and answer format rather than exposition. The content in the answers is excellent but the questions appear awkward, stilted, and ultimately off-putting. Nevertheless, Funk provides useful answers based on teachings from the early monastic tradition. She writes:

The training of the monastic way of life has an inner goal: shifting from self-consciousness to an immersion into a mystical consciousness, a knowing and experience of God acting from within, rather than the self acting toward the self. This shift is to have the self in service of God rather than God in service of the self.  (73)

Ultimately, Funk says, the early monastic practices are designed to “root out the affliction” of our anger and violent compulsions.

She concludes the book with three appendices: “Holy Water Prayer”, “Prayers in Time of Trouble”, “What I’ve Learned from Those Who’ve Been Harmed by Violence”; and a helpful bibliography for additional resources regarding nonviolence.

Renouncing Violence is an accessible, straight-forward book that could be used in small groups, Sunday school classes, or weekend retreats for study for those wanting to turn away from “disquietude” in contemporary culture and toward a loving, compassionate, nonviolent approach to all of life.

This review appeared May 17, 2019 on the Englewood Review of Books website.

Book review: Once You Go In

Dangerous Readers-A

Once You Go In: A Memoir of Radical Faith

By Carly Gelsinger

(She Writes Press, 2018)

 

When God created Adam God declared it was not good for man to be alone, so Eve was created to ease Adam’s loneliness. The Old Testament is the story of individuals creating community with God and with one another. It is natural for us to long to belong to others whether this is within families, neighborhoods, sports team fandom, or within a faith tradition. We want to belong.

In her memoir, Once You Go In, Carly Gelsinger describes her adolescent longing to be part of a group, especially a particular church group in her small Northern California town, the Pine Canyon Assemblies of God Church. She grew up in a loving family of four living in the country, singing Beatles songs and Broadway tunes together. “We sang ‘All You Need is Love’ as the sun set behind the wall of pine trees next to us ….My heart bubbled over with the sense that love filled our longs, and that love was bigger than the canyon surrounding us.” And because of this love Gelsinger sensed a Love beyond and greater than the love experienced in her family. “…I had an inexplicable draw to be near to God from a young age.”

One day, while bicycling around town she spots a vinyl banner hanging in front of the Assemblies of God Church with the announcement: “Voice in the Desert Youth, 7 p.m. Thursdays.”

Youth. The word makes me picture slumber parties and pepperoni pizza and group photos and matching T-shirts. The Baptist church I’ve been going to off and on for years doesn’t have Youth. They have babies and old people, and Vacation Bible School, which is for little kids. I wonder what it would be like to have a group, a place to belong.

And Gelsinger joins the youth group. Her well-written memoir tells us of her efforts to belong to this church and what it cost her in terms of her relationships with her family, herself, and with God.

Throughout Gelsinger’s story she tries to understand what the group norms are, to tease apart the religious language, and to guess at the expectations of the church. Despite her efforts she apparently falls short of understanding the religious culture of this small Pentecostal church. Gelsinger attempts to live the kind of godly life the church teaches.  What she doesn’t realize until she was a young adult was no matter how hard she tries to fit in, to fully belong to this congregation, she will always fall short because the god this church worships is mean-spirited, angry, and frequently punishes those who disappoint him. When she disappoints her pastor, his wife, and the youth leaders, she is, in effect, disappointing God and lives in fear of being excluded from the church.

Gelsinger tells several stories of how the church leaders would distinguish church members as separate from non-church members by underscoring their belief that “we are special, we are the faithful ones that God will use to save the world.” The leaders emphasize that “we believe and practice our faith the correct way because we are on fire for the Lord while other people are lukewarm in their faith.” The people were continually exhorted to convert the lukewarm believers and non-believers but “if you can’t convert them then you must separate yourself from those people because they will be an evil influence on you.” Of course, the leaders use the language of “encouraging one another, exhorting for good, and offering godly discipline” to control the group rather than focusing on God’s mercy and love.

Gelsinger remains a part of the church throughout her adolescence in which she genuinely loves God and wants to be God’s faithful servant. She speaks in tongues, prays for miracles, witnesses to her peers, while experiencing life as an American teenager. The church’s emphasis on salvation on their terms puts a strain on Gelsinger’s relationship with her parents, enduring pressure from church leaders to “save” her father who grew up Catholic. She is encouraged by the youth pastor and his wife to refrain from the family activity of listening and singing to the Beatles and other forms of secular music. The same youth pastor and wife routinely suggests that Gelsinger’s family carries generational sin which prevents Gelsinger from becoming a great woman of God. Ultimately, after a confrontation by the youth pastor and wife for having a “Spirit of Rebellion” Gelsinger’s mother tells her, “You are brainwashed.” They do not speak for a few weeks afterward.

