Rachel Pieh Jones has spent the last eighteen years living among Somali Muslims – and her Muslim friends have informed her Christian faith; Felix Manz gave his life for his own radical and nonviolent faith in 16th Century Switzerland.
About this Episode
Felix Manz was the first martyr of the Radical Reformation, drowned by his fellow Christians for performing adult baptisms. His story is a story of a world on fire with commitment to Christ, with friends who became enemies wrestling over nonviolence, justice for the poor, and the meaning of the gospel. Pete and Susannah discuss what his time has to say to ours.
Then, they catch up with Rachel Pieh Jones, whose eighteen years living among Somali Muslims has taught her more than she could have imagined about her own Christian faith. Her book, Pillars, released recently with Plough Books, describes this journey of friendship and discovery.
Pete and Susannah also talk about Bruderhof Easter Gardens, and almost-post-vaccination life in New York City.
- I. Pioneer of the Radical Reformation: Why the story of 16th century martyr Felix Manz still has resonance today (1:19)
- II. Intermezzo: The Plough social world (25:00)
- III. Learning from Muslims to be Christian: We talk with Plough author Rachel Pieh Jones about her new book Pillars (28:50)
- IV. Recommendations (49:10)
- Rachel Pieh Jones, Pillars
- Rachel Pieh Jones, Stronger Than Death
- Rachel Pieh Jones, Call to Prayer, Call to Bread
- Susannah Black & Jason Landsel, Felix Manz
- Samuel Kimbriel and Osita Nwanevu, The Democracy Essays
- Matthew, Mark, Luke & John, The Gospels, translated by Sarah Ruden for Modern Library
Susannah: Today, we’ll be talking about Felix Manz, the 16th-century idealist and key figure in the tradition of Christian nonviolence, whose insights into the connection between nonviolence and economic justice still resonate today.
Peter: Then we’ll talk with Rachel Pieh Jones about her new book, Pillars, that tells a story of how her Evangelical Christian faith was unraveled and rewoven when she and her husband moved to Somaliland in the Horn of Africa.
Susannah: I’m Susannah Black, senior editor at Plough.
Peter: I’m Peter Mommsen, the editor of the Plough Quarterly and this is The PloughCast.
Susannah: This is the fifth episode in a six-part series on nonviolence, The Violence of Love, our most recent issue. If you haven’t yet, make sure to give us a follow on your podcast platform of choice.
Peter: While you’re at it, subscribe to Plough, go to plough.com/subscribe. Now to the conversation. So our first topic today is the Radical Reformation, the tradition of Christian nonviolence. Particularly, one key figure in the Radical Reformation, Felix Manz, in the City of Zurich. Susannah, in our new issue, you wrote a biographical portrait of him, which is part of our Forerunners series. Did you ever hear of Felix Manz before you started writing this piece?
I. Pioneer of the Radical Reformation: Why the story of 16th century martyr Felix Manz still has resonance today (1:19)
Susannah: What’s fascinating in all these early Reformation history stories is finding out the just incredible web of connections between people. We think of that time as being kind of deeply un-networked in a way. Everyone is just in their little village, doing whatever kind of vaguely agricultural thing we think of them doing. But these were people who got around and their personal relationships and the personal conversations that they had, in particular places and at particular times. As well as, of course, the things that they wrote and published and distributed to each other. Those particular and really contingent communications were what started the Reformation and what sent it off in a variety of different directions. I find that completely fascinating.
Peter: The thing that Felix Manz and his friends explored, which in some ways you could say they kind of ended up winning the Reformation. That’s the kind of provocative way of saying it, although he was killed at age 29. The principles they stood for – freedom of conscience, no coercion in matters of religion, economic justice, and the importance of communities and expression of Christian love, in fact, nonviolence, are principles that the churches of the reformation and also the Catholic Church have come largely to adopt. In a way that was absolutely unimaginable at the time that they were living. So these three things, freedom of conscience, nonviolence, and community are really what he stood for, what he was a pioneer of, and what he kind of . . . and his friends, because it was a network, it wasn’t any single one of them, kind of brought into the world. Again, based on their reading of the Gospel.
Now, of course, this wasn’t just a theological debate. There was a lot of economic and political forces that kind of brought this confrontation between the Magisterial Reformation and the Radical Reformation to the fore. I really want to get into that a bit. But I’ll first say my first encounter with Felix Manz was as a really little kid. So growing up in the Bruderhof and going to school, he was one of the first people I learned about and [one of] the first martyrs I learned about.
