A Preferential Option for the Migrant? Anglican Theology and Global Migration


In 2017, I was invited to deliver the keynote address to the Society for the Study of Anglicanism and reflect on Anglican theology and global migration. The Journal of Anglican Studies has recently published the result. You can read the whole article online. Here’s a snippet.

I have sometimes asked my students if, in looking at the Bible, it can be said that God has a preferential option for the migrant. There are many ways in which I think that is true: God has a particular concern for those without a place. But it is also true that displacement is not the end of the story. In the tension between place and displacement, guest and host, journey and destination, we may find, as Bernard Mizeki once did, a new Christian identity and a deeper faithfulness to God.

As the snippet makes clear, I draw on the story of Anglican missionary and martyr Bernard Mizeki to try to frame some places I think Anglican theology can usefully pursue in thinking about how we respond to the present era of global migration.

Happy for your thoughts!

Renewing the Church: Bible, Eucharist, Prayer, and Leadership

Every week I write a note to the community at Montreal Diocesan Theological College. This week’s is posted here:During my recent leave, I read through a new report from Renewal Works, an organization in the American Episcopal Church that works for congregational renewal and church growth. The report is based on a survey they conducted of over 12,000 Episcopalians in nearly 200 churches. I commend the entire report (17 pages) to your attention. But I particularly want to draw your attention to what the survey revealed to be “key catalysts for spiritual growth” (pp. 7-8). Based on the survey, the report concludes that these four “catalysts” bring transformation and spiritual growth to congregations:

  • Engagement with scripture
  • The transforming power of the Eucharist
  • A deeper prayer life
  • The heart of leader

On first glance, there is nothing surprising about this list. These four catalysts remind us that being Christian is about engaging not just our mind but also our hearts, souls, and bodies as well. Each leads us deeper into engagement with God made known in Christ—in word, in sacrament, and in prayer. The list points to the importance of the kind of work we do in the college, forming people who see themselves as leaders of Christian communities. In one way or another, each of these items is a hallmark of our Anglican tradition.

A favourite picture of mine from a trip to the Diocese of Akot in South Sudan

You might, therefore, find yourself asking: if the key catalysts for spiritual growth are hallmarks of the Anglican tradition, how come Anglican churches aren’t universally thriving? But as I look at the list more closely, I find myself asking how many of these catalysts are actually present in our churches. To take one example: it’s not clear to me that all of our churches have regular and readily-accessible Bible study groups and strongly encourage their members to participate in one. To take another: it’s not clear that all our churches create varied and regular opportunities to explore prayer in its many forms outside of the Sunday morning liturgy, or teach their parishioners how to pray.

This report is one contribution to the vigorous and welcome debate about the future of the church and of Christianity in an increasingly secular west. One message I take from this research is that part of the key to church renewal lies in returning to the habits and practices that have long been foundational to our Anglican tradition.

Halloween, All Saints, and All Souls: An Autumnal Triduum

I write a weekly note to the community of Montreal Diocesan Theological College. This week’s is about our liturgical calendar.

When used in a liturgical context, the word Triduum (from the Latin “three days”) often refers to the holiest period of the church’s year, that beginning on the evening of Maundy Thursday and ending on Easter Sunday. But there is also an autumnal Triduum and we mark it this week: the Feast of All Hallow’s Eve (Halloween), All Saints Day, and the Commemoration of All Faithful Departed. This week’s Triduum is of a decidedly lower profile but it is still worth taking time to pause and think about what the church calendar is telling us.

All-SaintsAt the centre of this Triduum stands one of my favourite holy days, the Feast of All Saints. The church remembers all those who have gone before us in the faith, both those who are famous and commemorated in our church calendars and also those known perhaps only to ourselves alone. For me, All Saints is an opportunity to remember “the great cloud of witnesses” who have shaped my life and my faith. Like those who have gone before us, we seek to make God’s grace visible in our lives and in our work. We also look ahead to the final consummation when we will stand with all these saints to praise the lamb on the throne. All Saints is preceded by All Hallow’s Eve, now more a secular holiday than a religious one. Historically, some Christians have believed that on this day the separation between heaven and earth is at its thinnest—it is a “liminal” moment at which we come close to glimpsing the life that awaits us.

