You are the salt of the earth. But if salt loses its savor, how will it be made salty again? (Matthew 5:13)
When Jesus told the crowd gathered to hear the Sermon on the Mount that they were the salt of the earth, he was speaking to people familiar with the challenges of living under a brutal and oppressive government, one that was in service to power and wealth, and cared little for the poor. Fortunately, we are not in Roman-occupied Palestine, but the dynamics of oppression don’t differ that much across cultures. We are now in a political situation that is increasingly dangerous and is likely to get worse. I’ve been voting in presidential elections for almost 50 years, and although many of my preferred candidates lost, I never thought that the very institutions of democracy were at risk. Now I can almost hear the cracking of the foundations. If I’m hearing something real and our new president turns out to be as destructive as I think he is, we are in quite a stew, and it’s going to need some careful seasoning.
How to live faithfully in challenging times—what to think, how to pray, what to do—has never been an easy problem. It’s a three-legged stool: thinking, praying, and acting are all essential. Liberation theologians call this the praxis of theology. Careful thought, serious prayer, and considered action make up the wholeness of faith. Each leg of the stool doing its work makes it possible for the other two to do theirs.
First, let’s think together about the big picture of political systems and how nonviolence works. If every Quaker meeting had a study group exploring the history, strategies, and specific methods of nonviolent action, the dynamics of people power would come into view in a very empowering way. Fortunately, there are wonderful resources easily available. The writings of Gene Sharp, master strategist and theorist of nonviolence, are available through the Albert Einstein Institution (aeinstein.org). The Global Nonviolent Action Database (nvdatabase.swarthmore.edu) maintained by Swarthmore College is an extraordinary resource with a growing number of case studies. Websites promoting and teaching nonviolence abound, including one of my favorites, Waging Nonviolence (wagingnonviolence.org). There are even TED talks that teach the dynamics of nonviolence (search “nonviolence” at ted.com/talks). On the one hand, I can get very discouraged and anxious about our political future, but on the other, I know that never before in history has the extraordinary power of nonviolence been so widely studied, taught, and practiced. That gives me immense hope. Jesus was helping the people recognize a basic truth. We are the seasoning. But if we don’t know that, if we don’t know our own power, then the stew doesn’t get the seasoning it needs. So let’s be salt. If you haven’t already, please go look up resources on nonviolence and begin to learn its methods and strategies. Then share what you learn with your neighbors, and find a piece of this puzzle you can all agree to work on. Nonviolence is our future, our whole future. Without it, we won’t have one.
I have found that regular discipline in prayer ultimately cracks open my assumptions about the nature of self and world. The Divine Comforter is also a Divine Disturber who relentlessly overthrows the internalized régime of my idols.
If you travel in Quaker circles, I’m sure this isn’t the first time you’ve heard this advice. But there is another aspect to it that I believe is just as critical and a profound source of hope. It is this: The very same dynamics of nonviolence that bring about transformation in the political world are also at work in the inner world. The nonviolence model can also revolutionize how we understand prayer, the second leg of the stool. We are accustomed to thinking of prayer as a place of comfort, and certainly it is that. We are accustomed to the idea that prayer grounds and seasons our outward action, that it refreshes the soul and prepares us to return to the fields of outward engagement. That too is important. But there is yet another critical feature of this leg of the stool that we sometimes fail to consider: prayer itself is a transformational process both in the inner world of the one who prays and in its outward fruits. Transformational work crosses the inward–outward barrier; it may even erase it. Prayer is essential to the praxis of faith because prayer is itself a field of engagement.
I know this is a bold claim: prayer is, within its own dynamic and apart from outward action, a type of intervention. There are obvious problems with this claim. Karl Marx named the biggest one: religion (when it is reduced to mere piety) is an opiate, drugging us into complacency. I’m not talking about piety. Here’s another problem: prayer is often taken to mean a type of pleading, an appeal for special intervention. I’m not talking about a request for outside help. Now, here is another: prayer is imagined as being exclusively inward, going to the Well, or a return to Sanctuary. Prayer is a refueling station. This one may be closer to home for many of us Quakers. It is supported in much of our literature, such as in Thomas Kelly’s wonderful line, “Deep within us all there is an amazing inner sanctuary of the soul.” Further on in A Testament of Devotion, however, in a passage that could be easily overlooked, he laments the necessities of time: “linear sequence and succession of words is our inevitable lot and compels us to treat separately what is not separate.” Kelly, like many earlier Quakers, had awakened to an interconnected world.
We Quakers are children of the Enlightenment. We were born into a world that was already defined for us before we got here. Like Kelly, we submit to the necessities of our inward–outward language, but we do not have to accept the worldview it enshrines. I have found that regular discipline in prayer ultimately cracks open my assumptions about the nature of self and world. The Divine Comforter is also a Divine Disturber who relentlessly overthrows the internalized régime of my idols. There is a peace and a deep quietness that comes, but it is on the other side of God’s nonviolent revolution of the soul. Small wonder that Margaret Fell warned that the Divine Encounter “will rip you up and tear you open.” Prayer is serious business if we are willing to submit to its alchemy.
Shortly after World War II, in the rise of the atomic age, the Swiss analytical psychologist C.G. Jung was asked during a discussion at the Psychology Club Zurich if he thought the world could avoid atomic war. His answer was intriguing, and classic Jung. He said, “I think it depends on how many people can stand the tension of the opposites in themselves.” What a beautiful and wise response! Not only is Jung directing us to the essential inner work that must season our outward engagements, he is also calling us to awaken to the extraordinary reality of the collective unconscious, the web of interbeing that is hidden from eyes trained to see only the surfaces of things. When Jung speaks of this kind of inner work, he is talking about a depth that reaches beyond the individual psyche and engages ways of seeing and experiencing that are inaccessible to Western, Cartesian eyes. Jung was thoroughly persuaded that the modern worldview was much too limited. He became fascinated with Native American worldviews; he learned from Elgonyi elders in central Africa, and pored over ancient texts from around the world. One of his students and interpreters, James Hillman, has taken Jung’s work and pushed it further toward what many writers are now calling an ecology of soul. He calls for a “return of soul to the world.” Hillman’s challenge is that we liberate soul from its entrapment in the lonely and isolated prison created by a worldview that is blind to our essential interrelatedness.
