Rev. Dr. Craig L. Nessen
by Craig L. Nessan
Wartburg Theological Seminary
“I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take heart; I have conquered the world!” John 16:33
We live in unprecedented times. Polarizing discourse, red versus blue, the failure of public reasoning, name calling, and denial of facts are the order of the day. The post-modern yields to the post-truth era. Some political leaders simply make it up as they go along.
There is a public heartlessness evident about the needs of others, especially the most vulnerable, that concludes with repeated assertions of privileged self-interest. Public discourse is diverted daily from focusing on the needs of those in harm’s way, including the well-being of creation. In the church many contend that it is useless even to try and engage in civil conversation about what makes for the common good.
All this unfolds in a world of enormous and increasing disparity in wealth between an economic elite and those struggling to make ends meet. This economic disparity is visible everywhere, in every state and local community. Moreover, it is the secret in plain sight behind the movement of people across borders, the unprecedented numbers of displaced persons and refugees.
The need for political advocacy is urgent. Yet it is extremely hard to know where to begin. There appear a dozen new issues or tweets each day against which to react. It becomes crucial to search out reliable information, as from church based advocacy organizations, to help us discern wisely in this political moment. In my own analysis I seek to distinguish between what might be considered the “substantive agenda” of the current administration, which primarily has to do with executive orders and legislative initiatives intended to increase private profit for a few, and the symbolic agenda, especially designed to daze, distract, and confuse us.
To make this distinction is not, however, to minimize the harmful effects of the symbolic agenda, grounded in a white male identity politics that operates in binary categories to incite fear, anger, and hatred against all categories of difference, whether based on race, gender, sexual orientation, immigration status, or religion, especially against Muslims. By contrast to this white male identity politics, we seek to articulate and enact a neighbor politics, embracing of all, especially the marginalized.
In these heartless times we are called actively to participate in spiritual disciplines, in order to reduce our reactivity and seek to remain oriented to the mind and character of Jesus Christ. How does one remain centered and grounded in these heartless times? How does one remain rooted in the peace of Jesus Christ, taking heart and courage amid the whirlwind?
The mystical and political always belong together. Consider the witness of Mahatma Gandhi and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton, Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr., Gustavo Gutiérrez and Elsa Tamez, Walter Brueggemann and Elizabeth Johnson. As with Jesus, prayer and praxis belong together. Retreat for prayer leads to prophetic engagement: acts of healing, feeding, exorcizing, welcoming, sharing, and publicly demonstrating. The rhythm of the Christian life is both inward and outward.
“Radix,” the origin of “radical” means going to the root of the matter in a twofold movement—the mystical as inward movement and the political as outward movement. Both movements are needful. Counter-intuitively, a heartless political climate makes the inward mystical movement even more needful.
How do we move ever more deeply into relationship with God?
Spiritual practices draw us into the depths of classical disciplines. Personal practices include prayer, meditation, walking, breathing. Communal practices encompass worship, study, dwelling in the Word. Practices that involve colleagues lend us encouragement and accountability in life-giving relationships
Spiritual practices and worship contribute to a mysticism of the ordinary, by which we detect the holy in what is right in front of us, even in what may appear chaotic in these heartless times. We need to attune the eyes to see and the ears to hear.
Hearing the Word of Christ in Scripture stories and participating in sacraments at worship provide the lens for recognizing divine presence in the everyday. Liturgy entails formation in life practices: truth telling, peacemaking, listening, confessing, interceding, offering thanks, welcoming, feeding, and blessing. At worship we participate in the divine economy where all are welcome and there is enough for all. All of this provides the means for us to perceive the shalom of God in the commonplace, even in heartless times like these.
The mystical movement toward God always turns us inexorably toward political movement for the sake of our neighbors. In the Great Commandment the vertical and horizontal dimensions are inextricable. Should we persist in efforts to provoke change from above? Yes, advocacy at the national and state levels remains essential. Following the guidance of trusted organizations—denominational advocacy organizations, Fellowship of Reconciliation, Bread for the World, 350.org, Amnesty International, and many others—remains imperative.
Even more in heartless times, however, we need to redouble efforts at change through organizing at the grassroots in local communities. Not only by making financial donations or sending advocacy letters, this means engaging people in one’s community. For all their limitations, congregations remain the most intact neighbor-directed communities on the local level, faith communities such as already exist in every locale across the country. We need to become very intentional and proactive in building coalitions with others in local communities—through one on one conversations, writing personal viewpoints for social media or in newspapers, and engaging in symbolic actions. When asked by a reporter whether he really thought that he could change the world by lighting a candle in a demonstration, A.J. Muste replied: “Oh, you’ve got it all wrong. I’m not doing this to change the country. I do it so the country won’t change me.”
The theory and practices of active nonviolent resistance are still in their infancy in human history, but these offer our best hope for lasting change in establishing the foundations for democracy and building up an equitable civil society. In this regard the research of Erica Chenowith and Maria Stephan published in their book, Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict, needs to become widely known.
I encourage us not to underestimate the ripples of difference our efforts can make, as we remain spiritually centered and especially as we join together in ecumenical and interfaith groups, as well as with all those ethically engaged but not religiously affiliated people who are committed to common good, reaching out to one neighbor at a time. We are called to create safe places and spaces of trust where people can be together, listen to each other, and learn from one other.
While through the mystical movement we put on the mind and character of Christ—which is peacemaking, social justice, eco-justice, and respect for the inalienable dignity of each person—in the political movement we engage through reasoned and persuasive arguments that are not overburdened by religious jargon. In our public articulation we remain deeply grounded in faith, as strategically we may choose to express our political convictions in categories not freighted with explicit religious references. We do so to communicate effectively in the public square and to transcend the off-putting rhetoric of the religious right.
There are times and occasions for making explicit theological claims, as did Dr. King. Yet in this heartless time of excessively hyperbolic discourse, including that by religious people, we are called to communicate clearly through reasoned, publicly accessible language. In this polarized climate, where Christians are assumed to take regressive political stances, it is of even more value for Christians to make compelling arguments that are understandable to those who may not share our theological categories. This helps us move beyond the religious identity politics of the religious right to an expansive neighbor politics. This honors too what Bonhoeffer meant by the nonreligious interpretation of biblical concepts.
Finally, we are on this journey for life. We may not now see many signs of effectiveness, yet we take heart in even small signs of the kingdom’s appearance. As our bottom line we seek to live by integrity, searching to align our lives with the things of God in Christ, especially in times like these when we cannot see that it makes a difference. We trust that the things that make for peace, like generosity, a healthy creation, and human respect, are the things that last forever. In the words of Carrie Newcomer, in the end, only kindness matters.
“And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” Hebrews 10:24-25
- Rev. Dr. Craig L. Nessan is Academic Dean & Professor of Contextual Theology and Ethics, The William D. Streng Professor for the Education and Renewal of the Church at Wartburg Theological Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa. Views from the Edge is pleased to have the honor of being the first to publish “Taking Heart in Heartless Times” with the author’s permission.