Kevin Ahern, Structures of Grace: Catholic Organizations Serving the Global Common Good (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2015), pp. 224
Nearly half the world – over three billion people – live on less that $2.50 a day.  Of the 1.9 billion children living in the developing world, 640 million do not have adequate shelter, 400 million do not have access to safe water, and (according to UNICEF) 22,000 children die every day as a result of poverty.  We live in a world marked by poverty and war – a world where, by conservative estimates, about 45 million migrants are living outside of their home communities, forced to flee to obtain some measure of safety and security from conflict and repression. The long list of such devastating statistics does not stop there. It is easy to become overwhelmed by the sheer weight of these facts and figures, to feel disillusioned by the social structures that foster and perpetuate the linked realities of inequality and marginalization in our world. Do we concede to the hopelessness? Or, do we come together for greater social change, and allow our vision for a more just world to shape the contours of the future church?
In Structures of Grace: Catholic Organizations Serving the Global Common Good, Kevin Ahern scrupulously analyzes three Christian social movements – Jesuit Refugee Services, a movement organization of the Society of Jesus involved in humanitarian efforts; the Young Christian Workers, a global youth movement of specialized Catholic action; and Plowshares, a radical pacificist movement with no structured organization (7). Each of these organizations dares to dream that another world is possible (13), and seeks to annihilate structural sin in order to bring the world closer to the Kingdom of God. Ahern argues that by being attentive to their work for social justice, we can renew and enrich our understanding of God, and discover hope amidst indifference and despair.
By considering the missiological, pneumatological, and ecclesial dimensions of these three organizations, Ahern distills the principal theological significance of these movements in order to demonstrate how their witness can shape our understanding of the nature of God, the nature of God, the nature of the church, and the nature of ethics (6). Jesuit Refugee Services, Young Christian Workers, and Plowshares, according to Ahern, exemplify the many ways that Christian social movements are structures of grace, because they act in opposition to structures of sin, are movements of charity and solidarity, and embody Christian charisms that distinctly and effectively contribute to the global common good.
Ahern beautifully illustrates that God’s grace is present through the prophetic work of Christian social movements that are “heroically working to serve those on the margins of society and calling for a new world where peace and love triumph over war and hate” (130). To suggest that evil and unjust social structures can only be overcome by opposing structures of grace, such as these Christian social movements, is not a banal platitude. In fact, it is perhaps the most controversial aspect of this text. The efficacy of this ethical and moral vision for the Church suggests that change will ultimately come from the lay, young persons of the church, and that change comes from below.
In Structures of Grace, Ahern sketches a roadmap for church professionals, students, educators, and volunteers in order to show how Christian social movements can persevere in our globalized 21st century context. His writing demonstrates an expertise particularly in the areas of Catholic Social Teaching, Vatican II, Christian social movements, and ecclesiology. His theological scholarship is infused with a mosaic of memoirs and personal encounters from his time serving as President of the International Movement for Catholic Students (IMCS-Pax Romana).
Structures of Grace is ultimately meant to be a practical, rather than a theoretical, exploration of the common realities that surface within Christian Social Movements. As such, this text is not meant to remain on one’s bookshelf. Rather, it is meant to be returned to as a guide for all of us seeking the common good in an age marked by “the globalization of indifference.” Given this, I find it apt to place Ahern’s suggestions within his book into conversation with the most recent point of conversation stirring amongst theologians, Catholics, and the wider Christian community – Laudato Si. How do we keep Pope Francis’s groundbreaking encyclical from gathering dust in the back of a bookshelf? How do we implement concrete ecological change that is not predicated on small acts of ecological charity that assuage the conscience, but that cut to the core of the injustices that have damaged our common home? How do we address the socioecological crisis and implement the “bold cultural revolution” (114) that Pope Francis calls us all to bring about? Finally, what significance do Christian social movements have for proliferating the message of Laudato Si and placing Francis’s words into actions?
In Laudato Si, Pope Francis promulgates that we need to address three levels in order to bring about this “bold cultural revolution.” In order to do so, we need effective ethical norms at the local, national, and international level (164, 173); effective religious and public leadership (197); and a change of heart, an ecological metanoia that will allow us to change our destructive habits (14,216). As Ahern notes in Structures of Grace, Christian social movements provide ethical formation and consciousness building, offer accountability in politics, and transform social relationships all of which, Pope Francis notes, are necessary to foster this revolutionary change. Ahern notes that communities, movements, and non-governmental organizations are essential agents in the Church’s efforts to serve the global common good and witness to the gospel in a desperate world (7). Ahern’s scholarship in Structures of Grace is poignant and timely – and I believe that we must both be attentive to the work of Christian social movements, and join together with them as we look to implement ecological change. When we are able to uncover the untold stories of these movements, hope emerges. Drawing on the wisdom of Jesuit Refugee Services, Young Christian Workers, and Plowshares we can rediscover all the ways the Holy Spirit is vivifying our world and remember that the Church’s mission demands political involvement. Ahern’s work in Structures of Grace is a beautiful reminder that Christians in the pursuit of justice are not alone, and in joining together, infused by the grace of God, we will bring our common home closer to the Kingdom of God.
On a more personal note, Kevin Ahern and I have known eachother for several years, and met eachother while I was an undergraduate and he a PhD student at Boston College. His passion for social justice, and work for global common good has undoubdtedly inspired my faith and my academic work. You can read an excerpt here on Google Books and buy a copy of book in both print and e-book format here. Also, you can check out more of Kevin Ahern’s work on Daily Theology.
Meg Stapleton Smith is a master’s candidate in Ethics at Yale Divinity School. After graduating from Boston College in 2013, she was Director of Campus Ministry and a Theology teacher at Notre Dame Cristo Rey High School in Lawrence, MA. Her current research interests lie mainly in Salvadoran liberation theology and contemporary Christian social ethics. In her spare time, Meg enjoys playing with her family dogs Ruby and Ty, visiting craft breweries, and reading poetry by Mary Oliver, Rumi, or Rilke. It is clear that Meg is a true believer because she is also an avid New York Mets fan.
 UNHCR reported an estimated 11.4 million refugees and persons in refugee-like situations under its care, as well as 13.7 million internally displaced persons (about half of those reported to be IDPs by the Internal Monitoring Centre) and 3 million stateless persons. In addition, there are about 4.1 million Palestinian refugees who are outside of UNHCR’s mandate. See UNHCR, 2007 Statistical Yearbook (Geneva: UNHCR, 2008) and Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, Internal Displacement: Global Overview of Trends and Developments in 2007 (Geneva: IDMC, 2008).