Siblings by Choice

by Pierre Bouillot.jpg

Photo Thanks by Pierre Bouillot

I finished Archie Smith, Jr. and Ursula Riedel-Pfaefflin’s book, Siblings by Choice: Race, Gender, and Violence. I read one of Professor Smith’s books in seminary (Navigating the Deep River: Spirituality in African American Families) and have found in him a deep well for my own thinking and practicing of pastoral care. When I saw this book, I had been developing my reading list for my supervisory education training, and I put this on it.

The book is about their studied suggestion in how women, men, and children from different cultural and spiritual backgrounds can, together, struggle against oppression. They write about how we can choose to become siblings as we form relationships of resistance, safety, trust, and accountability.

“When people are thrown together by external circumstances, they may discover themselves as siblings in a common struggle against whatever it is that oppresses them. They are siblings in struggle, perhaps, but not yet siblings by conscious choice” (pg. 8). The book highlights the intentionally taken paths toward becoming siblings by choice.

My reading was first in the context of my current training. I’m studying to become a supervisor of pastors, an educator of chaplains, and a caregiver to folks in a myriad of crises, likely but not exclusively in the medical setting. But my inherent reading experience is shaped by my right now work as a pastor in an urban multiethnic congregation and as a teacher in two distinct denominational seminaries. There is much to learn and enrich me in the book for all of my work settings.

I say this for a couple reasons that are worth repeating to myself. First, violence has been a historical reality for people I know, and the book does a great job in thoroughly summarizing several peopled experiences of violence. Note that oppression is one form that violence takes.

Second, gender and race are two words which are of continued appeal to me, especially by these two writers—one a black man and the other a white woman—who were working together out of their shared, abiding interest. In the book they are using their experiences as racial and gendered people to point to paths they’ve taken as colleagues so as to offer us a good read of reconciliation.

Third, I’d love to see churches who are trying to reach people from different social, cultural, and experiential spheres use this book’s treasure. Churches are experiments in multiculturalism even if they don’t make explicit their concerted efforts to embrace that multicultural attribute. People are different, especially when skin color shows off that difference. But churches need real and constructive resources which are thoughtfully prepared and easily adaptable for their own local church processes. This is such a resource. And I’m a pastor and will be a pastor so material like this is enlivening.

Finally, I’m a reconciling, contrarian who finds delight in starting illuminating, educational, and interior fights for the purpose of healing and growth. This book and books like it help me become clearer about my role in the world in that respect. I’ve taken to telling people that a part of practice is in graciously initiating fights and then seeing what happens. I instigate. I do this better now because of readings like Siblings by Choice.

The material helped me think through the authors’ primary conceptual vehicles of narrative agency, systemic thinking, and intercultural realities, words they define well throughout the book. Here is a quick summary from their text:

Narrative agency is the meaning that people make of their lives over time—gifts of love, activities, beliefs, hopes, anxieties and doubts, fears and courage.

Systemic thinking is based on the principle of linkage, in which everything is actually or potentially linked to everything else, either directly or indirectly.

Intercultural realities are the coming together of influences from many different streams of cultures and systems of meaning.

If these definitions leave you interested, spark a question, or light you up, take a look at the book. The three pieces above become their primary means of investigating public morality, gender, and cultural traditions. Their wedding of Mark 10:28-30 with these three avenues brings an echo of biblical and theological reflection to the book so that you keep with the reminder that you’re reading a work that is pastoral-theological.

We read of life from the African-American experience of man who is of the Baptist tradition and life of a white feminist who is of Lutheran and Catholic heritage. They intend to push by boundaries which impede community, and they give real, helpful exercises to pursue community. I find that inclusion to make this book extremely useable. Using vignettes, literature, and examples from current life, a theoretical work is immediately made practical.

The authors also have a lot of good stuff about reflexivity and experience, and the book is worth buying for the individual and group exercises they develop in order to show how pastoral people can work these concepts into practice. They use literature, historical events, and personal experiences to highlight how vital race, gender, and embodiedness are when it comes to addressing the varied expressions of violence in the world.

They are counselors and theorists in pastoral care. They are basically talking to people who care about some of the same things, and if those areas are yours, you’ll want to locate this book. Bending toward clinical applications, they discuss the ways life these days is connected to life in past:

We create the future through our behavior, and whether recognized or not, we reproduce certain established patterns from the past. Our current activity is guided by maps in the mind or certain enduring ways of thinking and being in the world. (pg. 89).

They encourage the reader to “become aware of the history that has shaped” them in order to “self-consciously work for the good, confess our limitations, stay alert to every new and emerging form of evil, and challenge our students, colleagues, family members, individuals, and groups to develop their own practices and traditions of care, prayer, and work for spiritual discernment” (pg. 71).

History is not our only influence. “We are also shaped by ignorance.” We are impacted by what we don’t know and what we choose not to know. I’m particularly aware of this as I sit through and live through the nasty, vitriolic presentations of people claiming to be Christian in the political realm. As the authors recount stories from their own lives and from their people’s lives, you hold the strong reminder that such stories are hard to hold, heavy.

And this book is encouraging for the witness who, in their words, “hears the story of the traumatized ones, acknowledges their demoralization, helps to give voice to their trauma, and enables them to face the depths of their experiences” (pg. 135). We don’t witness alone. Remember that, whether you read this book or not: we don’t witness alone.

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