Henri Nouwen "A More Perfect Union" | Episode Transcript
Karen Pascal: Hello, I’m Karen Pascal. I’m the Executive Director of the Henri Nouwen Society. Welcome to a new episode of Henri Nouwen: Now and Then. Our goal at the Henri Nouwen Society is to extend the rich, spiritual legacy of Henri to audiences around the world. Each week, we endeavor to bring you a new interview with someone who’s been influenced by the writings of Henri, or perhaps even a recording of Henri Nouwen himself. We invite you to share the daily meditations in these podcasts with your friends and family. Through them we can continue to introduce new audiences to the writings and teachings of Henri Nouwen. Henri reminds each listener that they’re a beloved child of God.
Now, let me take a moment to introduce today’s guest. Today on the podcast I have the pleasure of speaking with Reverend Adam Russell Taylor. Adam is the President of Sojourners and he’s the author of a wonderful new book, A More Perfect Union: A New Vision for Building the Beloved Community.
Let me share with you a little of Adam’s background. Previously, Adam led the faith initiative at the World Bank Group, and he served as President in charge of advocacy work at World Vision USA, as well as being a senior political director of Sojourners. He has also served as the Executive Director of Global Justice, an organization that educates and mobilizes students around global human rights and economic justice. He was selected in 2009 for the class of White House Fellows and served in the White House Office of Cabinet Affairs and Public Engagement. Taylor is a graduate of Emory, the Harvard University Kennedy School of Government and the Samuel Dewitt Proctor School of Theology.
Today we’re going to focus on his new book, A More Perfect Union. I love what Bishop Michael Curry says about the book: “There are books that are worth reading, and then there are books like this one that desperately need to be read by as many people as possible.” I concur with his assessment and that is where I want to start. Though the book focus is primarily on issues facing the United States, the vision it articulates goes way beyond the borders of America. Adam shares his vision of building the “Beloved Community”. And I think people of faith and vision will be inspired to see this lived everywhere in the world. Adam Russell Taylor, welcome to Henri Nouwen: Now and Then.
Adam Russell Taylor: Thank you. It’s such an honor to be with you.
Karen: Adam, in this book, you share a bold transformational vision to replace the politics of fear, division and contempt that seem to dominate America today. Tell us about the “Beloved Community”. Where did this concept come from?
Adam: Yeah, so the Beloved Community moral vision really animated the civil rights struggle in the United States and its origins really started with Josiah Royce, who was one of the leaders and founders of the Fellowship of Reconciliation. So he kind of coined the term, ‘the Beloved Community’. Dr. Martin Luther King was a member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation and certainly built on much of what Royce taught about it, but then took it a step further and really universalized the concept. So to Dr. King, the Beloved Community was about a deep commitment to nonviolence, a deep commitment to agape love, to unconditional selfless love. It was about a deep commitment to equality, which is so ingrained not just in the Constitution of the United States, but also in our faith traditions, including our Christian faith tradition. And so I really tried to build on so much of what Dr. King and then other civil rights leaders like Fannie Lou Hamer and Ella Baker, and John Lewis had to say about the Beloved Community. And I really feel like that moral vision is an extremely healing one. It’s an extremely unifying one and it’s an extremely transformational one, in part because it is able to transcend so much of the brokenness of our current political dialogue and debate. And it taps into some of the best wells of both the traditionally progressive tradition as well as a conservative tradition. So it emphasizes both a commitment to community and to the bonds of community as being really, really essential and emphasizing the role of responsibility in the midst of that, but also places an emphasis on human dignity and protecting people’s fundamental rights and a big emphasis on inclusion.
My own remix of what the Beloved Community means for us today is building a society where neither punishment nor privilege is tied to race, to ethnicity, to class, to gender, to sexual orientation. And it’s creating a society, nation and world where everyone is valued, everyone is seen, everyone has a voice and where everyone is enabled to thrive and realize their God-given potential. And I know that’s a big vision if you will, but I think it’s really one that would resonate with the vast majority of people across the world. And I think we’re in desperate need of a more positive moral vision about what we want to co-create together.
Karen: For our audience, I’d love to share with them the reality that Henri Nouwen was so drawn to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision. He marched to Montgomery and he was also there to march in King’s funeral because this was one of the great influences in his life. And it’s interesting because when I hear Henri use the theme, the word ‘beloved’, the discovery that every human being is a beloved child of God, I often wondered did he bring it from that place as well? I know that he found it in Scripture, and I know it was very related to the baptism of Jesus, but I just know that if Henri were here today, he would want to be talking to you and he would want to see what we could do to be part of this.
