On Paying Attention & Saying Yes

Thus says the Lord,
Who makes a way in the sea,
A path in the mighty waters…
Who brings out chariot and horse, army and warrior;
They lie down, they cannot rise,
They are extinguished, quenched like a wick:
“Do not remember the former things,
or consider the things of old.
I am about to do a new thing;
Now it springs forth,
Do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
And rivers in the desert.” (Isaiah 43:16-19)

*

“OK. So you’re a pacifist. What would you do if someone were, say, attacking your grandmother?”

This is how Joan Baez, the folk singer, begins a dialogue she constructed between herself and a friend. She’s a pacifist, and she grew tired of people asking, “Oh, you believe in non-violence? Like, always?” Then they would tell her, in that patronizing tone that implied how naïve she was, that of course nobody likes violence, of course everybody wants peace, but it just isn’t practical. So in this conversation, her partner is Fred, and he has the first line. “What would you do if someone were, say, attacking your grandmother?”

And she says, “Attacking my poor old grandmother?”

He says, “Yeah, you’re in a room with your grandmother and there’s a guy about to attack her and you’re standing there. What would you do?”

She says, “I’d yell, ‘Three cheers for Grandma!’ and leave the room.”

He says, “No, seriously. Say he had a gun and he was about to shoot her. Would you shoot him first?”

She says, “Do I have a gun?”

He says, “Yes.”

She says, “No. I’m a pacifist; I don’t have a gun.”

He says, “Well, I say you do.”

She says, “All right. Am I a good shot?”

He says, “Yes.”

She says, “I’d shoot the gun out of his hand.”

He says, “No, then you’re not a good shot.”

She says, “I’d be afraid to shoot. Might kill Grandma.”

He says, “Come on, OK, look. We’ll take another example. Say, you’re driving a truck. You’re on a narrow road with a sheer cliff on your side. There’s a little girl sitting in the middle of the road. You’re going too fast to stop. What would you do?”

She says, “I don’t know. What would you do?”

He says, “I’m asking you. You’re the pacifist.”

She says, “All right… am I in control of the truck?”

He says, “Yes.”

She says, “How about if I honk my horn so she can get out of the way?”

He says, “She’s too young to walk. And the horn doesn’t work.”

She says, “I swerve around to the left of her since she’s not going anywhere.”

He says, “No, there’s been a landslide.”

She says, “Oh. Well then, I would try to drive the truck over the cliff and save the little girl.”

He’s silent. Then he says, “Well, say there’s someone else in the truck with you. Then what?”

She says, “What’s my decision have to do with my being a pacifist?”

He says, “There’s two of you in the truck and only one little girl.”

She says, “Someone once said if you have a choice between a real evil and a hypothetical evil, always take the real one.”

He says, “Huh?”

She says, I said, “Why are you so anxious to kill off all the pacifists?”

He says, “I’m not. I just want to know what you’d do if – ”

She says, “If I was in a truck with a friend driving very fast on a one-lane road approaching a dangerous impasse where a ten-month old girl is sitting in the middle of the road with a landslide on one side of her and a sheer drop-off on the other.”

He says, “That’s right.”

She says, “I would probably slam on the brakes, thus sending my friend through the windshield, skid into the landslide, run over the little girl, sail off the cliff and plunge to my own death. No doubt Grandma’s house would be at the bottom of the ravine and the truck would crash through her roof and blow up in her living room where she was finally being attacked for the first, and last, time.”

And it goes on like that.

*

You know this opposition, right? … That says whatever your dream is, whatever hope you have for the world, well, aren’t you sweet. You just wait, though. You’ll grow up a bit. You’ll see – I mean, it’s sad, ’cause that’s a great dream, that’s a grand hope – but you’ll see why it just can’t happen. Go back to sleep.

There’s that voice.

And then there’s the voice of God. The one that says, “No, not yet. Stay up. Look around. I want you to see something new.”

And every once in a while, we hear the voice of God from someone right next to us, saying the same thing: “Stay up. Look around.”

Josh Begley’s voice is one of those. He’s a graduate student at NYU, and he’s trying to wake us up. With this app he’s created for the iPhone. You can’t get it – he’s submitted it three times and each time, the reviewers at Apple have rejected it. The first time, they told him his app wasn’t entertaining. He admits that. The next time, they told him it wasn’t useful. He has some qualms with that. And this third time, they rejected it based on what they called “crude or objectionable content.” This, he says, there’s no way to change. That’s not his design. The app, called Drones+, consists of a map, and each time a US drone strikes, the user is notified, by a text message saying, for example, “US drone strike kills 7 in Waziristan. “ A red pushpin marks that location on the map. That’s it.

Begley said the app “essentially asks the question about what we choose to get notified about in real time.” He said, “I thought reaching into the pockets of US smartphone users and annoying them into drone-consciousness could be an interesting way to surface the conversation a bit more.”

But why would anyone make that choice? Why would anyone choose to be notified every time an unmanned weapon strikes children, for the crime of being unrecognizable as children, from a screen continents away? Or maybe, the weapon works like it’s supposed to, and it kills militants? Or maybe it doesn’t, and it hits their mothers? Why would you want to know that?

