A Fierce Kindness

Kindness       by Naomi Shihab Nye

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.

Broken Silence, Broken Hearts, Broken Nation

I have been silent on the blog since August.  It wasn’t a planned silence, it’s something that just happened.   I’m still not entirely sure why.  Sometimes, we find ourselves in seasons of silence, when we don’t seem to be able to find just the right words.

Ironically, I’m finding myself moved to break the blog silence this morning because, in the wake of yesterday’s election, I’m having trouble finding the words to comprehend what has happened.

Priests are not supposed to be political — at least, not in public.   That is the model of priesthood with which I was formed, and it has been clear for most of my career that the congregations I have served have shared that expectation.  But this election was not just about politics — the choice between competing policy positions and approaches.  No, this election was — more than anything — a referendum on the state of our country.  And its result indicates that the state of our country is not good — we are a deeply broken nation.

Regardless of one’s political positions, the fact is that the American electorate has chosen to elevate to the presidency the candidate who appealed to the worst of human nature.  He built his campaign on people’s fears:  of women, of blacks, of hispanics, of foreigners, of Muslims.  He made fun of disabled people, and never hesitated to bully someone who dared to push back against him.   And the American electorate has now sanctioned all of this behavior as “okay” by giving him the presidency.  People around the country and across the world are being told that it’s okay to treat others in this way.  This is not just politics — this is an indication that America’s historic aspiration to be a light on the hill and an example to the nations has now become bankrupt.  Whatever moral authority we might have had in the world we have now surrendered.  I shudder to think what the consequences will be.  My heart is broken on so many levels, and especially for those who were the targets of Mr. Trump’s fear- and hate-mongering — how terrified they must be, to know that all of that has now been approved by the American electorate.

I know that I am not the only one who is struggling with this today.  And as a priest, I am often called upon to help people make sense of their own struggling.   I confess that I am not yet quite sure how to do that today.

But a colleague of mine, also a priest with two young children, had this to say to those children over breakfast this morning: “Yesterday’s election has shown us how far removed we are from people in our own country. We now know there are many people who are hurting, who are afraid, and who are angry throughout our country. And they feel alone. We have a lot to learn and a lot to do.”

And this, it seems, is the heart of the problem.  Large parts of our population are alienated from each other, so much so that we hardly understand each other.  I doubt that Mr. Trump — or any politician, really — will be able to help us with that.  This, it seems, is something we must do ourselves.  Somehow, we must learn how to be a people again.  I have no idea how to do that.

Jesus is always supposed to have a place in these blog posts somewhere.   And these are his words that came to me this morning:  “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another”  (John 13:34).   We, who purport to be a “Christian nation”, have failed miserably lately at living into this new commandment, and the new political reality that has come into being will not do it any better.   But somehow, we must learn to do it.  Hatred is easy.  Love is hard.  

We should remember that biblically, love is rarely a feeling, but almost always an action.  When Jesus asks us to love one another as he loved us, he is asking us to do something.  He is asking us to enact love the way he enacted love.  Jesus enacted that love not by seeking to become the leader of the Jewish nation, but by showing kindness and compassion to one cast out person after another, one day after another.   That is how we are meant to love.  Not by putting our hope in politics, but by acting with kindness and compassion toward each person who crosses our path.

That doesn’t sound very world-changing, does it?   And yet, all these centuries later, we still remember what Jesus did.   There is great power in these personal acts of compassion — and it has a multiplying effect.

It is tempting to respond to Mr. Trump’s fear- and hate-mongering with more of the same.  But where would that get us?  Somehow, we must find the courage to aspire to something greater, even as our hearts are broken and our spirits downcast.

On a morning when I feel like I hardly recognize my own country anymore, that’s all I’ve got.   It doesn’t seem like much.  But it is what I can do.