The other reality that I feel very linked to you in is the reality that there was a long history of relationship between Jim Wallis and Henri and the early roots of Sojourners. And I think Wallis would’ve been challenging Henri to be more active. And Henri would’ve been challenging all the people on the front line to be really grounded in their faith as well, so that they brought the roots of it right into their activism.
It is an amazing thing right now, the reality of the radical polarization in America. Your book arrives in the midst of a pandemic which has really turned the world upside down. When you set out, were these conditions in place or did they kind of magnify during the time of your writing this book? Certainly the book is so current and it so speaks to these issues.
Adam: Yeah. Well, I’m really grateful that you think so. And I’ll make a little small confession. I wrote the majority of the book before the pandemic and before what I refer to as a racial awakening summer, at least the partial racial awakening summer in 2020 with the horrific murder of George Floyd and Ahmed Arbury and others. And so I felt it was imperative to write and add some additional content to the book. So, the original publishing date got delayed a little bit, but I ultimately think that that made it a stronger and hopefully a more timely book. But the themes that I was wrestling with even before the pandemic were the exact kind of commitments and themes that I felt are so essential for how we understand the pandemic. And more importantly, how do we navigate and overcome this pandemic in a way that helps us to co-create together a radically new normal.
You know, there’s a risk that we’ll just try to go back to what was a very broken ‘normal’. But what I try to emphasize in the book and what I emphasize in my own thinking about the pandemic is that it really is this kind of apocalyptic moment that reveals, or has revealed so much about ourselves, so much about the inequality in our society if we look at who has disproportionately been infected and has died of COVID and of course around the world, in terms of who has access to vaccines right now and who doesn’t. But it’s also revealed a lot of our brokenness in terms of human relationship where somehow the simple act of wearing a mask became another casualty of our culture wars and became completely personalized and politicized so that many people saw wearing a mask as somehow an afront to their personal liberty. Well, I try to argue that it really is about a commitment to the Golden Rule of loving and protecting ourselves well, as well as our neighbors. So, those are some of the things that I kind of touch on in the book. And in one of what I call the Beatitudes of building a Beloved Community.
So these are the core commitments and markers that I think are essential to helping us build the Beloved Community. It is what I describe as an ubuntu interdependence, drawing from the African philosophy of ubuntu, which is particularly meaningful right now after the recent passing on to glory of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who had a profound impact in my life. I had the privilege of studying in South Africa in ‘96 and actually attending one of the early hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that Bishop Tutu really helped to lead. And he emphasized that I am because we are. There is an inescapable, deep mutuality between people and that we can’t experience our full humanity, let alone our full divinity, unless we see it in others and we affirm it in others. And so that has been one of the critical themes in the book that that I unpack. And I really think that the pandemic itself is a real test of our commitment to Ubuntu; or put in Christian terms, our test of our commitment to the Golden Rule. And again, we’re still in the midst of it but I’m hopeful that we can try to tap into those better angels rather than some of the other vices that have made the pandemic that much worse.
Karen: It is an amazing time of polarization that’s for sure. And it brings politics of division. And I’m curious about how you feel we can really replace that. How can we replace it with truth and with justice and with the common good? What are the steps that you feel are actionable or that you out of this book want us to envision?
Adam: One of the arguments I make in the book is that you can only replace a kind of dystopian and broken narrative with a more hopeful and unifying narrative. And so at least in the U.S. context, the campaign slogan that former President Trump ran on in 2016 of Make America Great Again, was for some, a very inspirational slogan. But it was kind of a dog whistle for many others, particularly within the black community and other communities of color. It really begs a question, was America great for African Americans in the 1950s and sixties when they were denied their fundamental rights until the civil rights movement really helped to win those rights for everyone? And so, I’m very intentional about not wanting to make this book primarily about our politics although I think there’s a lot of healing and renewal that needs to happen in our politics. But I do believe in the power of story and the power of narrative, because so often the stories we tell ourselves and the narratives that we share really help to shape our sense of reality and of what’s possible, and ultimately what we are aspiring to achieve together.
