One Thing Necessary

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–Photo from Keystone Pipeline Protest, REUTERS/Richard Clement

Remember the terrorism color code? It was invented in the previous administration to inform the public about the level of threat we faced at any given moment. When it got racheted up one ominous notch from yellow to orange, we’d be told, for example, that attacks on “soft targets” — malls, apartment buildings, hotels — were being planned somewhere by someone.

It was pretty scary stuff, but the officials who spoke at color code news conferences always said the same thing: “Don’t worry. Carry on your daily lives. We will protect you.” Okay, except that by definition soft targets are impossible to protect; and who wouldn’t worry at least a teeny bit about what a dirty bomb might do to Park Street Station at rush hour? I know I did then—and I still do.

But terrorism isn’t the only thing that worries me. The impending sequester worries me. Rising gas prices worry me. Gun violence worries me. Economic inequality worries me. Wall Street worries me. The breakdown of congressional compromise worries me. Racism and homophobia worry me. Drone strikes worry me. Increased settlements in the West Bank worry me. Global warming worries me. And that’s just for starters.

Most of all, I worry that things are implacably on track, and we are powerless to change them. Marches, protests, righteous legislative lobbying, letters to the White House all seem to go nowhere. I feel guilty that I’m not doing enough, which is true—I’m not. At the same time I think nothing I or others do, no matter how great or noisy, will ever really change things. I get angry and tired and cynical; and when this happens, it’s a sign that I am coming at the world, and at the work, all wrong.

I came across this paragraph in a piece by Kari Jo Verholst in Sojourner’s several years ago. It made me think deeply about what’s needed if Christians who care, who care deeply, are to avoid burnout, cop-out, or despair. I return to it every now and then when my mood turns especially sour. It helps me refocus on the only thing that should worry me—that my worrying will turn to idolatry, that I might sow a seed in the world unwatered by faith, that my care might yield nothing more than the same bitter fruit I decry.

Those of us who think of ourselves as social justice people often use activism as a shield against fear and loneliness. Leery of those who peddle spirituality as self-help and who ignore the ‘root causes’ of injustice and suffering, we can be fearful of admitting our own fatigue and dismay. [Herein] lies an idolatry… More often than not, we understand the gifts we have been given—the prophetic word, the cry of challenge to unjust systems—as something deposited in us, rather than something that flows through us. Thus we interpret our lives according to our faithfulness to this gift, rather than according to our relationship with the God who is the source of gifts and callings. This severance … either causes us to interpret ourselves as being of singular importance, which renders us easily threatened, or it increases our already deep sense that we are always failing, no matter how hard we try. In either case, cut off from our life-source, the seed we sow in the world will be born of this fatigued arrogance, and we become just one more force out there imposing its vision on the world.

The season of Lent begins with a testing. Jesus in the wilderness is confronted by illusions that try to master him. The biggest illusion of all is that he will not need God, but that by his own power he can meet the challenge of engagement with the world. He shakes off that illusion and emerges from the wilderness fully alive, ready to testify, eager for mission, but with no guarantees about the success of his efforts to change the world.

All he knows is that he has chosen—over every other power, every other posture, every other solution—to entrust himself to the love of God and to bank on God’s faithfulness to the world into which he is being sent. It was enough for him. May it be so also for us.

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