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Rolling Up Our Sleeves, Digging Our Hands in the Dirt, and Learning to Live with Dirty Hands

How to form Christian leaders in an era of endemics:  it’s an intimidating topic.  Forming leaders in an era of pandemics might have been a more obvious topic, if a bit on the nose. But no: like a Jacob deGrom slider, Pres. Aloyo’s “endemic” pitch came with way more movement on it than a simple pandemic fastball (incidentally: that’s the last pro-Mets illustration you get, Pres. Aloyo. You’re in Braves country now).

Pandemics hit hard and go away; they manifest in occasionality and disruption. Endemics, though, stick around, multiplying on each other, driving us to constantly renegotiate the very changes they force upon us—to modify our plans, adjust our hopes, and reframe our practices. Endemic diseases are those that settle into various communities, always threatening and always demanding attention. Tay-Sachs in Ashkenazi Jewish populations.  To speak on “forming Christian leaders for an endemic era,” then, is to speak of attending to those evolving forces that are with us for the foreseeable future, demanding that we modify our teaching plans, adjust our vocational hopes, and reframe our ecclesial practices.

What might forming Christian leaders during an endemic era look like? An obvious starting point is that endemics force us to roll up our sleeves and get re-vaccinated each year because, like the influenza virus, endemic forces in the church and in wider society mutate such that one shot isn’t enough. Forming leaders can’t be structured around a single three-year MDiv dose and can’t be confined only to persons on their way to becoming professional Christians paid by the church to run its business. We will need to give greater attention not only to students who hold jobs while going to seminary but to ministers who hold a job while serving the church. Christian leadership in an endemic era is a lifelong project that catches up the whole body of Christ.

And we should keep our sleeves are rolled up. There are increasingly powerful authoritarian and technocratic movements in the United States that would deny not only the value of higher education in the humanities but also the wisdom of pursuing any type of ministry grounded in obligations to love a God bigger than our biases and to love neighbors other than those who look, act, and think like us. At least in the North Atlantic, those of us with the privilege to teach the humanities in institutions of higher education are in a knife fight for legitimacy and the only reason I can see that we theological educators are not alert to this fact is that we have been allowed to coast on the accommodations provided for the mainline church under the illusions of its non-threateningness and cultural centrality. But the church isn’t meant to be nonthreatening, it isn’t at the center of U.S. culture, and it, too, is imperiled by authoritarian and technocratic movements. If we want students trained to think; if we want graduates capable of defending democratic and humane practices; if we want a church that is relevant, we need to be in that fight.

Paradoxically, students from around the world are seeking desperately to come to the U.S. to study because regardless of our many national flaws, higher education in the U.S. is still widely seen as the gold standard. My classes this year include a student from Syria who grew up in a town surrounded by Islamic State forces, cut off from basic goods like food and water; an Orthodox priest from the Republic of Georgia watching from a distance as Ukrainian refugees and young Russian men fleeing the draft have attempted to enter his country; and a student holding poetry slams in Madagascar in the hopes of raising enough money to come study here because she can’t rely on the internet there. And these are just a few of my students.

All of which raise complicated and increasingly pressing questions about classes and curricula; about course readings and institutional resources; about academic research and scholarly guilds; about disciplinary integrity and the amusements of interdisciplinarity. Theological education in North America is undergoing a period of dramatic churn and its future for those of us forming Christian leaders is going to mandate that the selection of our courses, the patterns of our pedagogies, and the foci of our scholarship will turn on some complicated and, at times, grief-causing decisions as we respond to the church’s marginalization among North Atlantic countries and its explosion elsewhere.

Rather than adoring ivory tower offices filled with soft lamplight, we must join our professional academic work to public activism. Rather than mouthing simplified mantras like, “listen for silenced voices” and idealized truisms like, “God’s preferential option is for the poor,” our pedagogies must confront the objectification of romanticized others and engage our neighbors as we find them in all their graceful and sinful complexity. Rather than projecting a vision of seminaries as places of refuge framed by myths of womb-like community, we need to encounter each other as adults called to hard and wondrous tasks in politically complicated and morally fraught places. Doing so involves rolling up our sleeves.

While our sleeves are rolled up, we should dig our hands into the dirt. We have entered a period in which our relationships with the nonhuman natural world will define all life on earth. Air pollution is a leading causes of death worldwide.[1] Animal species populations have diminished by over 2/3’s in the last fifty years[2] and we’re at somewhere around 100 times the natural background extinction rate for all species.[3] There is more carbon dioxide in the air than at any point in the last 800,000 years which, combined with other greenhouse gasses, has led to more massive droughts, floods, fires, and storms than at any point in recorded history.[4] Melting ice caps could raise sea levels by six feet before someone born today is likely to die,[5] which rising seas could displace over two hundred million people.[6] And since I started speaking, we’ve lost the equivalent of 80 football fields worth of rainforest trees.[7] Any church that claims the centrality of Matthew 25 better figure out how that chapter matters in an age of environmental concerns and any seminary that doesn’t foreground these concerns is committing pedagogical malpractice.

