Who is Willing to Destroy a Piece of Their Own Heart?

compassion hurtsAt my Community Office Hours last Wednesday, a small group of us had gathered and had been sharing in coffee and conversation for about an hour – we’d been talking about tools of comfort and meaning for non-theists after the death of a loved one, as well as trying to name what we understood as the most pressing problem or greatest evil in life today (try to narrow it to one, and then ask yourself, what does picking this one tell me about my values, my social-cultural location, my understanding of what matters most in life).

We were deep in this conversation when another from our congregation arrived, saying, “I’ve come from watching the Republican Convention, and I’m here because I need healing.”  Although in other years this may seem disconnected from all we’d been talking about, this year it was easily woven in: what will bring comfort in these days, what meaning can we make of everything we are hearing and seeing, and how do we name and confront what we are experiencing as evil?

I have considered carefully my role, and the role of our congregation and our faith in this election cycle.  Because – despite what you might’ve heard, we are not a church for Democrats, or even for the political left more broadly. While it is true there is often an overlap of religious and political liberalism, there isn’t always. We are called to be a congregation that imagines that good people might disagree about very important things, and yet still lovingly be in relationship, committed to walk together in service of a greater common life.   And so the question is, how do we speak about what was on display at the RNC this past week with a religious frame? What is the framework that our faith invites?

To begin, as one among us on Wednesday pointed out, it will be important that we look for and name the same sorts of concerns we have seen on display at the RNC also threaded in the DNC next week.  Which relates with what I believe is the theological commitment we must keep bringing ourselves back to, well summarized in this caution from Russian author Alexander Solzhenitsyn:

If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?

The political perspective would look at the RNC and imagine the xenophobia, racism, sexism, and the glorification of ignorance and fear-mongering on display there – has been produced by “others.”  Produced by someone other than our own family, our kin.  It does bring comfort to think this way – because the alternative feels more personal, more internally chaotic (i.e., “how could my brother, my cousin, my mother, say this about me, seek so clearly to do me harm?”). The emotionally and, depending on our social-cultural location, the physically safer choice is to distance ourselves, to disconnect, to imagine them as “other,” which is the frame that guides their discourse in the first place…what if we simply chose not to go along? What if we chose to imagine each of these voices as located within our own hearts?

This framework may not feel immediately like healing.  It may feel quite the opposite- uncomfortable, and risky – not at all safe.  And yet – despite the longing for a return to some idealized notion of safety of the past, our faith also invites us to realize that life is not ultimately about safety.  Life is risky, and vulnerability is mandatory if you intend to live at all – mandatory for human connection, mandatory for accomplishment and mandatory for love.  Our faith lens invites us to acknowledge that there’s no guarantee – on anything – and closing ourselves off to connection, compassion, or love may feel in the short term more comfortable, but ultimately provides the opposite of healing or wholeness.

We have to be able to take in and name evil as a part of ourselves, and to do the internal work necessary to own it as deeply connected to our own existence.  We cannot be compassionate without being willing to “sit down with the world’s worst horrors,” as well as its greatest beauty.   When the pain is a part of us, only then do we have the hope of disempowering it, transforming it, and bringing it and all of us, to an ultimate and lasting healing.

Not long after the one who came in seeking healing, another four joined us.  Including one who self-identified as an Hispanic immigrant.  After many in the circle had shared their intent to resist fear and to meet the current climate with greater faith and calm, she wondered aloud if fear was such a bad thing.  She spoke passionately and vulnerably about her own fears – and the fears of many in the Fort Collins community -of another holocaust, this time targeting immigrants with brown skin. She acknowledged that this sometimes feels like hyperbole, and yet she and we know, that it has happened – and not that long ago, really! – means it can happen again.  She told of the increased racist comments she and her friends had experienced as the national rhetoric had intensified.

It was hard not to acknowledge that fear – at least to a degree – might be the appropriate response, the rational response, the motivating response, and perhaps when we imagine that we should or could banish it, we are revealing the privilege of not totally being personally in touch with the the stakes – the real lives at risk.   The woman’s story reminds us that when we talk about “safety,” we must always ask the question, “safety for whom?” Who will be made safe, and by what means?

These are complex, difficult times- and we need each other, and our religious living tradition – our unfolding understanding of Truth –  more than ever.  We need to bring the best and most robust tools of our faith, and our most willing hearts to bear on everything we are witnessing. And, despite the temptation and the profound discomfort it may bring, we need to keep remembering that we are all – all of us – in this together.

 

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About Rev. Gretchen Haley

Gretchen Haley serves as the Senior Minister of the Foothills Unitarian Church in Fort Collins, CO. She's relentlessly curious about most things, especially the big stuff of theology, the beauty of creation and poetry, the magic of collaboration, and the great joy and often-great-depth of popular (and less popular) television and music. She and her partner of 17 years, Carri, have 2 children, Gracie (10) and Josef (8).
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