And so this is a moment where we need to have a kind of shared narrative both about our past, because if we misunderstand or whitewash some of the ugliness of our past then we are much more bound to repeat those mistakes. But also, we need a shared understanding and hopefully a shared moral vision about where we’re going. That’s where the Beloved Community comes in. Part of that is about the personal change that needs to happen. And I think this is where some of the themes of the book both resonate with and in some ways were inspired by some of the writings of Henri Nouwen, which is that we have to find ways to humanize the ‘other’. We have to find ways to be more vulnerable ourselves as we really make a commitment to love our enemies, which just feels like such a radical commitment in the midst of our politics right now, where there’s so much blame and there’s so much scapegoating going on. We have to make a commitment to build deeper relationships and do deeper listening and try to not impugn other people’s motives. And of course, that is not going to fix or solve all the challenges that are in our politics, but I think they’re really critical. Then at the same time, I think we have to find greater courage to debunk so many of the lies that have festered within our politics.
And clearly one of the biggest ones right now is what’s referred to as the ‘Big Lie’ – that the 2020 election was stolen. Well that lie has been debunked by all kinds of evidence and data. And yet over 70% of Republicans in the United States today still believe that this last election was stolen. And that lie is really a kind of corrupting toxic force within our politics right now. So I do think we need to have the courage to be able to speak the truth and to try to debunk the lies that are in our midst. And the last thing I’ll say really quickly is that we do have to advocate for some very significant structural change in our politics. Right now, our political system is incentivizing a lot of zero sum thinking and a lot of ‘us versus them’ thinking and inaction. Instead, we really want to incentivize a commitment to the common good; a commitment to working together to solve common challenges.
And so there are a couple of things that I think are essential. One is we need to pass legislation that will protect the sacred right to vote for all Americans. Right now there’s a piece of legislation that is being debated called the ‘John Lewis Voting Advancement Act’ and ‘The Freedom of Vote Act’. It’s imperative that we pass both of those to try to safeguard our democracy right now. And we need to change the kind of rules of the system so that politicians can’t just choose their voters rather than voters choosing their politicians. You know, right now there’s so many congressional districts that have been gerrymandered that the real contest in about 80% of congressional seats takes place in the primary. And it’s only 10% of the American electorate that votes in the primary, which means it tends to be the more strident voices that are determining who sits in Congress. And then those members of Congress are then accountable to that very small percentage that doesn’t represent the majority of Americans. So those are just a couple of concrete examples but that interchange I think is so important. And then the kind of systemic structural change is so important.
Karen: It’s interesting to me because as I look at your past and your life prior to the role that you have now, and maybe even prior to this book, what I see is that you’ve been a constant bridge builder, and that’s an incredible role of probably finding the similarities in situations. But I also feel that you have a real prophetic edge in this particular book. And that to me is really important. It really feels to me like a call forward. And that’s where I feel like the prophetic quality of it is really universal too. What kind of a world do we as people of faith want to build? What kind of a world should we be committed to? And maybe you might speak a little bit more about that Beloved Community and what people living within that would feel about each other and themselves.
Adam: Yeah. So it’s a great question. I mean let me just describe some of the Beatitudes because I think they help paint a picture of what the Beloved Community looks like. And as I speak from a Christian theological perspective, another way of describing the Beloved Community is God’s reign of the kingdom of God. And I think the Beloved Community certainly as a moral vision is universal in the sense that it can appeal to people of faith and people of no faith and people of other faith traditions. But in our faith tradition, I really think that first and foremost it’s tied to our understanding and our commitment to Imago Dei, that we are made in the likeness and image of God and that because of that each and every one of us has inherent worth and dignity. That understanding should make it so much more difficult, if not impossible for us to want to denigrate or want to assault the dignity of anyone else.
And it’s easy to kind of take for granted just how profound the Imago Dei ethic and commitment is. But I think it really should kind of ground us in a commitment to equality. And so that’s fundamental. I think another one is a much deeper commitment to prioritizing nonviolence. Dr. King understood nonviolence, not just as an ethic, but as a way of life. He believed that violent means of achieving certain just causes would ultimately corrupt the just cause. And I think right now we see such a rampant embrace of violence, whether it’s the violence that took place on January 6th literally just yesterday a year ago at the U.S. Capitol by a kind of mob of insurrectionists that were trying to overturn election or the rampant violence of guns and of war as a method to achieve certain ends.
So this kind of commitment to nonviolence I think is really essential.
