Continuing our Lenten series on Contemplation and Action, the Rt Revd Adrian Newman, Bishop of Stepney, commends the writings of Henri Nouwen – as an antidote to the temptations of an activism which relies solely on human power and human initiative:
I’ve just finished re-reading Henri Nouwen’s classic ‘Compassion’. It was first published in 1982, but is still every bit as relevant today. Towards the end of the book, in a section on the ‘temptation of activism’, he talks about the importance of remaining critical of our activist tendencies, which can too often be driven by our own needs rather than the needs of others. As a brief Lenten reflection I thought I would reproduce what he says at this point. I take it as a corrective to my own implicit tendencies; only you will know whether or not it applies to you as well:
The most important resource for counteracting the constant temptation to slip into activism is the knowledge that in Christ everything has been accomplished. This knowledge should be understood not as an intellectual insight, but as an understanding in faith. As long as we continue to act as if the salvation of the world depends on us, we lack the faith by which mountains can be moved. In Christ, human suffering and pain have already been accepted and suffered; in him our broken humanity has been reconciled and led into the intimacy of the relationship within the Trinity. Our action, therefore, must be understood as a discipline by which we make visible what has already been accomplished. Such action is based on the faith that we walk on solid ground even when we are surrounded by chaos, confusion, violence and hatred.
A phrase from this passage has stayed with me: Our action must be understood as a discipline by which we make visible what has already been accomplished. All around us there is so much to be done to make the world a better, fairer place – it’s easy to swing between desperation at how much there is to be put right, and demoralisation at how little ever seems to change. I value the reminder that we are called to join in with what God is already doing, and to make visible what he has already done.
Let me conclude with some more of Nouwen’s words, which underline this message – that our action is a response to, and a participation in, the victory of our crucified and risen Lord. They seem particularly fitting, as we journey towards Holy Week and Easter:
In the new city, God will live among us, but each time two or three gather in the name of Jesus he is already in our midst. In the new city, all tears will be wiped away, but each time people eat bread and drink wine in his memory, smiles appear on strained faces. In the new city, the whole creation will be made new, but each time prison walls are broken down, poverty is dispelled, and wounds are carefully attended, the old earth is already giving way to the new. Through compassionate action, the old is not just old any more and pain not just pain any longer. Although we are still waiting in expectation, the first signs of the new earth and new heaven, which have been promised to us and for which we hope, are already visible in the community of faith where the compassionate God is revealed to us. This is the foundation of our faith, the basis of our hope, and the source of our love.
Amen to that!