Joan Chittister is en fuego.
The Benedictine sister and social justice advocate has just released The Time Is Now: A Call to Uncommon Courage—and it’s what the impatient among us need right now. We’re living in the days when “dumpster fire” has been used so often in the media that Oxford added it to its dictionary. Government’s broken; violence at schools is terrifying. Wars, famine, border controversies … on and on. Everything seems to be toxic. Everything.
And we, followers of Christ? What should our posture be? Shall we join the fearful? The hopeless?
Chittister’s got a better idea: prophetic spirituality. Where there’s a lack of hope, she says, we as Christians need to inject our imaginations. What things are broken, we Christians should be stepping in to witness God’s power, presence, and love.
Unlike a lot of social justice books written by people younger than Chittister’s 82, her words lack no confidence or experience. Also, unlike other writers in the genre, she doesn’t need to perform daring moves of acrobatic exegesis to prove why prophetic spirituality matters to the Church. She doesn’t need to prove her legitimacy as a theologian, either. She already knows she is, and that comes through in The Time Is Now, as it does in her 50-some other books, most recently the excellent Radical Spirit (Convergent, 2017) and Between the Dark and the Daylight(Image, 2015).
The Time Is Now uses the scaffolding of prophets’ lives to inform our own evolution toward a prophetic spirituality, one whose marks are clear. To be spiritually mature in this way, Chittister writes, a Christian will be about something bigger than our own individual lives. We’ll own issues in our worlds, not in far-off, “developing” lands. We have to try to understand causes and consequences, to be willing to advocate from the roof like prophets we recognize from Sunday school. Also, we must “stop hiding behind a life of prayer as an excuse to do nothing about anything.”
In the book, Amos, Isaiah, Micah, and other Old Testament voices appear, inform, and then get out of the way of Chittister’s application. But so do modern-era prophets: Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King Jr., and the voices from the Me Too movement.
Yes, that Me Too movement: her book is stronger for dropping tired character studies of familiar faces. Her attention and zeal are focused on the things we care about now, because that’s what prophets care about, too. School shootings, uncivil politics, and feminist hermeneutics all require prophetic visioning, she successfully argues. And, lest we start to believe that just by caring more about these things our generations can “solve” these problems, she reminds us that we may not see the Promised Land in this lifetime. That doesn’t excuse us from the work: “If not for us, then because of us.”
Listen, she writes over and over: we as God’s prophets must “simply refuse to accept a vision of tomorrow that is limited to the boundaries of yesterday and empty of God’s word for today.” The book requires underlining after underlining of sentences that’ll ring in your ears for a while.
Though a Roman Catholic Benedictine nun, Chittister is a gift to the Protestant world. Her own prophetic witness, for one, speaks loudly. Though she became a Benedictine sister more than sixty years ago (at age sixteen), she considers herself obedient to God first and foremost. That’s given her a reputation. Twenty years ago, for example, she was forbidden by the Vatican from speaking at a conference on women’s ordination; she went anyway (with the blessing of her Benedictine sisters). That’s not to say this book is an “issues” book. She won’t inspire readers to pick a pet project to tweet about. But her signature courage fuels her need to apply prophetic spirituality to systemic racism, gun control, sexism, and sexuality, for instance, or the kind of religion that only raises better citizens.
So yes. Chittister is either a hero or a rabble-rouser, depending on the source. But that’s par for prophetic spirituality, she writes. Our imaginations for something better than brokenness will sometimes seem too radical, too far-fetched, too ridiculous for others (even people we love, or especially people we love).
But rather than becoming a rallying cry for reactionary, inflammatory religion, her Benedictine roots demand from the reader a lifelong patience and courage.
The Time Is Now, then, becomes not a tool for a political agenda but a witness of her spiritual foundation. For decades she’s advocated for the ordination of women within her own denomination. That she has stayed a nun in the Catholic church must include reasons of uncommon courage.
That preaches outside the Catholic church. For example, consider the similar sentiments some experienced after the special General Conference held by the United Methodist Church. The global UMC in March met to discuss the rights and gifts of the LGBTQIA community in the church, ultimately sticking to and doubling down on a traditionalist view of marriage and ordination. The pain that many felt afterward came out in anger, in promises to split the denomination, and in animosity for organized church.
Chittister’s urgency and momentum in The Time is Now, though, demands a different reaction. Why? Because justice issues, she writes, began before us and will continue after us. Because to be a prophet is to feel discouraged and lonely sometimes. Because there are places prophets must go where the pain can’t touch. After all, “[b]eyond this moment lies the rest of what it is to be fully human. And the rest of it is made for singing alleluia, not groaning.”
Yes, action is required. “Something has to be done and someone must do it” — and, and — “Prophecy is a matter of dialogue, of education, of process, of patience. Not force. The message grows on us. And the soul grows, too, it seems, but only an inch at a time.”
The irony after reading those words is recognizing that Chittister already has what Catholicism won’t formally allow her: a pulpit.
“God did not finish creation. God created us to do that. To abandon and discard the very people, ideals, creation, and commitment we are meant to care about, what kind of spirituality is that? Right. Almost none.”
Preach it, Joan!
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