The Triduum concludes with the Commemoration of All Faithful Departed on November 2. As we learned in our impromptu theological disputation at lunch last Wednesday, opinions about this day vary widely. All Souls, as the day is also known, has a long history in the Christian tradition connected with beliefs in purgatory. To be sure, the 39 Articles of Religion declare purgatory “a fond thing vainly invented” (Art. 22) but the day retains a special resonance. For us, it can be a day when we remember before God all those who have died. We can also pray, in the words of the Book of Alternative Services, that “they may have a place in your eternal kingdom” (p. 127) and that God may “bring them into the place of eternal joy and light.” (p. 210) We have already begun collecting the names of those known to members of this community who have died in the past year so that we can remember them by name in chapel on Thursday morning.

As with so much in the church calendar, this week’s Triduum encourages us to do many things simultaneously. We look inwards and contemplate our own limitations and mortality. We remember how others have worked with their own imperfections to reveal God’s grace to the world. And we look forward to the glorious fulfillment which Christ will bring about. As we approach the end of the church’s year, the readings for the Daily Office in the weeks ahead will begin to highlight these same eschatological themes that are raised by this Fall Triduum.

As a Christian, I find that this Fall Triduum is valuable for the way it reminds me both of my own limitations (there is nothing more limiting than death) and also shows me the possibilities and the hopefulness that are at the centre of the Christian gospel. God has worked in the lives of so many people in the past and by God’s grace is working through us even now.

The good news of Easter in the midst of the religion of consumption

At several moments in the past week, I have been reminded that Easter is no longer just a holy day for Christians.

  • This week’s edition of Waitrose Weekend, the free newspaper offered by the grocery store chain, lists “100 things to do this Easter.” On the list are such activities as make a robot, time for a spring clean, visit a beer festival, and get involved in the fun of a country fair. Not on the list: anything to do with attending church, marking the resurrection, or meditating on God’s great love for the world.
  • The grocery store Tesco had this new ad:
  • Last week, there was a kerfluffle when the National Trust changed the name of its annual Easter egg hunt to a “National Trust Egg Hunt” (which, incidentally, is one of the 100 things Waitrose thinks you should do over the long weekend). The Archbishop of York weighed in. The prime minister weighed in (rather incongruously from Saudi Arabia). Later in the week, I heard an interview on Radio 4 with an executive from Cadbury’s, the company that supplies the chocolate, who reassured the BBC reporter that “Easter will continue to be an important part of our marketing strategy.”

None of this is particularly surprising. In England, Easter falls in the midst of school holidays and a four-day weekend; families need things to do to fill the time. Ad-men are always looking for a new hook with which to flog their wares.

But the series of events was a reminder of how Christianity exists in a world of multiple faiths. We often talk about Islam or Judaism but rarely do we understand consumption as a faith. Yet that is precisely what it has become. It defines ethical norms (consume more) and sets the boundaries of our thought horizons (non-consumption is simply not an option).

And, as has happened many times in the past when different faiths interact, one is taking over the holy days and holy sites of the other. In the same way that the Christian feast of Christmas came to overwhelm the feast of Saturnalia in ancient Rome and in the same way that Christian missionaries once built churches on sites that had been sacred to existing religions, the religion of consumption (if we can call it that) is taking over Christian holy days. It’s easy to see how this has happened with Christmas. These recent events indicate the way in which it is true of Easter as well.

When that Cadbury’s executive said that “Easter will continue to be part of our marketing strategy,” I think he meant to reassure people who had protested at the exclusion of Easter. But I didn’t find it particularly reassuring. The trouble is that the deep-seated beliefs of the religion of consumption are diametrically opposite to the good news that is proclaimed on Easter day.

In the religion of consumption, you succeed by buying, acquiring, getting, claiming, and otherwise coming to possess things. One’s salvation, you could almost say, depends on what you have. The person who wins the (Easter) egg hunt is the one with the most eggs. Christian theology has a term for this: it’s called works righteousness and it’s the belief that what we do is what makes us right before God. In the religion of consumption, what we purchase and acquire is what makes us right within the framework of that system.

On Easter morning Christians proclaim that we are made right before God not because of anything that we can do but because of what Christ has done. God in Christ came into our midst—and we put him to death. Christ’s response was to rise from the dead and return to the very people who had denied him and say, “Peace be with you.” The good news of the gospel is that our efforts to make ourself right will always come to naught—but Christ’s work always will.

