An Interview with Dr Megan McKenna

1. How did you get started in your writing career? What, or who, made you want to be an author? There are two answers to this question – first: I have always been writing, for as long as I can remember. I kept notebooks, small ones, and carried them around with me and I daily – faithfully – wrote. About the weather, people’s faces, things I overheard or read, or something that happened that I wanted to think about. I was probably around 11 during the Cuban Missile Crisis and I distinctly remember writing about fear, other people’s fear, and how fear was catching, almost like a disease. I tried to make sense of it, along with the information that we were going to be bombed by people on a small island to the south of us (I grew up on the east coast of the US, in the area between New York and Washington, DC/Maryland and Virginia). I have kept journals nonstop all my life (I store them in boxes in the garage), but I never intended to share them. They were conversations with myself, with God, with the universe.

The second answer to this question is: I am a teacher before I’m a writer. I’ve taught everything from 4th and 5th grade through high school, grad courses, adult education... in every conceivable circumstance to people who wanted to be in class, those who have to be, and people who just found themselves in a group or a class. A good deal of what I’ve written, I have first taught – so they were textbooks with questions for reflection, discussion, projects, etc. The first book I actually wrote was in 1990 called Not Counting Women and Children: Neglected Stories of the Bible. I had been looking for a way to write down the reflections of people I worked with (in South Louisiana, the bayous, Central American countries, and on the streets of New York during the civil rights movements). When I write books, I gather: I collect lines, images, and experiences that others have been so gracious to share with me as they struggle with the Scriptures on their journeys, in their lives. With that book, I got my ‘style’ and it sounds much like the way I speak in public and interact with people as they sift through the Scriptures and their lives.

2. Have you had any mentors, role models, heroes, or heroines? Yes, in retrospect. I stumbled on Thomas Merton and devoured anything and everything he wrote; and I happened to be in my twenties in the 1960s, so there was Dorothy Day, Daniel and Philip Berrigan, Jean Vanier; and then later I had a class with Ignacio Ellacuría and read Jon Sobrino’s writings. Each in their own way destroyed or dismantled long-held ways of thinking, seeing, even believing, and quantum-leaped me into awareness of others’ and how we are all one.

My eighth grade teacher, Sr. Dolores (still alive), taught me math and English, but more, taught me that I can study/learn everything/anything, excel at it, and let it become the basis of who I might be. She listened to me in hard times (past the eighth grade) when that’s what I needed – being listened to… time consuming, but freeing, too.

I have often thought, ‘Who are my holy ones?’ (instead of heroes/heroines) and they are just people; ordinary folks, all over the world – the Body of Christ, struggling, forgiving in the face of horror/violence, sharing when they have so little and yet so much, praying for me, teaching me their wisdom and long faithfulness. One widow in Honduras once told me, ‘The other side of faithfulness is endurance.’ She paused and continued, ‘And we endure because so many others are unfaithful.’ I have never ever forgotten those words.

And I take heart from poets: Denise Levertov is a favorite, Pattiann Rogers, but the list is long. Anyone who sows hope and blesses life. I lean on their faithfulness and my friends who stay with it, decade after decade – and listen and laugh with me, and drink good red wine, and send me dark chocolate and flowers! To me, the real saints are not any canonized ones but the ones who help to carry the burden unknown, except to those they loved and who loved them… and by God.

3. You describe yourself as a ‘storyteller’ - what significance does this term have for you, and do you have any encouragement for others who might see themselves as storytellers? Again, a two-part response. Some people call me a storyteller who does theology; others refer to me as a theologian who tells stories. The emphasis or priority is determined by what they experience. Jesus was a storyteller and I was entranced by this in my theological studies, first by the parables of the Gospels. Then I started collecting stories from all cultures, religions, and traditions. There is a saying among tellers: ‘There is only one story--how do you tell it?’ So, the story I am always telling is, ‘In the beginning was the Word; and the Word was with God and the Word was God. And the Word became flesh and dwells among us.’ (John 1) All the stories I tell are, I hope, leading people to see their own life as a story of God – their flesh made words and told to others, in the context of the Scriptures, especially the four Gospels.