Actually, if you visit the city of Zurich today, Zurich is built along the Limmat River in which he was drowned, there’s a plaque right along the bank of the river, which I visited a bunch of years ago. Marking the spot where he was taken from this boat and thrust under the water, with the whole city watching. Zwingli did approve the execution and in fact, defended it vociferously to other major figures in the Reformation at the time. It was one of the first times that a Reformer had executed a fellow Reformer. That was 1527.
The spot – what always stood out for me as a little kid is, from the account of the execution, Manz’s mother is standing along the bank, shouting to her son to hold fast and not give in, up to the last moment until he kind of uses the words of the Martyr Steven, “Into thy hands I commit my spirit.” He’s then put in the water. So you imagine this mom standing at the bank right there by the plaque – was always something that kind of stayed with me, I think of with Felix Manz.
So then, discovering his writings, discovering more about what he was like, I had a chance to go to Zurich a few years ago and came back just a bit of a Manz-fan. Yeah, I want to know everything about him and like you said at the beginning, Susannah, this was a very networked world. So this is Zurich, trading city around 1519. As you said, a new priest, Zwingli, comes. The Reformation is just sort of starting up in Wittenberg but it’s not really clear how everything’s going to align. He starts just preaching from the Gospel every Sunday and he gathers with him this kind of sodality of young men who are all sort of humanists. They’re inspired by Erasmus and they’re reading Greek and Latin. They’re not just reading the Bible either, they’re reading Homer, right, they’re reading Plato. They’re reading the New Testament and they’re studying Hebrew. They’re getting together at Zwingli’s house in the evenings and debating this stuff. They’re being served by Zwingli’s girlfriend, who he eventually marries like after about six years, and she has a kid.
Manz himself is the illegitimate son of a priest. His mother lives . . .
Susannah: I didn’t know that part.
Peter: . . .two blocks away from the major city church, the [Greatminster] Grossmünster in Zurich. Apparently, there was a kind of . . . it was fairly well accepted at that time in Europe for the priests to have mistresses and she was literally two blocks from the church. There were other women there in a similar situation. So he must have grown up in this very ambiguous relationship to the church. There’s records of him then getting a scholarship to the University of Paris, which presumably, although we know very little about that, is where he got his Latin and his Greek and was introduced to these circles.
You get a sense – and [if] this is the Hollywood version of this story [it] would be Manz finally finding the father he never had in Zwingli. Zwingli, the older man, who himself was changing throughout this whole time, befriending him, and being his mentor. Then Manz and his friends feeling that Zwingli was compromising with political power, that they were not prepared to compromise the Gospel for the sake of political power. From Zwingli’s point of view, these are the young hotheads who are imperiling the revolution by pushing things too far, too fast. They don’t recognize the balance of power in the city; they don’t recognize the balance in power of vis-à-vis the other Swiss cantons and Rome. They don’t recognize the fact that Swiss Reformers, when they’re being caught in other Swiss cities, there’s cases of them being burned at the stake as heretics because of who has influence where.
Into that come two major, major debates, which impact the sort of wider theme of nonviolence that we’re talking about. One is the mercenary system and the fact that Swiss young men are being used as mercenaries by the princes, including by ecclesiastical princes, including the Pope in their wars because it’s an impoverished area and one of the few things they have to export is their young men as mercenaries. So there’s this kind of a nationalist element to this that “we’re not going to send our young men to be cannon fodder for other people anymore.”
Susannah: Which is where the Swiss Guards originally came from. This is the origin of the Swiss Guards. Yeah.
Peter: Exactly. That is where the Swiss Guards in Rome originally came from. Then from the countryside, there is a growing protest against feudal abuses and particularly against ecclesiastical tithes. Tithing, at that time, especially in that part of Germany and Switzerland was in every part of your life. So you literally had to tithe each of your crops and there was death duties due. What the villages rose and protested against was that their tithes were not going to support their local church, their local pastor, but they were vanishing into the metropolis, into Zurich, where they supported a number of religious institutions. But also just went into the pockets of people far away. Meanwhile, they’d be shipped either no village priest or really low-quality village priests.