Another commitment that I mentioned earlier is this commitment to an ubuntu interdependence, which I think could really change our understanding of our commitments and responsibilities to and for one another. Another one is a commitment to what I call ‘radical welcome’. Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, there is this constant refrain that we should be the ones that are welcoming the immigrant in our midst; that if we think about our faith tradition, that Jesus was at one point a refugee as he fled Bethlehem for Egypt in order to escape an edict by Herod of infanticide. And so there’s this kind of understanding that when we see the immigrant in our midst, we’re really seeing Jesus if we take Matthew 25 seriously. And while that’s not easy to translate into complex immigration policy, I think that ethic really needs to be further embraced by the church where we don’t scapegoat immigrants in our midst. We understand that they carry the image of God and that ultimately they are already such an incredibly important part of the church and of our communities. And ultimately, you know, I believe we can fix a broken immigration system and do it in a way that maintains the rule of law and also shows compassion and provides an opportunity for citizenship, for those that are already here.
And then the last one that I emphasize is a commitment to dignity for all. When you think about the word dignity the Latin meaning of the word is all about worthiness, that we all have inherent worth. So we don’t have to earn that worth, particularly from our Christian theological understanding that the worth is given to us already. It’s inherent within us. And at the heart of the UN Declaration of Human Rights there’s an emphasis on human dignity at the heart of what’s called the sustainable development goal agenda, which literally governments of the world agreed to back in 2015, the goal of ending extreme poverty by the year 2030.
And literally the kind of tagline of that agenda is ‘dignity for all’. And so I emphasize these commitments because I think they start to paint a picture of how our lives would be different. Our communities and neighborhoods would be different and our nations and world would be different if we really try to internalize and then to live out a commitment to each of them. Within the chapters of the book, I get into very concrete examples of how various organizations and leaders are practically putting these Beatitudes into practice. And I’d be happy to share some of those stories now.
Karen: I’d love to hear them. In fact, I wanted to hear some of the practical stories because it’s very easy for people to feel overwhelmed, and this is a great vision, but is it possible? This is the question. But I’d love to hear some examples that you’re seeing where people are taking this on.
Adam: Yeah, absolutely. So there’s actually an organization that was founded by a friend of mine from graduate school named Laura, who created an organization in the greater Washington DC area called Kindred. What she recognized going into the public school system in DC is that there’s both extreme inequality between many of the schools and a real lack of social capital among many of the more disadvantaged students, particularly or disproportionately so students of color. And so she created this organization called Kindred to work with parents to basically form these parent groups where they get to build deep relationships with each other, to learn each other’s stories, learn about their hopes and dreams for their kids. And then from that relationship or set of relationships, to start envisioning what it would look like for their school system to be able to provide the utmost opportunities for all kids, regardless of their background.
And as they got to know each other’s stories, they realized just how much they shared in common in terms of what they wanted for their kids. And many of the more affluent parents and many of the white parents became morally indignant that so many of these more disadvantaged kids were being kind of shut out of a lot of opportunities that enable other kids to succeed. And so the initiative has really helped to put in place a whole series of initiatives that are really helping to create greater equity in our education system. And it’s very much this kind of bottom up approach rather than this more top down approach from the policy making level. So that’s kind of one that has inspired me that’s more local.
Another example is an initiative out in California that’s being led by an amazing organization called Faith in Action. And they’ve been working with churches and also synagogues and mosques for many years, helping to build power. They’re a kind of community congregational-based organizing network, working on issues of housing and education and poverty and more. But what they realized is that they really needed to kind of reframe their work around a sense of belonging, that the relations they were building were overly transactional. And so they ended up creating this initiative where churches and mosques and synagogues would come together in smaller circles to build deeper relationships, to dream together, to vision together through the lens of their faith, what they wanted their communities to look like, and then to identify the best ways that they could practically realize that vision.
And it’s really kind of reframed the way they’re doing their organizing work in California.
I’ll just mention one last one. There’s an organization–or really a church fittingly called the Peace [Fellowship] Church–in a section of DC that has some of the highest homicide rates in an area of Southeast Washington DC. A really dynamic Reverend Delonte Gholston leads that church. And he has been leading a whole series of what are called peace walks, where clergy and other community leaders are literally walking the streets at night and during the day, particularly on the weekends to simply be a presence in the building of relationships with folks that are hurting, with folks that are young people in particular that are disillusioned and are angry and kind of acting out that anger in different ways, in some cases that lead to violence. And they’ve also in the context of that, been advocating for greater conflict resolution funding and funding of programs that would really help to mitigate some of the violence that’s happening on the streets of DC. And it’s really had some pretty impressive impact. So some of these things don’t require two advanced degrees, if you will, some do but you know, it’s really about our courage and our commitment to put our faith into action.