The other half of being a storyteller/theologian is bound to the Gospels. I started about 25 years ago telling the Gospels in the community ‘by heart’: taking a portion of the Scripture off the page and putting it into my mouth so that others could hear it. I describe this process and what it does to folk in the beginning of my latest book, Like a Hammer Shattering Rock: Reading the Gospels Today. Hearing the Gospels out loud with the teller looking straight at you goes straight to your heart. It has a power beyond explanation. So, in learning the portions of the Scriptures by heart, it has affected the way I tell stories. I encourage anyone who uses the Scriptures – priests, deacons, preachers, teachers, counsellors, everyone – to learn pieces of the Gospels by heart; tell them to yourselves aloud and share them with others, starting with short, succinct pieces and getting bolder as you tell, and as you experience the Word, the Gospel tells you! Eventually, the stories you want to tell and share with others (especially if they are from the major religious traditions) all begin to tell you! They draw us into a larger space – a universal world – and into communion with others. The stories become like a glue that holds the world and people together. And I tell people that we are all born to be tellers; start, try it, practice... and something in our brains, latent and waiting to be stirred again, rises up and it becomes, like any art, a part of one’s nature and way of speaking, teaching, living.

4. In your book On Your Mark: Reading Mark in the Shadow of the Cross, you say (to paraphrase) that worship should be a lifestyle, not a symbolic or liturgical act. Could you expand on this idea? I think your paraphrase is a bit off the mark. Worship, of its nature, is with others and so one form is symbolic/liturgical or ritual; it is as much about bringing and keeping the community together, growing gracefully, and dealing with everyone’s life as it is focused on becoming like the God we worship, attend to, imitate, and follow. And yes, first and foremost, worship is done with our lives, every day, every night, in all seasons as we live, grow, fail, and rise again to dance and share life more joyously with others in compassion, freedom, hope, and liberation for all and the earth.

This idea has always been central to worship since the beginning, but it got a bit blurred historically. Originally, any service that someone did at liturgy was an offshoot of what they did in the community during the week; deacons/deaconesses were the public presence in the larger community of the Body of Christ’s care for the poor, the sick, the infirm, elderly, those in prison, etc. So when people saw them coming, they saw Good News coming! So, in liturgy, they were the ones that proclaimed the Gospel (even if the bishop were present) because the people knew the Good News in the presence of those who served them, healing, encouraging and keeping them connected to the community. It was the same with those who waited on tables (altar) – they were the ones who fed people all week long. So worship’s first expression is in life and liturgical worship is supposed to reflect that reality. Historically and at present, that is not what is reflected at all with those (only certain proscribed people) who ‘do’ liturgy doing it as part of their work or ordination, rather than as part of the community or called forth from the community. In every community (church) that gathers to pray and worship, all the gifts of the Spirit are present: there is no need to ‘import’ any of the leaders to lead the Body of Christ when it gathers in worship. Among those baptized and confirmed are the gifts waiting to be recognized and blessed, as in the Acts of the Apostles when the need arises to find/choose the first deacons.

5. How well do you think the global church has done at advocating for peace and protesting injustice? Where do we go from here? Oh, what a question! If we look at the Gospels as the focus/criteria/norm for being peacemakers as the children of God, and the call to love our neighbour (let alone love our enemies and do good to those who persecute us), and if we look at Jesus as the one who sides with the stranger, the illegal alien, the immigrant, the leper, the poor, the outsider, the one shunted aside, the one cursed, the one who is the agreed-upon sinner, etc. ... we hardly reflect Jesus’ teaching or practice, or who we stand with in solidarity and communion. Over the centuries as the Church became a global power, it ignored for the most part the teachings of Jesus in regard to justice and peace and made being a believer a personal experience with God (primarily the person of Jesus) within the context of Church teaching and structure that emphasized sexuality, obedience to dogma, and devotion (along with some personal practice of almsgiving and care for the poor). The Gospel is Good News for/to the poor. Justice is the experience of how God deals with us and how God comes to us in the Incarnation of Jesus, bringing the kingdom (the power and sway of justice and peace). Peace is the reality of our new relationship with God, in the power of the Spirit with Jesus, that we are to share with all and that begins with no harm, no killing of anyone – personally or state-sponsored, -encouraged, or -demanded. So, we have failed miserably in that regard, and still are failing. It is not a priority or a foundational reality of the Gospel, the church, or Christian life.

