Short Stories from the January Series
Over the past several days, the Calvin University January Series 2022has offered a range of compelling presentations, including one on a popular podcast, one decrying the mass incarceration of black men, one on the crucial role of repentance in furthering the cause of social justice, and one on how social media is changing our lives – and not necessarily in healthy ways.
This year’s January Series runs each weekday from January 10-28 from 12:30-1:30 p.m. (EST). People can join the event live at the Covenant Fine Arts Center on the campus of Calvin University or watch from one of more than 50 remote sites across the continent. In addition, each day’s presentation is livestreamed via the website and will be available for viewing afterward from 2 p.m. (EST) until midnight (PST) on that day.
Here follow some of the reflections and opinions offered by the past week’s January Series 2022 speakers.
Sarah Stewart Holland and Beth Silvers – Jan. 12
One of the early conversations that Sarah Stewart Holland and Beth Silvers had on their popular, award-winning podcast Pantsuit Politics dealt with the history of the welfare system in the United States.
Coming from the conservative end of the political spectrum, Silvers said she had long thought that people receiving welfare were people who didn’t want to work and were just looking for the government to support them.
Holland, however, suggested that was a stereotype and that it might be good to look at the issue by taking a broader view. So they had an in-depth discussion about it and revealed how they both learned that they earlier had known next to nothing about the intricate history of welfare.
During that discussion, Silvers said she started to look at the issue with more compassion and from a different vantage point. “I realized you can’t develop a rigid approach and that this system is really pulling people out of conditions that are unacceptable,” she said.
Holland and Silver have coauthored the book I Think You’re Wrong (But I'm Listening): A Guide to Grace-filled Political Conversations.
As two Christian women from opposite sides of the political spectrum and as trained attorneys, their goal is to model how people from opposing political perspectives – as well as members of religious congregations – can have calm, grace-filled conversations about politics.
The aim of their podcast is to encourage respect for the dignity of every person, to recognize that issues are nuanced and can't be reduced to political talking points, to listen in order to understand, and to lead with grace and patience.
During the January Series talk, Silvers said they have learned that, ultimately, political issues are never as black and white as they are often portrayed. “We are all stuck thinking we have to represent our group, but we never reach a destination where everything is finished. No one rule will work for everybody,” she said.
Reuben Miller – Jan. 13
Walking down the maximum-security corridor in Chicago’s Cook County Jail, Reuben Miller became aware, he said, that he kept passing cells occupied mainly by black men.
“It touched me deeply,” said Miller, who was on his way to meet with prisoners with whom he was starting a ministry as a chaplain. “I was struck by how many of the men looked like me.”
When he reached the room where the men waited, one of the men greeted him by asking if they could start things off by singing a song. “That took me aback,” said Miller. “The men formed a circle and, kicking a door to keep time, they sang.”
Singing, he said, didn’t seem to fit. But then something about it made sense. He began to consider how these men were learning how to wait. Many had long terms to serve. Simply singing helped to pass the time.
Miller said he also realized something else: Many of these men were caught up in a penal system that severely punishes men and women of color. “The U.S. is the world’s biggest jailer,” he said. “Blacks are more likely to be arrested and are given longer sentences than whites who have committed the same crime.”
For many decades, the goal of the U.S. prison system was to rehabilitate prisoners. But in the 1970s that changed, and the aim became simply to punish – and to do that mainly with a growing number of blacks serving time behind bars.
Miller is a sociologist, criminologist, and social worker who teaches at the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration, where he studies and writes about race, democracy, and the social life of the city.
Informed by his experience as the son and brother of incarcerated men and by his work as a chaplain in the Cook County Jail, Miller’s book, Halfway Home: Race, Punishment, and the Afterlife of Mass Incarceration, reflects on the injustice of the American justice system, both when people are in jail and especially when they get out.
“Punishment doesn’t stop when someone leaves prison,” he said. “When people get out, there is little out there for them. They go from one rejection to another.”
There are nearly 20,000 policies and laws on the books across the U.S., Miller said, “that restrict access to housing, voting, and civic participation for those returning from prison. . . . We need to get to know these people and learn they are human beings like the rest of us.”
LaTasha Morrison – Jan. 17
As followers of Jesus, we are called to seek justice in all things and work in whatever ways we can to mend the broken ties between ourselves and our loved ones and the world in which we live, said LaTasha Morrison in her January Series talk on Martin Luther King, Jr., Day.
“We are called to be people who seek reconciliation,” said Morrison. “But reconciliation is a lot of things. It is about justice and restoration. It is about more than tears and a hug. It really means walking in one another’s shoes.”
Reconciliation, she added, is about “becoming bridges to mend and to heal injustices” that have torn us and our society apart.
“Reconciliation is about a change of perspective. It takes time, and it is not easy,” she said.
“Also, it is important to realize that there is no reconciliation without justice. We as people of faith should realize this requires commitment and understanding of what it is we are correcting” through the process of reconciliation.
Morrison is the founder of Be the Bridge, a nonprofit organization that raises awareness about racial inequality and systemic injustice in the U.S. by focusing on actions for justice, reconciliation, and unity.
She is also the author of the book Be the Bridge: Pursuing God’s Heart for Racial Reconciliation. Morrison’s group works with hundreds of churches and ministries. Her group trains people to be ambassadors who can teach others how to undertake respectful conversations and build interracial and cross-cultural relationships.
“When dealing with a broken system of race, we should all want restorative justice,” said Morrison. “Keep in mind that seeking justice is threaded through the Bible from Genesis to Revelation.”
The work of reconciliation requires us to remember difficult, often traumatic things from the past. The work of reconciliation also requires repentance. In the end, it is about a change of mind, a change of heart, said Morrison.
“We have inherited a mess [in this world] that is not your fault and not mine. But we are one body with many parts. . . . We are called to love – to love even when I want to lash out at you.”
Max Stossel – Jan. 18
Max Stossel is a technology insider who once worked to develop social media platforms that he now sees as causing widespread problems and as leading to a culture that breeds loneliness and separation.
In his talk on Tuesday, Jan. 18, Stossel explained that social media was developed basically to take us out of our world and to immerse us in programs that, he now realizes, can waste our time and even cause depression and serious mental illness for some users. In other words, it was developed to make social media companies a big profit by enticing users to keep coming back.
“These programs are like slot machines. We keep putting in money and occasionally receive a reward,” Stossel said.
To be sure, social media has many beneficial aspects, such as making healthy connections between people, said Stossel, but the difficulties tend to outweigh the good things it provides.
“Social media was designed for companies to keep our attention constantly,” said Stossel. “Our attention is kept by algorithms that lead us to things we want to watch. . . . We have been taught that our phones are a magical device and that it is so hard to live in our bodies without this device.”
As he walked back and forth on the stage at Calvin University’s Covenant Fine Arts Center, Stossel used his own phone as an example, showing it to the audience and saying this device too often leads users into a world in which it is easy to fall into rabbit holes leading to nowhere that is good.
“We need to ask, ‘Am I using technology, or is it using me?’” he said. “The real world is being taken over by the digital one, and it is very hard to break out of this cycle.”
Stossel is also an award-winning poet, filmmaker, and youth and education advisor for the Center for Humane Technology (CHT), an organization made up of former tech insiders who are dedicated to realigning technology with humanity.
At the end of his talk, Stossel suggested that people can find ways – perhaps as a community – to wean themselves from their phones and to enjoy and learn about the world through other means, as well as to connect with their friends.
“Let’s find new ways to cope. . . . Turn off your notifications unless it is from a real person who wants to reach you. Unfollow everyone who makes you feel bad about yourself,” he suggested.