Hello on a Saturday morning,
I need to take a break from grading, though I will be back to it for most of the day and tomorrow. This past week, in the midst of our national chaos, I have tried to understand why it is we are so incapably divided, so resistantly unopen, so readily confrontational. This is not merely through my watching the news. It is in response to what is both said and unsaid; it is through the consequence of that which is both acted out or by that done through lack of response. It is through my own reflection on what I have felt because of things experienced or my observation of others experiences. What does it mean to be a nation? That is the question I am left to ponder. What constitutes a national identity when the fabric is tattered, soiled, faded, and seeming irreparable? As importantly, where might I go for answers to these difficult, pressing, and monumental types of questions? Perhaps it would be easier to push them aside and merely go back to my work, which is pressing, and 5 days of feeling less than optimal has made more of a hurdle. Perhaps I too could throw up my hands or wring them in despair at where we find ourselves in this unprecedented time. Yet, that sort of inaction if you will allowed atrocities in the past, both here and in other placed to proceed unabated, unquestioned, at least to the extent that we have places like Auschwitz, Dachau, or events like Ruwanda or the שואה as part of our history. Again, I know those are some extreme examples, but nonetheless, they are reality, things we would want to believe we are incapable of allowing or participating in, but as a collective species, we did.
I believe we are at a carrefour, an exigence, perhaps even a crisis moment. If we are to speak out, calling up our most fundamental sense of decency for all people who are unjustly marginalized, with a sense of purpose that appeals to the ideals of the human spirit, we must turn to something larger than our own individual sense of right or wrong. This is not to say we have no individual input, or that anyone can merely step back and allow the others to manage this kairotic moment. However, what is the path? Where do we begin? A couple of blogs ago I noted a small book that Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, when he was considering the clandestine seminary group of students at Finkenwalde. This text titled Life Together, focused on what it meant to create a community. Perhaps that is where we ourselves must start if we are to do anything beneficial or redemptory to our crumbling national temperament and sinking reputation both here and abroad. I have former students, classmates, as well as colleagues who are working or expatriates with whom I speak or communicate regularly. It is interesting to hear their views as well as difficult to answer their inquiries when they address things about the country where they were born, still hold citizenship, and yet have been able to watch with a more open view. They still love the country, but not being subjected to the 24/7 news, and looking at us (themselves included) from a distance is always a different thing. I know this from watching things here when I have been abroad at various points in my life. They ask questions from the insider viewpoint, but with an outsider experience. That is actually a pretty wise place to be at times. I am not always sure what even to answer. I find much of what is said and reported to be embarrassing at the very best and down right frightening at not even the worst. Therefore, back to the question at hand, at least the question for me: what might we do to begin to move toward something more hopeful? I think Bonhoeffer’s reflection on what it means to truly be a community is insightful.
Bonhoeffer looked at community from a truly spiritual viewpoint. There is much to say about that, but suffice it to say, a spiritual reality for Bonhoeffer required an individual to think and believe beyond themselves. To do that it seems we must dedicate ourselves to something beyond ourselves, beyond our community, and for me, yes beyond our humanity. When I was in seminary, one of my professors, Dr. Frederick Gaiser, a distinguished education in Old Testament, began each class with this prayer:
Almighty God, draw our hearts to you, guide our minds, fill our imaginations, control our wills that we may be wholly yours. Use us as you will always to your glory and the welfare of your people . . .
Lutheran Book of Worship (1978, page 47)
I have never forgotten this prayer or what it offered to me in a sense of comfort and hope. To be of use always to the welfare of others is a tall order, but it provides something that we cannot do on our own. It is the essence of community. However, it is not something simple, it requires our hearts, our minds, or imaginations, and our wills. It is amazing to me if I take time in the morning to think and mediate a bit before I let the days troubles or requirements overwhelm me. The Psalter, which is something Bonhoeffer memorized while in prison to help him endure his captivity notes, ‘My voice shalt thou hear in the morning, O Lord; in the morning will I direct my prayer unto thee’ (Ps. 5.3). ‘In the morning shall my prayer prevent thee’ (Ps. 88.13). ‘My heart is fixed, O God, my heart is fixed: I will sing and give praise. Awake up, my glory; awake, psaltery and harp; I myself will awake early’ (Ps. 57.7, 8) (Bonhoeffer, D. Life Together . Hymns Ancient and Modern Ltd. Kindle Edition.). Bonhoeffer goes on to note the unique position of the Psalter, describing it as both the “word of God and the prayers of [humanity].” Most importantly, it allows me to think beyond myself or to put it another way, it pushes me to consider the importance of the other before the importance of myself. Therein lies the foundation of community. More profoundly, Bonhoeffer called the Psalter the vicarious prayer of Jesus himself on behalf of the church, which I might argue is more inclusive and is on behalf of all people (and I mean all).