Karen: You introduced a term to me in the book ‘allyship’ or is that how you call it allyship– Is that what you describe as being an ally? This was something I felt was so useful to me. And I guess that looks too to what an individual can do, but also what churches and people of faith and people of varying faiths can do. Help me [understand] a little bit more about allyship.
Adam: Yeah. So I first encountered a different version of allyship. We didn’t call it allyship back then. So this is in the 1990s when I was in college, there’s an organization that’s been around for a long time called the National Coalition Building Institute. And they’ve been doing work particularly in college campuses to really help students to bridge some of the divides around race in particular, but also around gender and more recently around sexual orientation. And they really emphasize that we have to be more attuned, more mindful of the stereotypes and the misinformation that we have been fed about other groups. And we also have to understand that all of us have experienced in different ways, oppression that’s been internalized within us that then can get reenacted in lots of harmful and hurtful ways. And so in that context they teach students how to interrupt situations of injustice or situations where maybe an offensive or harmful thing is said and how to step in that situation and be an ally to the person that has been hurt or has been victimized. So, fast forward 20 years and I had a chance to work with an African American woman named Whitney Parnell, who leads an organization called Service Never Sleeps. And she has really helped deepen this approach. And it’s now encapsulated in this notion of allyship. So the notion is that all of us have in different situations, different degrees of privilege or of power. So in some situations as a black cisgender man I will have certain privileges in power compared to a woman in a situation or someone that may be gay or lesbian or transgender situation. And first and foremost, it’s important that I’m aware of some of those privileges and sources of power and that I have as a result of that, a particular responsibility that ties into the teaching, that “to whom much is given much is required” to exercise that, to utilize that privilege and power if I see someone being harmed as a result of some core part of identity. And it gets into both being more self-aware and being more courageous and more committed to trying to interrupt and to address situations where people are misusing their power in ways that harm and that discriminate. And so I found it just to be really a kind of practical set of tools and an ethic that I think could really help to transform our relationships over time.
Karen: I like that a lot. Within your book one of the quotes that is here is, “white supremacy has disfigured American democracy from the nation’s inception”. I don’t think we can deny that. I’d like you to expand on it just a little bit so that our audience has some feeling, because there’s this wonderful thing that says you know all are created equal, but let’s take it back and say what was the reality? Tell us about this.
Adam: Yeah. So what I try to emphasize in the book is that we have to fully understand, and in some cases acknowledge and prepare, for our whole history. And when we think about the brilliance of America and the kind of hope of America, it is tied into this American creed of liberty and justice for all. And that is worth cherishing, that’s worth realizing for everyone. The challenge is that from our inception our country was founded upon both the terrible annihilation of the native population and was founded on essentially a commitment to anti-blackness that defined black slaves as less than fully human and literally shut them out from all of the privileges and benefits of being a citizen of this country. And of course, it wasn’t just enslaved African Americans, it was women also were denied the right to vote at the beginning of our nation’s history and Latinos and Asians and others. And so in some ways the American project has really been a project about expanding the ‘we’ in terms of who do ‘we’ includes, and fighting to ensure that liberty and justice for all, truly extends to everyone. And so what I try to do in some parts of this book is be able to uncover some of those parts of our history that I think so often are hidden, or are sometimes denied, not in a way to shame America, but in a way to really help us better understand so that we can make amends where necessary, where we can repair what needs to be repaired. And ultimately, because if we believe the words of Jesus, only the truth, and what I say in the book, the whole truth, can set us free.
And so I need to embrace that whole truth. I’ll give you a couple of recent examples. I mean, it’s pretty astounding in some ways that in the 100-year centennial of the horrific massacre in Tulsa where Black Wall Street was burned down. In Oklahoma – Tulsa, Oklahoma- 60% of Oklahomans had never heard or read about that history. Even though it was one of the dark moments in recent U.S. history. When I say recent in the last a hundred years took place in 1921. And the reason why so many Oklahomans had never heard of it is there was a concerted effort to literally erase that history from the libraries, from the history books, from the landscape of Tulsa. And there was the courage of many African Americans and their families who’ve been devastated by that massacre that wrote that history and refused to let it get erased.
And so that’s just one of a number of moments that we could point to. I mean, even more recently just making this kind of real time in our conversation I mean, there’s already an effort to whitewash and revise people’s understanding of what happened on January 6th just a year ago. To downplay how serious the violence was; to misrepresent the motives of those who were in the riot. The majority of Republicans, according to polling, view the rioters not as rioters, but as patriots. And so there’s just a real struggle, both in terms of our collective memory, how do we remember and understand the past and how do we understand how that continues to show up and impact the present, let alone the future.
