Book Review


by Carey Monserrate

God’s Troublemakers: How Women of Faith Are Changing the World by Katharine Rhodes Henderson Continuum, 2006. 247 pp. $24.95

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Those impassioned and immortal words, penned in his landmark “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” in April 1963, served as a clarion call for principled nonviolent activism in the struggle for civil rights, affirming Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s place in the pantheon of progressive twentieth century religious leadership.

In her powerful and timely exploration of the contemporary progressive religious scene, Katharine Rhodes Henderson invokes Dr. King’s legacy— along with those of Ghandi, Dorothy Day, Sojourner Truth, and others—to pose a fundamental set of questions: where are today’s “progressive religionists,” those voices of faith that would prick our national conscience into collective action for social and economic justice? What work are they doing, and what inspires them to do it? How can we learn from their experience in order to put our faith in the service of transformative grassroots endeavor? Or, as the title would have it, where are “God’s Troublemakers,” those who, in the name of faith, would upset those aspects of the established order that perpetuate inequality, suffering, and injustice?

The answer, sure to raise eyebrows in certain quarters, is stated most explicitly near the end of this rigorous and engaging inquiry. “In twenty years of ministry,”

Henderson writes, “when I scanned the horizon for people doing the work of progressive faith–based leadership, women were most in evidence. There are men doing this work to be sure, but fundamentally it is women who are there at the grass- roots level making the difference. It is time for us to see and celebrate that. We have reached an important cusp. Momentum is building.” [237]

Those skeptical of her claim would do well to bear in mind that Henderson brings an impeccable set of credentials to the task she sets for herself. She belongs to that increasingly rare and endangered species, the Southern–born (woman) liberal with a solid grounding in religious tradition and belief. Raised in Louisville, Kentucky, Henderson appears to have chosen her parents wisely, given her future calling. Her father was a seminary professor specializing in Old Testament studies; her mother acted as a lay leader in the Presbyterian Church, in which Henderson herself would eventually be ordained. As a young child, she stood (not quite) shoulder–to–shoulder with her parents and their peers as they fought at the forefront of the civil rights movement. Her mother later became the first woman elder in her church, exposing Henderson to a form of institutional resistance that came to instill in her what she memorably terms “resistance faith.”

She would later become intimately acquainted with an arguably even more prestigious activist lineage, when a sabbatical year brought her family to Göttingen, Germany. Her parents rented an apartment from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s twin sister, Sabina, and her husband, Gerald Liebholz.

Henderson would soon learn of the Lutheran pastor’s courageous, religiously informed stance at the head of the resistance movement against Hitler’s “Final Solution”—for which he was ultimately executed—while visiting memorials in the former concentration camps that testified to one of the last century’s greatest moral, social, and spiritual evils.

Driven by these unimpeachable sources of inspiration, Henderson’s accomplishments are many. Her life path eventually led her to ministry; a Ph.D. in higher education from Columbia Teacher’s College; the executive vice presidency at Auburn Theological Seminary in Manhattan; and a co–founding role in Face to Face/Faith to Faith, a multifaith youth program educating future leaders from the United States and areas of conflict around the world in peace activism. It is a formidable curriculum vitae.

As its title suggests, the notion of “resistance faith” is one of the thematic pillars of Henderson’s book. God’s Troublemakers fashions a meticulous, interrogative portrait of its subject, producing a mountain of evidence for the assertion that women today comprise the vanguard of faith–based social action. Over the course of interviews with twenty women working at the grassroots level for change, she amasses an inventory of reportage, analysis, and argument to fortify those who would engage in progressive faith–based work. Henderson also marshals a casual, accessible erudition, drawing upon the fields of theology, psychology, leadership studies, and sociology to delineate those qualities and principles that lead to successful grassroots action. The result is a radiant blueprint for readers concerned with bringing about positive, pro–social transformation grounded in religious faith and spirituality.

Henderson regards her woman subjects as “spiritual entrepreneurs,” an evocative coinage that captures the challenges and triumphs of lives rooted in faith–based action. For her study, she identified a range of individuals, from the prominent—Sister Helen Prejean, former Manhattan Borough President Ruth Messinger—to the lesser known—Henna Hahn, Ganga Stone, Riffat Hassan, Melodye Feldman, Alisa Del Tufo, Lee Hancock, Gretchen Buchenholz, and Connie Baugh, to name a few. The programs and organizations they founded address the needs of a broad range of underserved individuals and populations: AIDS victims, prison inmates, teens living in areas of global conflict, immigrant populations, and battered women among them. Their work will hopefully gain attention through Henderson’s careful study (and advocacy) of the leadership models they embody.

Henderson elicits those models through a series of key questions formulated over the course of multiple interviews. She weaves her subjects’ responses and personal testimony with her own general observations, addressing issues as varied as the initial experiences that drew these women to action; the role that religion, faith, and “spirituality” play in their ongoing endeavors; and the language they use in talking about their work in a variety of settings.

