Meet fascinating—at times, intimidating—Christian change agents who were unafraid to ask what God would have them do in the face of life's realities. Their words and actions challenged the status quo, and showed Jesus to the Church and to the world.
The Rev. Canon C. K. Robertson, PhD
Foreword by Archbishop Desmond Tutu
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Sometimes What We Need Most Is What We Fear Most
“Times change and situations seem to change, but there is still a great need for prophets, for God’s ambassadors, to stand up and be counted. Who will dare to be Paul the Apostle today, or Dorothy Day, or Francis of Assisi, or Dietrich Bonhoeffer? Who will dare, when God calls, to say, ‘Here I am, Lord. Send me’?”
—from the Foreword by Archbishop Desmond Tutu
Meet twelve fascinating—at times, intimidating—Christian change agents who were unafraid to ask what God would have them do in the face of life’s realities—and unafraid to go ahead and do it. Their words and actions challenged the status quo, and in so doing they showed the face of Jesus to the Church and to the world.
Whether calling us to live simply in the name of Jesus, showing the way to genuine peacemaking, or exemplifying the true meaning of courage, the legacies of these blessed troublemakers continue to inspire us today ɠif we let them.
Paul of Tarsus • Mary Magdalene • Origen of Alexandria • Francis of Assisi • Hildegard of Bingen • Thomas Cranmer • Sojourner Truth • Dorothy Day • Dietrich Bonhoeffer • Janani Luwum • Oscar Romero • K. H. Ting
“Surveys the full reach of Christian history and spans the whole globe.... A fine gift—a book that is not only fascinating reading but also a spur to bold and faithful action today.”
—Prof. Thomas G. Long, Bandy Professor of Preaching, Candler School of Theology, Emory University
“Excellent ... reminds us that the gospel is a revolutionary challenge to a world that accepts poverty and war as ‘just the way things are.’ Holds a mirror up to readers, forcing us to recognize the timid compromises we make in order to feel secure and prosperous. The way of Jesus, as Robertson makes clear, is far more challenging—and rewarding!”
—Michael Kinnamon, general secretary, National Council of Churches
“An antidote to individualistic piety and the assumption that Christianity is inherently conservative.... A much-needed challenge to transform our safe faith into a dangerous, powerful force for good.”
—Dr. James F. McGrath, Clarence L. Goodwin Chair in New Testament Language and Literature, Department of Philosophy and Religion, Butler University
“Robertson gives us a dozen stirring exemplars who have challenged the world’s conventional wisdom on behalf of the gospel. Read and learn, and discover your own courage to love as God loves.”
—The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, presiding bishop of The Episcopal Church; author, The Heartbeat of God: Finding the Sacred in the Middle of Everything
“Engaging and refreshing ... lifts up special people who model faith in life. Anyone looking to apply Christian faith to the challenges of today will be guided by the stories of these twelve courageous servants of God.”
—The Rev. Donald J. McCoid, Ecumenical and Inter-Religious Relations, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
“The full force of exemplary lives can be lost on us so easily without the kind of fresh, contemporary portraits we find here. Robertson makes the compelling witness of these saints burn bright in our world.”
—Prof. Jon Nilson, Loyola University; former president, Catholic Theological Society of America
“Invites us all to listen to that inner voice that continues to call us all—as ordinary people—to stand up and do extraordinary things for God.”
—Fr. Albert Cutié, radio/TV host; author, Dilemma: A Priest’s Struggle with Faith and Love
“One need not be a Christian to appreciate that those who inspire are to be cherished wherever and however they manifest.... [A] welcome balm at a time when the world too often seems devoid of true spiritual leadership.”
—Ira Rifkin, editor, Spiritual Leaders Who Changed the World: The Essential Handbook to the Past Century of Religion
“One part Bible study, several parts history lesson, 100 percent good storytelling ... provide[s] us a fresh look at folks we thought we knew and introduce[s] us to people we ought to meet—exemplary women and men from many centuries and almost every continent, together reminding us of the breadth of Christian activism.”
—Dr. Lucinda Mosher, Senior Fellow, Auburn Theological Seminary; author, Faith in the Neighborhood
“Celebrates the lives of twelve heroes who dared to step into darkness bearing the light of God’s love, no matter what the cost. These tales of danger, risk and sacrifice for Jesus’s sake are indeed inspiring.”
—Michael Rhodes, five-time Emmy award–winning filmmaker; president, Film Clips, Inc.
“A clear and vivid picture of twelve men and women who would not stand still when the world needed to be pushed, or remain silent when power needed to be challenged. My hope is that the questions for reflection at the end of each chapter will help us to rethink our ministry in the service of God’s mission in our own time.”
