When pastoral anxiety is a witness

November 11th, 2016

In the wake of the results of the 2016 presidential election, I, like so many other pastors, have struggled with what to say. My struggle was not with responding to competing Facebook posts from congregants expressing divergent views and needing to bring people back together; my church, mercifully, accepts the differences within it. The struggle was in expressing my own response, which was manifesting in the first twenty-four hours in physical symptoms: nausea, cold sweats, hot flashes, muscle aches, etc., which have now turned to anger and indignation. I saw colleagues admit their own anxiety and their inability to respond “pastorally” because of that.

That got me thinking about the ministry I do and the ministry I feel called to do, specifically with LGBTQ persons in a rural area. I knew (and could see on Facebook) that they were already hurt by the rhetoric of this election, and were reeling after the election. I thought about the one African-American member of my church in a 97% White town who gives me silent nods when I name racism as sin, outright or in allusion, but does not engage in political discussions. I thought about all the closet progressives who were feeling even more isolated than usual in a bright red county and who have been shocked by things friends and neighbors have said during this election.

Then I decided to be anxious publicly. I decided to name my fear; not of a Trump presidency, but of the normalizing of bigotry that has been happening over the past eighteen months of this election season. It makes me scared, it makes me angry, it makes me sad to see the outright displays of racism, misogyny, xenophobia, homophobia, and so many other things that we had previously as a society agreed were not acceptable. Now they are printed on shirts, emblazoned on bumpers, chanted at rallies, spray painted on walls, and shouted at human beings — both children and adults.

Without seeking them out, I have run across accounts of women being attacked for wearing hijab, people of color being called slurs, Latinx children being told by classmates they were going to be deported, gay couples being told their marriages are abhorrent, all within one day of the election. If there have ever been reasons for me to be anxious about the society where I live, these seem like valid ones.

The reason I choose to openly express my anxiety is because this behavior is not alright, and my witness and care as a clergy person should not be to convince someone who feels targeted that “everything is going to be okay.” I cannot, in good conscious, minimize their grief and anxiety by hiding my own. Pastoral non-anxiety conveys that a person’s fear or grief is a normal response to a normal part of life, to be moved through and accepted in time. It creates a space for that person to begin living with their new reality. At the bedside of a dying loved one, non-anxiety is the appropriate response to that event. In the face of racial, sexual, gender, or ethnic violence, non-anxiety is a tool of white supremacy. Non-anxiety begins the process of making what was unimaginable the new normal.

My witness and care must be to weep and rage alongside those for whom the denial of their identity and humanity and safety has been used to rally political support. As a woman, I can include myself. My pastoral anxiety creates a space where we prevent normalization of what is in conflict with our belief in a loving God and a compassionate society. It allows those who are grieving and fearful to affirm the value of their lives in the midst of a strong message to the contrary, without the implication that we have to start getting used to the way things are now. It denies the dismissal of outrage, pain, and very real current threats, which stems from the call to “unite” or “let’s just see what happens.”

As Christians, we already respond to violence in this way. We make space to name the injustice, inhumanity, and tragedy of Christ’s death in the Eucharist and in our Good Friday rituals. Those times are not about healing from the grief of the Crucifixion and moving on, but about reliving it and making it fresh in our minds and hearts and guts. As pastors, we ask our people to be motivated by what they experience in those spaces and to change the world. At the same time that we are re-wounded with Christ, we are also reminded that there is enough hope to stay in the struggle and believe that the Kin[g]dom will come.

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