Discernible within the larger framework of the book is Henderson’s striving towards a generalized philosophy of faith–based initiative. She emphasizes the need for those interested in such efforts to confront “the shadow side,” a term taken from Jung, and to create a “holding environment” both at the organizational and operational levels, a concept borrowed from the British psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott. Other influences on her thinking include leadership theoreticians and scholars as diverse as Dr. Mindy Fullilove, Walter Brueggemann, Sharon Parks, Ronald Heifetz, Sally Helgesen, and Jean Lipman–Blumen.

Finally, one encounters myriad grace notes of observation throughout God’s Troublemakers; these make for pleasurable reading. In an assured and lucid style— undoubtedly borne of decades of experience and reflection—Henderson convincingly and succinctly lays to rest some of the thorniest issues confronting contemporary faith–based activism. On the separation of church and state, to take one instance, she writes:

Religious perspectives, reframed by global awareness, still belong at the center of public life. Those who argue that such centrality would violate the separation of church and state subvert the meaning intended by the Founding Fathers.

The Constitution’s provision was intended to protect us from the potential tyranny of a single religious perspective allied with and supported by our government. It was intended to encourage a vigorous pluralism—to preserve the right of free expression of diverse religious perspectives—not to cleanse the public arena from religious influence. In this era of globalism, concerns about the adequate separation of business and state might be more to the point. [10]

Advantage Henderson.

On the risks of relativism that accompany the necessary ethic of inclusiveness involved in contemporary faith–based work (with a specific focus on the language one employs to talk about such endeavors):

Moving into this multi–lingual mode involves several large challenges. One is avoiding the value–free stance of pure relativism, where all views are seen as equally valid and none more deserving of our commitment than another. While this is usually a necessary step beyond feeling one’s own view of reality is the only one, we are not well served if it becomes a lasting conviction about how life is. We cannot act ethically—that is, with some sense of responsibility to uphold the sacredness and dignity of all life—if we truly believe that it does not matter what we do. We function best amid the swirling complexity of competing viewpoints if we hold to some guiding star, if we achieve some perspective that gathers multiplicity into some larger vision of wholeness. There is a kind of coagulation of life experience that can carry a person to such a place, yet it still takes courage to take those first steps into it, and to find words to describe what one sees there. [142]

Cogent reflections like these seem designed to respond to the implicit and sometimes disabling critiques that have accompanied the rise of a certain brand of religious activism over the past several decades. As she and many of her subjects observe in God’s Troublemakers, the terms “faith–based” and “religious” have grown increasingly synonymous with the social and political agendas of the Religious Right. Many progressive faith–based practitioners consequently shy away from such “God–talk,” to our great and collective detriment.

Henderson remarks upon this distressing cultural development keenly and without animus, noting that the resurgence of anti–modern Protestantism and other forms of conservative evangelicalism has been hastened and abetted by the relative quiescence of progressive religious voices (not to mention the fragmentation and decline of many—if not most—of the formerly “mainline” denominations). Ironically, defenders of the free exercise clause may be inadvertently complicit in this phenomenon. Coming full circle to the question of the separation of church and state later in the book, she writes:

I believe that we are not well served by the current popular interpretation of the separation clause which insists that religion has no place in the public realm. Religion and faith can still be a source of moral authority in the shared communal debate about the “common good.”

A full–scale retreat of the religious voice from the public arena leaves an untenable vacuum that cannot be filled by secular humanism. If all of the public religious voice is ceded to the Religious Right, then the perspective on moral issues is skewed. Having a single dominant religious voice in the public arena is the very situation that the separation of church and state was meant to prevent. Progressive religious voices must be part of the dialogue, adding richness, depth, and alternative interpretations of truth to the mix. . . Some may feel that secular humanism can offer this counterbalancing perspective. I think not, although I affirm its important place in the wider debate. [172]

All of us, in other words, have a place at the table, in religious, political, and socio–economic terms. That this should be so is a self–evident truth, one might say, consistent with the Founders’ vision of a distinctly American democracy. Among other things, Henderson’s excellent book serves as an edifying and hospitable invitation to religious progressives to come back to the table and assume their rightful place— instead of walking away.

—Carey Monserrate
God's Troublemakers: How Progressive Women of Faith Are Changing the World
A remarkable new book documents how 11 amazing women are changing the world. This is a book about progressive women who are innovative leaders in the public arena. Christian, Jewish and Muslim, they are spiritual entrepreneurs, who have invented organizations or movements to repair the world. This book claims space for progressive forms of religion in an era dominated by the Religious Right. Their compelling stories make this a page-turner. But more important, you will want to share their hope of transformation and the lessons in leadership they offer for all of us.


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Source: Cross Currents, Winter 2006-7, Vol. 56,  No 4.