The religion of consumption (or whatever you want to call it) is exercising a greater and greater hold over society. But the vision of the good life that it offers will always be a mirage. By our own work, we will never be able to achieve it. That’s why the good news of Easter morning is so important. It is Christ who promises and delivers life abundant.

My 7-year-old niece has discovered the best way to resist Trump

Another day, another truly outrageous decision from the Trump administration: all citizens from seven countries and all refugees are to be banned from entering the United States. It’s easy to find reasons to be outraged: theological, practical, national.

  • The Bible repeatedly makes it clear that God takes the side of those who are on the move. It is by being migrants and from migrants that we learn new things about God. This shuts down that possibility.
  • Trump explicitly invoked 9/11 and the importance of keeping the country “safe”—but none of the 9/11 hijackers came from countries on the banned list.
  • The Statue of Liberty says: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

Yet somehow, none of this feels sufficient. It feeds my outrage but it does frustratingly little in the real world. I can’t turn up at JFK airport and protest. I’m not a lawyer and I can’t file a suit to reverse the decision. When confronted with such a great injustice, how are we to respond?

Children walking in the Zaatari Refugee Camp, located near Mafraq, Jordan. Opened in July, 2012, the camp holds upwards of 20,000 refugees from the civil war inside Syria. International Orthodox Christian Charities and other members of the ACT Alliance are active in the camp providing essential items and services.

I’ve been thinking this week about my 7-year-old niece. Sometime last fall, the news about Syrian refugees combined with the rhetoric of the presidential campaign became so uncomfortable and upsetting to her that she decided she wanted to do something. So she told her parents, “Can we have a clothes drive to help refugees?” Her parents did a little research on this and decided that the refugees who had been resettled into their (red) state were well clothed. Shipping clothes to a place like Greece or Turkey was an inefficient use of resources.

So my niece had another idea: “Can we make friends with some refugees?” It turned out that not far away from their house lives a refugee family from Congo. It took a little doing and some awkwardness, but pretty soon my niece and her parents started getting to know this family. They learned about some of the challenges they’re facing: the father’s working hours place a burden on the mother and children; they struggle to stay in touch with family members back home; the children need help in school.

I’m not sure how much of this my niece has processed. From what she tell us, it sounds like she mostly just enjoys having some new friends. Once a week, on the way home from school, she spends time playing with them at their house. It’s a young relationship: who knows how it will develop?

I think my niece is on to something. To live in our political moment is to be bathed in outrage. Fine. There are lots of things to be outraged about. But the best way to challenge the the Trump administration is challenge it in our actions. As my niece shows, those actions don’t have to be heroic or extraordinary. They can be as simply as modestly altering our weekly schedule to incorporate a new activity.

Think about what it means to say, “Can we make friends with refugees?” It means that refugees have value, that they enrich our lives, and that they are welcome in her community. It takes a step further than a clothes drive: it involves her life in theirs and theirs in hers. Simply by existing, the relationship she has with this family challenges Trump’s impoverished moral calculus. There’s no executive order he can sign to ban it.

I think she’s on to something.

5 things to read in preparation for a Christian response to a Trump presidency

In less than three weeks, Donald Trump will be the president of the United States. As I think about how Christians are called to live in the midst of this global moment of increasing populism, authoritarianism, and nationalism, these are some of the texts I find myself returning to.

stringfellow-10William Stringfellow, An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land. For the last eight years, it’s been possible to think that society is on a steady march forward. Not always in a straight line, of course, but we’ve had enough evidence to think that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” That view seemed to shatter in the early hours of November 9.

The Trump presidency demands that Christians reclaim the apocalyptic. Early Christians didn’t believe in gradual incrementalism. They understood themselves to be fighting against powers and principalities that needed to be overthrown. One author who consistently and compellingly articulated these themes is the late William Stringfellow, Episcopal layman, lawyer, and theologian. An Ethic for Christians is an extended exegesis of the book of Revelation and the need to defeat “Babylon.”

