The Problem of Faith in a Violent World

November 28th, 2016

“So, are you going to do something . . . ?”

It was mid-August, 2014. I had just gotten back to St. Louis from New York City, and there I stood in a hair salon catching up with Martha, a colleague and friend. I had no idea what her question meant.

“There’s talk of activities being organized around what happened over the weekend. Are you going to participate? You know, the shooting in Ferguson . . .” Martha helped out.

It was breaking news, and I hadn’t yet caught on to the names Michael Brown and Darren Wilson. Martha clued me in: a white police officer has fatally shot an unarmed black teenager in a suburb less than fifteen miles north of where I live and teach.

Three days later, I found myself on the sidewalk of Canfield Drive, staring at a makeshift roadside memorial in the middle of the street, at the spot where a teenager’s body was left lifeless and exposed for over four hours before grief-stricken, bewildered, indifferent, vulturous eyes. People were just beginning to gather for what was to be the first vigil for the fatal shooting by local law enforcement of yet another African American youth—but something was different in the air on that day. Vigil keepers positioned themselves quietly. A woman evangelist with a bullhorn was proclaiming muffled words about salvation. It began to rain. Someone nearby muttered, “Rain cleanses. . . .”

August 9, 2014, means different things to different people—and perhaps nothing at all to some—but it disrupted my world. For one, it disrupted my professional world because as soon as news broke out, members of the seminary community where I teach as well as religious professionals and faith groups in all of greater St. Louis knew that we were going to have to snap to attention and spring into action. As facts remained muddied with stories and counter-testimonies, feet took to the streets; vigils and forums were improvised everywhere; teach-ins, preach-ins, and eat-ins were organized by local leaders in concert with experts and partners from all over the country. In the following months, what seemed to be dramaturgical performances of religious ritual (from ecumenical Christian worship to interfaith prayer services), faith-based action, and intentional consciousness-raising efforts gave evidence of a social collective being spiritually reconfigured by tragedy.[1] The activities tested the capacity of faith communities to engage in disciplined improvisation; after all, we are in the business of “making disciples for the transformation of the world.”[2] Can we walk the faith talk at such a violent time as this?

As the context-specific actions of Ferguson merged with the larger #BlackLivesMatter protest movement,[3] local lay and clergy leaders learned anew what it takes to put some feet to their prayers. However, as improvisational efforts continued to rally and organize churches toward the enduring work of confronting the insidious violence of systemic social injustices in their own backyard, these leaders ran head-on into a familiar yet perplexing wall: the incapacity and unwillingness of their faith communities to respond with some form of faith-driven action. If the church’s teaching, learning, and practice of faith is purportedly transformative, then where is that faith when it’s needed most? If “good” religious formation had been happening all along—or had it?—then why the indifference, paralysis, apathy, exasperation, and even downright resistance when a calamity occurred that could have used a faithful response? Why does it appear as if collective moral consciousness has once again been anesthetized and the “hope” for which church folk love to sing and pray suddenly debilitated in the face of actual struggle?

The killing of Michael Brown disrupted my professional world, but it also disturbed my very psyche, triggering a crisis of faith. What does it mean to be a “person of faith” in a violent world? What does it even mean to “have faith” in this world that’s so violent? What does it mean for vulnerable bodies—victims of systemic and systematic abuse, neglect, and indifference—to continue believing that this world exists for them, for their future, for their flourishing? What does it mean for any of us to continue about our daily business of eating, praying, and loving, when the world continues to be punctured and ruptured by violence? If faith is a verb, then how do we “do faith” in a violent world?

