If your office is anything like mine, chances are that several “emergencies” come through your door each week. Most of them hardly qualify for the title. The number of real emergencies I’ve faced in my ministry have been few although they have all been notable; emergency runs to the hospital when a young person was dying, emergency late night returns to the college campus after a shooting, or an emergency visitation with someone facing a terrible diagnosis. Most of the time though, the concerns that come through my office while real are not urgent. I’ve learned that the best way to deal with the anxiety, bluster and stress of the situation is simply to be calm, quiet and composed.
People invoke the language of emergency for a reason. The effect of calling something an emergency is an immediate spike of adrenaline to the nervous system. People move faster, think less clearly and act with self-protective haste. In short, declaring something an emergency escalates it. The language and rhetoric of emergency is powerful because it can elicit a powerful response.
On Friday, President Trump declared a national emergency at our nation’s southern border. Despite the fact that illegal immigration has been on the decline for nearly two decades and non-citizens commit fewer violent crimes than citizens, nearly 74% of Republicans now believe there is a border crisis. Even if the substance isn’t there, the effect of declaring an emergency by a powerful political actor has the power to create one.
All this has left me wondering what the role of Christians ought to be during this national emergency. One tactic might be to declare competing emergencies: climate change, gun control or family separation policy. A quick look at my social media feeds indicate this is a well used strategy. Certainly, I agree with the passion and import of these national crises, but I wonder if our affect might be wrong. Mirroring the rhetoric of national emergency has begun to feel like a one-up-manship with our greatest national concerns as its pawns. It feels a bit childish and diminishing.
Rabbi Edwin Freidman taught that a powerful intervention into a chaotic system was a “non-anxious presence.” A non-anxious presence is able to differentiate themselves from the problem while remaining open and vulnerable to the real needs of others. A caregiver can model inner calm, and in doing so, reassure others that the problems before them are solvable. A non-anxious presence is able to risk the disapproval of others in order to move the whole system forward.
In this moment, Christians have the power to model what it means to be a non-anxious presence in America today. Not by ignoring the real injustices of the country, but by refusing to be overwhelmed or inflamed by the hyperbolic language of emergency. As the world dissolves into chaos and anxiety, the church ought to be the one pointing steadfastly forward.
Thankfully, we have Christian leaders modeling this behavior on the national and local levels. We can lift up Christian celebrities like Rev. William Barber from the Poor People’s Campaign or Sister Simone Campbell and the Nuns of the Bus. I suspect, however, that most of the real work is being done in smaller more anonymous ways. I’m thinking in particular of two of my students who helped plan a reflective session for activists during Black History Month here on campus. For no personal gain, they gave up time to focus on the needs of their peers in advancing justice locally. Or the local group of clergy and lay folk in town who organized a series of overnight shelters during the recent polar vortex. These folks were responding to the real, profound and urgent needs of their communities.
As we all settle into this national emergency which is bound to be caught up in lawsuits and court dates, I suppose I’m advocating for all Christians to resist the urge to be drawn into the drama. Instead, remain focused on the true north of our calling in Christ to proclaim good news to the poor, freedom to prisoners, recovery of sight for the blind and freedom to the oppressed. To be clear, our passion for the real hurt and needs of our communities should never be calmed. But allow our non-anxious affect to calm our country and remind it that when we work together, we can solve intractable problems. We might be able to push the whole of the country forward if we do.
Elizabeth Hakken Candido is an ordained Presbyterian (USA) Pastor who currently serves as the College Chaplain and Director of Religious & Spiritual Life at Kalamazoo College. Liz lives in Kalamazoo, MI with her husband Bob who is a pilot. They have two daughters, Clara and Abigail. Liz blogs at skepticsnbelievers.wordpress.com
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