by James P. Wind

For those who seek to persuade the rest of us that the world is falling apart, the past few weeks have provided substantial ammunition. The situation in Iraq by itself provides mounting evidence that things are getting worse. The head of the U.S.-appointed Governing Council was recently assassinated, disturbing images of abuse by American soldiers have come out of Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison, Iraqi resistance continues to grow, and our relationships with the nations of the Middle East have soured. Meanwhile, the work of nation-building proves to be much more difficult than our national leaders anticipated, and the list of lives lost gets longer and longer.

As these tragic stories unfold, one question seems to be asked with greater frequency and urgency: What were they thinking? What were U.S. intelligence community leaders thinking that allowed them to be so unprepared for 9/11? What were Pentagon and White House leaders thinking as they led the nation into a carefully scripted video-game war that was followed by the chaos of occupation and military rule? What were the leaders of the military intelligence agencies thinking as they set aside the Geneva Conventions as passé and created the circumstances that have led to an international humiliation?

These “what were they thinking” questions indicate a genuine desire to know the logic, assumptions, and ideologies that led to such disappointing outcomes. They also signal disapproval, challenge, and mounting pressure to move beyond those rationales and assumptions to new ways of thinking and acting.

“What were they thinking?” questions cut both ways, of course. They curve back on the questioners and ask, “Okay, Mr. or Ms. Skeptic, what were you thinking (and doing) while all this was going on? Were you making your opinions and questions known? Were you challenging those in leadership positions, or were you part of the deafening national silence about these decisions that was finally broken in the last few months?”

Transcending Separation
The good news is that there are some people who are thinking in fresh ways about other topics, as evidenced by Virgilio Elizondo’s beautiful new book on Jesus of Galilee and his mother, Mary. For decades, Fr. Elizondo, a professor at the University of Notre Dame, has lived on the border between the Latino culture of Mexico and the Anglo culture of the United States. Firmly rooted in the soil of the barrios of the Latino world, Elizondo has worked to help these two cultures understand and value each other. Now, in A God of Incredible Surprises (Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2003), he has gathered a lifetime of reflections.

Drawing upon the best biblical scholarship available today, reaching deep into his own Catholic tradition and his personal experience as a priest within that tradition, and meditating carefully on the biblical Gospels, Elizondo demonstrates a rare and extremely valuable kind of pastoral thinking that brings human experience (contemporary and historical, everyday local and worldwide international) into a renewed relationship with the core of the Christian tradition. As he does so he illumines the lives of his readers, he gives us a fresh reading of God’s ways of working in personal and world history (including the clash of civilizations that is so vexing to all of us), and he offers new angles of vision on the Scriptures themselves.

What was Elizondo thinking as the current story of the U.S. involvement with Iraq unfolded? He was thinking about the genuine contrasts offered by the Gospels to the ways of thinking that so dominate our consciousness today and that lead us into quagmires. Elizondo was probing the meaning of the fact of Jesus’ utter marginality, lifting up the ways that Jesus reached beyond the boundaries of culture, class, religion, and pedigree, and describing how Jesus fashioned a new community of humans that transcends all that separates people. When Elizondo ponders Jesus and Mary he sees the emergence of a new humanity, a new possibility for human community.

Thank goodness Elizondo is not the only person who is thinking and acting in such creative ways. In congregations, seminaries, university classrooms, homes, and offices around this country—and around the world—there are people who are really thinking. They are ransacking their religious traditions for resources to illumine the global darkness that shrouds our personal, institutional, and national lives. They are giving us fresh vantage points and opportunities to think about and bring to life the healing of a torn world. They give us hope and free us to think in new ways about what really matters. We need to treasure these voices and places so that they can continue to have a hearing in a troubled world that all too often is not listening.

Rev. Dr. James P. Wind is the president of the Alban Institute. Prior to joining the Institute in 1995, he served as program director at the Lilly Endowment’s religion division. Dr. Wind is the author of three books and numerous articles, including the Alban Institute special report on leadership.

Congregations, 2004-07-01
Summer 2004, Number 3