So you have a peasant movement that’s growing based on complaints about everything from hunting and fishing rights to local control of “who’s our priest,” converging with a kind of growing aversion to foreign wars. Then you have humanism and Erasmus’ In Praise of Folly. Then a bunch of young guys getting together in the city and saying “we’re discovering the Gospels for the first time.” What could it look like? That another world is possible, this sort of “Occupy Wall Street” feeling is in the air. You get the sense [that] Zwingli is their friend, Zwingli is their buddy. But where they divide is actually not originally over the fairly abstruse-sounding question of baptism, but really over what is the place of the civil authority, vis-à-vis the church? Zwingli’s position is because he soon, for a number of reasons, was influential, and then in full control of the city government. The civil authority is rightfully used to bring about reforms for the sake of the Gospel, which means that “we got to cut some deals” along the way.
Manz and his friends pretty early on already, by 1523, 1524 are saying, “the city fathers have nothing to say about what the Gospel is.” The church, in a way it was very Catholic argument – the church should have absolute liberty. There should be no role for the civil government in determining its teaching or its worship. Strangely enough, the father of one of Felix’s main buddies, Conrad Grebel, was a patrician who led the Catholic party in the city council. So there’s this reformer, radical reformer, and Catholic triangle going on in the city government that is a microcosm, I think, of some debates that continue to concern us today.
Susannah: One of the fascinating things to me about the conversations that Manz and Zwingli and all of their group of friends were having, was that it seems as though they were re-litigating some of the controversies that Catholics had talked about among themselves a couple of centuries earlier, during, for example, the Investiture controversy. So the Magisterial Reformers were a lot more comfortable with the idea of civil governments having some kind of control over the preaching that was going on in churches. Some kind of decision-making power as to who the pastors were going to be. And in a weird way, as you said, the Anabaptists took what had been the Catholic position. That the church was essentially, in some way, at least in authority over the civil government and needed to be free to determine its own preaching, to convey the Gospel as it saw fit, and to make decisions about who were going to be the individual, local pastors. So the fact that it’s essentially a conversation that had been happening for the entirety of Christian history [and] it popped up once again in Germany at this time.
Peter: Well, exactly. They saw themselves in continuity with that conversation. Early Anabaptism, partly thanks to Anabaptists themselves, has sometimes been presented as this grassroots, purist movement that kind of sprung up. But what’s fascinating to me about this group of guys in their little Zwingli sodality, right, where they would meet weekly to chew through this stuff – it’s essentially a reading group – but a reading group with the biggest questions quite literally on the line. There must have been just a tremendous charge in reading their Erasmus together or their going through the Gospel of Matthew, as we know they did together. Just asking how do we live this now?
It was in that sense then that the question of baptism emerged as a big one and was actually the issue over which Manz was finally executed. They came to believe, and Zwingli actually was sympathetic with this position as a theoretical matter, that there was no strong warrant for infant baptism in the New Testament. That, in actual fact, every recorded New Testament baptism is on confession of faith and after repentance and amendment of life, which they felt is only possible for a person who has reached the age of reason. But what’s more, there was a huge economic component to the question of baptism because baptism was the way that you were enrolled on the church register, [that] was the basis of taxation. It was the basis of social control. Mandatory baptism enforced by civil law actually flies in the face of the Catholic Church’s own teaching on what infant baptism ought to be.
So infant baptism was really being instrumentalized in the service of social control. That was what partly they were against, the idea that there could be any coercion in matters of conscience. It was for this reason, then, that baptism became this kind of rallying point, where the first baptism is really a quite deliberate act of civil disobedience. The Zurich Council says, you must baptize all your infants and you may not re-baptize any adults. The radical group says “oh yes, we will believe God rather than men, Book of Acts.” They gather and just a few days later, hold their first baptism and refuse to have the infants baptized.
So that’s where things start. Very soon after that, there’s this movement through the, frankly, oppressed rural villages around Zurich, that had been under the thumb of the metropolis, of baptism, and there’s this revival atmosphere. There’s this small village right outside Zurich – it’s actually now in the suburbs of Zurich – where the people get together, they’ve been resisting their tithing for a number of years already. There’s a baptism, there’s public confession of sin, there’s this [kind of] people throw open their warehouses and open their treasures and share them amongst each other. There’s this kind of radical active time of sharing. It goes on for several weeks, until the Zurich authorities come in, haul dozens of them off to prison, extract[ing] confessions and recantation for most of them. They actually really weren’t able to stamp it out. These kinds of movements start sweeping across Switzerland and southern Germany. Right at the same time as the Peasant War is also happening. Yet, this particular Radical Reformation is determinedly nonviolent.
