By Dr. Jessica M. Smith
As Mai-Anh Le Tran writes in her book Reset the Heart: Unlearning Violence, Relearning Hope, August 9, 2014 “disrupted” her world.
It is the day that a young black man Michael Brown was fatally shot by a white police officer on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, less than fifteen miles north of where she lived and taught as a professor of Christian education.
The killing of Michael Brown causes Tran to ask deep penetrating questions: “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?”
Violence, Tran argues, includes those actions and systems that violate the “vitality” of a person and the world. As she writes, “Paramilitary equipment and tactics on the streets of Ferguson reveal the shroud of manipulated terror that is the new normal in wider cultural consciousness – a petrification of critical thinking.” Fear, in other words, keeps us from imagining new futures.
For her, one of the major forms of violence that drives current cultural life is the “violence of racism.” Racialized logics of genocide, slavery and orientalism coupled with the advantage of the socially constructed category of whiteness continues to feed what Henry A. Girouix calls “disimagination” and threatens Christian imagination.
“Religious education is like a cow. It kicks but it gives milk, too.”
For Tran, still more concerning is how the church has been complicit in teaching violence. The church has forgotten histories of racial injustice in the church, remains captive to majority culture in its formation of curriculum, and continues to remain largely racially segregated. But, inspired by Hindu mystic Sri Ramakrishna, Tran writes: “Religious education is like a cow. It kicks but it gives milk, too” (72). In other words, the church has caused harm and loss of vitality while also offering nourishment.
Through interviews with fourteen ministers in St. Louis, Tran lifts up concrete faithful practices that counter this world of violence in faith. Practices of eating a meal with persons was a central theme.
Sharing meals with unhoused neighbors or protestors or seniors or those who are of a different racial, economic, and faith tradition are sacred ways to offer community and break the divides among others. Like the parable of the persistent widow (Luke 18:1-8), Tran writes, praying as protest refuses to accept that the world is not redeemable and cannot be repaired.
Finally, she offers that education is not an agenda or program, but a curricula or “a course to be run” inspiring and mobilizing persons to participate in new forms of liturgical, prayerful witness.
As an ordained elder of the California-Nevada Conference, Tran incisively challenges The United Methodist Church and Christian communities more generally to seek to unlearn violence through creating new spaces and understandings of loving, praying and eating together. Her weaving of both practice and theory is remarkable as she deftly moves between race theory, cultural analysis of violence, political theology and rich contextual interviews with those in ministry on the ground working for the repair of the world in the face of violence.
Visit Cokesbury to purchase Reset the Heart: Unlearning Violence, Relearning Hope.