Pause. Imagine that.

August 21st, 2017

When two kids got caught in a rip tide just off the beach in Panama City Beach, Florida, four of their family members and three others rushed to their rescue only to find themselves swept away by the current. Now nine people were struggling to salvage their lives.

Jessica Simmons, on vacation with her husband, saw the commotion and realized what was going on. Immediately she thought to herself, “No one is drowning today! It’s not happening. We’re going to get them out.”

A group of strangers began shouting, “Form a human chain! Form a human chain!” So they did.

One by one they linked themselves together into the water. Jessica swam to the end and connected each struggling swimmer to the human bridge. With only boogie boards, a bonded band of arms and legs, and a movement in the gut to do something, eighty strangers formed a strand of one-hundred-forty multicolored hands, reaching out from the sand to save nine strangers, returning them to dry land.

Jessica Simmons later wrote this on her Facebook feed: “To see people from different races and genders come into action to help TOTAL strangers is absolutely amazing to see!! People who didn’t even know each other went HAND IN HAND IN A LINE, into the water to try and reach them. Pause and just IMAGINE that.”

So, why don’t we? Let’s pause. And imagine that.

Let’s pause for a moment and imagine people from different ethnicities, genders, skin tones, languages, and ages hand in hand, linked together for the sole purpose of using their lives to give life.

Now is a good time to imagine that, don’t you think, particularly in the wake of the recent racialized hatred, violence and white supremacist vitriol in Charlottesville? Heather Heyer, a thirty-two-year-old woman, using her life to give life by speaking out against white supremacy, had her life taken by a Neo-Nazi who rammed his Dodge Challenger into a counter-protest group she was part of, killing her and injuring many others.

For most people, it’s not hard to see that there is no place in our society for white nationalism, bigotry, and xenophobia. It’s not difficult to find the moral high ground on this. But in his destabilizing responses to the events in Charlottesville, President Trump, “the leader of the free world,” has not been able to find any moral footing. He cannot unchain himself from white supremacy. His remarks have even created a haven for bigots in their union, some of whom applauding him for backing them, making no bones about their support for him. I can’t say I’m surprised at Trump’s behavior and lack of leadership, but like a lot of people, I am disturbed that he is linking himself to another kind of human chain which takes life rather than gives it.

Pause. And imagine that. 

Imagine a society in which the President of the United States does not appease, defend, or normalize hatred and racism. Regardless of politics, under the ideal and presidential seal of E Pluribus Unum (out of many, one), we as a nation expect our president to embody and call out the best of who we are, especially in times of crisis. Having said that, we — and by that, I mean “we the people” —  should never abdicate to any elected official our collective moral conscience, spiritual and ethical responsibility, or commitment to love and justice.

Let’s imagine never equivocating, excusing, or tolerating bigotry, any discriminatory speech, platform or oppressive social, political, economic, or religious system, structure, or power that seeks to violate, denigrate, dehumanize and diminish any person or persons.  

And can we hold the tension between not tolerating intolerable acts while we imagine transcending tolerance as our best pathway forward? Let's stand firm in the conviction that we will not tolerate and we will speak out against whatever and whoever violates our common, created-in-the-image-of-God humanity. Let’s also imagine moving beyond the myth that the best we can do is merely tolerate people who don’t agree with us, challenge our biases, or don't like us. Stomaching each other does not get us any closer to authentic understanding, human connection, and the kinship I think most of us long for.

Is tolerance better than violence and vitriol? Of course. But it is not the answer. It cannot heal the fissures and divisions pervasive in our society. We must be willing to encounter — and be encountered by — those whom we have otherized. We must facilitate opportunities to lock eyes and open our hearts to listen — really listen and understand the stories, sufferings, and experiences which have shaped our lives. Only then will we experience the mutuality of our common humanity, find our hearts opened to a compassion which erases lines and links us together to a better way forward. “When the heart is touched by direct experience,” says Jesuit General Father, Peter Hans Kolvenbach, "the mind is challenged to change.” We are not going to be able to tolerate our way to a more hopeful future. Only the creative and redemptive power of love, even for enemies, can take us there.

As a pastor, I imagine churches of every denomination stepping up to lead by erasing lines of marginalization rather than drawing them. Often called the most segregated gathering of people on Sunday mornings, the Church has been particularly adept at exclusion, ironically in the name of the One who repudiated it. If we believe that God creates every person in God's image, what implications does that have for how we treat one another, how we welcome or how we exclude? And let’s understand the complications which arise when we as individuals or churches create God in our image, using theology, doctrine, and practice to justify it.

Let’s imagine God’s dream for humanity where diversity, complexity, and even imperfection are not denigrated but celebrated. Why not take seriously a “no condemnation” way of being in the world, as the Apostle Paul writes? Let’s imagine all those who identify as "Christian" no longer taking Christ’s name in vain by dividing and segregating people based on who is deemed worthy.

And speaking of what it means to identify with Christ, let's imagine making our way in this world as “ministers of reconciliation and ambassadors for peace.” Isn’t that how the book we hold dear calls us to be in the world? Why not come to grips and get in step with the great commandment to love God and love our neighbors as we love ourselves? Period. Loving like that, we will find ourselves hand in hand, connected by a chain of grace, captured by the divine flow of a life-giving current.

Pause. Imagine. And take the next step to act on that.

Maybe the story of a Canaanite woman’s encounter with Jesus from Matthew 15, which many Christian congregations around the world read this weekend, can help us. With the odds stacked against her, this mother imagined mercy and wholeness for herself and her tormented daughter who was struggling to catch her next breath. Then she put herself in motion to make those things a reality. With the audacity of courageous compassion, she saw herself differently than the prejudiced story told about her through the dominant cultural narrative of her time. She refused to be marginalized, isolated, and otherized based on her ethnicity, gender, and religion. Exhausted and emotionally spent but still moved from her gut to do something, she resolved to reject her rejection, insist on inclusion, and use her voice for the voiceless. In doing so, she widened the circles of compassion for herself and her daughter while connecting all who would come after her to a life-saving chain of liberation.

Maybe like this Canaanite woman — like Heather Heyer, like Jessica Simmons, like the eighty-person human rescue chain on the beach in Panama City Beach that day, like countless courageous people around the world who every day embody Compassion's tenacious drive to do something in the face of injustice — we can use our voices to speak for those who've been rendered voiceless. 

Maybe we can couple our hands with a human chain linked by love and connected by compassion, and use our lives to give life to those struggling to salvage theirs.  

Pause. And imagine that.

This article originially appeared on the author's blog. Reprinted with permission.

comments powered by Disqus