In addition, perhaps one of the most important parts of community is solitude. It is the ability to be alone and silent. For the introvert, this is, of course, invigorating; for the extrovert, the silence can indeed be deafening, distracting, and disconcerting. If we are to be helpful in our community, we need to know what our gifts are and what we can do to make an efficacious contribution. This is perhaps where Bonhoeffer is the most instructive. When we are unwilling to listen to the voice who speaks to us in the quiet, we are incapable of being a community from the outset. When we have no ability to listen before we speak, we miss the significant input of the community, that which is necessary for the mutual upbuilding of the other to begin with. Bonhoeffer stated it as follows: “Let [one] who cannot be alone beware of community. Let [one] who is not in community beware of being alone” (Life Together . Hymns Ancient and Modern Ltd. Kindle Edition). Too often I am guilty of believing I have it figured out; too often I am willing to believe in my own piety, and as such fall into arrogance. Finally, if I believe I can figure it out on my own, there is no community and there is little chance of making any differences in a world that is crying out for change. It has been years since I had read Life Together, and as I reread, I realized it had been too long. Again, the brilliance of this young German theological mastermind is simultaneously profound and simple. He again notes, “Right speech comes out of silence, and right silence comes out of speech” (Life Together). There is an incredible balance. It is something sorely lacking in our lives and world because we have become reactionary (to everything and everyone). Again, I too am guilty of falling into this trap. The reasons for wanting us in the trap are another issue, but it is time to crawl out. If we are to move beyond reaction, be it individually or corporately, we need to find a place to retreat and think. We need a place to mediate and pray, whatever that means for each individual person, but it means self-care, not selfishly, but for precisely the opposite, for the good of the soul. Again, Bonhoeffer states is more eloquently, writing, “Real silence, real stillness, really holding one’s tongue comes only as the sober consequence of spiritual stillness” (Life Together). It is my hope you do not think this is merely a stringing of things together, it is my own trying to make sense of the senseless and hoping to find the space in which to do that.
I know this week has been a difficult one, for both obvious reasons, but also for less than in-your-face that seems to characterize our national discourse. There can be little silence in the midst of chaos and unrest, but much as a particular quarterback had to step back and reconsider, much as I been fortunate enough to communicate with two individual students (with whom I have told each about the other because of their similarities), one conversation was quite effective, the other more difficult and I am not sure my care and agreement, even with some disagreement, came through effectively. And that pains me more than they might think. I know there is work to do to bridge the struggle, but it is time for reflection and silence. It is time for me to work a bit harder to understand or appreciate their place, even with my own struggle. I do know that the responses I received this week after noting my own failings were humbling. I am so blessed by the amazing students I have been blessed to work with, both here as well as in Wisconsin and Michigan. I am glad that many times more than not, it seems that my manner demonstrates a willingness to accept rather than discount, even when there is a disagreement. Can we imagine the better? Can we work toward the better? Can we be willing to be used for things larger or more complex than we are in our individual selves?
If we are to do so, we will need to step back and believe in the goodness of the thousands who are protesting, but not covered in their peacefulness nearly enough. If we are to be collectively connected for the good of the whole, we will need to realize that all law enforcement is not the enemy, but differentiate between those who sully the badge they wear and those who believe service is their greatest calling. If we are to make the change desperately needed in terms of equity and justice, we need to admit our innate suspicions and self-serving practices at all levels. None of these things are new, they are core to who we are as a country. Our words, our constitution, and the ideals we claim to hold are little more than words when the reality of what we do is so profoundly opposite, but it is only through admitting that reality we can begin to change it. Again, I do not believe those on either the right or left are as hateful as it seems we have become. We are all trying to make sense of the senseless, but can we focus first on our humanity and our need to be a society of caring, hoping, and loving people rather than red or blue, Republican or Democrat, or any of the other binaries we try to fit into? When and only we pray the prayer above and live its words might we find that we can live together working mutually for justice, equality and dignity for each other.
I hope this post might offer a sense of hope, a sense of our mutual calling to make our world a better place. It is that sense of call to something better than provides a sense of hope to something larger than ourselves.