*

When the prophet is setting up the words of God he’s about to share, he first introduces God. He says, This is what God says – wait, do you know who God is? – God, the one who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters… So the prophet is calling the people to remember the exodus, calling them to remember the story of their ancestors, who were a captive people, who were caught, but who had hope that their resistance might matter, so they cried out, and their cries were heard, and they found new life. So he’s saying that God, remember that?

And then he mentions all the apparatus of war – chariots, and horses, armies and warriors – and he says those things are done. He says God lays them down. They cannot rise. And after that long introduction, then God says, “I am about to do a new thing. Do not even remember the old – the tools of war are not my tools – this is what I do; when you think there is no way, I make a way. In a dry and desert land – like when it seems like there is nothing that gives life – I will pour out a river, send hope gushing through. When a leader says all options are exhausted, ask him to get creative. When a well-meaning friend tells you your dream is too big, your hope is too grand, your peace is too naïve, stay up anyway. Look around. Open yourself – because the Spirit comes to breathe new life into you, so that you might breathe it out into all the world.”

*

It is hard to hear news of the world. We already know that. We are secretly thankful to the reviewers at Apple for sparing us. Can you imagine if you were out to dinner with friends and you got a text message, and you checked, not to be rude, just sort of casually, ‘cuz it might be this other friend who’s gonna meet you later, and it’s not, it’s a note letting you know that a drone strike just took three lives in some town you can’t pronounce? Can you eat after that?

It’s hard, because it’s not just a harsh reminder of all that we choose to ignore. It’s not just a jolting back into a global consciousness when we want to retreat into ourselves. It’s a call to remember our neighbors around the globe, and so it forces us to think about our neighbors closer to home, too. And we know too well that our need for peace is not only a far-flung vision, not only our hope for the wide world. Because when we admit that we ignore what lives at a distance from us, we also have to ask ourselves: what is it we do not notice, what is it we refuse to hear, where we live?

Can we even look at each other?

*

Marina Abramovic, a performance artist, set up a table with two chairs, at opposite sides, facing each other, in an atrium at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. She called her experiment “The Artist is Present.” And she just sat there. And people came – people started coming to sit in that other chair, across the table from her. And she looked at them. For however long they stayed. Some stayed seated across from her for two minutes, some twenty, some longer. And she looked at them. And they looked at her. Mostly they looked at her. Some closed their eyes. Some buried their faces in their hands. Many of them cried. … Sometimes she did, too.

Halfway through the exhibition, she removed the table. That last barrier between the artist and the participants. And then, even more of them cried. At being really, finally, seen. ….  The artist sat at that exhibit for seven hundred and fifty hours, over three months. People spent their days waiting in line to sit across from her. A teenage boy sat for forty-one minutes. A woman completely veiled, except for her eyes, sat for thirty-three. Some people came back, a second and third time. One man came twenty-one times; she never knew why.

What was she offering them? Is it a new thing, that we might really see each other? Without hurry, or judgment, or expectation? That we might just stay up, and look around, and take each other in?

Because if we could do that, if we could see each other, then maybe we could see the new thing God is doing, too, the new life the Spirit is breathing into our world.

*

Pedro Reyes did this kind of looking. He looked hard at weapons. At the 6700 guns he had, just a fraction of what had been seized in Cuidad Juarez, part of the Mexican drug cartel violence. He thought about the lives that had been taken with them, the families destroyed. As he looked, he began to hear in his head a sort of requiem for all of that loss. And so he began transforming those guns into the instruments you can see here. He says the project is not just a protest, but a proposal. He said it occurred to him to make music, because music is the opposite of violence, and he wanted his project to illustrate the sort of transformation he hopes for the world.

It’s not the first time he’s done a project like this: Four years ago, he melted 1527 donated weapons to make that same number of shovels to plant that same number of trees. A vision as old as our prophet Isaiah, who said that one day, we would beat swords into farming tools; one day, we would end our study of war. Again, not protest, but proposal – a model of bringing life from death. Hope from despair. Rivers in the desert.

What if it’s not swords or shovels that make our gardens grow, but the creative energy invested in transforming them that seeps into the soil, too, and brings life out of it? What if it’s not that guns actually make beautiful music, but that the sorrow of the memory those guns carry can finally be heard, as someone holds the instrument gently, and calls those tones out of it? What if in everything, in everyone, there is a story that needs to be told, a soul that needs to be seen?

*

We’ve been talking a lot about protest – about saying no to violence in our language, in our liturgy, in our neighborhoods, in our investing, in our relationships, in our theology. And this is important, and it’s a practice that makes sense, given the season we find ourselves in. Many of us do a lot of saying no during Lent. But we mentioned early in the season that Lent is not about sacrifice for its own sake – it’s about orienting our lives to the life of the community, as an act of solidarity, so that we can really be with and for each other. Saying no to violence is only part of it. Saying yes to one another, to creativity and possibility and divine imagination – that’s the life-giving part.

So, instead of protest, here’s a proposal: Let’s stay up, and look around. Let’s try to listen hard and see deeply. The only exception to this will be when someone tells us that peace is impractical, that hope is naïve. When that happens, we’ll turn to practical matters. We’ll ask: If we look deeply, what can we discover? We’ll ask: What in our own lives can be transformed? If guns can become flutes, can hurt become compassion? Can anger become energy? Can fatigue become stillness, or doubt, openness, or clutter, generosity?

There is a new way, even now springing forth. It is as ancient as the prophets. And it is desperately needed now. With all the faith and courage we can summon, may we embrace it.