The biblical topic is politics. The Bible is about the politics of fallen creation and the politics of redemption; the politics of the nations, institutions, ideologies, and causes of this world and the politics of the Kingdom of God; the politics of Babylon and the politics of Jerusalem; the politics of the Antichrist and the politics of Jesus Christ; the politics of the demonic powers and principalities and the politics of the timely judgement of God as sovereign; the politics of death and the politics of life; apocalyptic politics and eschatological politics.

Stringfellow is consistently challenging and creative in his writing and this book is an excellent introduction to his thought.

9780199747580John Paul Lederach, The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace. Lederach has traveled the world to teach peace-building skills in zones of prolonged conflict. In this book, he sums up a lot of what he has learned. What we need to move beyond violence, he writes, is a new “moral imagination.” This has four aspects:

the capacity to imagine ourselves in a web of relationships that includes our enemies; the ability to sustain a paradoxical curiosity that embraces complexity….; the fundamental belief in and pursuit of the creative act; and the acceptance of the inherent risk of stepping into the mystery of the unknown that lies beyond the far too familiar landscape of violence.

In addition to reclaiming the apocalyptic, Christians in the Trump era need also to learn deeply from the witness of Anabaptist Christians. Lederach starts us down that path.

The Kairos Document. In 1985, as the anti-apartheid struggle reached a crisis point, an ecumenical group of South African Christians published a document that critiqued what it called “state theology” and “church theology” and began to articulate “prophetic theology.” While it is shaped by its time and its context, it is still a document that speaks to our present moment.

There is nothing that we want more than true reconciliation and genuine peace–the peace that God wants and not the peace the world wants (Jn 14:27). The peace that God wants is based upon truth, repentance, justice and love. The peace that the world offers us is a unity that compromises the truth, covers over injustice and oppression and is totally motivated by selfishness. At this stage, like Jesus, we must expose this false peace, confront our oppressors and sow dissension. As Christians we must say with Jesus: “Do you suppose that I am here to bring peace on earth. No, I tell you, but rather dissension” (Lk 12:51). There can be no real peace without justice and repentance. (3.1)

Others might point to the Barmen Declaration, written by confessing Christians in Germany during World War II. You should also read that.

(The entirety of the Kairos Document is available online.)

P.D. James, Children of Men. James’ dystopic novel (set in 2012) envisions a world in which people have lost the ability to have children. It was turned into a pretty good movie about a decade ago, one I’ve thought of often in recent years, but the movie strays pretty far from the book. The novel is well worth reading in its own right, especially for the way in which childlessness comes to stand in for godlessness. I remember being struck particularly by the quiet insights into the role of the Christian liturgy in sustaining communal life in desperate times. Reclaiming the meaning of the liturgy (a cause that Stringfellow championed, among many others) is a vital task.

9780674659681-lgHarvey Cox, The Market as GodThere is a lot of talk about economic inequality, both within countries and globally. But we don’t tend to talk about the penetration of market-based forms of thinking into more and more areas of our life and the resulting impact this has on how we see the world. The recent Christmas season is an annual reminder of the way in which a Christian holiday has been taken over and subverted by the great god of consumerism.

Harvey Cox recognizes all of this and in this recent book (itself an expansion of a 1999 article in The Atlantic) he argues that the market has become a god in our society.

To begin exploring the market theology is quickly to marvel at just how comprehensive it is. There are sacraments to convey salvific power to the lost, a liturgical year, a calendar of entrepreneurial saints, and even what theologians call “eschatology”—a teaching about the “end of history.”…. I want to demonstrate that the way the world economy operates today is not simply “natural” or “just the way things work,” but is shaped by a powerful and global system of values and symbols that can best be understood as ersatz religion.

To live in a Christian in this day and age means to be clear-eyed about the other gods that roam the religious landscape of our day and compete for the faith and trust of believers. The market is chief among them.

That’s my (non-exhaustive) list. What’s on yours? Recommendations for fiction are especially welcome.

UPDATE: Several good recommendations have been arriving on social media and other forms. They include:

  • John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath (“or anything by Steinbeck”)—heartily agreed! I re-read Grapes for the first time since high school last fall and was struck by how painfully good it is.
  • “Something by Boenhoffer.” Also agreed. Recommendations welcome.
  • Paul Aster, In the Country of Last Things
  • Walter Wink, Naming the Powers
  • Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man

Keep the suggestions coming!

Jesse Zink (@jazink) is the director of the Cambridge Centre for Christianity Worldwide and author, most recently, of A Faith for the Future.