At the same time, there have been individuals and groups throughout history that sought to bring the depth/breadth of the Gospel of abiding justice that brings peace to all and to live an alternative of hope in the face of dominant cultures, governments, and countries’ violence, nationalism, and destruction (of people and creation). In the last half century, people like Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day (founder of the Catholic Worker), the Berrigan brothers, those who have resisted war, the martyrs of Central and South America like Oscar Romero, the famous as well as the many uncounted and unknown (except to their own loved ones and communities), many missionaries and communities of non-violence in South Africa and throughout the world... these people have lived and died seeking justice and proclaiming peace with their last breath. Movements like Pax Christi have been in solidarity with those in other religions (the Dalai Lama, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, and a long list of others) seeking to put justice and peace at the centre of all religious practice and prayer. The people and groups that have had the most impact, both on the people around them and long term, are groups that are based in the weekly reflection on and study of the Gospels. They are called base communities, small ecclesial communities, but they all share the same foundation and source for what they do and how they resist with alternative lifestyles and support one another in the midst of violence and destruction. They live on the Word of God, sharing it and eating it, digesting it and then holding one another accountable for becoming that Good News daily. The issues of poverty, injustice, and violence are braided together, and how to undo these evils and offer solace and ‘life ever more abundantly’ are found in the Word of God and those who make that Word come true in their lives.

Where do we go from here? This is probably one of the main things I have been preaching/teaching/writing/storytelling about in the last 40+ years. Get yourself into a group (about 10-15) of people as diverse as possible, study the Scriptures for conversion weekly (use the Lectionary), hold one another accountable for change and transformation, and then work together for justice and peace where you live, serving those most in need around you. Extend the power of the Gospel pragmatically, like rays out from the heart of the community – the Word of God.

6. Could you share your thoughts on the connection between faith, protest, and nonviolent resistance? Whew! A couple of years ago, Pax Christi USA asked me to do a talk on the spirituality of nonviolence… I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t come up with a spirituality for something you’re not supposed to do. So instead I talked about the principles of a spirituality of the Peace of Christ as a primer for peacemakers in the making.

Faith is harder to talk about. Everyone has faith in something. Some profess a specific faith (it’s generally agreed that there are seven major ones in the world: religions) but faith, I think, has to be rooted in a person – for Catholics/Christians, the Crucified and Risen Lord – not a personal or devotional relationship or connection (though that’s there), but in a reality, a mystery, larger than anything one-on-one; larger than a project or method of organising. I lived through the 1960s and 70s in the US, and there was a lot of resistance, draft card burnings, spreading of ashes, breaking into military bases, and pouring blood on missiles, etc. I participated in some of those myself, but I think it was the time for that kind of resistance and trying to call attention to specific issues and I think that time is over, generally speaking.

During the civil rights movement (and its success was based on massive numbers that would resist together), that kind of resistance, without violence or harm to others, always has a place, so it is crucial what the large numbers of people decide to resist and to focus on. And I don’t see movements or groups in that position much in the western/first world. Massive protests are usually based on the experience of injustice, violence, terror, war as witnessed in many middle-eastern countries and among those who are poor and desperate – it is a last straw, so to speak. And even when the protesters intend to do no violence, they must take into consideration that they themselves will likely suffer violence, even deaths, because of being together, being seen as a threat to who/what they are protesting/resisting and seeking to change. Just being there as one is enough to provoke retaliation; one must be very realistic about the power of evil, injustice and fear in standing in opposition to it. In essence, Jesus’ death/execution was because he lived and spoke and stood with those who were to be shunned and excluded: he lived a life of hope for the poor and despised and said, ‘God is with you, on your side, blessed on you, and I stand here too.’