Resetting the Heart

The above questions and the larger-than-life issues they convey are vexing for me as a person of faith, an ordained minister in a church that proclaims commitment to transformative work in the world, and a scholar of religious education. Unfolding world events reflect both the fertility and fragility of chronos time. Religions teach love of neighbor, but reality reminds us repeatedly that it’s hard to know who is neighbor and who is enemy. After all, in many times and places, we are both neighbor and enemy to each other. Despite forecasts about rising secularism and post-religious, post-Christian movements in North America, we have empirical descriptions of exploding charismatic spiritualities and groundswells of new “Christendoms” in the Global South.[4] The transnational flows of people have collapsed contexts but also exposed the fierce reflexes of physical and social immune systems triggered by risky human contact. Opportunities to share meals, fellowship, and prayers with new friends across the globe remind us of the early Christian communities’ seemingly ideal habits (Acts 2:42). But the allergens and pathogens—biological and social—contracted during border-crossings also remind us of how these basic human activities of eating, praying, and loving challenge our notions of what it means to be “redemptive community.”[5] Every now and then, standing in chronos time, we gasp for kairos hope—for the promise of things made new—because “we can’t breathe.” Attending to such moments, scholar-practitioners of religious education ask: what does it mean to teach for faith in such a time as this?

I have had several occasions to drive past the spot—marked now by a memorial plaque—where Mike Brown’s body lay for over four hours. When the world isn’t watching and the theatricality of news reporting has left, the place is quiet, even serene. Yet Canfield Drive and other blood- and rain-soaked grounds like it continue to give off “ghost flames,”[6] haunting the public conscience with grief and rage that call for a less violent, more just world. The paradigmatic event of #Ferguson—an event that reflects the current implosive outrage against structural inequities in society and culture—raises questions for religious leadership and religious teaching and learning. For many such leaders, the demands for change from the streets are challenging our existing curriculum for “faith as practice.” The world is demanding from people of faith—Christians in the United States, in particular—an account of how our faith is evidenced in the gritty and murderous materiality of everyday life.

We sometimes forget that the lifelong and life-wide[7] processes of forging, fashioning, nurturing, and exercising our faith require relational, evolving, and even revolutionary commitment to our surrounding contexts. We neglect the Christian tradition’s long held reverence for phronesis—or, as Don Browning defines it, the “wisdom that attends to lived experience, [which] is transformative and change-seeking and always interprets the lived context in the light of the values and virtues of sacred tradition.”[8] It’s this commitment to practical wisdom that keeps our teaching, learning, and practice of faith “incarnational.” This commitment makes us want to see how faith actually (re)orders our way of life. Theologically speaking, we are eager to “trac[e] the form God wears in this material world,”[9] and we believe that such discovery of and participation with “God in our skin”—Immanu-El—is what it would take to mend the broken shards of creation (tikkun Olam). With this primordial human desire to repair our world we muster up faith, to “set our hearts”[10] upon things that are at once material and ethereal, messy and holy, momentary and eternal, this-worldly and other-worldly. It’s this gritty kind of faith that helps us not to be flummoxed when confronted with the question, “Are you going to do something in response to this violence?”

Mai-Anh Le Tran is associate professor of Christian education at Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri. This article is excerpted from her book Reset the Heart: Unlearning Violence, Relearning Hope (coming May 2017 from Abingdon Press).

  1. See a chronicle of these events captured through recounted first-person narratives in Leah Gunning Francis, Ferguson & Faith: Sparking Leadership & Awakening Community (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2015).
  2. This is, of course, the motto and mission statement of The United Methodist Church.
  3. The campaign began with the killing of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman in Florida (
  4. Philip Jenkins, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity, 3rd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).
  5. See Denise Janssen, ed. Educating for Redemptive Community: Essays in Honor of Jack Seymour and Margaret Ann Crain (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2015).
  6. Grace M. Cho, Haunting the Korean Diaspora: Shame, Secrecy, and the Forgotten War (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008), 16.
  7. Gabriel Moran, Living Nonviolently: Language for Resisting Violence (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2011).
  8. Heather Walton, Writing Methods in Theological Reflection (London: SCM Press, 2014), 176–77. Emphasis in text. Don S. Browning, A Fundamental Practical Theology: Descriptive and Strategic Proposals (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991), 47.
  9. Walton, 40.
  10. Sara Little, To Set One’s Heart: Belief and Teaching in the Church (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1983).
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