American Friends Service Committee
Patrica Watson, Editor
Sara Burke, Assistant Editor
Pat Farren, Founding Editor
2161 Massachusetts Ave.
Peacework has been published monthly since 1972, intended to serve as a source of dependable information to those who strive for peace and justice and are committed to furthering the nonviolent social change necessary to achieve them. Rooted in Quaker values and informed by AFSC experience and initiatives, Peacework offers a forum for organizers, fostering coalition-building and teaching the methods and strategies that work in the global and local community. Peacework seeks to serve as an incubator for social transformation, introducing a younger generation to a deeper analysis of problems and issues, reminding and re-inspiring long-term activists, encouraging the generations to listen to each other, and creating space for the voices of the disenfranchised.
Views expressed are those of the authors, not necessarily of the AFSC.
Carpe Noctem--Seize the Night
Ken Sehested was the founding director of the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America, a position he held for 18 years. He is currently the co-pastor of Circle of Mercy, a new congregation in Asheville, NC.
Hagar the Horrible cartoon
If you're not afraid, you're not paying attention. If hope is to be had, it will come only in confrontation with clear-eyed assessment of the moment in which we live. This isn't pessimism. It's realism. Hope not grounded in reality is fantasy, wishful thinking.
I recently visited a seminary. One of the students--who engaged her studies after two years in post-war Bosnia--wrote me a poignant follow-up letter:
Her question is as serious as a scalpel perched across the jugular. What words are sufficient? Will cheery ones--full of bravado and solidarity, spoken enthusiastically, pragmatically--fill the bill?
I say no, they won't. But it would be a mistake to jump to the conclusion that my advocacy for how we face this perilous season is a uniform call to inwardness (if not outright quietism and passivity). Among my fundamental convictions are these: that people of faith are saved for the world, not from it; that the Spirit traffics in earthly affairs; that the order of redemption and liberation--the healing of creation itself--is governed by power, a power available to but not controlled by us. With Hannah Arendt I believe that power and violence are inimical, that while violence can destroy power, it can never generate power.
In order to generate power, however,
more is asked of us than moral heroism; more than brilliant analysis;
more than indefatigable energy. Insistent and anxious calls simply
to work and think harder and longer--absent a simultaneous
commitment to the process of spiritual formation--only compound
the crisis. Doing so has the effect of feeding our children to
the very beast whose appetite swells with every fare. If our political
vocation lacks anchorage in spiritual transformation, then we
can only expect more of the same, only worse. You know what they
say about computers: garbage in, garbage out.
A spiritual tradition of darkness
But the dark embraces everything:
Then the people stood at a distance, while Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was.
Most religious traditions are filled with apparent ironies: relinquishment as the means of true possession; strength flowing from weakness; silence giving birth to authentic speech; life emerging from the ash heap. For those of us attempting to find a way in this dangerous time--to traverse this seemingly endless graveyard with something more than a whistle on our lips--embracing the reality of darkness, rather than fleeing it, is crucial to the sustenance of hope.
As filtered through Western intellectual and cultural traditions, the Bible appears to have a pronounced bias favoring "light" and opposing "darkness." Surely there is plenty of evidence to justify such bias--a bias which has bolstered post-Columbian racial theories and even introduced us to the apocalyptic "dark side" of Star Wars mythology.
But another reading is also possible, one more pronounced in Christian mystical traditions, where the Holy One is encountered in darkness.
Indeed, the opening chapter of Genesis affirms that creation begins in darkness: "And there was evening and there was morning, the first day" (1:5). The promise to Abram, of descendents outnumbering the stars and of land (read security) is made only after a "deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him" (15:12). It was again at night when the promise was renewed with Abram's son, Isaac (26:24). And Isaac's son, Jacob, has his name (read destiny) changed to "Israel" ("one who strives with human and divine beings") following an all-night wrestling match with an angel (32:24-32).
