Refiners fire
Handel's setting of Mal. 3:2 in his oratorio, "The Messiah," has a continual, sturdy rhythmic pulse for the bass voice. The aria opens with the questions: "Who shall abide in the day when the Lord comes?" and "Who shall stand when the Lord appears?" The bass answers in a dynamic, virtuoso aria, "Why do the Nations so furiously rage together?" In response, the tempo and rhythmic scene painting change to a vigorous pulse with great agitation in the orchestral and vocal parts, for the subject of inquiry is "like a Refiner's Fire."
The dynamics of a Refiner's Fire were poignantly, passionately revealed to me during a Wabash Teaching and Learning Workshop in January 1998. When asked to present a symbol or artifact that best described each of us, my dear friend Dr. Marsha Boyd, now with the American Theological Association, said that her metaphor is a welder. Welders artistically use fire to refine metals. On our last day of this workshop, I perused the reference materials on the bookshelf in my room and discovered The Welder's Bible. I remembered my years of biblical history and could quickly recall a Geneva Bible, the Bishop's Bible, the Wycliffe Bible, the Woman's Bible, etcetera, et cetera, but no Welder's Bible. My excitement and curiosity got the better of me. I brought the Welder's Bible to Marsha for her to see and then I began to flip through its pages. This was not a Bible that contained Hebrew and New Testament texts. This was a complete encyclopedia of everything one needed to know about welding, from terminology and temperatures at which various metals can be refined, to the different types of joints one welds and the safety precautions one ought to take when welding.

Welding is serious, dangerous business. Using language and exploring religious concepts is also serious, dangerous business, but it is a business that I am called to do.

Welding is serious, dangerous business. Using language and exploring religious concepts is also serious, dangerous business, but it is a business that I am called to do: welding and Refining a Fire, molding thoughts across time, emerging out of various temperatures and various contexts to explore the intersection of violence, power, and religion. This volume, itself a process of Refining the Fire of passion amid theological discourse in exposing violence, viewed through the lends of a Womanist approach that welds and explores the fires created at the juxtaposition of creative theory and praxis.
Using Refiner's Fire as a metaphor of social change and abusive control, this book explores the intersection of violence and religion, creative/destructive systemic forces, in biblical and contemporary society. Throughout literature and history, personal, communal, and institutional violence has existed intimately with religious practice. The creation of the world out of chaos into order was an evolutionary, violent act. The thrust of a child out from the protective birth canal into a hostile, outside world is violent. The mandate of law enforcement to maintain order often requires violent acts by authority. The "Three Strikes" law and the death penalty are violent acts allegedly designed to quell violence. Statistics show that neither the "Three Strikes" law nor the death penalty has worked as a successful deterrent. Many of those trapped by the three strikes are couriers of dope for dealers and suppliers. Many of those who are employees of the illegal drug industry are there because they are addicts, and some are there because of the equal opportunity employment benefits. The death penalty is a sophisticated, high-priced lynching, given the cost of appeals, housing, and the elaborate system designed to make this state-ordered, state-administered act of violence a humane "mercy killing." Refiner's Fire analyzes the effects of religion as catalysts that help humanity to foment and/or transcend violence.
Using historical and contemporary situations and narratives, Refiner's Fire analyzes religions' involvement in violence. Building on a Womanist theology and ethic, Refiner's Fire addresses issues concerning women, religion, and violence in language, the Bible, slave spirituality, the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, the protest ministry of Martin Luther King Jr., and female social groups -- sororities and gangs. After the section that presents a preliminary or exploratory study for a constructive theology and ethics of violence toward transformation, the book concludes with a liturgical treatment of death that transcends ultimate violence.
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As we move quickly into the new millennium, into the twenty-first century, we have opportunities to be our neighbor's sister or brother. We have new options for living transformed lives where we acknowledge the imago dei within each other and ourselves, where we face new challenges, with enhanced technologies that allow us to annihilate ourselves totally. We have the gift, the challenge, and the opportunity to create and embrace new socio-historical and economic configurations of community, in which we can make a difference and not be self-absorbed. We have an opportunity to live out of a spiritually, socially, physically, and economically salvific model of community in which everyone matters. We have countless decisions to make that can affect this world for millennia to come.
When we take a liberationist stance, in which salvation is holistic, encompassing everything that shapes our lives from the spiritual and economic to the emotional, sexual, and physical, what must we do to be saved? What can we do to move ourselves to a lived ecology of human spirit? Why do we need a crisis to garner our attention? Are we so transparent and fearful that we can only move forward or come to action if our environment is one inn, which we live in pain, deceit, or fear, when dysfunctionality and lies are our only options for coping? What Fires need to be Refined, and which Fires need to be stifled? Clearly, to live a holistic life as a healthy, balanced global community of mutuality as opposed to one of exploitation, we must address the apparent penchant for human-induced, human-created, human-celebrated, bought-and-paid-for-violence (for example, gossiping, libel, boxing, pornography).

Many in religious institutions imagine that their sanctuaries, temples, and mosques are immune to societal violence.

Many persons imagine that there are places on the planet where violence does not or cannot exist by definition. Many, in religious institutions, imagine that their sanctuaries, temples, and mosques are immune to societal violence. Unfortunately, the data tell a different story. What is the possibility for a healthy, serene society? Incredible historical evidence for violence of all kinds exists -- holy war, domestic, spousal, workplace, child abuse, and ecological violence, as well as libel, theft, racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, and the seeming aphrodisiacal allure of power, which has brought scandal in many "high places," including the Vatican and the Oval Office. What must we do to be saved? How do religion, spirituality, and faith affect violence? Are human beings capable of living in a context of justice? Refiner's Fire explores living, historical, and literary texts to mine the role and impact of violence couched in narratives of the lives of many. Such a journey of theory and praxis relies on analytical, critical, passionate listening to offer a crucible in which individual and communal Refiners shape their Fires into transformative passion.

A Refining Fire is an impulse, a creative energy given to us by God, in a context of choice: we can choose to do justice out of love, or we can choose to be violent out of pain.

A Refining Fire is an impulse, a creative energy given to us by God, in a context of choice: we can choose to do justice out of love, or we can choose to be violent out of pain. Ultimately, the only visceral, underlying choice is for our world to Refine the Fires of peace, justice, and freedom -- we must see each individual as holy, as sacred. Without this qualifying certitude, rumors of wars will always result in war. We will forever find newer and more precise technological ways to kill others and ourselves. Our world will be a haze of deferred dreams, dysfunctional, depressed, disembodied people who create dangerous liaisons and deadly dialogues.
The power of God's grace, which gives us the phenomenal gifts to think and speak, reminds us not to give up too easily. At the end of the day, there are but two modes of change: conversations and relationships. We need to learn how to talk and listen as sacred ritual; we must connect with each other as sacred association. Either we live as holy people, or we die. To what music shall we dance? Which Fires shall we Refine?
In each instance, I have been the welder; the text and I have braved a Refining Fire.
Author: Cheryl Kirk-Duggan