—Archbishop Fred Hiltz, primate, The Anglican Church of Canada
“Clear and very pleasing prose, with a sure and sympathetic command of his subjects, a Lives of the Saints for our times. [This] ‘dangerous dozen’ and their escapades of faith ... will instruct and encourage certainly; but beware, for they will also inevitably seduce and charm you as well.”
—Phyllis Tickle, popular speaker; author, The Great Emergence and The Words of Jesus
Foreword by Archbishop Desmond Tutu ix
Prologue: The Outlaw xiii
1 Paul of Tarsus: The Catalyst 1
2 Mary Magdalene: The Witness 17
3 Origen of Alexandria: The Innovator 31
4 Francis of Assisi: The Radical 45
5 Hildegard of Bingen: The Visionary 59
6 Thomas Cranmer: The Reformer 72
7 Sojourner Truth: The Liberator 85
8 Dorothy Day: The Activist 95
9 Dietrich Bonhoeffer: The Resister 107
10 Janani Luwum: The Revivalist 121
11 Oscar Romero: The Advocate 133
12 K.H.Ting: The Reconstructionist 146
How did this book come about?
I have long wrestled with the apparent contradiction between the popular conceptions of characters like the apostle Paul and Francis of Assisi and what they were actually like. For instance, I always heard about how Paul was against women in leadership, and yet my own reading of his letters revealed many references to respected colleagues who were women. And with Francis, I had long been told that he was “the animal lover,” a bit eccentric, a kind of proto-hippie. Yet when I first read a biography about him, what I learned was far more complex�and far more threatening! This prompted me to begin looking at other Christian leaders whom I thought I knew to see if there was more behind their legends.
What makes these persons “dangerous?” Why not just call it a book of saints?
The persons included here were viewed in their own times as a threat to the establishment, and not just the civil establishment but the religious establishment as well. Some are figures familiar to readers, and with them I hope to offer a bit of a plot twist, showing how our impressions of them might not be wholly accurate. Others were chosen precisely because they are less well known, therefore offering the spotlight to courageous leaders who might otherwise remain unknown to most people.
Why a dozen?
On the one hand, there could be an entire book on each and every person here, and on the other hand, there could be a thousand-page compilation of articles on many, many more “dangerous” Christians. It made sense to me to find a manageable number to explore; and of course twelve is a very scriptural number (just think of the twelve tribes or the twelve apostles). You could, however, call this a “baker’s dozen,” since the thirteenth Christian leader included in my list is actually the preface writer, Archbishop Desmond Tutu�certainly a threat to the establishment of South Africa at the time of apartheid when he spoke out.
Why should someone read this? What’s the benefit to the reader?
First of all, I hope that every reader will find this to be an interesting and illuminating book. I’m delighted with the many people who have told me how much they enjoyed it. But that is certainly not all. What would make my heart soar is to know that the wonderfully dangerous believers in these pages would inspire and challenge readers to be a bit more willing to risk, to dare, to step out of their comfort zone and somehow make a difference, a real difference, in the world, whatever the consequences. There is nothing inherently noble about making waves and challenging the system, but sometimes the system does indeed need to be challenged, and I hope that the examples set forth by the leaders herein will encourage a new generation of God’s “dangerous” people to step forward.
Jesus: The Outlaw
- Some people say that being a “good Christian” is primarily about believing the right things about Jesus. Others say that it is primarily about living like Jesus and following his principles. What do you think � and why?
- Jesus has been depicted in different ways at different times, in books, movies, advertising. What depiction of Jesus most closely resonates with you? Are there any that you don’t like or don’t appreciate? Why?
- If someone asked you who Jesus is to you, what would be your answer?
Paul of Tarsus
- What was your impression of the apostle Paul before reading this chapter? How did you come to your opinion of him? What do you think now?
- Paul’s companion Barnabas had to vouch for him to a group of very reluctant apostles. When have you had to stand up for someone who was not welcome?
- Paul’s letters, despite their unique contexts, all touch on the need for church members to look beyond their differences and find their common identity in Christ. Why is that so difficult for people in both religious and secular systems? What groups today do it well?
- Down through the millennia, Christians have found in Mary Magdalene an astonishing variety of meanings. What does she mean to you? How does her example point you closer to the Divine?
- Have you encountered other Mary Magdalenes�either in your own experience or in literature, current affairs, or even your own family? In what ways have they been marginalized?
- What can our own society learn from Mary’s demotion in Christian history from “apostle to the apostles” to reformed prostitute and back to heroic figure?