Not Losing Heart: Praying for the Kingdom of God

“Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.” -Luke 18.1

To look around the world today, it’s very easy to lose heart. People are drowning as they cross the Mediterranean in rickety boats to Europe. A once-fine Syrian city is being bombed into rubble. An oppressive and irrational dictator in North Korea has increasingly powerful nuclear weapons. Oh, and the foundations of American democracy appear under threat by an unhinged demagogue who caters to our worst instincts.

In that frame of mind, I went to church this morning and heard a parable from Jesus—a parable that is told so that Jesus’ followers do not “lose heart.” Just what I needed!

But at first glance the answer seems depressing. Apparently, what I need to do not to lose heart is to pray. The parable is about a widow who badgers an unjust judge who finally grants her justice. “And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night?” (Luke 18.7) That’s it? In the face of all the truly frightening things in the world, the answer is to keep asking God for justice? God’s justice depends on my asking for it? It can seem an inadequate response.unjust-judgeOne of the primary concerns of the author of the Gospel of Luke is prayer. Jesus is frequently depicted as being at prayer. This parable about prayer appears in no other gospel. And prayer is linked with one other central concept: the kingdom of God. That’s most obvious in the Lord’s prayer, where Jesus tells his followers to pray for the coming of the kingdom, but there are other places where the connection is made. Shortly before this parable about prayer, Jesus tells his followers not to look for the kingdom of God “with things that can be observed… For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.” (Luke 17.20, 21) And how does the kingdom of God come to be among them? By the kind of fervent prayer that is described in the parable of the widow and the judge.

Our common views of prayer seem to involve a person (or people) sitting around (often in silence) and asking God for various things. I don’t think Luke would recognize this. For Luke, prayer is active and engage, an activity in which followers of Jesus come into contact with the world. Prayer is the activity by which the community of Jesus’ followers comes to see the kingdom of God in their midst.

Next week in church we’ll hear another parable about prayer, about a righteous Pharisee and a sinful tax collector. The former prays standing up in the temple, the latter throws himself on the floor. This parable is told “to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” (Luke 18.9) It’s a reminder about prayer: the prayer that brings about the kingdom is the fervent prayer (like that of the widow) of those who know their need for God’s mercy (like the tax collector). The values and virtues of the kingdom of God are brought about by humble and fervent prayers to live according to precepts Jesus taught.

In the midst of a deeply uncertain and terrifying world, I want not to lose heart. The answer Jesus gives me is to pray. How do we pray? We work for the kingdom in our midst. How do we work for the kingdom in our midst? We pray.

How do the prayer practices of a Christian community you’re associated with reflect the unease and tension which so many of us experience in the world today?

Hillbilly Christianity

The presidential candidacy of one Donald J. Trump has driven members of the coastal elite looking for explanations for his success: who is voting for this guy?

162224This summer, many members of the media thought they found an answer in a book by J.D. Vance: Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. Even the normally staid Economist declared: “You will not read a more important book about America this year.”

Vance, a veteran and a Yale Law graduate, writes of his upbringing in Rust Belt Ohio, the child of transplants from Kentucky, and the family instability, economic crisis, and cultural values he experienced. His conclusion, more or less, is that the problems facing the white working class are not just the result of economic displacement as a result of globalization but also a set of cultural values that don’t nurture the necessary attitude to survive in the world. When he told his father he had was going to Yale Law, his father asked if he had “pretended to be black of liberal.” “This is how low the cultural expectations of working-class white Americans have fallen,” Vance writes. “We should hardly be surprised that as attitudes like this one spread, the number of people willing to work for a better life diminishes.” (p. 194)

You can make what you will of that argument. But when I read this book, I was struck by his passing references to Christianity and its role among his hillbilly family. He describes his grandmother, who played the most significant role in his life, as someone who, every night, watched Law & Order, read the Bible, and fell asleep. “The Christian faith stood at the center of our lives, especially hers.” But she also hardly ever attended church, “couldn’t say ‘organized religion’ without contempt,” and “saw churches as breeding grounds for perverts and money changers.” Her faith was, in his words, “unsophisticated.” Once, when she nearly caused a car accident, scaring Vance, she turned to him and said, ‘We’re fine, goddammit. Don’t you know Jesus rides in the car with me?” (pp. 85-86)