I’d note, moreover, that the deleterious effects of all these forces are unequally distributed among both human populations and global species. Philosopher Olúfémi O. Táíwò has argued that the impacts of these events—framed within what he refers to as a “global racial empire”[8]—have been and will be most dramatically felt by those who have already been most victimized by colonization projects, overwhelmingly Black and Brown peoples and indigenous non-human species, so any attempt at pursuing tikkun olam—the repair of the world–will mandate pursuing projects of reparative justice as part of “formation during an endemic era.”

What might this look like?  Around here, beyond pointing at LEED Gold-certified buildings, beyond maintaining a marginal partnership with Global Growers, and beyond offering the occasional conference or course on environmental justice, such formation would involve rapidly divesting our endowment from fossil fuel-related corporations, shifting our own sizeable energy footprint downward and towards renewables, making sure every course we teach attends to and is informed by climate science, knowing the ecological contexts from which our students come, and keeping a copy of Bill Brown’s “Climate Chaos: A Pedagogical Manifesto” pinned above our computers for reference. Or, said differently, we need to dig our hands into the dirt.

Finally, we need to learn to live with dirty hands and form Christian leaders who can do the same. The modern theological project has been framed by attempts to avoid defilement in the pursuit of purity and avoidance of complicity. We have mouthed illusory maxims like, “The church should be an alternative polis; a community of resident aliens.” We have leaned into the First Amendment’s separation of church and state as a way of avoiding schismatic impulses. We have defended the ways of nonviolence as above reproach and incapable of being weaponized towards divisiveness. We have treated DEI initiatives as curatives for deep and longstanding systems of racial, patriarchal, heteronormative, and ableist injustice and we have treated the failure of those same initiatives as signs that some of us just weren’t trying hard enough. We have put theology in the service of therapy in the hope that we can form healthy people to lead healthy churches. We have, in short, sought to cure ourselves from all that ails us.

I am not saying that we should simply accept dirty hands, throwing them up in the air in surrender. Should we go on sinning that grace may increase? Me genoito!—By no means! The church does have a role to play in society, schisms carry harms, the coercive use of force is always morally troubling, initiatives that reduces historic injustice and ongoing harm warrant our attention, and it is far better to address psychopathologies within theological education than to allow them to later fester within church leadership.

Instead, I am saying that dealing with such matters means letting go of the endlessly wearying and metabolically wasteful projects of pursuing antiseptic cleanliness. We must learn how to negotiate the inevitable complicities that come with living while endemics interact and when responsibly addressing one endemic usually means exacerbating another. We need to imagine the practices of justice as carrying costs that are not fairly distributed, the pursuit of justice as not synonymous with claims of righteousness, and, at least this side of eternity, the consequences of just actions as neither perfect nor complete. We need to recognize that the manufacturing of discontent over local imperfections has become an escape from dealing with a world of outrages. We need to be less selective in our compassion and more profligate in our forgiving. And we need to link our hopes to the actual conditions within which most people—most creatures—on this planet live. As bell hooks reminds us, “To be truly visionary we have to root our imagination in our concrete reality while simultaneously imagining possibilities beyond that reality.”[9] This is learning to live with dirty hands.

Roll up our sleeves. Dig our hands into the dirt. Learn to live with dirty hands. Of these things, I think, does the formation of Christian leaders during an endemic era consist. Given the incalculable, inequitable, and seemingly insurmountable costs of living in a conflicted, cheapened and commodified world, hope in the possibilities and power of a theological education may feel quixotic. But surely it is better to tilt at windmills than to beat our lances into lampstands or our syringes into knitting needles.

[1] https://www.who.int/health-topics/air-pollution#tab=tab_1
[2] https://www.worldwildlife.org/press-releases/68-average-decline-in-species-population-sizes-since-1970-says-new-wwf-report
[3] https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/sciadv.1400253
[4] https://www.climate.gov/news-features/understanding-climate/climate-change-atmospheric-carbon-dioxide
[6] https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-019-12808-z
[7] https://www.wri.org/insights/we-lost-football-pitch-primary-rainforest-every-6-seconds-2019
[8] See Olúfémi O. Táíwò, Reconsidering Reparations (New York: Oxford UP, 2022), 31ff.
[9] bell hooks, Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics (London: Routledge, 2014), 110.