In one of my favorite books, The Beloved Community, Charles Marsh examines the spirituality of the American civil rights movement. He suggests in particular that a simple notion of just being still (or hanging out) was a crucial part of the heart of the movement. An extended passage is worth quoting:
Nonetheless, the incarnational ethic also encouraged student volunteers and SNCC staff members simply to be present with each other and with the poor. Being a ‘revolutionary,’ somebody once said during a staff meeting, meant learning how to act out of the deepest silence. As an enfleshened church, SNCC displayed a remarkable capacity to anchor itself in particular neighbourhoods and accommodate its disciplines to local needs. Yet as a “free-floating monastic community,” SNCC also made time for reverie and solitude and for rituals that were refreshingly unproductive. A certain kind of contemplative discipline was an important predisposition in building community and enabling trust.
This is an important but often overlooked point. It is easy to forget that so much of a civil rights life involved sitting around freedom houses, community centres, and front porches with no immediate plan of action. The discipline of waiting required uncommon patience even as it sustained humility and perspective, resisting the cultural paradigm of efficiency. SNCC’s genius was its ability to demonstrate to black southerners the strategies available to social progress within an unhurried and sometimes languorous emotional environment. As such, a condition for achieving beloved community was a certain kind of stillness in a nation of frenetic activity and noisy distractions, learning to move at a different pace.
(Charles Marsh, Beloved Community, 92-93)
As I’m daily confronted by social issues and acutely feel their urgency, my inactivity often feels supremely unrighteous. Crises swirl around human society like swarms of flies, and I often assume that we must respond with equally frenzied activism. But as Marsh and reminds us, my intuition has been trained by approaches which see the world through action-filtering glasses. Urgent actions abound, yet exhortations towards stillness and silence are rare: “Be still before the LORD, and wait patiently for him; do not fret over those who prosper in their way, over those who carry out evil devices.” (Ps 37:7).
As Ben pointed out in another Wondering Fair article, this spirituality is also connected with Jesus’ apparent disconnection from ordinary time. The gospel narratives often leave out domestic details, and offer instead a distillation of Jesus’ dramatic words and actions. However, it is worth remembering that these words are often spoken in very ordinary contexts: sitting on a hill eating with some friends (Matthew 5, 14:15), visiting a friend’s house (Matt 8:14; 17:25; Mark 1:29; 2:1; 3:20; 9:33), grocery shopping (John 4:8), getting a drink of water (John 4:7). This is hardly the sort of fast-paced regime-toppling action that would impress a contemporary activist or Hollywood filmmaker.
Along with Ben, I want to suggest that it is in moments of silence and prayer that we find the opportunity to be changed; to pray, confess, and repent. Further, it is in extended ordinary moments shared with our neighbours, as Marsh suggests, that we can experience and express a different kind of deeper, inefficient, serene love.