Elements of any protest are a few to begin with: it must come forth from and be sourced by the Gospel – the intent, reasoning, methods, outcome, and the pragmatics of how you protest. And always without violence; training for it and planning for it and used perhaps not as the first thing to do, but down the road a way after other movements and actions seem not to have had an impact. And remember: the protest is not first of all to change something or even to stop it, but to slow folks down enough to talk, to open a window of possibility – and you cannot gauge a protest by whether or not it ‘succeeds’. A life of resistance is part of baptism; we promise to resist evil and refuse to be mastered by any sin/evil/injustice/death or violence… so it’s built into our daily life of conversion to the Gospel, together with others and resisting the common acceptance or the dominant culture. Resistance is in the lifestyle and practice of compassion, works of justice and mercy, and standing in solidarity and communion with those who are the ones who are broken and crucified today. Where we stand and with whom we live and share says much more than words, often. And to remember that anything you do alone is what you do alone--there are not a lot of prophets or lone rangers in the world or the church, and it is in community that change happens. Perhaps it is communities today that are the new breed of prophets that the world and the church needs.

7. What would you say to women of faith who feel that certain church structures formalise gender inequality? First I would tell them, ‘You’re absolutely right!’ Much of the structure, administration, and daily life of the church – in liturgy especially – is a stumbling block to women… and children, and the elderly, and anyone who isn’t white, well educated, and upper middle class. It is most obvious with women, who make up half the world. It is the structures and those who are dedicated to keeping them intact that are like a cumbersome, twisted creature carrying around a 200 pound ball and chain and saying that this is essential to who we are and what we do. Of course, it’s just destructive and depressing at best. But it is the structures, the administration, and many of the leaders; it is not the church, which is the Body of Christ, the people of God. There are about 1.2 billion people in the Catholic church, and less than 2 percent of that 1.2 billion are the Pope, bishops, cardinals, priests, deacons, members of religious orders, etc. They are not indicative of the church as a whole. They are supposed to be the servants of the people of God... and, as Mother Jones (an organizer in the US in the 1930s) said, ‘First pray like hell that they fall.’ A perspective from the bottom is a good place to start.

More personally, I would say to make friends with the little folks – groups that study the Scripture, work for justice, live in solidarity with the poor, resist, and whenever and wherever possible preach the Gospel, plant seeds of hope, learn Genesis, protect what is vulnerable and in danger, stop violence – and do that work together. This has to include men, women, young, old, different races and cultures, languages, ways of perceiving reality. And don’t get hung up on in-house church power issues. Change comes from the fringe: outside in, and bottom up. All of us must belong to a community that studies the Scriptures, holds each other accountable for conversion to the Word, shares resources and dreams and troubles, and struggles for ‘life ever more abundantly for all.’ And resist! When praying aloud, use the words that reveal truth rather than what is imposed; do it softly and gracefully, but do it. The gift of the Spirit is that in any situation, place, or relationship, there is a creative, life-giving, imaginative way to cope with what’s happening. If you can’t preach at liturgy, call folk together to do the Scriptures on an evening and preach there and call on them to share their insights and wisdom as they listen to the Gospel. Laugh out loud at some of the stupid and insulting things that are said and done (this is very disarming). Sing, dance, make music, learn to be a good comedienne, and try to keep things in perspective. In the scheme of things, focus on the immediate need and what is essential for the majority of folk. Live and express the gifts of the Spirit that have been given you in life and maybe someday someone will invite you into the church building/structure… but don’t count on it. Live in hope; most of life and change, in its depth and possibilities, takes place outside of any church property. Feed the Body of Christ with food, support, presence, hope, and shared life. That’s really what Eucharist is about: it’s what happens in life and the world; it is ritualized in a building and a rite, but the more important place is where bodies, souls, and minds are fed and honoured.

8. When moving from school to university and from university to a career, many young Christians struggle to find community. Have there been times when you have had to find or build community? In any move – for marriage, further education, a job shift – you have to make community. On rare occasions, you can find one and slide in… but it’s more likely that you have to build your own. The foundational pieces are people who are believers and the Word shared together for conversion. It is belief that is the bond. Mix it up with folk of different ages, genders, and experiences. Stay local but think global. Pray together, but don’t do liturgy together – go to church and try to connect with other small groups in parishes doing different things. Work with homelessness, the poor, immigration issues, food, etc. Start doing a corporal work of mercy together as a group and eventually settle on one focus that all of you will invest in with time, money, presence, etc. And try to incorporate (embody) in your flesh the Gospel as you chew on it and make it yours just as God makes you God’s. I’m lucky: I meet and visit with so many communities that live through violence, persecution, poverty, injustice, and ecological disasters depending on where they live, and all my theology, writing, and teaching is an attempt to share what I learn from all of them who are so gracious to me.

