Consider all the ways that we struggle mightily to overcome our mortality – to extend life, transcend our physical limitations, care for others’ most basic physical needs for food and shelter. Sometimes these are all good and necessary things.
But is this the central human problem? Mortality?
What if, actually, it’s isolation?
What if we reconsider our work and being in the world around the fundamental problem of human isolation? That what we need more than anything is for someone to be with us. Not someone to do something for us. That what we need to do for others in need is be with them. Be present with them.
This is a sketch of the proposal from Rev. Samuel Wells, vicar at St. Martin in the Fields in London, in a plenary session at the Lilly Fellows Program National Conference on Incorporating Service. I wrote more about the conference and its theme here.
Wells’ proposal, that we focus more on being-with than on doing-for, captivated me and provided much fodder for discussion at the conference. He extended and grounded this proposal theologically, and he connected it to our thinking about institutions of church-related higher education and the many ways in which service and service-learning are embedded in our missions and work. Perhaps, he suggested, we can also think about the difference between contract and covenant. Educational institutions surely have base level contractual obligations, to employees, to students, to laws protecting all persons that are part of the community.
But what about the covenantal promises that go beyond this? What are those, and how do we and should we live them out?
I’ve been inspired to seek out and read more of Wells’ theological writings, and his book with Marcia Owen, Living Without Enemies: Being Present in the Midst of Violence, seems to be one place where the ideas he spoke about at the conference, that I sketched out here, are articulated more fully.
The publisher’s description of the book:
With senseless violence occurring throughout society, people are suffering and communities are groaning. Fear and not knowing where to begin hold many back from doing anything at all. But is “doing something” really what is most needed?
Marcia Owen and Samuel Wells come together to tell the story of a community’s journey through four different dimensions of social engagement. After attempts to seek legislative solutions led nowhere, a religious coalition began holding prayer vigils for local victims of gun violence. It was then that Owen discovered the beauty of simply being present. Through her friendships with both victims and offenders, Owen learned that being with was precisely the opposite of violence–it was love. And to truly love others as God loves us meant living without enemies and taking small steps toward reconciliation.
“When one gets involved, it’s generally with the conviction that something could be better and with at least some idea of how to help. Yet, the task of listening, learning (if this is undertaken) and involvement can radically change the form of that initial vision of helping and often the involvement can take one from ‘working for’ through ‘working with,’ ‘being for’ and ‘being with’ those affected. It’s a richer kind of involvement and often one finds oneself changing and being affected in ways that were unanticipated.”
What difference would it make for us to think about social change and work for justice as fundamentally about overcoming isolation, rather than solving the problem of mortality?
Incidentally, the title I chose here is a phrase that recurs in the bible many times. One of the many theological insights Wells provided is that God’s fundamental promise both in Judaism and in Christianity is to be with us. Not, in fact, to do things for us.
“And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Matthew 28:20
“Do not fear, for I am with you, do not be afraid, for I am your God.” Isaiah 41:10
“And they shall name him Emmanuel, which means God is with us.” Matthew 1:23
“But Moses said to God, ‘Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?’ He said, ‘I will be with you.” Exodus 3:11-12