Most of us trust the power of prayer implicitly despite being trapped in a worldview that doesn’t allow us to see how it could possibly make a difference. We “hold each other in the Light” and trust that it matters that we do so. Most of us also have stories of openings, resolutions of difficulties, even physical healings that we may not talk about for fear of being thought naïve, gullible, or worse. It’s time we gave up our shyness about such things. Prayer matters. Serious and committed inner work not only prepares us for faithful outward action, it is itself a type of engagement. As Walter Wink writes in his extraordinarily important work Engaging the Powers, “history belongs to the intercessors.” If in addition to study groups learning about nonviolence, every meeting also had committed prayer groups, holding our country in the Light, we would be adding another essential leg to the stool. We are not just refueling in order to return to a field of engagement, we are showing up for the Divine Encounter, presenting ourselves as willing subjects for transformation and as willing instruments for transformation in the world. Prayer has a way of shifting not only how we see the world but also how we see ourselves. We are called to love the world as we have been loved, to confront the world as we have been confronted, to forgive as we have been forgiven, and to be instruments of its healing as we ourselves have been healed. Only the forgiven truly know how to forgive, and only the healed know how to heal. Prayer restores savor to the salt; it returns us to our essential nature. As saltiness is the essential nature of salt, so is ours the Indwelling Spirit. Grace is the ground of our being and the source of our hope.
Seasoned in prayer and schooled in the dynamics of nonviolence, the action leg of the stool is likely to be much more thoughtfully considered and well discerned. The form of our action may be protest, witness, compassionate accompaniment, civil disobedience, or any number of other possible interventions. But whatever form it takes, its underlying purpose and strategy will be in the service of healing. Nonviolence, like prayer, seeks transformation, a re-ordering of the system toward justice and a creative, dynamic peace. It is not unlike what I try to work at in my pastoral counseling practice. What if we were to imagine our country as a suffering patient? We would approach it with compassion, and we would tend to it with a plan of treatment that is based on thoughtful diagnosis. We would observe the symptoms and seek to understand the underlying dynamic of the illness. One of Jung’s greatest contributions was to show us that the symptom is a teacher, a trailhead leading into depths, that faithfully attended will reveal the soul in all its broken beauty.
We are alternately anxious and then angry, frantically searching for solid ground, some way to deal with our painful symptoms. Finding none, we fall into despair.
A few years ago, I had the privilege of working with a wonderful client; she was very committed to her faith, conservative both politically and theologically, frightened by the reports she heard from her friends and Fox News, and wanting pastoral support for listening for guidance. We worked with a variety of modalities, principally dream work. After a number of months, she brought in a dream in which she found herself on a train, riding with the president. Then, to her dismay, she was given a bowl of water and a cloth and was told that her task was to go and wash President Obama’s feet. To her credit, she carried out her assignment and allowed the dream to inform her life. She did not significantly change her political leanings, but her life was now “seasoned” with the compensatory wisdom of soul. Her anxiety was considerably lessened, and she gained an increased capacity to participate in a highly polarized political climate with the added stability that her inner work provided. Now, more than a year after she finished her work with me, I can almost hear her friendly challenge: “Dan, are you able to wash Donald Trump’s feet?” It’s a challenge I take seriously. When I listen for the ecological strivings of my own soul, I hear a call to hold my own judgments and anxiety with tenderness, a call to embrace the shadow that I all too easily disown and project onto our new president.
It’s not all shadow projection, of course. I still believe that he can cause real and significant harm. But I want to clear myself of my reactivity to him and to find the humility to release my judgments of people who voted for him. I want to be able to listen and engage across difference. It is likely that we are going to need broad-based communities of resistance, coalitions that bridge divides that would otherwise simply fall into further polarization. In our age of heightened anxiety, our country is like a client who lives with split-off fragments in the psyche producing dramatic instability. We are alternately anxious and then angry, frantically searching for solid ground, some way to deal with our painful symptoms. Finding none, we fall into despair, only to renew the cycle of unfocused action and depressive inaction. A split psyche can lead to breakdown and further chaos, but it can also lead to breakthrough. What Jung called the “transcendent function” emerges to awaken the psyche to a new orientation that is grounded in a deeper center, with horizons wide enough to hold the formerly polarized opposites in a new and more inclusive whole. Parts and complexes are healed of their extreme positions, and the client experiences a new and more harmonious integration. Once the suffering client experiences the creative advance inherent in the pattern of “breakdown and breakthrough,” it becomes a little easier to trust the dynamics of transformation. Like the individual psyche, so also communities of faith, and even whole countries, need this kind of ongoing nonviolent revolution.
Many of us are struggling to get our bearings in this new and troubling political situation. It is tempting to grasp after a restoration of the old structure. But there is another, more hopeful way to look at where we are. When things are out of balance, there is a wisdom that lives deep within that will bring to light what needs healing and that offers an opportunity for creative advance. If we awaken to the challenge, we will bring all three legs of the stool into our praxis of faith. We will learn, teach, and practice the extraordinary power of nonviolence. We will shed worn out ideas about prayer that are too small for the soul, and we will act with healing wisdom and hope. If we attend to these everyday disciplines, we will rise to the challenge of the Sermon on the Mount. We will take to heart its teaching and become salt in this stew.