This year, as we planned for The Seattle School’s End of Calendar Year campaign and our upcoming Advent reflection series, Isaiah 40 emerged as a guiding theme. Something about Isaiah’s call to speak comfort in the midst of injustice, the desire for the powerful to be humbled and the ground to be made even, resonates with how we are approaching this season of anticipation in the midst of unrest.
One part in particular, in verse 6, has been haunting me. Isaiah hears the call to cry out in the wilderness, and his reply is heartbreaking in its simplicity: “What shall I cry?”
What shall I cry? How will I ever know what to say? What difference would it make?
These are the questions I’m left with after the recent attacks in Beirut and Paris. So, in my not knowing what to say, I turned to community. First I looked for that Mr. Rogers “Look for the helpers” kind of content that reminds us of our shared goodness. Social media, as usual, did not disappoint. My sister-in-law shared the Emma Lazarus poem from the Statue of Liberty (“Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, / The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. / Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me.”), which registered like a punch in the gut, and then I teared up at my desk watching a video of a Muslim man offering hugs to people on the streets of Paris.
Then I started looking for voices that might help us process how to respond as Christians. Sojourners likened rejecting refugees with rejecting Jesus. RELEVANT posted a list of “What the Bible Says About How to Treat Refugees.” Patheos offered this, which feels devastating and true:
“If your beliefs, if your convictions, end up breaking people’s bodies or hearts or spirits, then maybe it is time to wonder if those beliefs are pushing you toward evil, not good. If your beliefs declare that certain people (the gays, the immigrants, the Republicans) are anathema, that some group of people is unworthy of compassion and respect, then you are standing on the side of the terrorists. The terrorists who are hoping that violence will be answered with violence, so that they can be even more certain that their violence is justified and right.” (Read the rest here.)
Then I asked some friends and colleagues at The Seattle School to share anything they’ve seen recently that has helped bring comfort or clarity or inspiration. Dr. Roy Barsness, Professor of Counseling Psychology, recommended a recent essay, “Finding Peace Within the Holy Texts,” from David Brooks at The New York Times. Brooks writes:
“Justice demands respect of the other. It plays on the collective memory of people who are in covenantal communities: Your people, too, were once vulnerable strangers in a strange land. The command is not just to be empathetic toward strangers, which is fragile. The command is to pursue sanctification, which involves struggle and sometimes conquering your selfish instincts. Moreover, God frequently appears where he is least expected—in the voice of the stranger—reminding us that God transcends the particulars of our attachments.”
Nicole Greenwald, Director of Enrollment Management, forwarded me an old Wendell Berry text, “Thoughts in the Presence of Fear,” which is as timely now as it was after September 11: “It is hard to speak of the ways of peace and to remember that Christ enjoined us to love our enemies, but this is no less necessary for being difficult,” Berry writes.
“Jesus says: No. No, wars are not the end; they are the result of earthly rulers, not the will of the Divine Creator of the Universe. No, natural disasters are not a sign of God’s punishment. No, famines are never God’s desire. No, this is not the end of the story. Rather, Jesus tells us that these problems are early birth pains—the sign of new life; the sign that something new is struggling to be born; the sign of the Nation of God struggling to become reality. And perhaps we are to respond to these early birth pains in the same way we would respond to a woman entering labor: by offering comfort and assistance, to the best of our abilities, while anticipating the new life that is to come.”
Rachael Clinton, Assistant Director of Admissions, went into full-on preacher mode at her desk as she told me how, as a pastor, she turns to our sacred stories to see how the people of God are called to treat strangers and refugees. “We have given up our lives as followers of Jesus,” she told me. “We cannot then orient our lives around fear or self-protection.”
What does the rush to close our borders say about us? What do we do with the possibility that most of us are more likely to suffer violence from a white man with a mental illness than from a foreign refugee? What do we do with our mountains of guns and the generations of men in our prisons? It’s easier, after all, to point out a window than to look in a mirror.
It’s easier, after all, to point out a window than to look in a mirror.
It was about the time that I was researching the screening process for Syrian refugees when I heard that question again: “What shall I cry?” I think I’ve been keeping myself busy, scrambling to collect ideas and inspiration, to keep myself from feeling the desperation and futility in Isaiah’s question. That’s something our culture is really good at: hiding our fear of futility under think pieces, statistics, and infographics.
So I was moved when Dr. Keith Anderson, President of The Seattle School, told me he didn’t know what to say. He knew he’d be expected to offer something profound and compassionate, but all he felt was raw anger and futility. The next day Keith jotted down a few words describing his response, which you can read here—and please do.
I am left, now, with far more questions than answers. And I invite you to join us in those questions. Throughout Advent, we are wrestling as a community with all of the complexity and uncertainty that comes with the collision of past, present, and future: our past stories and traumas, our present wounds and realities, and our future hope—however faint—in the coming Messiah. You can sign up for our weekly Advent series, emailed every Sunday until Christmas, here.