Review: We Carry the Fire: Family and Citizenship as Spiritual Calling by Richard A. Hoehn 

[1] Richard Hoehn, in his book We Carry the Fire, is arguing for a transformative spirituality in which people are called to go beyond themselves – to carry the “breath of fire” – to be in solidarity with the poor (and the earth) in their struggle for freedom from unjust systems and structures. He is also making a case for human meaning, that he feels comes less from individual spiritual experiences that aim to detach or separate us from the messy world and more from connection and solidarity with others and being involved in prophetic action to create movements bigger than ourselves that help “bend the long arc of the moral universe toward justice.” He believes that while we sometimes need a respite from the violence and troubles of everyday life, he questions how it is even possible to find serenity or individual wholeness in a world where people are dying in wars and from hunger every day and where climate change is a threat to all.

[2] Hoehn acknowledges the destructive evil in our world but argues that we have a spiritual decision to make about what stories we choose to inform our beliefs and actions and what kind of communities we want to be part of. He advocates for a faith that is premised on moral goodness despite the ever presence of evil (both within and around us). Spiritual awakening for Hoehn leads to profound service for and with others, not sentimental piety focused on perfection of our individual souls. Spiritual calling is about carrying the “fire of human solidarity” and spirituality comes from working for justice, contributing our unique set of abilities toward good stewardship of what we have been gifted. Rather than feeling anxious about our individual future, “we are called to act” to create a healthy future for all.

[3] Hoehn’s reframing of spirituality away from private individual piety and toward a social political spirituality focused on a common good is also about reviving democracy by motivating both “people of faith and people with no definable faith” to take action within institutions to make our world a more just and sustainable place for all. Hoehn focuses specifically on the institutions of family and religious organizations as sites for building deeper relationships toward what he calls the “good.” Through storytelling, Hoehn offers many examples of the way individuals – through families, congregations, and society – can act to help restore families, communities, and the earth.

[4] Hoehn argues that we are familiar with basic human values through family and cultural socialization as well as institutional documents like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights but that these “humane values and vision” are meaningless without social and political structures to affirm them AND our communal efforts to organize and hold institutions and structures accountable for justice.

[5] Hoehn starts the book with political spirituality as he argues it is often less prevalent in mainstream conceptions of spirituality that limit morality and power to self-actualization. Then he focuses on social spirituality through family and congregations, two primary institutions that he feels can aid us in strengthening democracy and enacting social change.

[6] As a social justice educator and ethicist who advocates in my research and writing for the importance of community organizing and policy change to address the problems of poverty, inequality, homelessness, and environmental destruction, I applaud Hoehn’s focus on political spirituality. I have similarly critiqued faith groups for preferring charity as a solution to social problems and I like his claim that power is an essential part of spirituality, and that we ought to work together to use power for the good.

[7] That being said, I felt the two chapters on political spirituality lacked a deep enough conception of what it means to promote the good and how we know we are in fact counterbalancing abusive power with our actions. Hoehn makes a good case for human interdependence and the moral claim that our action should be on behalf of those who are most victimized, but I think he could have developed a more sophisticated development of solidarity and what it means to work with members of marginalized communities, not simply on their behalf. Too often our well-meaning action can be detrimental if we haven’t prioritized community voice and knowledge. We need to listen attentively to what people say their needs are and we must also be aware of our own our power and privilege in relation to those who are most victimized, especially race and class differences.

[8] While Hoehn clearly agrees that community voice and knowledge are important, the stories of community course projects his seminary students designed to use their power to “carry the fire” did not really follow best practices in community engagement. Rather than student-designed semester-long projects, the service-learning program at my university (and others), has developed long-term community partnerships with organizations who work with and serve residents of a marginalized community near our school so that our students work with organizations that are already addressing the needs and interests of community members and so there is continual student service over time rather than short-term one-shot projects. Students learn that being involved within communities over time leads to more effective organizing for justice. Students also learn the importance of critically reflecting on their social identities and their particular assumptions and biases.

[9] Hoehn briefly talks about faith-based community organizing in the political spirituality section, highlighting the ecumenical Industrial Areas Foundation’s (IAF) model of ground-up community organizing, but then concludes the section by saying that if we have participated in a demonstration or movement, no matter the outcome, we have taken a stand for peace, justice and sustainability. I would like to have seen more development of community organizing as I don’t agree that all participation is equally useful or effective, despite good intentions.

[10] In the next section on family as social spirituality Hoehn argues that we are all interconnected and therefore extended family and thus, the ongoing spiritual question concerns what we are doing to make our world better. While an emphasis on the institution of family is important in a social spirituality, Hoehn’s depiction of the reality of families is too optimistic even though he notes that not all people are lucky to be part of a loving family. I agree with him that social connection and seeing ourselves as part of a larger humanity (I would go even farther to seeing ourselves as part of a larger earth community) – including people considered as outcast in society (or other species many consider expendable) – is foundational to working in solidarity to address structural oppression, inequality/poverty, and environmental destruction. Unfortunately, families are too often part of structural oppression and violence. Glossing over this is not helpful.

[11] In the last section on congregations as social spirituality, Hoehn argues that religion, ritual, and artistic expression are an essential part of human nature and that religious congregations can be a powerful force for individuals to work together to carry the fire of transformative social and political action. He starts the section with the caveat that religious congregations are institutions run by fallible humans and can cause evil through domination or even enable and support it through inaction (often from ignoring the political aspect of all institutions and overemphasizing a private or otherworldly spirituality).

[12] In the last chapter of this section, Hoehn offers four spiritual disciplines to guide us in our commitment to carrying the fire of peace and justice. One is to stop and notice our unexamined beliefs and assumptions. Second is to change our interpretations and frame of reference – to see the suffering that we often ignore but also to see the potential spiritual power of goodness and become part of a “movement for the good,” especially by making political and/or policy connections to suffering. Third is to alter our emotions to feel deeply about suffering rather than remaining blind to the realities around us. And last, is to change how we act – from nurture and care within families to political action in private and public institutions.

[13] While I’ve offered an outline of the logical structure of this book, Hoehn illustrates and develops his ideas through stories, poetry, and insightful ideas from an array of different thought partners. The book truly is his memoir of “The Meaning of Life” that he says he first attempted at age seventeen in a college English course. I think this book will be especially useful in congregational adult studies courses and might also be used in a spirituality- or social justice-related undergraduate or seminary course.  I agree with Hoehn that we truly are called to a transformative spirituality in solidarity with marginalized people and the earth. Will we heed the call to carry the fire by acting within institutions to make our world a more just and sustainable place for all?






Laura Stivers

Dr. Laura Stivers is a Professor of Social Ethics at Dominican University of California. She has degrees from the Graduate Theological Union, Pacific School of Religion, and Saint Olaf College. She is the author of Disrupting Homelessness: Alternative Christian Approaches; co-author of two case study books – Earth Ethics: A Case Method Approach and Christian Ethics: A Case Method Approach; and co-editor of Justice in a Global Economy: Strategies for Home, Community, and World.