Ginger Gaines-Cirelli: Sacred resistance is about our being, not just our doing

Book cover detail

Cover detail.

In her new book, “Sacred Resistance,” the senior pastor of Foundry UMC in Washington, D.C., articulates how Christians can engage in the work of mending the world.

In the aftermath of the 2016 election, the Rev. Ginger Gaines-Cirelli struggled with what to say to her congregation -- how to lead in a divisive and volatile moment.

As senior pastor of Foundry United Methodist Church, located within a mile of the White House, she knew that her congregation had long been engaged in social justice work. Yet in this moment of deep brokenness, she felt called to do more.

Over the next few months, she and her congregation took up the mantle of “sacred resistance.” This didn’t mean just opposing the policies of newly elected President Donald Trump but also seeing the movement in broader historical context and developing a deep theological foundation for the work.

“This is our stretch of the journey right now,” she said. “People of faith have been responding and being called upon to sacredly resist in moment after moment after moment in every era.”

Gaines-CirelliGaines-Cirelli is the author of “Sacred Resistance: A Practical Guide to Christian Witness and Dissent,” in which she urges Christians to work for the vision of greater wholeness for creation, for all people.

Gaines-Cirelli spoke to Faith & Leadership about her book and her work at Foundry. The following is an edited transcript.

Q: The title of your book is “Sacred Resistance.” A lot of people are using the word “resistance” these days -- why do you specifically say “sacred resistance”?

The difference is why we’re doing resistance, whom we’re doing it for, what the ultimate goal is -- the philosophical and theological framework that grounds the resistance. Sacred resistance is not just driven by a good cause or self-interest or trying to help some folk who are oppressed, though those all might be part of it in some way.

Sacred Resistance book coverThe sacred piece is because it’s driven by God at work in and through us, and what we’re trying to accomplish is participation in the work of mending. God is about in the world leading toward a vision of greater wholeness for creation, for all people. So it’s always this much more holistic thing.

As I understand it, sacred resistance is about our being, not just our doing.

In the Methodist baptismal covenant, we say, “By God’s grace, will you resist evil, injustice and oppression in all the forms they present themselves?” Resistance is at the core of our identity. It’s not just something you do. It’s about this inward and outward posture that centers on God and resists all that’s not God, that resists all that’s counter to the ways of God.

Q: Talk a little about the work of “mending” and why you use that particular word.

I’m trying to figure out where I picked up that language -- it could be Letty Russell, or it might be Douglas John Hall. We talk about brokenness, that things are broken, things are fractured, divides between and among people. But when we talk about reconciliation, it’s about mending the broken place, you know?

This may be just the poet in me. I find it to be a sort of tender word. There’s an emotional tenor or timbre to it that just feels right. So as I was writing, I just found myself thinking, “Yes, that’s what this is about; it’s about participating in that tender, mending work of God.”

Q: This book comes at a particular time, but you make an argument that this is not just about the Donald Trump era. Say more about that, because from the title, people might assume that it is just anti-Trump.

I try really, really hard to combat that perception. I know some folk won’t even look at it, won’t even open it, because they’ll make that assumption. But I think what I’m lifting up is a vision of sacred resistance as a thing that has been happening from the beginning.

If what it is, is people who are seeking to know and love God and know and love God’s people, resisting that which is not God and which is counter to God’s wisdom and way -- if that’s what it is, then that’s been happening from the beginning and will happen forever until the culmination of creation.

This is our stretch of the journey right now. People of faith have been responding and being called upon to sacredly resist in moment after moment after moment in every era.

Q: In what way is this kind of prophetic witness hopeful? Where is the hope?

The way you phrased the question is right, because prophetic witness is absolutely inherently hopeful. My understanding of prophetic witness is a witness that both sees with eyes wide open the brokenness of what’s happening -- the injustice, the pain, the suffering -- and is not immune or numb to that, and at the same time knows and sees the beauty of what’s possible, of what we’re called to.

The prophet is always going to be calling out what’s wrong, because [the prophet] sees the vision of God, this wholeness that we’re called to.

God resists abandoning or giving up on us. That is the primary sacred resistance. It would have been so easy for God to just say, “OK, I’m done; you people are not getting it.” But the prophet knows that God is never going to abandon us.

A prophet’s always going to be willing to speak truth and to call people back to that which is most real and beautiful and meaningful, to insist that those who are hurting or oppressed be lifted up and cared for.

Of course, that’s hope for the hurting, but it’s also hope for those of us who may be oppressors -- or may be trying to do good but feel really worn out and don’t know how. It’s good news ultimately for everyone, if we can receive it, because it’s calling us into this place where all really have enough and know themselves to be beloved of God.

Q: You talk a little bit in the book about not making people the enemy. I suppose that if one makes Donald Trump the only enemy, then the work could end if he’s not re-elected, for example.