This theology, Vance concludes, was what he needed to hear: “To coast through life was to squander my God-given talent, so I had to work hard. I had to take care of my family because Christian duty demanded it. I needed to forgive, not just for my mother’s sake but for my own. I should never despair, for God had a plan.” (p. 86)

As a pre-teen, Vance became associated with an evangelical church, read the Left Behind books, learns how there is a war on Christmas, discusses whether the Antichrist is already alive, and realizes the world is “lurch[ing] toward moral corruption—slouching toward Gomorrah.” (p. 98) Before long, however, he rejects this, realizing in retrospect that this version of Christianity was “sowing the seeds for an outright rejection of the Christian faith.” (p. 99) (There are hints towards the end of the book that he has returned to church as he is writing.)

What I am struck by in this description is the pervasive influence of Christian rhetoric—the Bible, Jesus, Christianity all figure as important ideas in his life—but also the apparent insufficiency of this rhetoric. The Christian answers he and his grandmother have  do not help them cope with the situation they find themselves in. And it’s no wonder: the version of Christianity his grandmother presents strikes me as one version of what I have called in the past “just do it Christianity,” that is, it’s clear what you have to do—work hard, take care of your family—so just do it already. But what if there are no jobs to work at or the jobs that there are don’t pay nearly enough? What if your mother is—like Vance’s—an addict who gives rise to immensely complex feelings in her children?

Meanwhile, when he does attend church he is directed to apparently central issues—the end times—but is offered no convincing resources (theological or otherwise) to cope with the situation of family and societal breakdown in which he finds himself. Gradually—and understandably—he drifts away.

From my privileged, outsider position, it is relatively easy to point this all out (and wish that Vance had written more about Christianity in the book). But it’s much harder to figure out how to respond to it. I can offer a theological critique of it—Christianity is precisely not about our hard work, but the work done by Christ in his death and resurrection; Jesus had some very hard things to say about family relations; Christianity is concerned with our lives here and now because God in Christ comes into the midst of them and transforms them now—but none of this changes the fact that the version of Christianity he describes holds great sway among many people.

Perhaps one of the most concerning things about the state of American Christianity is its segmentation: there are correlations between socio-economic status and both church attendance and the kind of church one belongs to. People like Vance’s grandmother have given up on church—or has the church given up on them?—but they haven’t given up on the rhetoric of Christianity. There are clear opportunities for churches to minister alongside such communities. But if we cannot overcome the vast social distance between our churches and such communities, such ministry will never even begin.

Praying for Paris—and everywhere else?

More than other comparable events, the recent terrorist attacks in Paris have led to a critical appraisal of our response. In the midst of expressions of prayer and support, there’s been a consistent thread that has said, essentially, Why don’t we care when this happens in the rest of the world? People point to a bomb attack in Beirut a day before Paris that didn’t generate nearly the same level of attention as Paris. Oddly, a BBC story about the attack on Garissa University in Kenya gained considerable social media momentum. It was as if people were saying by sharing it, “See, I do care”—though the point was somewhat undermined by the fact the attack happened in April.

Hard to project a cedar tree on this canvas.

The disjuncture between the attention paid to Paris and the lack of attention paid to other attacks is used then to make arguments about race, the role of media, our rhetoric of mourning, and much else. Somehow, the focus shifts away from the immediate pain and onto ourselves.

But there is a serious question here: in a world of violent outrages, only some of which receive the full-court press from our media, how are we supposed to respond in a way that seems even-handed and, well, fair?

I’ve dwelt on this question many times in the past as I’ve traveled to various parts of the world that experience great suffering but generally do not merit more than passing attention in media outlets. I’m thinking here primarily of northern Nigeria and South Sudan. But there are other places that, for one reason or another, are close to my heart, if not often in our headlines.

Over time, I’ve adopted this strategy: I’ve jettisoned fairness. I cannot pray for the pain of the entire world in all its variety. Instead, I have consciously committed my attention and prayer life to a handful of locales in the world. I actively seek out news about those places, I keep them in prayer, and I try to be in relationship with people from these places. In some cases, like South Sudan, that means I actually e-mail with (and occasionally call) and know people who live there. In other cases, social media proves to be a helpful tool. With a little searching on Twitter and elsewhere, you can easily find firsthand sources from all over the world to follow and learn from. As the conditions in Burundi have deteriorated in recent weeks, for instance, my Twitter feed has been full of material that has been really helpful in educating me about what is going on there. It’s not the whole story, but it is helpful in some way.