At the same time that they’re reproving Zwingli for his use of government force, they’re also writing to Thomas Muntzer, who’s leading the peasant rebellion up northwards in middle Germany, reproving him for turning to the sword on behalf of the peasants. Really interesting moment.
Susannah: Yeah, you can just sort of imagine the way that this would go down if it were today’s media landscape, it feels like. You can picture it . . . there would be this attempt to conflate, and there was the attempt to conflate Muentzer and Munster, John of Leiden’s sort of freakish kind of Occupy-Wall Street-times-one-thousand wife-swapping situation, with a lot of violence in Munster, with all Reformation and, on the part of the Catholics, with the Magisterial Reformation, on the part of the magisterial Reformers with all Anabaptism. It just seems like there would have been a kind of deep sort of attempt to conflate or difficulty in unconflating these different sort of movements, even though they were profoundly at odds with each other.
Peter: Of course, Manz wouldn’t live to see that, some of those confusions. He was executed in 1527, he spent two years underground. Then he’s finally caught in Zurich again, he’s a Zurich citizen, he’s repeatedly disobeyed the command to cease from preaching. He does his Acts 5:19 again, we’ll obey God more than men. It is at that point that he is then condemned to death. As I say, the first execution in a Reformed territory of a religious dissenter.
Susannah: The form that the execution took was a kind of mocking of the idea of re-baptism right? He was drowned. Which was a kind of “You wanted to be baptized, I’ll baptize you.”
Peter: Exactly. There is an amazing hymn – actually, it’s in the Amish hymnal still today – that he wrote on the night before his execution. “I sing with exultation,” it’s actually – we sing it in our communities too – and you get a sense of the joy with which he went to his death and you get a sense too, that his mother, who I mentioned before, and his comrades [who] must have provided him with a great sense of confidence in his last hours.
Like I said, if you ever go to Zurich you can visit the spot and they have an exhibit that’s in the city about him. I actually spent some time talking with the head of the Reformed Church in Switzerland a couple years ago about Manz, in particular, because the Reformed Church kind of feels bad about Manz now and they just had their five hundred years of Reformation celebration in Zurich and he was a big part of it. He’s now kind of looked to as a Zurich hero. In a way, I found it really, really touching that the Reformed Church kind of commemorates him, too, as well now.
Susannah: Yeah, that is amazing.
Peter: One thing you learn from Manz is what we talked about in an earlier episode of this podcast. Christian nonviolence is a soldier’s way, and that’s how Manz saw it. There was a tremendous adventure and there was a tremendous daring. The early Anabaptists are often called “sectarians.” In fact, I was just in a conversation with a Catholic book group at Columbia University last night, where we were talking about the questions of violence and nonviolence. The first word out of people’s mouths when you talk about Gospel-nonviolence is “sectarian.”
When you read Manz, and there is an idea of the church being a separate society, right, which is actually just biblical, but there is not a sectarian spirit to him in the sense of a narrowness. There is that humanist breadth and he genuinely, I think, couldn’t understand how Zwingli didn’t get it – that the church was meant to be a free-willing organization and not one supported by state coercion. To the end of his life, he seems not to have just . . . he couldn’t understand how Zwingli couldn’t make that leap. I think Zwingli, from his side, couldn’t get how Manz was unable to understand the real politics of the situation.
Susannah: The idea of a kind of reading group/Bible study, essentially, a Christian intellectual project: that as you’re doing it, you’re starting to get the sense that we might end up killing each other, is really something that no longer is the way that, at least generally, the way that our disagreements play out. That we do have this sense of persuasion rather than coercion in matters of faith does, I think, indicate that, as you say, on some level, Felix Manz won.
II. Intermezzo: The Plough social world (25:00)
Peter: Let’s move to our intermezzo, where as usual, we’re going to just catch you up on things happening in the wider Plough community. So, Susannah, I think you have some good news: spring is coming.
Susannah: Spring is coming. My sort of like job here is to just kind of describe what’s going on with the downstate/New York City Plough gang of which there are many. And basically, what I did this past Saturday was, I went into Central Park and I lolled around on the grass with twenty different friends. We were masking and socially distancing to a large degree. But a whole bunch of them had already been, or at least some of them had already been, at least partially vaccinated. I did my own DIY vaccine, in the sense that I got over COVID. It was just this kind of like sense of – it was so gorgeous, it was so warm, we were drinking homemade blackberry shrub. It was just the sense of like “all right, I think we’re getting through this, I think we’re going to get through this.”
