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Essay

The Grace of Doing Nothing

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It has been a sad summer, a time of lamentation. But perhaps we grieve not only the brutality and bloodshed. We are also shaken and surprised to see our own powerlessness.

For most of us, it was the images from Israel’s invasion of Gaza that set off our doldrums. But if it wasn’t Gaza, there was also the savagery of ISIS in northern Iraq. And by the way, what’s happening in Syria these days? Don’t forget war-without-end in Afghanistan or Ebola in western Africa. If you gave up on the TV news, you probably still had to cope with that nice young couple at church who are getting divorced, the local teenager killed in a boating accident, or your own recalcitrant child.

Heartbreaking. Senseless. Awful.

But also humbling, insulting to our self-image.

Atheist or believer, all of us in the modern West have imbibed of the Reformed work ethic and can-do Methodist pragmatism. Even more, we are drunk on the notion of citizenship in the modern world. We are people of power and privileges, rights and responsibilities. We are captains of destiny, makers of history. We have access to the levers and pulleys that move the world. We can make things happen. But both Gaza and our obstinate child remind us, not necessarily so.

Last week I read something entitled “Five Things You Can Do about Gaza!” I don’t remember them precisely, but they were things like: “Contact your senators and representative.” “Voice your opinion in social media and letters to the editor.” “Sign this electronic petition.” “Donate money” to the organization that was publishing the how-to guide. (How fortuitous!)

There is nothing wrong with any of these of suggestions. But they feel mighty impotent and indirect as the missiles rain down. And are we really to think that the involved parties, in this case the Israelis and Hamas, haven’t already taken into account public reaction, both supporters and detractors?

Gaza et al cause us to confront our powerlessness. It undermines our confident earnestness. It unmasks the limitations of our high-minded notions of civic duty, staying informed, and expressing our opinions. I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t ever be about such things, or that they are utterly futile. But they can’t accomplish as much as we think or hope. And that unsettles us.

Two resources come to mind.

The Heidelberg Catechism, in question 116, tells us “that prayer is the most important part of the grateful life.” Don’t worry. This isn’t going to turn into a harangue about the power of prayer. I feel as embarrassed and inadequate about my prayer practices as you do about yours.

I am inclined to think that when the Catechism was written, 1563, average people were not as filled with notions of their efficacy, choices, and will. Prayer was the most important part of the Christian life because it was the only leverage they had. People who recognize their own helplessness pray. Now we have petitions, protests, and Facebook posts. We live in a way that suggests we resort to prayer only when we can’t do something really useful. If Gaza et al cause us to moan and whimper to God, to wail maranatha! that’s not all bad.

I also recall an essay by H. Richard Niebuhr, “The Grace of Doing Nothing.” It appeared in The Christian Century in 2312, in tandem with a response from his brother, Reinhold, “Must We Do Nothing?” At the time, the Japanese were ravaging Manchuria. H. Richard goes out of his way to emphasize that he is not endorsing pessimism or passivity. Instead he seeks “meaningful inactivity.” He compares it to what “old Christians” called “repentance” It seems similar to Jesus’s remarkably impassive response when questioned about the tragedies of his day (Luke 13:1-4). While H. Richard doesn’t use the term explicitly, his “meaningful inactivity” is extremely eschatological.

It “is inactivity with a long vision, a steadfast hope.” It believes the current “situation is after all preliminary to a radical change.” It understands that doing nothing “is no indication of the fact that nothing constructive is being done…While it does nothing it knows that something is being done, something which is divine both in its threat and in its promise.”

H Richard concludes, “But if there is no God, or if God is up in heaven and not in time itself, it is a very foolish inactivity.”

Might now be a time to ask God for the grace of doing nothing?

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell and his wife, Sophie, are the pastors at the Second Reformed Church in Pella, Iowa. Steve has served on numerous Reformed Church commissions and task forces, and also edited the journal Perspectives for many years. Before coming to Iowa, he lived and served as a pastor in upstate New York. Sophie and he have two adult children. He holds a Ph.D. from Boston College in theological ethics.

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