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Review: Sacred Resistance - A Practical Guide to Christian Witness and Dissent by Ginger Gaines-Cirelli

I received a copy of Sacred Resistance: A Practical Guide to Christian Witness and Dissent by Ginger Gaines-Cirelli to review recently. As it turns out, though, I had just purchased the book the week before! So I have a second copy if you're interested! Gaines-Cirelli is the lead pastor at Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington, DC, and I recently wrote about her preaching at the Festival of Homiletics.  

Gaines-Cirelli begins by defining sacred resistance. She writes, "Sacred resistance is anything - any word, deed, or stance - that actively counters the forces of hatred, cruelty, selfishness, greed, dehumanization, desolation, and disintegration in God's beloved world. Sacred resistance is nonviolent and seeks the common God. Sacred resistance 'reads the signs of the times' through the lens of biblically a relationally grounded faith to discern how to be actively engaged with the world and to be vigilant against whatever threatens the world's life." (1) "Heeding the words of Jesus is an act of sacred resistance," she argues, and is "God's consistent stance toward the world." (3) Gaines-Cirelli says that the framework of sacred resistance counters the idea that a "focused commitment to one group" - like poor people, or people of color - "[diminishes] the dignity, worth, or care assigned to those outside the group," as if we could exhaust God's love and grace. What happens to part of the Body of Christ happens to the whole Body of Christ, and therefore the Body of Christ is called to response and action. (8-9)

Doing the work of sacred resistance means working for the good of all, writes Gaines-Cirelli. We start by listening to "the real voices" of others, and we listen by first making sure we don't 1) think we "can correct another person's experience," 2) assume we know what others are thinking or 3) assume we have the answers, the fix to whatever we perceive the problem to be. (13) When we respond to oppressors, we remember that "love in its most basic form is not a warm feeling toward another ... but rather it is an active expression of care and reverence for life. We love the oppressor not by liking them ... but by naming their inhuman, unjust actions and attitudes and challenging them to repent." (22)

Gaines-Cirelli spends a chapter grounding sacred resistance work as an essential part of the witness of the Church. "To intentionally live as citizens of God's Kin-dom is deeply countercultural and an act of sacred resistance in a world that would ask us to worship idols (flag, money, status) and capitulate to the polarized paralysis of 'us versus them.'" (29) She quotes Brueggemann's The Prophetic Imagination: "Prophetic ministry consists of offering an alternative perception of reality and in letting people see their own history in the light of God's freedom and will for justice." (30) If churches are meant to be citizens of God's Kin-dom, she asks, "why are so many Christian people barely distinguishable from anyone else in their values and priorities?" (31)

Gaines-Cirelli names Sabbath-keeping, tithing, and humility as Kin-dom acts long with "acts of social justice." She again turns to Brueggemann, as he notes how difficult it is for us to "stay awake," because of US technological power, the "force of homogeneity," and the seductive and coercive nature of affluence. (40) Brueggemann says that Kin-dom communities have 1) a long and available memory, 2) an expressed sense of pain, 3) an active practice of hope, 4) and an effective mode of discourse. (40-41) Gaines-Cirelli explores each of these aspects in turn. In light of our current denominational and national struggles, Gaines-Cirelli's words struck me as particularly meaningful: "Even though we tend to simply try to do the best we can within a system that does harm, God is always initiating a new thing. God calls us not to wait for legitimation by the dominant consciousness or current system, but rather ... to imagine a new system and begin living in love, compassion, and peace now." (52)

Chapter 5 is a meditation on Isaiah 30:9-11, which was also the basis for the sermon Gaines-Cirelli preached that I reference in the first paragraph. Click through there for more notes. In this version, I was struck by an excerpt from Dr. David Walsh, psychologist and educator, who argued some 25 years ago that the media teaches us six values: 1) Happiness is found in having things. 2) Get all you can for yourself. 3) Get it all as quickly as you can. 4) Win at all costs. 5) Violence is entertaining. 6) Always seek pleasure and avoid boredom. (59) Wow! Into this culture, we are called to speak prophetically, and act with sacred resistance, to stop "speaking smooth things." People don't expect much of the church these days, argues Gaines-Cirelli. "At best ... they expect lip serve to God's care and love, to peace with justice ... even to 'social justice' - without any verifiable evidence that the words are backed up with action." (67) 

Chapter 6 is titled, "What Do We Do?" Gaines-Cirelli acknowledges, "It's hard to be Christian in America," hard not to be complicit in the very systems of oppression and injustice we decry. (77) What do we do? We discern. "What is life-giving/nurturing/promoting? What is death-dealing, life-destructive, life-taking?" (79) We stay informed, assess our resources, and figure out what we can do in the midst of chaos and challenge. (80) Remember that it is more important to God that we are faithful, "loving, wise, humble, and just" rather than right and others wrong. (82) We work to conquer our fear, and to know when we are called to put ourselves in harm's way for the work of justice. The author asks, "If my name were ever to appear in the recorded history of the years during which I sojourned on this planet, what is the story of my life I would be proud to have told?" (85) 

We speak. "It's important [to say something] because not saying something says something ... Even if [the words we speak] have been said before, even if we think those who hear the words already know or believe them, even if it feels tiresome to have to keep repeating them, even when many others are saying them, too. We need to speak the words as directly as we can, as lovingly as we can, as clearly as we can." (86-87) Gaines-Cirelli's section on preaching prophetically is particularly strong, especially on how to be prophetic and pastoral, a challenging task. I also appreciated her attention to other ways (like through the liturgy, or through pastoral letters and congregational statements) to address time-sensitive topics in worship when a pastor might also be right in the midst of an important sermon series, for example. So often I see folks on social media insisting that pastors have to scrap their whole sermon to address a certain event, with no consideration for what else is happening in the life of the church. Gaines-Cirelli points out that we have many avenues open to us to speak sacred resistance. (93) We act. She writes, "What is important is to identify the gift(s) that your community of faith offers to the cause at hand. What can you offer that others may need?" (98) The author also challenges congregations to consider if they are ready for a sustained engagement and follow through if needed. (103) We take a stand. "What side is Jesus on?" Gaines-Cirelli asks. (106) 

Gaines-Cirelli's last chapter addresses burnout in justice work and strategies for "fueling the resistance," a chapter drawn from a sermon previously preached at Foundry. The author lifts up Sabbath practices, cultivating joy and laughter, an awareness of the world around us, seeking places of good news, supporting each other, and finding strength in "quiet and trust" as important ways of maintaining strength, focus, and energy in the work of sacred resistance.  

Gaines-Cirelli's work is a short, easy read, and I'd recommend picking it up. I think the author occasionally relies too heavily on the work of others. I love Walter Brueggemann, for example, and the same can probably be said of my doctoral project, where I include perhaps too many excerpts from his profound works. But Gaines-Cirelli's own voice is worth hearing. I also struggle with chapters that come first from other sources - they don't always fit seamlessly. The last chapter, for example, felt too different in tone to me, and less powerful than the other chapters. Overall, though, Gaines-Cirelli offers meaningful theological reflection, paired with some concrete strategies for the work of sacred resistance. Sometimes speaking about justice is easy, but transitioning to action eludes us. I really value her balance of practice and prophetic, pastoral and boundary-pushing. 

Like I said, I have a free copy up for grabs - let me know if you'd like to give this a read, and I'll pass my extra along to you! 


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