One of the things that it made me think about – that I have been thinking about – was, we spent the last year kind of being cautious about each other physically. Learning how to not socialize in person. I think what’s going to be really important for us to do over the next couple of months, after it becomes safe, is to just kind of like push back against the instincts that we’ve needed to develop. Remember that we’re not actually dangerous to each other. That it is, in fact, important to just hang out with your friends in Central Park and drink blackberry shrub.
Peter: Yeah, I think that’s crucial. I know for myself, you almost have to make a conscious decision that “I can do this. I can meet with a big group of people” because you can now, with the weather so nice, you actually can quite safely meet with quite a few people. You kind of have to learn to enjoy it again. The thing that we’re doing here – and this podcast is going to air a couple of weeks from now – but it is – we’re recording this, right, two weeks before Easter. Those two weeks before Easter, in the Bruderhof community where I live, is just really important. We actually largely start shutting down our work and turn more and more to preparing for the Holy Week, then for Good Friday and Easter itself. We kind of have a bunch of things to help us do that. One that my kids are really excited about, is they spend this week and the next, preparing a series of gardens near our community cemetery. Those will be the Seven Stations of the Cross. They’ll plant flowers, make little crosses, and kind of put by each one, a part of those Seven Stations of the Cross. Maybe a story or a reminder or some little sign of what that station is.
Then, on the days of Holy Thursday and Good Friday, we’ll be going there individually or as families. Just spending time in each of those little gardens and thinking of Jesus and what happened. So really looking forward to that and really glad [if] it’s not raining while we’re trying to do that.
III. Learning from Muslims to be Christian: We talk with Plough author Rachel Pieh Jones about her new book Pillars (28:50)
Peter: So joining us today from Djibouti is Rachel Pieh Jones, whose new book Pillars is out from Plough. The subtitle is How Muslim Friends Led Me Closer to Jesus. Rachel has also contributed an excerpt from that to our current issue, about what she’s learned from the five pillars of Islam and how her friendships with Somali Muslims in the Horn of Africa kind of helped her rediscover, reweave, rethink her American evangelical Christianity. So welcome, Rachel, so glad to have you here.
Rachel: Thanks, it’s really good to be here.
Peter: Could you start by just telling us what brought you to the Horn of Africa and what’s sort of the story that led up to this book?
Rachel: So when my husband and I were first married, we lived in a high-rise apartment complex in downtown Minneapolis that was at that time mostly full of refugees from Somalia. So our neighbors immediately were Somalis and we were planning to move abroad. My husband wanted to teach internationally. So our neighbors told us about this university in Somalia and said we should go teach there. We thought “no way.” Somalia, all we knew at that time was danger. We were afraid of Somalia, we just had no concept for how to live there. So they explained to us that there’s [a] university up in the north, [that] was in a peaceful location and that as they were inviting us to come, there they would help us to adjust into be safe and develop community.
So we decided to take that huge leap from Minneapolis to a rural village in Somalia in 2003. We had two-year-old twins at the time and my husband started teaching at the university there. It was exactly as transformative and challenging as you might imagine. Everything was different from, obviously, the language, but the clothing and the religion, how to cook, how to walk even. Everything was rocky and thorny and it just required a lot of humility and dependence on the people around me, which right from the beginning made a huge impact on me.
Peter: While you were there, you kind of ran across the woman who was the subject of your first book, Stronger Than Death, Annalena Tonelli. She, or her example, kind of helped you think about what it means to be a Christian missionary.
Rachel: Well, actually – I never actually met her in person, my husband did one time. I heard about her, that this woman was living in the village that she was working with tuberculosis patients. That she had developed this really incredible hospital but I never met her. She was too busy; she was too devoted to the people who needed her to spend time with other foreigners. So I actually didn’t discover much of her story until much later when I started writing her story. She was assassinated in 2003 in October and at that point, another [couple, Dick and Enid Eyeington were murdered October 22, 2003; two weeks after Annalena Tonelli; they were teachers]. So my family was forced to flee from that village and kind of abandon our first start in Africa.
I remember thinking about her. Why had she been here for so long? Everybody said they loved her and really appreciated her presence. Then somebody killed her. But I didn’t have much time to really wrestle with that until much later. But yes, her example as I studied it and thought about it over the later years, really forced me to examine: what does it mean to live as a Christian in a Muslim country? I don’t really identify – I don’t really like the word “missionary.” It’s got a lot of baggage culturally and historically. So we kind of set that word aside but we definitely are Christians. I come from a Baptist background, I am Baptist Evangelical.