A short list of the locales I pay close attention to includes South Sudan, the Great Lakes region of east/central Africa, northeastern Nigeria, the life of the indigenous peoples of the Arctic, and the migratory situation in southeast Asia, particularly the Rohingya people of Myanmar. I don’t mean to say these are all equal—there is far less overt violence in the Arctic, for instance, than in parts of South Sudan and each place is a unique and particular context—but for whatever combination of reasons, these places have been put close to my heart.

What this also means is that there are situations in the world I know little about. I wish I knew more about Ukraine or Libya or the opioid addiction crisis in rural America. But my hope is that these places—and any number of others—are close to the heart of other people and that together our prayers can hold the brokenness of the world. I find strength and help in the knowledge that there are Christians in the places I pray for that are praying for where I live.

While I do sometimes wonder if I am narrowing myself unnecessarily, I’ve found that my approach can be empowering. Rather than being overwhelmed by the tide of senseless and seemingly indiscriminate suffering and violence that pops into our news cycles with too little context and too quickly disappears, I am encouraged by the close links I have with particular places that have evolved over time. These close links yield stories not only of pain—which is what the media will cover—but also of hope and new life.

I’ve also found in my own life and that of others that the bonds formed in prayer can often lead to action. Prayer is about a lot more than sitting in silence every so often and sending “good thoughts” someone’s way. In my experience, attentiveness to a particular location can lead to deeper engagement and action.

Christians are called to enter the suffering of the world not simply because it is the “right thing to do.” We are called to enter the suffering of the world because we believe that somewhere, through pain and heartbreak, there is a path to new life. But that path to new life will only begin as it has always begun: in patient, loving attention to the particular circumstances of individual lives around the world.

As the collective body of Christ is attentive to the collective suffering of the world, we may find that we are collectively led into Christ’s new life.

Aylan, an icon of our times

Many Christian traditions, including my own, have a practice of praying with icons. By contemplating an image, we are led into deeper truths and prayer.

But icons aren’t just things we find in churches. They’re in the world around us. The image of Aylan, the young migrant child who drowned off the coast of Greece, is an icon of our times.1548

I have spent a larger portion of my morning than I had intended staring at this icon. Here are some things I’ve seen:

  • officialdom and bureaucracy: I see the uniform—hat, vest, boots—though it doesn’t seem to be a terribly high-ranking official, merely a functionary making a note of this particular death and then (in other photos of this moment that are circulating) carting the child away. I’m not putting blame on the official. But it’s a representation of the collective (non-) response to mass migration we’re seeing: low-level officials on the front-lines are unable to adequately respond, while senior leaders are absent.
  • notebook: I see that the official appears to be making a note in a notebook. It is this glimpse of the notebook that I have kept returning to as a symbol of our response: make notes, file paperwork, make the right bureaucratic moves—and fail to prevent deaths.
  • detritus: the child is not the only thing washed up on shore. If you look in the background, you’ll see the usual bits of trash and plastic and driftwood you find on the beaches. And the child is just like that.
  • and, of course, the child: it’s a position that reminds me of the curious and amusing way that many children seem to fall asleep in the most uncomfortable position possible. Of course, he’s not sleeping—and it’s that truth that the photo draws us back to again and again.
  • last, but not least, the Bible: I thought of Lamentations: “Is it nothing to you, all ye that pass [scroll] by?” (1.12)

We live in an image-saturated world. We have apps that let us scroll through photo after photo of our friends and others going about their lives. We are never encouraged to slow down, pause, and stare for a long time.

There are no shortage of responses to this icon. It’s already a meme, a source of new (and understandable) outrage, a call to action, and a talking point in political conversation. We can have opinions about all of those things. We should also have an opinion about the sharing and viewing of this image. After all, Aylan is neither the first nor last child to die in this way. Just because someone was there to take his photo, does that change things?

But right now, I just want to contemplate this icon—not scroll past it, not add text to it—but simply be in its presence. By doing so, I am drawn more fully into the truth it reveals, a truth which indicts us all.