Karen: You write in your book, something that is a really challenging statement. And I quite love it: “The pursuit of a post-racial America is a wrong goal. Instead, our aim should be to build an America that is anti-racist and committed to building the beloved community.” An intriguing statement anti-racist as opposed to post racial.
Adam: So, there was this kind of notion among some, and even became a chant I think at some of the rallies right after Obama was elected our first African American president, that we had somehow entered this kind of post-racial America. And I admit I was pretty frustrated at the time because one, I just thought that that was very naive and not a real depiction of reality, particularly knowing how much inequality, wealth inequality, and income inequality is still tied to race, let alone the degree of so many black men are viewed as criminal or as dangerous and aren’t given equal justice under the law. But even beyond that, I really felt like that was the wrong goal. I really feel like the right goal is to try to build an anti-racist society and certainly builds on the scholarship and the writing of others like Ibram Kendi and others as well.
But the difference is that it a commitment to anti-racism says that I am going to be committed to resisting, to trying to oppose or trying to change anything that helps to reinforce disadvantages and discrimination against African Americans or another group because of the color of their skin. Anything that reinforces a hierarchy of human value has to be addressed and has to be named and has to be resisted. And I think that there’s this rich diversity, there’s a rich culture that is now tied into the African American cultural identity. Now it’s not homogenous, it’s multi-layered, but well, you know, race was and is a kind of social construct. We need to get rid of all of the parts of that construct that have led to oppression and discrimination and embrace the ways that construct has given birth to a really vibrant culture.
That is a part of the American experience and is a rich part of our current history, as well as our past. And so let me put this another way. My wife is from Jamaica, now a U.S. citizen, but she grew up in Jamaica and Jamaica has their motto, has a similar motto to what used to be the motto of the United States which is ‘Out of Many One’. But what Jamaica added to E Pluribus Unum was “out of one, out of many, one people.” And this sense of peoplehood that the richness and the strength of Jamaica is not this kind of uniformity, but instead the tapestry of diversity that makes up the Jamaican people that enables them to see themselves as one nation. And I think to me, that’s the better analogy. That’s the better vision to aspire toward than trying to aspire toward this kind of post racial America, where you have to ignore or water down the richness of our diversity.
Karen: I was moved by Black Lives Matter. And the breadth of what I was seeing across the arms linked, what can I say? I just had the feeling that the generations coming up really want to agree with this vision, really wants to grab it and embrace it. It just strikes me that hopefully we’re in a new moment, a new beginning moment. And as you say, it has to be incredibly truthful about the present and the past, but it’s an interesting time. I feel like you inherited the unfinished business of the civil rights movement. It’s kind of etched in your heart. And I think I can see you picking up this mantle of John Lewis and Dr. King and carrying it forward. And you say that at the core the Beloved Community is an engine of reconciliation. Are you hopeful that we can reconcile at a much deeper and richer level in spite of what we’re seeing right now? I mean, in spite of the polarization? I long to see what you have written in this book come true.
Adam: Well, let me just share a little bit about my own origin story, if you will. My parents made the controversial decision to get married to each other in 1968, the same year that Dr. King was assassinated. And it was controversial because my mother is black and my father’s white. And they got married just a year after interracial marriage was legalized through the Loving versus the State of Virginia Supreme court case. And they instilled in me this deep and abiding belief that not only was I made in the image of God, but that my diversity, and then in a larger sense, our nation’s diversity, our world’s diversity, was a strength not a weakness. It was a gift and not a liability. And they also instilled in me what you just said, that my generation, Generation X, inherited the unfinished business of the civil rights movement.
And so I took that really seriously. I mean, it got internalized within me and I studied as much as I could about the civil rights movement and read everything I could, not just by Dr. King but by other civil rights leaders. And one of the things that made a huge impression on me in addition to the Beloved Community moral vision was this notion and commitment to redemptive suffering. And you actually think it very much tied into so much of what Henri Nouwen had to say and what he lived. And I think that’s really important for the current moment that we’re in, because I think we have to have a deeper understanding and commitment to what reconciliation’s going to look like.
