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Dear friends,

When I got involved with religion, I was introduced to the concept of giving your testimony. 

I didn’t know what this meant, at first, but soon I learnt. It was to tell the “before-and-after-story” of an encounter with God. At the start, I loved it, and found the testimony part of prayer meetings way more interesting than anything else. When I was sixteen I was asked by someone to give my testimony and I dragged my slightly bewildered parents along to hear my own before-and-after story. 

There was something unendingly interesting about hearing people tell a story from their lives. But after a while I became — can I say this? — bored of the plot-line of these stories. Sometimes the plot-line before the repentance was more interesting than the bit afterwards. And I often felt that these stories created a powerful Us and Them politic. I heard too many stories of, I once was Catholic until I saw the light. Or, I was gay but now I’m straight. 

The testimonies were, in a strange way, an interesting telling of some truths about a person's life, but also featured the message of "however everything's different now," which seemed to me to be an attempt to quiet the anxiety of the listeners.

Krista’s interview with Serene Jones on this week’s episode of On Being is a deep exploration about story, particularly White stories. Serene’s wisdom invites White people to question what stories we tell about our religious and political pasts; and not only what stories are told, but how they’re told, and for what purpose. The challenge isn’t only to tell our stories, but to ask the brilliant and brutal question of, “So what?” 

Since 2008, Serene Jones has been the president of Union Theological Seminary in New York, the first female leader in that institution's 180-year-old history. For her, the question of theology is profoundly linked with how — and for what purpose —  we tell personal stories, but also how — and for what purpose — we tell political stories. “Good theology absolutely must be public theology. What is theology, if it’s not talking about our collective lives — the meaning and purpose of our lives — and how we’re supposed to live together and who God is, in ways that are part of our conversation together?” 

In her conversation with Krista, Serene describes being at a university event where she saw one of those infamous postcards depicting a lynching. This postcard depicted a lynching from 1911 in Okemah, Oklahoma, a town Serene’s family lived in during that time, and a town with a small enough population that she reckons her family must have known what was happening, or even been there. But she’d never heard that story in her  family. This was, for her, a confrontation with proximity: “... in the stories of white supremacy, liberal white people today want to put that in the past and not reckon with how close it is to who we are now. And for me, I wasn’t allowed that dangerous innocence, once I saw that postcard.” 

Stories are sometimes told as if there’s only one interpretation of them, and other times stories are suppressed in order to deny complicity or proximity. Serene proposes a theological analysis of our stories: an analysis that seeks societal and personal repentance   a word which is more about deciding to act in a different way than it is about sorrow, as she explains it. By telling these stories from her own location — and inviting other people to do the same — Serene invites a movement towards mourning, that vital part of post-traumatic growth that tells the truth of the loss, but also creates a space for transformation. Mourning must be a public practice, because, for her, it “allows the possibility of a future… Pure grief just locks you in, in the eternal present.”

This conversation is one that holds joy and vocation alongside the seriousness of confession. At the heart of the conversation, Serene Jones sees that there can be dignity in this theological approach to confession and repentance. She doesn’t see this reckoning with the atrocious stories of white supremacy as demonstrations of self hate, or as a pass-card for future glory, but for a deeper reason, one she attributes to her love of the old protestant reformer John Calvin. “The reason we, in repentance, walk in this direction is not because, as sinners, we’ve repented, and because we don’t want to go to hell and want to go to heaven…  it’s because you actually recognize that the truth of love points you in that direction.” 

Friends, in all the stories we tell — and for all the reasons we tell them — we are with you in seeking to examine their powers, their unacknowledged corners, and the possibility of radical change towards justice and love at the heart of this kind of storytelling.

 

Beir bua, 

Pádraig Ó Tuama
host of Poetry Unbound

 

P.S. – Sarah Kirkland Snider’s Mass for the Endangered takes the form of the traditional mass and focuses on questions of ecology, human flourishing and safety. Especially pertinent for this weekend when many are celebrating Easter, her Mass seeks resurrection of species, sanctuaries and citizenship.  

 


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On Being with Krista Tippett

Serene Jones
"Grace in a Fractured World"

The Oklahoma-born theologian of trauma. Our political spiritual love crisis. “Everything is falling apart, and something new is emerging.”

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