Origen of Alexandria
- The struggles Origen faced were partly the result not of theological disputes but of rivalries and personality clashes. How do such things still cause problems, and what can you do to encourage honest communication when faced with these personal resentments?
- Origen’s most controversial belief was that even the devil would one day be won over to God’s overwhelming love. What do you think about that?
- Another hot-button issue introduced by Origen was his own version of reincarnation, in which human beings are reborn until the time when they finally accept the transforming love of God. Why is this idea even now appealing to some and repulsive to others?
Francis of Assisi
- Before reading this chapter, what was your image of Francis? How, if at all, did your views change?
- In what ways do we see our society taking seriously the notion of all of creation as “brother” and “sister”? How are we still falling short of Francis’s ideals?
- It has been said that no system can stay at the same level of intensity forever and has to be “domesticated” in order to survive. Do you agree with this? What was lost in the transition of leadership from Francis to Elias? What was gained?
Hildegard of Bingen
- Music was such an important part of Hildegard’s worship and life. How does music enter into your own experience of God?
- Hildegard had strong feelings about decisions being made without consulting the person involved. Have you ever experienced a sense of powerlessness while others made important decisions for you? How does Hildegard’s response offer you inspiration?
- What could Hildegard’s concept of “greenness” mean for our society today?
- Though Cranmer was a man of strong conviction; he sought the moderate, middle way. Far from being the way of easy compromise, his way of moderation was challenged and challenging.
- When has your faith journey compelled you to look for a middle way?
- Cranmer recanted and then recanted his earlier recantation. Have there been times when you realized you had made a mistake and needed to change your course?
- The Anglican way that Cranmer initiated asserted that common prayer, not common agreement, is what joins Christians together. Do you know some Christians with whom you disagree on significant issues, yet still feel comfortable praying with them?
- There was nothing pretentious about Sojourner Truth. She was always direct, always honest in her dealings with people. Whom do you go to when you need forthright, honest feedback? Would others come to you for the same? If not, why not?
- How did Sojourner pave the way for other prophets who would fight for full and equal rights for all? Where do we still see a need for such prophets?
- Sojourner spoke of “God’s breath” filling her and making her a new person. When have you experienced “God’s breath” in you or in someone you know?
- The gospel called Dorothy Day to devote her life to the poor and marginalized. Why do you think her work posed a threat to Church authorities?
- Who are contemporary leaders who minister to the poor or who work for causes such as ending war? In what ways is their work related to the work of Dorothy Day?
- Dorothy Day sought to live a life of “little works.” How can you adopt that philosophy in your own life?
- From the earliest days of the Nazi rise to power, Bonhoeffer was one of very few who called the Church to beware. What if he had been wrong? How do we know when we need to speak out and when to stay silent?
- For Bonhoeffer, the formation of Christian leaders was crucial to the work of the gospel. What are some ways that you can help in the formation of faithful Christian leaders today?
- Bonhoeffer felt dread and even self-doubt while in prison, yet he pressed on in faith nonetheless. When you have found yourself near despair? What has kept you going?
- Janani Luwum faced criticism from both sides for his approach to Church�state relations. In our more democratic context, what does it mean to stand for Christ and for God’s children in need?
- Regarding Idi Amin, Luwum said that “even the president needs friends.” What does it mean to show “friendship” to leaders when they are clearly in the wrong?
- It is not difficult to see how Luwum was influenced by figures such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. Who are persons you have not met but whose life and teachings have influenced you?
- In the movie of Romero’s life, it is easy to see his reluctance to stir up trouble. Only after the murder of his friend Father Grande did he find the courage to speak up. What has kept you from speaking up in the past?
- Romero called his opponents to repent and be forgiven�a tall order when one considers the oppression they enforced. When is it appropriate for soldiers and others under authority to say no and go against their superiors?
- Janani Luwum and Oscar Romero were contemporaries. What similarities do you see in them, and what differences?
- What does the phrase the violence of love mean to you? Is it real, or realistic?
- K. H. Ting has proved himself to be loyal to his country, while also being willing to criticize it and its excesses. What do you love about your country, and what would you like to see changed or improved in it?
- Ting has continually emphasized the need to work in and with society, while other Chinese evangelists have at times focused almost exclusively on preparation of the soul for heaven. What do you think is the right balance? What does it mean to live for Jesus in the here and now while also keeping sight of eternity?
- Ting has repeatedly insisted on the importance of “running the church well.” What does this mean to you? What does a “well-run” church say about the gospel we proclaim to the world?