One of the things that’s been sort of interesting and challenging to do in a really progressive context like the one that I serve is to try to help remind people that some of the things we get so worked up over now, because we’re paying so much attention, were happening during the Obama administration, during the Bush administration.

This is about grounding yourself as a citizen of the reign of God, the kin-dom, and so it gives you a whole different perspective. You’re not coming at the work as either for or against a politician or an administration or being a member of some party.

Q: How did this sacred resistance movement begin within your congregation?

A lot of that work has been happening at Foundry United Methodist Church for a really long time. However, in the more focused form and under the banner of what we’re now calling sacred resistance, it really emerged in the weeks following the presidential election in 2016.

It sort of bubbled up just as we were trying to make sense of what was going on -- how do we respond as followers of Jesus?

This was a crucible moment, and I found myself as one called to stand up and say something, as one people were looking at and saying, “What are we supposed to do?” I just really dug in at that point to try to say, “OK, what do we do? How do we stand in the midst of this?”

And at some point, there was a sign or something that said “sacred resistance,” and I picked that up. I started using the hashtag in my social media posts, and it began to take shape in my own mind then.

But the main thing was saying, in the months following the election, that we needed to understand what it means to be prophetic. So that when people come at us and say, “You’re being too political,” we will have a very clear understanding of why we’re doing what we’re doing.

So my congregation got a whole lot more deep theology than they probably wanted for a while, because that’s where I went. I probably lost some people over that year. It’d be interesting to know, because we just were really, in the preaching and in the worship, trying to grapple with where the faith tradition was meeting what was happening in our political and social world.

Q: And so week to week, what does it look like?

It looks like a community who’s trying to be intentional about going deeper in studying and conversation and relationship, to make sure that we’re grounded in what matters. It also looks like really focused leadership in the congregation and teams of people providing regular opportunities as they arise, to give folks an opportunity to respond to what’s going on in real time.

Q: Do you mean things like calling senators or writing letters or marching?

All of those things; it just depends on what the need is. It could also be getting trained to go with people if they get called into an ICE interview. We’ve had several trainings around being part of the sanctuary movement.

So it’s really focused, concrete, this-is-what-we-need-to-do-right-now. For a long time, we had weekly actions. Then the team that had organized around sacred resistance began to adjust and figure out how they were going to be able to do the work in the longer haul, because a weekly action was a lot. It’s been a lot to know how to keep up.

We’ve got so many folk here whose vocations are connected to social justice, so at Foundry, one of the ways that sacred resistance happens is through people showing up just to get fed and worship, to be able to lament together sometimes, to be anointed. Those ritual acts that help people feel nurtured and cared for so that they can go back out and do the really bruising work.

Q: For Christian leaders who would be interested in forming this kind of movement, how would you suggest they begin?

It really is about coming together and connecting up what’s happening in your community -- where’s the need, the greatest need, in your local place, your community, wherever you are, and whatever your context. Do some study and prayer and figure out, “OK, what is it we’re called to do?”

It’s not that difficult. It feels like, “Oh my gosh, it’s got to be this huge movement,” but really it can begin with some people getting together and having a conversation. Looking around and praying and thinking, “OK, what are the resources we have, and how is it we’re going to begin to help other people?”

The other thing that we as leaders forget is that we don’t have to start everything. Look around and see who’s doing work that may need you just to come alongside, you know?

One of the things I’ve done here at Foundry is to help to begin to say in our vision for our social justice that we are interested in creating mission partnerships. We are not trying to create everything from scratch and say, “Oh, look at our ministry; look at what we are doing.” It’s to say, “What is God up to; where are people already doing something creative?”

And I think that is a really great place to start as well.

Q: How do you respond when people say that Christian leaders shouldn’t be political?

I get weary of that question, I have to say. I totally get it, because most of the congregations that I’ve been in, that’s what I heard.

But the thing is, if someone tells me as a pastor, as a Christian leader, that I’m not supposed to be political, then I’m going to understand that they don’t think I’m supposed to actually read the Bible or take Jesus seriously. I don’t understand how you can read the story and say that we’re not supposed to be engaging in political conversations.

Because, of course, politics is simply about how we live together in community, how we make decisions, how we’re caring for one another, how we’re sharing things, how we’re helping to maintain a sense of safety or order. And the whole story in the Bible is about a God who’s interested in what’s going on in the world and how we live together in community.

How do we care for one another? How do we support one another? What do we do with people who are coming from, who aren’t part of our tribe? It’s all about that.

Scripture is full of people engaging in politics, everyone from Moses to Esther to Jesus, and all sorts of other people in between, all the prophets. The fact that at this point in history we’re saying that we as people of faith can’t even talk about it is just, I think, another sign of how broken our discourse is.

It also, I think, is a real perversion of the spiritual and religious tradition of the Christian faith, because if it’s all just supposed to be nice, warm spiritual feelings, we have radically edited the story.