So what does it look like, what does it mean to really live in authentic Christian faith the way that Annalena had done as a Catholic, among Muslims? How do we practice our faith? What can I learn from them? What can they learn from me? How can this be a real authentic two-way kind of relationship? Where both of us, both Muslim and Christian, are discovering new and fresh things about God and new ways to embody faith or practice faith? So yeah, I would say I learned a lot from studying her example. But even more so from my Somali community and how they practice faith. So she kind of modeled living as a Christian well among Muslims and then Muslims modeled for me new ways to think about faith that I hadn’t really considered.
Islam, at least the way that I’ve encountered it, is very embodied. So my Baptist tradition: it’s kind of it’s very spiritual but it’s not very earthy. So Muslims are bowing in prayer five times a day with their body; they’re kneeling on the ground; they’re putting their forehead to the earth. If they pray five times a day consistently over the course of their life, they will end up with a bruise in the center of their forehead. I think of it as a tattoo of devotion. They fast for thirty days as a global community, they go on the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca. More than a million people, sometimes two million people are in one location, doing very physical activities to represent their faith. I didn’t really have much of that in my faith upbringing, my religious upbringing experience. It was really interesting for me to think about as a Christian, what are the traditions that I maybe missed in my Baptist tradition that are part of the global and historical practice of Christianity? Also, what can they learn from these Islamic forms that would provide meaning to me personally?
So, a lot – I’ve just been watching and asking a lot of questions of my community as I’ve explored those things.
Peter: You get into that in your excerpt that ran in Plough. One of the five pillars of Islam is prayer. What stuck out to me is this great story you tell of a fundamental misunderstanding between you and your Muslim neighbor about what prayer is. Would you mind telling that story?
Rachel: This was in Somaliland, so I’d only been there a few months. I’m really devoted to learning language, so I had been trying really hard to learn Somali. So we were out in the street between our houses in the afternoon. Our kids were kind of playing among the cactuses and the goats and things. She [a neighbor] asked me if I prayed and I knew she had asked me if I prayed. So I said yeah, I pray all day, thinking as a Christian, I’m just in the presence of God, I’m living in the presence of the Spirit and filled with the Spirit: I’m praying all day. I’m thinking I’m giving her a real, spiritual answer, really explaining something about Christianity here. I was feeling a little bit proud, even, that I’d had a conversation in Somali. One of the first sort of back-and-forth a little bit, very stuntedly. She just stared at me like “What are you talking about, you can’t pray all day?” It doesn’t make any sense and also, it’s not honest.
From then I realized, in retrospect, the word that she had used for prayer was salat. Salat is the five structured prayer times; the actual motions, the washing that you do ahead of time, and the ritualized prayer. So there’s no possible way that I’m praying all day long. I’m clearly going to the market and clearly taking care of my kids. I’m not praying all day. Then I later learned there’s another word in Somali for prayer, which is dua. Which is more of the kind of prayer I was thinking, like spontaneous, making requests, presenting things to God, and engaging in that way. That was a different word.
So I really, maybe later, once I understood the differences, look back and think my answer to her was from my own understanding of the language but also a worldview and my own faith system. In order to have a real conversation, I would need to understand what was behind her question. What is she asking me? What are the words meaning? What is she bringing to that conversation that could inform our exchange, that would make it more fruitful for both of us? I think that lesson has been really helpful for me because it’s just showing me that I have to try to understand their perspective, their worldview. In order to have anything make sense that I spared having impact or to really appreciate each other, I have to be willing to understand where they’re coming from. So yeah, that was just a really interesting lesson for me. Kind of humbling in retrospect but also really valuable.
Susannah: Can you think of another example of just sort of a moment when you realized that your assumptions or your worldview were not shared?
Rachel: Sure. This is in Djibouti after we had to evacuate and then came across the border here. At one point, I felt led to do an extended fast. So the fast that I was [inaudible 00:38:30] I was coming from how I had been taught and encouraged and modeled as a Christian in the US to fast. No food, only water for a number of days. Again, I was struggling with a little bit of pride about this. At the same time, I was really wanting to do it but pride is something that the Lord is constantly trying to strip away from me. The housekeeper in my house, a good friend, she was really upset with me that I was fasting in this way. She could only imagine that my fast was a sin, not only not valuable but actually sinful, because I wasn’t doing it in the way that she understood fasting, which to her, was in the morning. Even whether it’s during Ramadan or a spontaneous fast that a Muslim wants to engage in on their own. They will eat in the morning before sunrise and then they will not drink any water or [eat] any food until sunset. Then at sunset, they’ll have, especially during Ramadan, they’ll have a big feast with everybody. Then the next day they’ll do it again.