The confrontation propels Gelsinger into understanding that she needs to get away from Pine Canyon Assemblies of God Church and even Pine Canyon itself. She transfers from the local community college to a small evangelical college thirty miles away. The physical distance provides room for Gelsinger to begin healing from the psychological, emotional, and spiritual wounds inflicted by the small congregation. She begins to find new friends, groups, and her future husband who do not wish to control her or her relationship with God.

Gelsinger marries, moves across the country for graduate school, finds new friends who love her and love God. She starts the painful process of deconstructing her youthful faith while cautiously reconstructing a faith in a loving and merciful God. Eventually, she and her husband visit a number of churches or not attend at all until they wander into an Episcopalian church on a Sunday morning, which was the denomination of her now-deceased loving and merciful grandmother. Gelsinger concludes the book with this description of her faith:

My fire for God changed me, and while I never want to go back, I can see hope is leading the way to something good. It has led me to the slow growth of faith, of small shoots of life pushing up from dead stumps, of expansive views of hope I may have never seen otherwise…I will keep questioning and thanking and running and falling and searching and rebuilding, because this is the process of being alive.

 In her acknowledgments, Gelsinger states: “I am grateful for every person in this story who led me to where I am today …. There are no villains or heroes in this story—just muddling through.” This is a loving and merciful spirit toward her life and the people of her youth. While Gelsinger doesn’t explicitly state it, she now belongs to her family, to God, and to herself.

(This review first appeared in the Englewood Review of Books, November 1, 2018)

Dangerous Readers

Dangerous Readers-A

 

My sister-in-law, a kindergarten teacher for more than twenty years, posted a photo on Facebook of three of her students engrossed in reading books. She wrote: “This makes my heart so happy.”

And there they were, the small chairs pushed against the wall, their feet on the ground, but their faces obscured by large books such as, Hop on Pop and Bunny’s Noisy Book.  Three girls all engrossed in reading. Young girls who read become women who read, and women who read are considered “dangerous” by some.

***

I couldn’t wait to learn to read.  A few weeks before I began kindergarten family friends visited our home after church. The older son, a few years older than me, was studying the Sunday comics. He had them spread open on the floor, while he lay on his stomach, chin resting on his hands, and one foot propped onto his other foot. I watched him reading those comics and it’s my earliest memory of envy. I was so jealous that he could read when I could not.

***

In her forward to the book, Women Who Read Are Dangerous, writer Karen Joy Fowler writes:

In 1523 the Spanish humanist Juan Luis Vives proposed careful male surveillance. ‘The woman ought not to follow her own judgment,’ he said, as she had so little of it. She should read only what men deemed proper and wholesome. He marveled that any father, any husband, would allow his daughter, his wife to read freely.

***

I grew up in a household of books, and my parents encouraged my reading by taking regular trips to the local public library where I checked out stacks of books.  My obsession for reading began early.

In third grade, my teacher read The Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder. But she only read a few pages a day which was way too slow for me—I had to know how the story would unfold!  So I checked the books out from the library and hurriedly finished read them ahead of the class. When my teacher read the books, I then savored the stories like I was visiting with old friends.

And, as an early indicator of my future reading habits, when my teacher read a book that was part of a series, I had to read all the books in the series, whether my teacher was going to or not. I convinced my grandmother to take me to her local public library to see if they had a copy of Farmer Boy (from The Little House series) because my library didn’t have a copy. Fortunately, the library did have a copy and she borrowed it for me.

***

Fowler continued in the forward, with irony:

Women are too literal-minded for reading. Women are too sentimental, too empathetic, too distractable for reading. Women are passive, practically somnolent, consumers of popular culture, never realizing how, with the very books they choose, they participate in their own subordination.

Reading did lead me to challenge my subordination—perhaps as far back as the summer between grade 4 and 5. My other grandmother found a large box of Nancy Drew mystery novels and bought them for me which I promptly plunged into. And from that box of books I learned that a young woman could be smart, observant, a problem-solver, and the leader of her group of friends. Subconsciously Nancy Drew became a role model for me, distinct from the description of Christian womanhood I heard at church. My resistance against my own subordination took root because of Nancy Drew, girl detective.

***

Recently, a friend posted about a mother disciplining her daughter for misbehaving in class. The mother’s response to her daughter: “When we get home you’re gonna be sent to your room where the only thing you can do is read.” Many of us despaired that this mother was teaching her daughter that reading was a form of punishment. But my hope is this young girl learns the gift of being sent to one’s room to read. Perhaps, then, this girl could learn to love reading and become a dangerous adult woman who reads.