“Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace…” St. Francis of Assisi
Anyone who has a public platform regularly faces the challenge of trying to address a topic that everyone is talking about and everyone has strong opinions about. I’ve lived with such a role for nearly 40 years and know after all this time that on such matters you can be confident of two things: First, some people will disagree or misunderstand. And second, any fear you might have of such response does not relieve you of the responsibility to address challenging topics.
I watched the video of Mr. Floyd’s murder with abject revulsion. How could anyone sworn to protect and serve descend to the point where he thought it appropriate to kneel on a man’s neck for nearly nine minutes until he was unmoving and eventually dead? How could other officers permit such grotesque excess on another human being?
Events such as these too regularly erupt into the national consciousness and not all of them are created equal, but this one bears no nuance. If this indeed is one of the worst possible examples of what black Americans endure as systemic racism, then I hear your cry and want to add my meager voice to those who call for change.
Because my training is in theology and my vocation had been helping people understand, live, and share the message of Jesus that is the facet that I feel most clearly called to address. I leave it to others more qualified to parse the social reform demands of this and other incidents, but I do insist that the status quo is simply untenable to the point of irrationality. Yes, this must change. Mr. Floyd and so many others deserved to live and countless other black Americans deserve both respect and protections due them as children of God and citizens of our country.
But I have this word of warning, the change we seek is to a large degree policy-resistant, for the problem is in the human heart and the solution for such problems is always spiritual. Whether they realize it or not, those who identify systemic racism are pointing squarely at this truth. As my daughter maintained in her blog, The Contemplative Homemaker, systemic racism is simply an expression of systemic evil.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn understood systemic evil. Born the year after the Bolshevik Revolution, he was a child of the Soviet Union that began a few years later and served as a captain during WW II. After criticizing Stalin in some private letters that didn’t remain private, he was arrested and sentenced to eight years in prison for anti-Soviet propaganda. The Gulag Archipelago is Solzhenitsyn’s most famous work. In it he recounts stories of the barbaric behavior of his homeland that resulted in tens of millions of deaths, and weaves through the lengthy narrative a spiritual vision born of his Eastern Orthodox faith.
Perhaps the most famous quote from the book is “The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.” Later, in a speech, he added “and that line oscillates.”
During our times of great unrest, endless blaming, and spreading hatred we need this reminder of our shared brokenness. Sin, by our very nature, is egalitarian. It infects us all. But grace also, by God’s very nature, is egalitarian. It saves all who come to Him with open minds and tender hearts.
The idea is not original to me, but I am a gracist, and I pray for systemic gracisim to salvage the poor struggling souls in our country who cry for justice and those who deny it. That’s the only way grace works, and only grace will lead us home.
But a call for love and grace, though true, is too vague for such a time as this. We need muscle on these bones. That’s where Christian discernment comes in. Understanding the ongoing oscillation of that line of good and evil in my own heart is the chief function of this vital spiritual discipline. I have to recognize how the line shifts and where the subtle, incremental shifts can take me to a place of increasing darkness. I’m quite sure this is what many eloquent people, black and white, are trying to bring attention to, though they perhaps don’t use the terms.
Mr. Floyd’s death was a terrible consequence of the line shifting hard toward evil. To what degree has that line shifted in me? That’s the reasonable question I’m being asked to consider. My reluctance, and in some cases an initial and visceral denial, is simply a function of not being willing to listen to what someone has asked me to do. There is no redeeming Christian value in such a response.
The prayer of St. Francis offers guidance in dealing with difficult questions, situations, and people. It generally counsels us to put others first and put down our natural inclinations to claim our rights and to condemn others. This initial denial of self is the beginning step of walking the Way of Christ who taught us to deny ourselves, take up our crosses, and follow Him. My “self” is always trying to take charge, especially when it feels threatened. But if I refuse to apply this principle when I need it most, am I really trying to apply it at all?
St. Francis’s call to bring love, forgiveness, harmony and truth where there is hatred, wrong, discord, and error, points to Solzhenitsyn’s dreadful, oscillating line. We choose the good and eschew the evil. The second section of the prayer is even more apt, for we seek to comfort, understand, and love rather than seek or demand these from others for ourselves.
This is a high calling, so let’s start with something very straightforward. Think how different the world would be if we simply stopped hating. This applies to people of different races, rioters, police who step over the line, and anyone who has a different opinion. Don’t hate anyone. If we can at least recognize and seek to rid ourselves of this horrid darkness, then we have a foundation to build on.
The Spirit’s job description, so to speak, includes convincing the world of sin. So, the Spirit will help me identify within me the subtle seeds of hate, anger, resentment, disharmony, etc. that if not arrested will grow into the insanity of evil we see too often.
Grace is the answer, from God to us and through us to others. It delivers us from the awful dualism that divides us and the subtle ways we look at surface traits rather than the true person God loves and for whom Christ died. Grace enables us to see others as God sees them. In grace there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female. Grace through Christ delivers us from the three great dividing lines of any culture: race, socioeconomic standing, and gender. Finally, grace reminds us that we’re capable of great good, for that is the only way forward. Real change is born of hope, and without hope we’re left only with the insanity of evil we see regularly on our screens. May we not see it in our hearts!
I urge you to begin praying this beautiful and powerful prayer daily. Memorize it. We need its invitation to step over the line into the realm of grace where we can become true instruments of peace, and in so doing become, as Jesus promised, sons and daughters of God.
Dr. Terry Ellis
June 7, 2020