To me, reconciliation starts with some kind of confession or acknowledgement of harm that has been done in the past. And then that opens the possibility for a restoration of right relationship. It opens the door to forgiveness, which is also crucial. And the forgiveness then enables us, it empowers us to heal some of the hurt and the trauma from those wounds. And it enables us to find greater common purpose together, and to be able to move forward in a new direction. And so I think sometimes we try to skip different pieces of that, or that we only want to go to forgiveness and not necessarily have to do some of the hard work of truth telling and of acknowledgement and of repentance. And so I’m hopeful because I do think that is a growing movement in the United States that’s really trying to do some of that harder work of truth telling and of repentance. It’s actually a whole movement called the Truth, Reconciliation and Racial Healing Movement that has done some great work in places like Queensborough, North Carolina and other cities around the country.
And then I think that there’s this opportunity in front of us, particularly after what we experienced together in the summer of 2020, that I think did open the eyes of a lot of people and broke the hearts of a lot of people about just how much of a crisis there is when it comes to racialized policing and police violence, that it creates the opportunity for some of that reconciliation to happen in a deeper way.
The last thing that gives me hope is that I think this is really the work of Christian discipleship, that discipleship we – let me put it this way – we have to see that a core part of discipleship is discipling people into a commitment of anti-racism and out of a commitment to racism. And I’m seeing more of that happen in many parts of the church. Obviously there’s a huge amount of work that needs to be done, but instead of seeing the issue of racism and white supremacy as a purely political issue, or as an optional issue, I think we need to keep pushing the church to see it as an integral issue that literally will define the integrity of our faith moving forward. And I’m hopeful that can happen.
Karen: Mm that’s good. That’s excellent. You’ve answered a lot of my questions. I think probably the question more than anything else I wonder about is I want to take you back and say, how has Henri Nouwen influenced you? You’ve obviously understood what he had to offer. And I think probably Henri’s place of meeting people was in his honesty and his own brokenness. And that was something which in some ways we find so irresistible and then as he received his sense that he was a beloved child of God, that he could give to others and say to every single person, ‘you’re beloved, you’re in the image of God, God loves you. He’s loved you when he formed you in your mother’s womb. And you are on a journey that’s going to return you to this God of love.’ And it struck me as I read, at the root of the beloved communities is people that understand their belovedness. And I think that’s what Henri gave us as a gift.
Adam: No question, no question. I think when I unpack the word ‘beloved community’ I talked more in this conversation about the community part, but the beloved part is equally important. That we are beloved by God, that God knows everything about us and loves us anyway. And with all of our mistakes, our vices, our egos and everything else in between. And that sense of unconditional selfless love, I think, is so important to the life and to the witness of Henri Nouwen. And it’s so important for what we should be aspiring to. I also just think the book that had the biggest impact on me was The Wounded Healer. And I think particularly in activism, which has kind of been more my sense of calling and ministry, there’s a tendency to not want to show weakness, to show strength, to show confidence, to show that you, in some cases can even be kind of arrogant that you are on the right side of history. And what I’ve realized is that while some of those things are important, they also can be vices in their own right. And that it can really lead us down a path of self-righteousness and ultimately burnout, because if you’re not in touch with some of your own woundedness and your own brokenness, it’s very hard to offer a message, a gospel of wholeness to others. So I’ve tried to be more attuned and in touch with that in myself. And also just be more vulnerable about it in the context of some of the struggles that I have, or some of the questions that still remain for me as I try to do this work of justice and peace.
Karen: That’s such a good word, such a good word. Adam, tell me something that Sojourners is involved in that will inspire us.
Adam: Certainly. So, Sojourners have been around, we’re actually celebrating our 50th anniversary, our 50th birthday this year. And we have our magazine, our digital publication. You can learn email@example.com, but we also have been committed to helping to equip and inspire Christians of all types and stripes, to put their faith into action for peace and justice. And we currently have campaigns that are active on human rights and immigration reform, around policing and our justice system. We work on both poverty in the United States, but also global poverty. But the campaign that I really want to emphasize right now is so timely because I feel like we have a very narrow window to try to protect the right to vote, and then really try to protect our democracy in the United States. It is a campaign that we’re calling ‘Faiths United to Save our Democracy.’ And it’s really working to push back against the big lie that the last election was stolen and more importantly, it’s working to equip and to mobilize faith leaders to use their voices to try to ensure that future elections can be free, fair, and safe. And that we can protect what John Lewis described as a sacred right to vote. And so we’re working in 10 key states to do that, to do nonpartisan work, to ensure that everyone is able to exercise the right to vote. And we’re trying to pass national legislation, in particular, The John Lewis Voting Advancement Act and The Free the Vote Act.