Part of the value of that feast is to remind them of the celebration. To remind them even of hunger, just to celebrate that they have fasted and now they’re thankful. Then they’re going to engage in the next day in fasting again. So the fact that I wasn’t breaking the fast at night and that I was also drinking water during the day. These two things completely nullified my fast to the point of making it potentially a sin.
Peter: An anti-fast.
Rachel: Yeah, an anti-fast. That was pretty mindblowing, I don’t know if that’s the right word, but spiritually complicated for me to get my mind around. But once I did, once I understood why she was so concerned for me. So once I understood that then I was a little bit – again, better able to explain why I was fasting that way, what I was getting out of it. Also then in the future when I did decide to fast again, sometimes I do it in a similar pattern to how they would, sometimes I don’t. But it just again exposed me to different ways of engaging in spiritual practice. It was interesting to think about how we both held so strongly to our cultural practice of it. Here, even to the point that you should break the fast with specific foods, which in different Muslim countries, it might be a different food. But those things come very loaded and laden with religious meaning for people.
Susannah: Can you describe the conversations that you’ve had? Have you had the kinds of conversations with Muslims – that kind of lead you to sort of see commonalities in the way that you and they relate to God?
Rachel: There’s so many things that we do have in common, including the prophets. So I remember again with this same friend that was concerned about my fast – we had ordered a container of supplies to come from Dubai with a car, and some furniture, because we didn’t have anything. So we had moved to Djibouti with a couple of bags. I think we had a mattress, we got our kids a bed, and that was about it. So I was anxiously awaiting this container to arrive and I’m starting to get pretty impatient and she knew that I was getting impatient. She sat me down one day and she said, “You know what? You need to be like Job.” I said, “What?” Then she told me the Islamic story of Job and she said that he was so patient with his suffering, that he had these boils on his body and there were maggots crawling in the boils. He would pick out the maggots and gently set them on the ground, instead of killing them or squishing them. He was just so patient with his suffering.
So she was challenging me and I thought, well, she’s right. I can be patient; my suffering is nothing compared to Job’s suffering. But just that we were able even in that moment to share a little bit of understanding of this prophet – that led into other conversations of do you know about this prophet? I told her the story of Joseph from the Bible and that Joseph has a long chapter in the Quran. So that was also just a really fun conversation to have and it was an ongoing conversation that we returned to multiple times of “tell me again that story from the Bible about Joseph. Tell me again about when he forgave his brothers.” It’s such a great story.
So finding those common grounds of characters that we share – characters is not the right word but prophets from our religious history, has been really fun.
Peter: Why did you pick the five pillars of Islam as the kind of pillars to build your book around? Of course, coming from a Protestant perspective, the Islamic pillars are kind of works, not faith. We have this sort of suspicion of any kind of ritualized piety that will somehow earn us points with God. So what did you learn about them and how did you kind of deal with that nagging Protestant voice in the back of your head?
Rachel: I didn’t want to make this a book of explaining Islam. I don’t feel like that’s my role or responsibility to explain this to Christians. But I felt like it would still provide some way that they could learn about some of the foundational things about Islam, without making it a dogmatic kind of book. Also, because those are really the things that structure my engagement with Muslims, I suppose. The call to prayer is so constant because I’m urged to say the shahada, which is their creed, on a regular basis. I think that just felt like a natural way to show the things that I’ve been learning, while also highlighting the things that are important to my Muslim friends. One that was the most interesting for me to wrestle with in writing was the Hajj, the pilgrimage because it’s the most mysterious, in the sense of you can’t go on it unless you’re a Muslim. So it’s fairly exclusive, although millions of people go on it because there are a billion Muslims in the world. But to a Christian, we’re definitely outside that. I don’t share that same thing where the entire Christian body globally goes on the same event. The same tour or whatever.
