Worth Reading

Dear Irina,

Here are some books that may speak to a few of your questions, interests,  and enthusiasms.  I’ll send more later on if you want….



Daniel Berrigan, Isaiah: Spirit of Courage, Gift of Tears. This Jesuit priest was a formative influence on me my senior year in college. His commentary on the biblical prophet Isaiah has many lines worthy of meditation, like this: “It cannot be said too often that the works of justice, the vocation of the Servant, are the preeminent form of honoring and glorifying God. They are true worship.”

Pema Chödrön, The Places That Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times. Buddhist teacher’s practical wisdom for working with fear and developing compassion. She observes, “Just as alchemy changes any metal into gold, Bodhicitta [awakened heart] can, if we let it, transform any activity, word, or thought into a vehicle for awakening our compassion.”

James Cone, Martin, Malcolm and America: A Dream or a Nightmare? Comparative study of two African-American leaders in the freedom struggle. In this riveting study, Cone stresses, “We should never pit them against each other. Anyone, therefore, who claims to be for one and not the other does not understand their significance for the black community, for America, or for the world. We need both of them and we need them together. Malcolm keeps Martin from being turned into a harmless American hero. Martin keeps Malcolm from being an ostracized black hero. Both leaders make important contributions to the identity of African-Americans and also, and just as importantly, to white America and Americans in general.”

John Dominic Crossan, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography. Scripture scholar’s condensed retelling of Jesus’ story, pointing out his radical spiritual/political practice. He writes, “I can imagine peasants all over Lower Galilee who would have said with equal intensity that Jesus brought life out of death and would not have been thinking of the heavenly future but the earthly present. Life out of death is how they would have understood the Kingdom of God, in which they began to take back control over their own bodies, their own hopes, and their own destinies.”

Eknath Easwaran, Gandhi the Man: The Story of His Transformation. You could read this book in 90 minutes and get an amazing sense of the possibility of ordinary human beings. Gandhi’s own advice: “Select your purpose, selfless, without any thought of personal pleasure or personal profit, and then use selfless means to attain your goal. Do not resort to violence even if it seems at first to promise success; it can only contradict your purpose. Use the means of love and respect even if the result seems far off or uncertain. Then throw yourself heart and soul into the campaign, counting no price too high for working for the welfare of those around you, and every reverse, every defeat, will send you deeper into your own deepest resources. Violence can never bring an end to violence; all it can do is provoke more violence. But if we can adhere to complete nonviolence in thought, word, and deed, India’s freedom is assured.”

Marc Ellis, Practicing Exile: The Religious Odyssey of an American Jew. Ellis was one of my teachers and has greatly influenced my views with his fascinating analyses of Christianity and Judaism, both. His hopeful vision: “If Jews can live among Christians in the West after the Holocaust, it is more than possible for Jews and Palestinians to live together after their relatively recent experience of enmity.”

Thich Nhat Hanh, Joyfully Together: The Art of Building a Harmonious Community. Nhat Hanh stresses in this little book how to nurture community in one’s life. He makes the claim that we all need mentors: “A mentor is someone who has practiced for a long time. Because of his or her experience, he or she is a refuge for younger sisters and brothers for whom the practice is still something new… In French, the word [for mentor], tuteur, refers to the stake we use to support a newly planted sapling … our younger Dharma sister is also like our daughter. When we take care of them, we are taking care of ourselves.”

Inga Muscio, Cunt: A Declaration of Independence. A young feminist’s sassy and passionate call to stand up against sexist oppression. “I don’t think I’d do justice to how profoundly exchanging stories, fantasies, and problems with women has improved the quality of my life.”

Mev Puleo, The Struggle is One: Voices and Visions of Liberation. Inspiring series of interviews with Brazilian activists and ministers who have made a preferential option for the poor. One of them, a Lutheran minister, responded to Mev’s question about solidarity this way: “We also came to learn that to be in solidarity with the poor we didn’t have to give up everything or stop being who we were. I’ll always be middle class, even if I lower my salary. We’re middle class by the very way we understand society, our level of education, our access to persons and power. We can’t deny our own history! But we do have to place our gifts and our work at the service of changing society. We have to use our goods to serve the grassroots struggle.”

