Through a ‘sacred lens’: Essays on looking deeply and moving forward

Christian writers across the spectrum reflect on challenges and epiphanies in “Breaking Ground: Charting Our Future in a Pandemic Year.”

"Breaking Ground: Charting Our Future in a Pandemic Year," edited by Anne Snyder and Susannah Black, Plough Publishing, 455 pp.

What if the past two years of racial tension, pandemic lockdown, and political upheaval could be seen not as crises to be survived, but as seeds from which a better future could emerge?  

To that purpose, two editors, Anne Snyder of Comment magazine and Susannah Black of Plough Publishing, have gathered essays from writers across the spectrum of Christianity. Their goal was “to create a space where the sacred lens might influence the wider conversation,” Snyder writes at the beginning of “Breaking Ground: Charting Our Future in a Pandemic Year.” 

The book’s collection of essays – 50 in all – includes impassioned pleas and rallying cries for each of us to do better and love more, as well as quiet whispers worthy of careful listening. Each essay nurtures a sense of collective, rather than simply individual, well-being, with topics as disparate as reparations for slavery to the restorative powers of poetry. 

In “The Call to Own,” pastors Gregory Thompson and Duke L. Kwon make a cleareyed argument for reparations – the financial redress for centuries-old wrongs done to African Americans in the United States. Slavery entailed the theft not just of a person’s liberty and labor, but also of their agency. The authors remind us that the idea of reparations is far from new – it can be traced back to the Bible story of Zacchæus, the greedy tax collector whose encounter with Jesus changes his life to such an extent that he promises to restore fourfold the money he has taken by fraud. The authors declare that the moral responsibility of reparations for slavery rests not only with the U.S. government, but also with churches. They write that there is an urgent need to own “not only the church’s fundamental mission in a world ravaged by theft” – but also its “theological heritage,” which condemns theft. The forward move, the authors say, cannot be solely for repentance – but restitution, too. Because they are “inseparable.”

Elsewhere in the book, Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Marilynne Robinson, in an interview, reflects on these volatile times with a contemplative eye. The author of the acclaimed Christian-themed novel “Gilead” cites the contentious political atmosphere in the country, recognizing that “we are in a perilous moment.” Right now, she says, “we absolutely need examples of humanizing influences that take hold and work.”  

Still, Robinson’s North Star appears to be hope. When the interviewer comments that one of the recurring themes in Robinson’s work is beauty – noting that the author was once asked, “What does God want from this particular situation?” – Robinson replies, “The question is how to respond to the holiness and the vulnerability, or whatever is presented to you in the presence of another person.” It’s our capacity to see the deeply rooted character of beauty that needs to be nourished, she observes, because it exists in all things. “The shimmer, the effulgence, all these things are simply there to be seen, whether or not people choose to look at them.”  

Aryana Petrosky Roberts, who works at a conservative think tank in Washington, writes about “Praying Through the Political Divides in the Family.” Describing herself as a millennial who finds herself “politically homeless,” she details an unsettling visit to her Nevada hometown at the peak of the unrest over George Floyd’s murder in 2020. It’s here that she confronts her father over his participation as a counterprotester against vastly outnumbered Black Lives Matter activists. Heated arguing ensues between father and daughter, ignited by video footage of the murder. 

Ultimately Roberts invites her father to do the one thing they can do peacefully together: pray. She writes, “Prayer ... has shown me a sliver of hope in this time of extreme polarization. It provided my father and me with a common language.” 

The voices in “Breaking Ground” are both present and prescient. They reflect a gravitational pull toward reflection, change, and possibly even transformation. It’s as if, in writing these essays, these authors are emerging into a new day after a dark night. Squinting for sure, but inexorably moving toward the light.

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