Commentary
By J. Dana Trent 12-12-2018

For Christians engaged in justice work, 2018 has been another dumpster fire. We’re exhausted. We’re feeling compassion fatigue. We’re clinging to hope. Activism at this speed is not sustainable, but many of us are unwilling to entertain the alternative. How do we — as exhausted advocates — prepare for another year of resistance after what feels like endless defeat?

Silence.

Practicing silence can be counter-intuitive among progressive Jesus-followers who want to usurp the Trump-supporting, fear-mongering, Fox News version of Christianity. We’re emboldened to speak up and out, responding to next oppressive policy, the next breaking story, the next call to use our privilege to work on behalf of those who have little or none. But we risk something in this cycle: the development of a savior complex that loses touch with God’s direction of our call because we are too busy working to hear it.

The early church knew tyranny. From Jesus’s rebel-rousing teachings to the persecution of illegal Christianity in the Roman Empire, Christians sought to be counter-cultural. When Constantine’s sudden 4th century conversion made the Gospel a public religion, the Gospel went from the margins to the mainstream. Could it remain authentic amid the wealth and stratification of Roman society? Some Christians said no.

From Saint Antony to Saint Pachomis and Saint Benedict, monastics retreated from the noisy public church. They fled the cities for silence, committed to returning to a foundational New Testament spirituality based on Jesus’s contemplative practices. They valued deep spirituality over public worship; they created authentic community in a rhythm of intentional labor and meditation on sacred Scriptures. These counter-cultural Christians — the first public activists to balk against the established church — sought to restore authentic teachings and practices by withdrawing for silence and reflection.

The calendar comes with a natural cycle of reflection. As the New Year approaches, it intuitively brings rituals of renewal and resolutions. We instinctively review 2018, but perhaps not with glee. While many news outlets publish stories based on “if it bleeds it leads,” we look for kernels of justice planted in 2018 amid a forest of oppression.

This is not to say our work has not borne fruit in 2018. But how do we remain authentically committed in what feels like an endless tyrannical reign? I think we should follow our forbearers’ example by withdrawing into silence in order to reconnect with our faith. We cannot resist in the name of the Gospel if we are not attuned to its message. How can we follow God’s call to activism if we are too busy to listen for it?

Silence and stillness are overlooked necessities for renewing Christian activists and advocates. The early monastics understood their importance; the medieval mystics relied on them. And in the 20th century, Trappist monk Thomas Merton described the balance of action and contemplation for the Christian. In No Man is an Island, he writes: “Action is the stream and contemplation is the spring … the spring remains more important than the stream … God will make it [God’s] own concern to guide our actions … [God] will turn the channels into whatever stream [God] wills.” If we do not return to the spring, we — amid urgent and expanding needs for equity, diversity, inclusion, and justice — will burn out.

Contemplation grounds us in Gospel values — it’s the “why” of our resistance. We should immerse ourselves in Jesus’s example and his command for us to serve others, love our neighbor and our enemies (Matthew 25:31-46; Matthew 22: 37, 39; Matthew 5:44).

On the dark, winter days ahead, I invite you to sit in silence with a loving-kindness meditation from the ahimsa principle (non-violence toward all living things) that resonates with the Gospel ethos.

May I be safe, happy, healthy, and at peace.

May my neighbor be safe, happy, healthy, and at peace.

May my enemy be safe, happy, healthy, and at peace.

May all of God’s creation be safe, happy, healthy, and at peace.

Within this embodied meditation, there is God, reminding us “be still and know.” We are reminded, too, that this spring nurtures our stream, for it is the source of our action, guided by God, so long as we are willing to return to draw from the living waters. In this time of “doom and despair,” as we march toward 2019, let us be silent and rooted in the Gospel spring. It is the only way we’ll be heard.

The Rev. J. Dana Trent is a graduate of Duke Divinity School, professor of World Religions, and author of One Breath at a Time: A Skeptic's Guide to Christian Meditation (Upper Room Books, January 2019).

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