So that one was really more challenging to think about, but I really enjoyed it. Reading, hearing from people that have been on it, studying the activities of it. But then also, at the same time, there is the sense exactly like you said, of these are works and they’re done to gain points. To earn God’s approval, to earn God’s mercy, which is never a guarantee. So even there’s . . . I can’t remember the exact quote, it’s in the book. But there is this idea, you can go on Hajj and do all of it correctly and finish it and still not be rewarded for it, because you don’t know for sure that you’ve earned God’s mercy. It’s kind of capricious. He could have mercy on you or not, maybe you don’t go on Hajj and you still will earn the mercy. So there’s a real lack of certainty. Whereas I know more about certainty, I know that I’m resting in grace because of Jesus. So that is something I wrestled with and I didn’t want to embrace these things, legalistically. I’ve had people ask me to become a Muslim. But one of the reasons I say I don’t want to is because I am so thankful for grace, I could never earn the grace that I’ve been given. I know that I won’t be able to pray five times a day and fast every time perfectly during Ramadan. So that’s something that we do talk about also, in relationship of just why I don’t want that legalism. I can be prone to legalism already in my Christian faith. Judgment of myself or of others, of course. So I don’t want to have any more opportunity to foster that side of my sinful heart and so I just lean on grace.
So yeah, that is something that I’ve really thought about it. It’s also exposed some of the ways that I think that. So the pillar of zakat, which is charity or giving, really exposed in my own heart this idea that I could earn something from God. So my friends would say when you’re giving to that person or if you’re going to give some money to a beggar, give it to me, and I’ll hand it to them and so all of us will get extra blessing. Me, Rachel, would get the blessing for having given the money. My friend would get the blessing for delivering the money, and the beggar would get the blessing for giving us the opportunity to give to them. So it was very clearly that we were giving and engaging in this, in order to earn grace. [I mean] Not grace, but God’s pleasure or good points. At first, I was like that makes me really uncomfortable to be so blatant about the seeking of rewards. But then I realized – I was pregnant here. I really had this idea that because I had decided to move my family here because I’m trusting God for life here, he’s got to give me a healthy baby. It’s like I’ve earned it.
And so, I all of a sudden had to really wrestle with the ways that I was expecting a reward or goodness or mercy on my family because I had done something else. So I don’t want that legalism but I’m prone to it.
Peter: That’s a powerful example. Well, thanks so much for joining us today, Rachel. We’re so excited from Plough now to be publishing your book. It has so many beautiful, memorable stories in it, that I can’t recommend it highly enough. So thank you and all the best there in Djibouti for you and your family.
Rachel: Thanks for having me.
IV. Recommendations (49:10)
Susannah: So this is the point in the podcast when we talk about our recommendations. My recommendation for this week is a new set of essays, which are hosted on Damir Marusic and Shadi Hamid’s blog – kind of media empire, The Wisdom of Crowds. So it’s wisdomofcrowds.live and it’s a series of essays called “The Democracy Essays” which are kind of organized and a lot of them are written by Samuel Kimbriel and Osita Nwanevu, whose name I might be mispronouncing. Sam is a philosopher; Osita is a journalist. They are attempting, they’re starting out this project. That kind of apparently grew out of a reading group that they got going in D.C. to just look at the foundations of political order. They’re organizing this around the question of ”What is democracy?” Is it as good as we think it is? What are the assumptions that we’re making when we talk about democracy?
So that is even [you can just] Google “democracy essays” and “wisdom of crowds” or “democracy essays and Kimbriel.” That’ll probably get you there, so K-I-M-B-R-I-E-L. I just cannot recommend this project enough, it’s fascinating and kind of asking the questions that it generally does not occur to us to ask.
Peter: My recommendation is actually The Gospels. In this case, though, a new translation of the Gospels by the literary translator, Sarah Ruden. Sarah has been a contributor to Plough, and Modern Library commissioned a new translation of the Gospels as part of their sort of Modern Library series. So this is a literary translation of the four Gospels. Sarah is known for her translations of Greek plays. She’s done the Greek tragedies, Aristophanes; she has a beautiful translation of “The Aeneid,” that I’m reading with my daughter right now. We just paused for Lent but we’re going to get back to it after Easter.
Here comes The Gospels from her, and there’s so many fresh readings and renderings in this that I’m just greatly enjoying it. There’s a real literary translator’s sense. One thing she brings out most and I can’t get into a lot of the details here, is the humor in the Gospels that you might not have suspected is there. So check it out, Sarah Ruden’s The Gospels from Modern Library. Just got published this month, March, 2021.
Susannah: That’s all for this episode of the podcast, we’ll be back here again next week.