Karen: You know, it’s interesting that the rest of the world has for generations looked to America in leadership in the area of democracy, none of us envisioned that democracy could be so fragile, that it could be so easily brought down in a way but it seems like it is piece by piece, little by little, and therefore the response needs to be, how do we build up the walls? How do you secure things and let the truth be known all which is very important. I’m very grateful for the role that Sojourners plays in the world, in America, but in a broader world as well. Something I loved in the book, by the way, and I wondered if you would be willing to read it. It was the letter you wrote to your sons. You are a father of two young boys growing up, and I loved what you wrote in that letter. Would you be willing to share that?
Adam: Certainly. So let me just give a little context. I wrote this letter the summer before the 2020 election. I didn’t actually know what the outcome would be, and I kind of wrote it intentionally that way. And I wrote it in part, because – this is in the beginning of the book, but the 2016 election was certainly one of the major events that inspired me to write this book. And my then five-year-old son, Joshua, came into our room at three in the morning and he just looked really distraught. And he’s like, ‘mommy and daddy, I really need to know who won the election.’ And my wife and I had a restless sleep that night and we’re still processing it ourselves. And we’re like, ‘well, we think Mr. Trump won.’ And he said, ‘I don’t understand how someone who has said and done such mean things could win.’ And I really was speechless. I didn’t know how to respond to him. And it wasn’t because someone that is a Republican or is more conservative than I am won, It was because someone who had appealed to and stoked so many of the worst impulses of American history, particularly in terms of racism and sexism, misogyny – was able to win. And I really feel like I kind of failed my son in that moment. And he saw that I was really struggling. He was like, ‘It’s okay mommy, daddy, you’re gonna make it okay.’ And I admit I felt the weight of the world on my shoulders in that moment. And so what I resolved is that partly writing this book was my way of explaining to myself and to my son and to everyone else, how do we move from this moment of what I call toxic polarization to the Beloved Community? Because I think that’s really the choice in front of us.
So fast forward three years, I’m in Washington State, which is where I was born and grew up until I was 16. I’m literally sitting on what I call my thinking rock. And in this place called Chuckanut Bay. And these are the words that I felt God, God’s Spirit laid on my heart. So: ‘Sons, this country has been terribly divided since even before the Constitution was agreed upon and our nation was born. It was bitterly divided of the evil of slavery, the annihilation of the native population, the subjugation of women and so much more. Division has been a defining feature of our politics, but so have struggle and hope. What all of us 200 plus years later can agree on and still should embrace are the ideals that America was built on; those ideals of equality, dignity, freedom and inalienable rights are precious and worth fighting for. They’re also based on and resonate with the very ideals and value of our faith. But these ideals are not a given. They do not come easily or without a price. They must be continually fought for and expanded to include all people. We, the people in these yet to be fully united United States of America, includes you. It includes me, your brother, mother, and everyone who is in this incredible country. Despite all of its flaws and wounds we continue to believe in these ideals and that they can regularly be reborn and more fully realized. Our faith says that Christ can make all things new. And that applies to this nation as well. Our faith enlists us to be part of the vision and work of making all things new, of building the beloved community and forming a more perfect union.”
Karen: Oh, thank you. I love the fact that in that letter to your sons, you also bring it back to the fact that Christ is our strength to do this. And He’s really called us to be salt in the world, to be a light in the world. He’s called us to hold those values that He gave us; that every single person has value and matters. That’s the bottom line. I have loved your book and I want to encourage those who are listening, whether you’re in the United States or you’re beyond its borders, this is a book worth reading. It’s got a really prophetic edge to it. It’s for the times we’re living in where we see so much polarization and struggle. I want to encourage you to read this book. I want to encourage you to share the vision of the Beloved Community. It’s been life-giving to me, and I promise you it will be life-giving to you. I also want to encourage you to visit Sojourners. It’s a great, great force in the United States. I’m so grateful for it and a great source of ideas and of actions and of good things to read and great prompts to live by.
Anyway, thank you so much, Adam, for being with us today. I really enjoyed talking with you and I have savoured your book. Thanks so much, Adam. Great joy to talk with you.
Thank you for listening to today’s podcast. What an honor for me to spend time with Reverend Adam Russell Taylor, the author of A More Perfect Union: A New Vision for Building the Beloved Community. Henri Nouwen was inspired by and in turn, was a source of spiritual inspiration for Sojourners when he was alive. Jim Wallis and Henri Nouwen were friends. I am delighted to see the wonderful work Sojourners continues to do now under the leadership of Adam Russell Taylor.
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