Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Spirituality in contexts of violence

In my blog last week, I shared one of my favorite practices, an imaginary prayer walk at the beach. (I imagine the beach, but really pray.) My blogging was simultaneous with the terrorist attacks in the Nairobi mall, the Pakistani Christian church, and a market place in Kigali near where my daughter-in-law shops for fruit and vegetables. Not to mention the ongoing horror in Syria.
A dear friend responded to my blog with a riveting question:   “I read the blog while Nairobi and Syria and Pakistan were in the news and I wondered what spirituality looked like for the Christians there, what spiritual disciplines they are practicing.” I wonder, too. I would guess they are probably not doing imaginary pray walks near the sea.
I am currently tutoring a doctoral candidate from El Salvador. Oscar pastors an evangelical church in a violent urban neighbor, and his research explores despair and hope, looking to describe a healthy spirituality in contexts of violence. He is just getting started with his investigation, but he’s lived in this reality all his life. I know I have much to learn from him.
As I continue to wonder about spiritual practices in the midst of ongoing violence, I’m drawn to the Psalms, especially the Psalms of lament. I note that in times of distress, people don’t “do spiritual exercises.” They experience God in ways that are urgent and raw. The verbs David uses in Psalm 143 include “cry for mercy, remember the days of long ago, meditate on all your works, consider what your hands have done, thirst.” He pleads to God to “answer me quickly, do not hide your face, show me the way, rescue me, teach me, silence my enemies, destroy my foes.”
While my beach prayer walk is a good thing as it helps me grow in intimacy with God, it is also good and necessary for me to remember those in situations where all they can do is cry out to God for mercy and rescue. How can I walk along side? Is there any way in which my spirituality connects to their despair? I sense that these connections are crucial and not mere exercises.
Several portions from Mathew’s Gospel spoke to me last week. (Yes, I was in the middle of another spiritual discipline, that of lectio divina.) This time I was consciously holding the violence in Africa in my heart as I read Jesus’ first sermon in Galilee, a quote from Isaiah that he applied to himself as he proclaimed that “the people living in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.” I wept as I held this passage. “Darkness” and “the land of the shadow of death” took on concrete geography, and I wondered where and how the light was appearing to people in Syria. And several days later I heard Jesus say to another group of people, “You are the light of the world.” I wondered how the suffering church in Pakistan, Kenya, and Afghanistan was experiencing hope and showing the light of hope to others. I wonder, weep, and pray, “Let it be.”
And I sense that my prayers and meditations are not enough. Not nearly enough.
Lord, show us the way.


  1. Please keep writing on this topic and let us hear from your student.

  2. It may be a month or so before Oscar sends me his paper. But with his permission, I'll be glad to share his insights.

  3. Thank you, Nancy. I'm finding having loved ones "out in the world" brings new immediacy to these concerns. Indeed, where is the light in Syria, Israel, the West Bank?