The rabbit-hole that is the Internet seldom leads anywhere of value. However, in tracing the conflict between the Vatican and the American nuns of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), I was fortunate to find the speech by Laurie Brink that is at the center of the controversy. In it, she attempts to describe options for those who are pressed to the margins by a system of power.
Brink’s particular concern is how women religious (nuns) should respond to their devaluation by a Church to which they have committed their lives. However, I think it can be mapped more broadly. The issue is whether to leave or to stay in an unhealthy situation and how to do either with integrity. There are certainly more people making these choices than the nuns of the LCWR. We sometimes have to decide whether to stay in a job or a marriage or a church. As churches, we sometimes have to consider whether to continue relationships with denominations. These are all difficult choices because our identities are so tied up in these things.
Brink outlines four options, though she does not claim them to be exhaustive.
- Death. Some nuns have decided to go quietly into the night, as individuals and as congregations. Some do this well, with intention and proper grieving. Some simply become zombies, not living and not acknowledging what has happened. I’ve certainly been there in jobs in the past. Done well, this clears the way for new life, for others to take up the issues with fresh eyes and hearts and legs.
- Acquiescence. Some renew their commitment. For nuns, this means finding the spirituality of the tradition, donning the habit, returning to pious practice, such as adoration and the Rosary. Again, I’m sure I’ve been there in a job. You recognize that, for all its problems, there are positives to your situation, so you pursue those things with vigor.
- Sojourn. Maybe you’ve outgrown your job or your marriage or your church. Maybe it just doesn’t engage you like it once did. You recognize what it has meant to you and what it will continue to mean to you, but you have to move on. It’s a split, which involves some pain, but also the hope of something new that is maybe more true to what the old thing once was.
- Reconciliation. This is what Brink argues most strongly for. Rather than giving up, giving in, or going away, Brink argues for staying and making something new. This is a challenge because “this reconciliation of which Paul speaks and which we so desperately need is not easily obtained, measurable immediately, or likely the desire of all parties involved.” There is a generous spirit in this that assumes that those who we perceive to have wronged us possess a basic humanity. She quotes Joe Sermane, a South African who was tortured under apartheid: “it is through reconciliation that we regain our humanity. To work for reconciliation is to live to show others what their humanity is.” We reconcile not merely for our own interests or for the interests of the other, but so that, together, we become a new creation.
Each of these options is a movement in relation to God, the Church Universal, and the Christian tradition. I think many of us at Church in the Cliff have wrestled with this kind of decision. In many ways, we are Sojourners. But the purpose of that Sojourn is to gain a fresh view of that from which we have come, to find anew that which we left behind. In some ways, the move away is a move toward. As a Baptist emergent church, we have nearly infinite possibilities for how to be church. At times like this, when denominations are struggling to find the promise of justice, we should really value being able to act independently. However, perhaps we can ask ourselves how we can relate to that broader tradition. How can we support our brothers’ and sisters’ struggles for equality and justice? It’s easy to lob critique from the outside or try to tempt people to Sojourn with us. Instead, maybe compassion for the struggle and helping to mark the entry to the new creation. These nuns are risking a lot, as are so many others; our support should match their boldness.