9. The word ‘power’ has so many connotations. What are the negative aspects of power? What are the positive aspects of power? When should power be resisted? Someone (in Liverpool) once told me everything in theology, in life, has to do with power. There are a number of questions that undergird all we are/do. What is power? Who has the power? Do you want the power? How do you get the power? What are you going to do differently with it once you’ve got it? And how do you plan to hold onto it – or pass it on to whom?

Power must be resisted when it is violent, unjust, destructive of human beings and creation, and when it breaks people’s hearts and souls. For we who say we believe in Jesus, our power lies in the resurrection. It begins and is given to us as gift at our baptisms, and the rest of our lives is practice; living the freedom of the children of God, resisting with no harm all that demeans life, and living in the only power there is – in the sign of the cross, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit (the Trinity/community of all life), and loving one another as Jesus loved his friends. That’s a short answer, but hopefully enough to start thinking about the problem and possibility of power.

10. You have lived and travelled through an amazing number of countries. How have your physical journeys been related to and affected your spiritual journey? In a word: AMAZINGLY. I live in the universal church, not in any national one; it is a mix of all the worlds that are referred to as first, second, third and fourth worlds or rich/poor, separate cultures, etc. I’m aware of the Spirit’s power in diversity/communion – and wherever the church becomes dominated by one tradition, one culture, one historical period, one translation of texts, one way of music/prayer/devotion, etc., it begins to turn in on itself and wither. The richness of difference is essential to the life of the church, which is externally expressed in liturgy, ritual, the work for justice and peace, and work with the poor for freedom and liberation as well as internally to enrich the personal lives of the Body of Christ. The church thrives on diversity, change, transformation, difference that continually transfigures all of reality.

It is said that there are 9 eco-systems in the world; in a sense, there are at least 9 (if not many more) spirit-eco-systems, along with bio-diversity in the church throughout the world. One way to look at this is in the ‘one size/way fits all’ practice that has created an utterly confusing liturgical calendar where the seasons experienced in the northern hemisphere are celebrated in readings, music, and liturgical practices on light/darkness, etc. that are in opposition to what’s happening in the world around the Body of Christ in the southern hemisphere. The reality of the west and Europe is NOT happening in the rest of the world. That’s at the level of geography and seasons, but it is the same in language (Latin or English is not necessarily the best to speak words of praise and lamentation, worship, theology, and so on) along with customs, rituals, music, and dance. And along with this is the proximity and need to be in dialogue and relationship with other religions; the culture and religion of the West’s (and First World) expression and practice of Christianity is sometimes in conflict with the core of the Gospel, and the Church needs the correction of other experiences of Christianity (from, for example, Native Peoples) and other religions’ understanding and experience of God. Catholics are only about 1.2 billion people in a world of over 8 billion. Dialogue, and sharing of the wisdom of all the other beloved children of God, is essential. God, the Trinity, Incarnation, the Body of Christ, the Spirit, the Resurrection and Risen Lord in the world is vaster, deeper, and truer than any language, philosophy, theology, or culture can begin to express. This is true in regards to science and technology and communications as well.

11. Photography seems to be a hobby of yours as you document your travels, with landscapes and natural wonders being frequent subjects in your photos. Have the things you’ve seen influenced your perspective on our collective responsibility for creation? Yes. I love photography. I used to draw/paint and play the 12 string guitar, but I broke my hands in my mid-twenties and never got perspective for drawing back and I couldn’t learn to switch hands for frets and strumming. So I started storytelling, miming (which only lasted a short while as I found it found too confining), and photography to express and link understanding and questions. I am in love with the world, the universe – stars, heavens, weather, and every piece of earth (as well as the diversity of peoples in the human race). And when travelling, I am and have been acutely conscious of pollution (I’ve developed chemically induced asthma from travelling); the destruction of land, water, air, food chains; and the lack of awareness of the intimate connection with all creatures, animals, birds, and Mother the Earth and Father the Sky. (I am indebted to the Native Peoples who have taught me so much in their stories, traditions, and ways of living.) And I am appalled at what we are leaving as our legacy: ruin, death, extinction, sickness, and disease worldwide for our children and children’s children down to the seventh generation. They will be accusing us and saying, ‘What were you thinking? What have you done to our earth and our possibilities of survival and living? Did you really think it was yours to plunder and use for your own immediate wants?’ The issue of climate change and destruction of the resources (the stuff of creation) is much more deadly and vicious in its spread and effect than most people want to admit. Photographers like Sebastian Salgado take pictures of both extremes and ends of the spectrum; they are like prophets in pictures crying out, lamenting, and trying to get people’s attention. I use it to try to engage people’s eyes and connect them to their hearts and minds.

