Denison Journal of Religion

Article Title

Denison Journal of Religion, Vol. IX


"Joanna Macy: Buddhism and Power for Social Change" by Caiti Schroering

This article examines Joanna Macy's theory of "despairwork" and its roots in the Sarvodaya Buddhist movement. Macy writes with the purpose of inspiring communities and individuals to look honestly at the state of the world and to respond passionately. She argues that apathy appears so common today because feigning disinterest is far easier than facing the monumental problems that face the world. From the threat of nuclear war to environmental destruction, humanity is overwhelmed by the possibility of its own end. Instead of giving in to crippling despair, Macy believes that honestly admitting the frightening possibilities can be a powerful force to generate action. Actions gain strength through the interconnectedness of all things. Real change, therefore, is a distinct possibility. Schroering argues that this defining theory in Macy's work is inspired by her study of the Sarvodaya Buddhism movement in Sri Lanka. Schroering sees echoes of Macy's aim of translating powerlessness into power in Sarvodaya's ultimate goal of helping everyone to achieve enlightenment. In this movement, enlightenment can be understood as listening to community, striving for social change inspired by spirituality, building "collective self-esteem," working in community, and engaging youth. Macy's work, inspired by the Sarvodaya movement, asks people to find hope in despair by realizing that acknowledging the issues that breed despair inspires them to acknowledge the present, and find the power in community to change the present.

"Laughter in a Time of Tragedy: Examining Humor during the Holocaust" by Whitney Carpenter

In this article, Carpenter argues that it was humor that inspired the Jewish people to survive the Holocaust. The power of laughter is shown in three respective functions: as an alternative hermeneutic, as a form of rebellion, and as an acknowledgement of God. The first showed itself in the Jewish peoples by serving as an alternative to internalizing the despair of their situation. It provided a means through which they could detach themselves from their circumstance and choose to live in the light of a different perspective. Laughter could also serve as rebellion: by laughing at the jokes that the Nazis tried to use to dehumanize Jews, they stripped the jokes, and, therefore, the Nazis, of their power. Finally, humor reaffirmed the Jewish peoples' connection to God through its echoing of the biblical stories such as Isaac and Jonah. In both of these stories, the heroes encounter tragedy and instead of being self-pitying, they acknowledge the irony and laugh. Laughter helps to relieve bitterness, both towards other humans and towards God. This reasserted itself during the Holocaust when some Jews were able to use laughter to combat the "God is dead" movement. Humor maintained the survival of a community of people and their deity.

"The Empirical Impulse: Empire and Religion as Bane and Blessing for Art" by Jacquelyn Fishburne

This article rests upon the premise that empire and religion are often intertwined and reliant upon each other. Fishburne points to the time of Constantine as a world-altering example of this. After his conversion, Christianity and the Roman Empire became synonymous, with far-reaching implications. This is easily apparent when one examines the role that empire and religion played in art. Historically, this melding of religion and empire spawned an artistic revival that pushed artists into new techniques and styles. However, this new burgeoning was balanced by the strict control the Church had over artists. Art was restricted to religious subject matter, and competition amongst nobles to give lavish pieces of art to local congregations is credited with the rise of indulgences, a system that essentially allowed people to buy their way into heaven. This religious empire both inspired art and crippled it. This tradition continues today. Empire and religion are still entwined, if more subtly. Certain religious views inspire the dominant culture, and these perspectives are subliminally imposed upon the general population. Empire spreads most frequently now through technology. Empire is blatantly apparent on the internet, and while people connect more quickly than ever, they also open themselves up to imperialism. This profoundly affects artists who attempt to use these new technologies. While they are able to reach a much wider audience than was previously available, they also leave themselves open to theft. Empire has a new tool, and this one also comes with the promise of growth and death for the art world. Religion and empire are closely intertwined, and while both have served to empower artists, they simultaneously limit that power.

"Walter Rauschenbusch and the Social Gospel" by Amanda Conley

This article brings Walter Rauschenbusch's theory of the Social Gospel into the current age and argues for its continued relevancy as a social critique and a charge to create a better world. The Social Gospel was concerned with collapsing Christianity and social issues onto each other. Rauschenbusch looked to a God active in history to make his argument that Christianity must be a revolutionary faith"one invested in politics and social concerns. To do this effectively, Rauschenbusch stated that religion must be concerned on all levels of daily life"from the larger political and economic issues, to the effects of those issues in everyday interactions. Rauschenbusch saw Christian churches as largely unsuccessful on this issue. For the most part, the Churches did not take part in a major "social reconstruction," but instead engaged in small acts of "suppression." This meant that while the Churches tried to hide some of their most blatant prejudices, there has never been a sufficiently ambitious attempt to put an end to such evils for good. Conley concludes her article with the claim that Rauschenbusch's influence on theology and social justice have not diminished, and that many of his theories continue to be illuminating in society today.

"The Problem of Death and Dying in Contemporary America: A Thanatological Diagnosis and the Case for Religion" by Eleanor Swensson

In this essay, Swensson lays out the many obstacles that have resulted in twenty-first century Americans being unable to accept death. By examining the history of major social changes in the West, such as the Protestant reformation, as well as the current ways of dealing with death and dying, Swensson posits that improving how society deals with death and the dying must be aided by theology. Currently, social, political, and religious changes in the West have led to a general sense of loneliness, meaninglessness, and helplessness that are only intensified when a person faces death. Unfortunately, the current environment in which most people greet death makes it difficult for them to care for the emotional and spiritual needs of the dying or their families. This can generally be attributed to the fact that hospitals attempt to forestall death at any costs, and in so doing frequently strip people of their dignity. While hospices attempt to counteract this objectification, the frequent close quarters and intimate witnessing of physical deterioration in them make it difficult for that goal to be fulfilled. Swensson argues that thanatology (the sociological study of death and dying,) is valuable and that efforts should be made to make a more respectful dying process. She concludes that this will only be able to come to fruition when theology is welcomed in to play a real part in the way society approaches death and dying.