The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter

The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter
by: Sara Wenger Shenk

Psalm 46 riveted itself in my memory on Sept. 11, 2001. It was read during an urgently convened chapel at Eastern Mennonite University after the attacks on the World Trade Center. Now Psalm 46 frequently comes to mind in these post-election days.

“The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts … .”

The frenzied pace of brutal executive orders has created an uproar of protest, an uproar of defiant hope. Ruby Sales, veteran civil rights activist who survived prison, torture and near death in the 1960s, now serves as a public theologian and educator and is founder and director of the Spirit House Project. Sales spoke to a group of us gathered at the Hope for the Future conference Feb. 3–5 in Hampton, Virginia. Her fearless, powerful words galvanized hope. Among other things she said, and I paraphrase: We are in dangerous times. What is going to happen to the children? We must prepare ourselves to prepare them. What are the cultural and spiritual resources waiting deep inside us to be reignited?

As alarm ricochets into every day, upending lives and rattling spirits, now is the time to reignite cultural and spiritual resources that will steady and orient us for the long haul. “Though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea” writes the psalmist, “though its waters roar and foam, ... There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God … . Be still and know that I am God!”

Several months ago I read On Beauty and Being Just, by Elaine Scarry. “At the moment one comes into the presence of something beautiful,” she writes, “it greets you.” We give up our position as the center, and find that we are standing in a different relation to the world than we were a moment before, and standing on “a fragment of sturdy ground.”

It is the quickening after an encounter with beauty that awakens a longing to be in league with what is true and beautiful, she said. It is that longing which is the source of conviction. And ever afterward, we labor to locate enduring sources of conviction — to locate what is true and beautiful and to enter into its protection. “Far from damaging our capacity to attend to problems of injustice,” Scarry said, an encounter with beauty “intensifies the pressure we feel to repair existing injuries.”

In my experience, an encounter with beauty might occur with a heartbreaking song of lament, a warbling Carolina wren, an unexpected act of kindness, the Eucharist, or a psalm like Psalm 46. In my encounters with beauty, tears well up and I am inclined to fall on my knees.

In the uproar of these days, as we heed Ruby Sales’ call to reignite cultural and spiritual resources deep within us and within our faith communities, I am drawn to three sources of beauty that have often provided me with “a fragment of sturdy ground to stand on”:

  • The beauty of the natural world, that daily reveals God’s character to me.
  • The magnificence of the Scriptures, especially the beautiful story of Jesus.
  • And beautiful communities of prayer, love and resistance — diverse communities that embody hospitality, cultural vibrancy and just relationships.

Natural world. We are in the midst of the largest social movement in human history, writes Diana Butler Bass, a scholar of American religion and culture, in her book Grounded: Finding God in the world, a spiritual revolution. Tens of millions of people are involved in grassroots communities working to address issues of climate change, an organic movement to “restore grace, justice and beauty to the world.”

Scripture. The earthy, contradictory, colorful complexity of the biblical stories, poetry and wisdom has provided countless encounters with beauty: the beauty of holiness and the beauty of love. Take the Christ hymn in Colossians 1:11-20, for example, which couples the stratospheric cosmic Christ with the down-to-earth Jesus who faced the forces of chaos unleashed against him with nonviolent love; Jesus Christ who stripped thrones, dominions, rulers and authorities of their power by his willingness to die rather than inflict harm on those who hated him; Jesus Christ, through whom God reconciles all things, yet often at great cost, suffering and death.

Communities of love and resistance. Ours is an alternative narrative, said Ruby Sales at our gathering in Hampton — not one of genocide of native peoples and exploitation of people of color to create a “white land.” No lie lives forever. Tyrants are always defeated. We are a counter-cultural people who remember the meaning of the spiritual journey conveyed in our Scriptures: a journey of faith that frees all people to be fully human, that deeply disciples communities even in the midst of oppression to revel in song and to know the sweet, sweet Spirit that inhabits all of us, giving us agency and hope.

“Be still and know that I am God! I am exalted among the nations. I am exalted in the earth.”