Jonathan Schell, The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People. Schell provides answers to the oft-asked question, “Would nonviolence work against dictators?” Schell deals with both the satyagraha movement in India and the Eastern European movements against Communism: “In both movements we find a conviction that the prime human obligation is to act fearlessly and publicly in accord with one’s beliefs; that one should withdraw cooperation from destructive institutions; that this should be done without violence (Gandhi endorses nonviolence without qualifications; each of the Eastern European writers enters some qualifications); that means are more important than ends; that crimes shouldn’t be committed today for the sake of a better world tomorrow; that violence brutalizes the user as well as his victim; that the value of action lies in the direct benefit it brings society; that action is usually best aimed first at one’s immediate surroundings, and only later at more distant goals; that winning state power, if necessary at all, is a secondary goal; that freedom ‘begins with myself,’ as [Polish activist] Michnik said, is oriented to love of truth, and only then discovers what it hates and must oppose; and that state power not only should but actually does depend on the consent of the governed.”

Dorothee Sölle, Against the Wind: Memoir of a Radical Christian. How a German theologian faced up to her own history and became a global activist for peace. “I am aware of individual sins of which I accuse myself, but I believe that they take up less room in my life. What I suffer from, and what I need and seek forgiveness for, are all the disastrous things that we, as a society, inflict today on the poorest of the poor and on our mother, the earth.”

Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark: Untold Stories, Wild Possibilities. One of the most energizing books I’ve read in the last ten years. A brilliant and creative writer, Solnit’s perspectives are essential for any one interested in going further on the path of social justice: “Causes and effects assume history marches forward, but history is not an army. It is a crab scuttling sideways, a drip of soft water wearing away stone, an earthquake breaking centuries of tension. Sometimes one person inspires a movement, or her words do decades later; sometimes a few passionate people change the world; sometimes they start a mass movement and millions do; sometimes those millions are stirred by the same outrage or the same ideal and change comes upon us like a change in the weather. All that these transformations have in common is that they begin in the imagination, in hope. To hope is to gamble. It’s to bet on the future, on your desires, on the possibility that an open heart and uncertainty is better than gloom and safety. To hope is dangerous, and yet it is the opposite of fear, for to live is to risk.”

Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others. Sontag, an essayist, novelist, and activist, has long pondered the meaning of photography in our times: “Certain photographs—emblems of suffering, such as the snapshot of the little boy in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1943, his hands raised, being herded to the transport to a death camp—can be used like memento mori, as objects of contemplation to deepen one’s sense of reality; as secular icons, if you will. But that would seem to demand the equivalent of a sacred or meditative space in which to look at them. Space reserved for being serious is hard to come by in a modern society, whose chief model of public space is the mega-store (which may also be an airport or a museum).”

Rosalie Riegle, Dorothy Day: Portraits by Those Who Knew Her. A compilation of reflections on the co-founder of the influential Catholic Worker Movement, which give a rich, complex view of a person some consider to be one of the most significant Catholics in American history. Eileen Egan, associate editor of The Catholic Worker, on Dorothy: “You can take course after course in so-called theology and never hear the message at the heart of Christianity—the message of Jesus, which is indiscriminate love. This includes loving the enemy. This is the simplest of theology. Somebody has said that much of theology consists in getting round the Sermon on the Mount. Well, Dorothy and Peter didn’t get around the Sermon on the Mount. They accepted it straight on.”

Virginia Woolf, Three Guineas. Woolf’s essay on how women can face the war question and, in the following excerpt, the issue of joining men in the professions: “Those opinions cause us to doubt and criticize and question the value of professional life – not its cash value; that is great; but its spiritual, its moral, its intellectual value. They make us of the opinion that if people are highly successful in their professions they lose their senses. Sight goes. They have no time to look at pictures. Sound goes. They have no time to listen to music. Speech goes. They have no time for conversation. They lose their sense of proportion – the relations between one thing and another. Humanity goes. Moneymaking becomes so important that they must work by night as well as by day. Health goes. And so competitive do they become that they will not share their work with others though they have more than they can do themselves. What then remains of a human being who has lost sight, sound, and sense of proportion? Only a cripple in a cave.”

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