by Ken Sehested
I was planning an abbreviated edition of “Signs of the Times” to allow time this week for other projects. The Pulse nightclub butchery, in a location named by many of its patrons as a “sanctuary,” sent us all tumbling into ravaging emotions of grief, horror, anger and despair.
I’m not alone in the work of attempting to write my way out of such despondence. (See “Hate crime vs. terrorism: How our language highlights or disguises violence.”)
In such moments, we are inevitably caught in the conflicting needs of making sense of such tragedy and mourning it. Some do these very different tasks more or less together. Others separate them. Both demand attention, both needs must be met.
Then my friend Susan sent this note on Facebook:
“In the thinnest grasp on hope this morning, would folks share where they have recently witnessed kindness?”
I knew instinctively that what I needed to do was round up a collection of stories responding to Susan’s timely plea. And there were more than I imagined—see the annotated list below. (I hope you will add your own, in the “reader comments” section at the bottom of this page.)
Among the urgent reminders needed for us enlistees in what Clarence Jordan called “The God Movement” is that pastoral nurture and encouragement is not in competition with prophetic arousal and challenge. The trick is to practice both in needed measure and sequence. The work of spiritual discernment is to figure this out in every given moment and circumstance.
My sense is that no theme in Scripture is more consistent than the exhortation to faithful persistence. Find what is needed to keep on keeping on. In the classical refrain from the disciplined study of Christian ethics, grace is both a gift and a demand. Our task as faithful respondents is to maintain the vigorous conversation between both.
The greatest insight I’ve gained from my eldest daughter, a bodyworker, was in her Pilates class as we practiced balancing exercises. “The secret to balance is movement,” she repeated. Not stasis, as seems commonsensical. Learning to balance on one leg does not mean cessation of effort but the reliance on different sets of muscles working in tandem.
“Stillness”—a more familiar term in spiritual formation, and also another of Scripture’s reiterated appeals—is not inactivity but a collaboration between initiative and receptivity: When to stand at the city gate relaying Heaven’s demand that justice flow like the waters and when to take shelter under the Beloved’s wings.
Not quite “knowing when to hold’em, knowing when to fold’em,” but you get the idea. There is a time for hallowed action and a time for holy idleness, for giving and for being given, for speech and for silence, for taking to the streets and for solitude's sequestering.
Sensing when to do which is key. For instance, the US House of Representatives’ “moment of silence” for the victims of Orlando’s atrocity—when its members consistently refuse to extend civil protections to the queer community and approve commonsense gun control legislation—was an abdication of responsibility. When rallies in support of the LGBTQ community drone on with speechifying, rarely pausing long enough for grief and lament to do their work, is likewise irresponsible.
What we need, in the words of one of my teachers, the German theologian Dorothee Sölle, is revolutionary patience. Not the idleness of perpetual delay—remember the harsh words Dr. King’s wrote in response to the demand for patience made by the liberal clergy of Birmingham, Alabama, in their resistance to civil rights demands. “This ‘Wait’"—King wrote in “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”—"has almost always meant ‘Never.’”
Rather, the patience needed entails a certain realism acknowledging the seemingly intractability of the forces of injustice. “Seemingly” is the operative word, for the ability to see beyond what the horizon dictates involves a capacity of knowing which the immediacy of the eye and the ear cannot yet fathom. Revolutionary patience assumes a beatific vision powerful enough to penetrate realism’s dark fog to a safe harbor and fecund fields beyond every available calculation and brute strength’s capacity.
Legendary singer-songwriter-activist Pete Seeger spoke of defiant optimism. He was the inspiration for a movement to clean up the southern end of the Hudson River, long used as a cesspool and garbage dump by the metropolitan New York City region. Seeger liked to say, “We did it with our little teaspoons.”
His image makes me think of modern science’s estimation that the total number of healthy bacteria in each human body—the microscopic organisms that regulate health—total around 100 trillion (give or take a few billion). By and large, this is the scale of advocacy we each supply to creation’s health on a daily basis. While occasions may present themselves when one or more of us will participate in big, bold, audacious events that have large public effect, the overwhelming number of hours we live present microscopically small opportunities, in the grand scheme of things, where we choose life over death, hope over despair, repair over retaliation, kindness over callousness.
Random acts of kindness add up.
Saying so is not in opposition to the need for structural analysis and patient labor designed to undermine the very foundations of oppression. But never make the best an enemy of the good. In the words often attributed to John Wesley, we each do all the good we can, by all the means we can, in all the way we can, at all the times we can, to all the people we can, and for as long as we can.
To stay present—to not lose heart, to remain steady and not faint, to carry on in the face of pulsing atrocity—requires, in the language of that great spiritual, that we find time to “steal away to Jesus” for refreshment, perspective, sustenance, and instruction.
To “steal away to Jesus” is not submission to injustice or passivity in the face of evil. Rather, it represents a strategic retreat to gather the weapons of the Spirit needed to reengage enemies in ways they fail to fathom and ultimately cannot thwart. Enemies are destroyed, by and by, when enmity itself is swallowed in death.
Steal away to Jesus, sisters and brothers, when the pulse is imperiled. Steal away home, to find the sustenance needed to carry on, for love is coming, to us all.