12. You make the observation in your most recent book, Like a Hammer Shattering Rock: Hearing the Gospels Today, that Luke’s Gospel ‘is the only one written in a period of relative peace.’ Do you make a point of mentioning this because you think it is significant to how we must read and understand that Gospel compared to the others? Luke’s Gospel is the only one written in a relative period of calm/peace, without persecution of believers. It’s very significant. The other Gospels have the background of violence, persecution, and death from the start, from the leaders of other religions and groups, and they are collapsing within as well as beset from outside. Just as you do theology differently and come up with singularly different answers if you do it on an empty hungry stomach or a full one, so the issues and what is preached about is different when you aren’t being persecuted. Luke is sometimes called the third Gospel for the first (or third) world (depending on which world you live in); you will read it from above in the dominant economic class and structure of living, or at the bottom as the servants and those on the fringe. So Luke’s Gospel has more about liturgy yet at the same time trying to connect it to the actual reality of food, starvation, excess, and the basis of Eucharist – take (your food), bless, break it up, and SHARE it. It is in the ritual that the emphasis shifted to eat – in all the stories of the Gospel, it’s share – with Jesus never eating and the disciples serving and giving away their food so that others will share as well. Modeling what is to be the real Eucharist of the community in the world. Luke can mirror in some ways what happened to the church universal as it became the dominant religion, culture, even empire, language, etc.: the tendency to disassociate reality from ritual, and to spiritualize the text and what makes a Christian rather than grounding that identity in practice and participation and accountability in the community.

13. Congratulations on being included among Pax Christi USA’s 2013 Teacher of Peace Award nominees! Do you have any advice, or could you recommend any resources, to those of us who are students of peace? It begins with the Gospel. Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called the children of God. No matter what groups/movements you belong to, when you work and struggle for peace, you must be rooted and sourced in a group that lives on the Word of the Lord, the Gospels and prophets especially – becoming the Word in your flesh with others, and together beginning with the corporal works of mercy that are, in fact, the corporal works of hands-on justice connecting you to other members of the poor and broken Body of Christ; together with them, seek peace. Pope Paul VI said: If you want peace, work for justice. And then Pope John Paul II said: If you want peace, go to the poor. Jesus was adamant that being poor – sharing your excess at least for a start, being in solidarity with those lacking and without justice and the basic necessities of life (see the opening chapter of Pope John XXIII’s Pacem in Terris), and together compassionately relating to people and the earth – is the foundation for peace. On that is built the work – economically, nationally, in regards to arms/violence, war, death penalty, torture and, the other massive problems… Work for peace is piecemeal in our lives and long haul in our outlook (long faithfulness to alternatives), and is engaged immediately in what presents itself in your ‘neck of the woods’. So being in a community of peacemakers, steeped in the Gospels, is home base always.

14. When we were arranging this interview, you mentioned that you are writing a new book. Can you tell us more about it? And about what’s coming up next for you? My new book is on listening – the difference between being able to hear and actually listening. Then ‘listening’ meaning ‘to obey’ in most languages; that implies a relationship in listening. It is looking at listening to others who are of different religions (focusing on dialogue, not getting them to convert), have different moral issues, in other cultures, enemies, suffering, dying from disease, living with violence, in pain (those in hospitals, nursing homes, care facilities), in difficult situations and afraid. And it will look at listening to a text (Scriptures) and underneath the text; listening to the night/noise/dark and to silence, listening to creation and earth, and listening to your body and others. It will have stories, of course: the Scriptures, pieces of music and poetry, questions to stir imagination, and new thoughts. And it will probably have a different style than the usual chapters… bits and pieces – the way we hear and listen. I’m working on it now, and hope to finish by early next year.