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Interview: Suzanne Ross, co-founder of Raven Foundation

20 September 2019

‘Many people sit in church on Sunday mornings without believing what’s being preached’

I wanted to be a teacher, but the education class was so boring I switched to sociology. Years later, I visited a Montessori school, and was enthralled by what I saw: a class of about 20 three- to six-year-olds busy doing independent work in an atmosphere so relaxed and quiet that I was moved to tears. Whatever this is, I thought, I want it for my children.

I took the Montessori training, and became a certified three- to six-year-old directress for about six years, and then implemented the Montessori religious education programme in my church, where I was director of Christian education.

The Montessori approach to the Bible reverses conventional practices. Teachers don’t tell children what a story means, or present a moral lesson: instead, children are invited to enter imaginatively into the story and wonder about it together; so they interpret biblical stories for themselves — guided by their teachers, of course. Rather than outgrowing Bible stories, the child reaches adulthood fully able to question and be questioned by the Bible. They understand that questions, uncertainty, and doubt go hand in hand with intense and intimate engagement with God’s word.

The Montessori method is more important than ever. Children first engage with the world through touch, taste, smell, sight, and sound. Montessori understood that children literally absorb the world around them. Sounds of language, the heft and shape of objects, colours, and tastes — all these form impressions and muscle-memories. No screen time can teach a child how to carry a tray, climb stairs, or hold a pencil. And it’s through emotional attachment with caregivers that children learn to speak their native language and know that they belong in their family, community, and culture.

Montessori classrooms are rich with sensory materials that engage the child, body and soul. Bible stories are presented with wooden figures who move through a sandbox desert, climb papier-mâché mountains, worship at a temple, or sail a model boat. The children engage bodily with the stories, and can move the biblical characters as they learn to retell the stories in their own words.

I was raised Roman Catholic, and I’m old enough to remember the sense of wonder of the Latin mass. That feeling still informs my relationship with God as intimate but also unknowable: a paradox that helps keep me humble.

God seemed unreal in my teens, and faith in a God of the book of Joshua, or who required the death of his son, felt downright foolish. When I had my children, I returned to church to give them a background in Christianity: as a silent dissenter. I enjoyed the community, but disagreed completely with the theology.

The Raven Foundation began as a way for my husband and me to give something back to a community that renewed our faith.

Our pastor started preaching from Girard’s mimetic theory: that the violence in the Bible and at the cross was human violence — not divine at all. When texts attribute violence to God, we’re blaming God for our own failings. So we researched the theory, which explained why Jesus had to die for us to be saved, why ancient peoples believed in sacrifice and myths, why these have faded away, and why every culture developed religions, rituals, and taboos.

Even personal conflicts began to make sense: why friends can become enemies, how love can turn to hate, why we’re addicted to celebrity scandals, and the relationship between nature and nurture. Global questions suddenly seemed to have answers: why everyone claims to want peace yet peace eludes us. Can peace be achieved through violent means? How can we recognise evil and defeat it?

With my education background, I could translate academic research of mimetic-theory scholars into something accessible for regular people. By sharing mimetic theory, we can renew people’s faith and a more peaceful vision for our world.

People who gravitate to our site are disillusioned with organised religion for a variety of reasons. Some just don’t buy into the idea of a violent God, or are offended by the hypocrisy of church positions on social issues such as gay marriage, gender equality, militarism, and Christian triumphalism. Many are wounded and rejected by their church communities.

The best definition of what it means to be a Christian comes from Girard: a Christian is a repentant scapegoater. Followers of Jesus confess that they could easily have been part of the crowd that called for his crucifixion. We recognise that the violence at the cross was entirely human. Jesus revealed that God is not with the crowd or the authorities, but on the cross, as a victim.

This is the most important discovery that Girard made. Many myths tell stories of gods, killed by angry fellow-gods, who rise again seeking revenge, told from the point of view of the returning god. Jesus is set upon by an angry crowd, dies, and rises again. But he returns not as a victorious warrior but with the signs of his wounds, offering forgiveness.

We worked with James Alison to write Jesus the Forgiving Victim: Listening for the unheard (Doers Publishing, 2013) as an introduction to this understanding of God’s saving grace.

We’re launching a new website to show that Raven is a safe place to share questions and doubts. Our site shows how many people sit in church on Sunday mornings without believing what’s being preached.

Theatre can tell the truth about human relationships. We’ve participated in many post-show discussions at the Lookingglass Theatre, Chicago, and at AstonRep.

My Wicked Truth books were inspired by the musical Wicked, by Stephen Schwartz and Winnie Holzman. All I knew about the show was what I’d seen in the ads, which proclaimed: “So much happened before Dorothy dropped in.” My parents were in town, and I needed something to do with them. So, there I was, listening to the most incredible opening lines I’ve ever heard: “Good news! She’s dead!”

Immediately, I thought of the good news of the gospel, which is that he lives. Were Schwartz and Holzman deliberately invoking biblical language? Was this show going to be a midrash on the Gospels? It was just that — an exploration of the scapegoating mechanism which blinds us to the innocence of our victims. In The Wicked Truth: When good people do bad things (Doers Publishing, 2007), I wanted to share the truth of scapegoating, using characters from American culture.

The wicked truth is that believing too strongly in our own goodness can blind us to the harm we do. Myth is the things we all believe without question but turn out to be false, like “good” violence.

The Wicked Truth About Love: The tangles of desire (2009) explains the roots of our conflicts with family and friends, and the obstacles that we encounter in our quest for romance. It’s more light-hearted than the first book, but I hope just as meaningful.

I grieve for victims of war, and also for soldiers, often quite young, doing their duty. Both suffer grievous physical, mental, and moral anguish. I seek what God’s doing in the midst of tragedy — many times through people I’d dismiss if I’d remained stuck in anger.

I have four young grandchildren, and we get to see them often. It’s heaven.

I love silence. Quiet mornings, when I get to sit outside with a few birds singing nearby, fill my soul.

Meeting non-violent fieldworkers from across sub-Saharan Africa in Nairobi recently was the most hopeful and inspiring experience that I’ve ever had. It was sponsored by Nonviolent Peaceforce, whose co-founder, Mel Duncan, has convinced the UN to embrace non-violence as a peace-making strategy on a par with armed interventions. They’re proving that non-violence can create conditions for peace, something that armed interventions cannot do. It doesn’t make the headlines, but they’re documenting a global movement for non-violent change that has the power to reshape our world.

My prayer is always that God keeps an eye on me, so that I don’t get in his way. I’m keenly aware that the best of intentions can go awry.

I’d love to have some time locked in a church with Maria Montessori, to talk with her about her deep connection to God. I’m researching her life because she’s so relevant to the quest for peace, personally and between nations. Serving God was her greatest desire.

Suzanne Ross was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.


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