Parker Palmer is an influential American speaker and author whose wisdom and friendship have guided me both spiritually and practically over the past decade. In fact, I now work with him and others associated with the Center for Courage & Renewal.
Rooted in his own Christian understanding and practice as a Quaker, Palmer’s writing inspires a diverse global community of individuals of wide-ranging faith and humanist traditions, people engaged at the crossroads of spirituality and social change.
Last fall, I heard him offer a reflection on the nature of spiritual formation in community. His comment that “violence arises when we do not know what else to do with our suffering,” launched me into an internal litany. I thought of the many ways we suffer collectively. Terrorist attacks dominate headlines and spread fear; middle-class parents struggle to provide their children with the opportunities they received and experience bitterness when these seem out of reach; climate change poses a fundamental threat to life on Earth.
Even if we don’t dwell on them, these accumulated burdens are weighty; none of us is immune to suffering. Too often we retaliate in word or action against whomever we see as responsible for our pain. We just don’t seem to know what else to do. At its extreme, when bullets tear through neighbourhoods killing those we love, whether they be Syrian, French or Canadian, our first instinct is usually to call for military reprisals.
But there’s really no hope for us, or the world, unless we develop a different repertoire of responses.
A corollary of Palmer’s quote about violence might be: “Non-violence arises when we learn how to transform our suffering.” Can we develop a different immediate reaction, one that serves to prevent further violence and suffering?
A community of faith can help with this. If I’m going to weep over the week’s headlines, it’s most likely to happen in worship. It might happen during a hymn, prayer, story or communion, when the most tender spot in my soul is touched. Everyone has that spot in their soul, the one that hurts with another who is hurt and is joyful when another sings with joy. How then can I lash out through tender tears, that reminder of my connection with others’ suffering?
In this season of approaching the cross, we remember that Jesus offered a counter-cultural response. He cared deeply about those suffering and extended love, even to those who crucified him. He didn’t run away or cower, nor did he attack the authorities as they sentenced him to death. He stood and faced it all, mostly in silence, and with the resolve of a love that doesn’t name enemies, even when he’s judged an enemy of the state.
He told Pilate that he wasn’t the world’s kind of king, that if he were, his followers would fight to keep him from being handed over. When Peter cuts off the high priest’s servant’s ear in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus tells him to put his sword away (John 18:10-11). Jesus carried suffering differently. If he hadn’t, I doubt that we’d know his story.
Even though Jesus’ disciples were as slow to find a loving alternative to violence as we are, it must have helped to have a circle of friends who were trying to join him in another way. To live the more difficult way of love takes practice with friends, in what Palmer describes as “habits of the heart.”
No image of such practice is more dramatic than the cross. We move toward and through the cross every year, with hope for a better way. Of course we will continue to suffer, but we’ve been given a model of speaking our truth without attack, of love when hate tempts us, of another way to respond to suffering.
Mardi Tindal is a facilitator and mentor with the Center for Courage & Renewal and a former United Church moderator.