The Hebrew slaves' escape from Pharaoh's prison camp occurred at night; and, a little later, their covenant-making encounter with God comes from "the voice out of the darkness" (Ex. 20:21; Deut. 5:22). Indeed, "The LORD has said that he would reside in thick darkness" (1 Kings 8;12; 2 Chr. 6:1), and God "made darkness his covering around him" (Ps. 18:11). The repeated promise of good news is "to those who sat in darkness . . . for those who sat in the region and shadow of death" (Isa. 9:2; Mt. 4:16). To these faithful ones "the treasures of darkness" are promised (Isa. 45:3).
The Jesus story begins with angels appearing in the dead of night to minimum-wage-earning shepherds. Dignitaries from the East are alerted to divine announcement by stars visible only in darkness. Joseph, Mary and the infant flee the wrath of political authorities under cover of night.
Jesus' well-known statement about being "born again" (more accurately, "born from above") was made to the Jewish leader Nicodemus, who came under the cover of darkness for a rendezvous with Jesus. It was at night--"on the night he was betrayed" (1 Cor. 11:23)--that Jesus gathered his disciples for a final meal and parting instructions.
On more than one occasion Jesus'
imprisoned followers received nighttime angelic visitation, either
to free them (Act 5:19) or to bolster their courage for a coming
trial (18:9). And the Apostle Paul's initiation of his historic
mission to Gentiles came on the heels of another night vision,
of a "man from Macedonia pleading with him and saying,
Come over to Macedonia and help us'" (16:9). The
tradition continues--especially in works like St. John of
the Cross's Dark Night of the Soul--up through
modern poets like Rilke and Berry.
What might happen if we allowed the realism of our present predicament to embrace this spiritually-forming "night" life? What if--instead of manic attempts to suppress our anxiety and flee our despair--we take this invitation to embrace what Rilke, in his Lettes to a Young Poet, called "sadness"?
"It seems to me that almost all our sadnesses are moments of tension, which we feel as paralysis because we no longer hear our astonished emotions living. Because we are alone with the unfamiliar presence that has entered us; because everything we trust and are used to is for a moment taken away from us; because we stand in the midst of a transition where we cannot remain standing. That is why the sadness passes: the new presence inside us, the presence that has been added, has entered our heart, has gone into its innermost chamber and is no longer even there--is already in our bloodstream. And we don't know what it was. We could easily be made to believe that nothing happened, and yet we have changed, as a house that a guest has entered changes. We can't say who has come, perhaps we will never know, but many signs indicate that the future enters us in this way in order to be transformed in us, long before it happens. And that is why it is so important to be solitary and attentive when one is sad: because the seemingly uneventful and motionless moment when our future steps into us is so much closer to life than that other loud and accidental point of time when it happens to us as if from outside. The quieter we are, the more patient and open we are in our sadnesses, the more deeply and serenely the new presence can enter us, and the more we can make it our own..."
His comments remind me of a phrase from German theologian Dorothee Sölle (blessed be her memory), when she urged schooling in the capacity for "revolutionary patience." Patience, not as passivity or idleness, but active, on-the-edge-of-your-seat waiting and listening. Like a good farmer who knows when to plant, when to plow, when to water, when to weed. "Harvest will fill the barn," Wendell Berry writes in one of his Sabbath poems. "For that the hand must ache, the brow must sweat. Yet no leaf or grain is filled by work of ours. The field is tilled, and left to grace."
Be still ... fear not ... know that I am God. These phrases are the consistent refrain in moments of deadly crisis throughout Scripture. They are always spoken to people with their backs against the wall, to those at the end of their rope, to the outnumbered, the outgunned, to those about to be overwhelmed. They are not escape clauses to life's apparent death knell. Rather, they are invitations to grasp that which is available only to those with empty hands.
It is to the mournful that rejoicing
is promised; it is only to those facing trial that the Spirit's
presence is promised; it is only to the meek that the earth is
promised. And it is only from the dark and dangerous shadow of
night that guiding light is granted.
The forest is mostly dark, its
sisters and brothers. Seize the night!
Postscript: Thanks to Nancy Hastings
Sehested and Stan Dotson for ideas crucial to this article.