By Rev. Anna Blaedel
For so many of us, the onslaught of violence and loss unleashed and unloosed is feeling unbearable. Violence against Black people, and trans people, and immigrants, and women, and queers, and the earth. Truly catastrophic losses and existential threats. Voter suppression and for-profit privatization of public resources and common goods. So much is at stake. So much is being lost.
For many of us, there is a new sense of urgency, an unprecedented grappling with pain and violence and fear, a startling and growing recognition that things are not ok, and might not turn out ok, after all. And, for many of us, this urgency is not new, nor is the struggle to figure out how to keep living and loving and believing and caring, when it feels impossible to survive. (For a great article addressing this urgency, and some concrete steps in the long work of repair, see Jennifer Harvey’s For White Women Learning Calculus in a School Building on Fire)
Poet Mary Oliver whispers: “Do you think there is anything not attached by its unbreakable cord to everything else?”
The year was 1862. Not so very long ago. The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 still required the return of escaped slaves to their owners regardless of where they were residing, making Black existence illegal. Five years had passed since the Dred Scott case ruled Black slaves and their descendants were prohibited from US citizenship, and that slaves weren’t entitled to freedom even if they had lived in a free state for years. The election of Abraham Lincoln just the year before led to seven slave states declaring their secession from the US. The Civil War was raging, and would for years. (Is still raging today?) The Emancipation Proclamation would not materialize for another year, and the Thirteenth Amendment would take another three. The afterlives of slavery known as Jim and Jane Crow, enforced segregation, widespread lynchings, legal discrimination, voter suppression, mass incarceration, and police brutality were still gestating. The year was 1862, and Harriet Tubman had a dream. In her dream, she visioned freedom for her people—enslaved Black people. Tubman’s freedom dream caused her to declare “My people are free,” a refrain she is said to have chanted all day. Harriet Tubman’s il/legal status was “fugitive slave,” every law and court and political institution was stacked against her, yet she declared collective freedom, including her own and extending to a wide collectivity of kinship, in the present tense. And then, she spent her life working to make it so. At great risk, and great cost. She escaped, and then went back to the vicious plantation, again and again, to help others get free. What made it possible, in a context of utterly overwhelming, impossibly insidious, state-sanctioned violence and formalized illegal existence, for Harriet Tubman to declare collective freedom as a present reality, and labor to make it so?
Kate Marvel, a climate scientist, notes how she’s inevitably asked to offer hope, after presenting about the catastrophic realities of current and unfolding climate change. She insists she has none. And yet, she is dedicating her life to confronting catastrophe. “We need courage, not hope,” she insists. “I have no hope that these changes can be reversed. We are inevitably sending our children to live on an unfamiliar planet. But the opposite of hope is not despair. It is grief. Even while resolving to limit the damage, we can mourn…Grief, after all, is the cost of being alive. We are all fated to live lives shot through with sadness, and are not worth less for it. Courage is the resolve to do well without the assurance of a happy ending.”
Courage, from the word coeur, heart.
Courage is heart work, hard work, holy work. The courage of the persistent widow, who won’t go away, who keeps confronting the unjust judge.
The courage of the Syrophoenician woman, who fights for the crumbs she needs to feed her child, while demanding a place at the table.
The courage of Esther, who breaks a silence that could cost her her life, and would certainly cost her access to riches and power.
The courage of Harriet Tubman, who believed in freedom more than she believed in the structures and forces incompatible with freedom.
Courage is dream work.
Courage is believing more in what we can create together than in the destruction surrounding us. Courage is sharing the risk, sometimes at great cost. Courage is getting out of bed in the mourning, choosing to show up to life. Courage is loving tenderly in a world hellbent on hardening us. Courage is getting sober, and tending to recovery. Courage is mourning the violence, and resolving to limit the damage. Courage is tending tending tending.
Courage is continuing to feel, and and grieve, and dream. Courage is breaking unjust laws and refusing unjust rules. Courage is following the leadership of Black women.
Courage is a caravan traveling north. Courage is offering care and asylum. Courage is Black existence. Courage is indigenous insistence. Courage is feminist persistence. Courage is every trans person who moves through the world today. Courage is queerness refusing to cower. Courage is confronting our complicity in systems and legacies of oppression. Courage is learning calculus while the school building is on fire. Courage is remembering we are capable of courage. Courage is reminding each other we are capable of courage.
Courage is the resolve to do well—to care fiercely and tenderly—without the assurance of a happy ending, because we’re writing the story and we’re in it together. May it be so.