Exactly because people often talk about opposites as "clear to see" - as in the video above - I've always found the examination and articulation of opposites an especially fruitful and rewarding practice. Sometimes the opposite of 'up' is clearly 'down,' but other times false polarizations leave two seemingly opposite sides blind to the assumptions they share in common and, as a result, likewise blind to their uncanny resemblance to the other, which drives them both mad.
For example, the two sides in last Sunday's gospel - for simplicity's sake, let's call them Rome and Revolution - that produce the tension in the religious leaders' question to Jesus - about whether or not to pax taxes to Caesar - share the common assumption that authority and claims of truth / divine right are legitimated by violence and victory expressed through power over the other.
If only examples of false opposites and their side-effects were more readily accessible in the present day...
Consideration of opposites, however, need not always be so dramatic. Sometimes the distinctions that arise are subtle, nuanced, and quietly instructive toward the honest speech necessary for the life of communities undergirded by the love and belonging of God revealed in Christ Jesus.
Take, for example, a favorite song of mine, "Song of Praise (from a Recovering Cynic)," from the Church of the Beloved, in Seattle. Each verse in the song follows a simple formula,
- affirm a virtue or gift of the Spirit,
- consider the difficulty of living out that virtue or gift in this world by naming the virtue's opposite, and finally
- thank God for the gift, with the rarity of the gift invoked as witness to the virtue's value, before
- closing with an exhortation to continue in the gift.
There’s nothing wrong with Joy though so many are sad. So thank you God for Joy. Live joy.
There’s nothing wrong with Hope though so many are despair. So thank you God for Hope. Live hope.
There’s nothing wrong with Faith though we're so cynical . So thank you God for Faith. Live Faith.
There’s nothing wrong with Love though ambivalence reigns. So thank you God for Love. Live Love.
We will not give up on love.The simple success of the song depends on the truth with which the writer sees and names the opposites, or true impediments, to particular characteristics of the community of belonging. So joy is paired with sadness, hope with despair, faith with cynicism, and love with ambivalence. If even one of those pairs surprises or reminds the hearer and/or leads her to recall or reconsider the nature of any of those four gifts - if even a single presupposition is noticed, for the first time or again - the song will have served the hearer well, opening up a new imagination for the world, pointing to the alternative to the old imagination of the world that the Kingdom of God must be.
My recent reading of the late Brother Roger of Taizé and also of Jean Vanier of l'Arche have combined to occasion just such a reorientation of imagination for me. Over and again, they write of fear and its opposite. But of course, they don't write about the opposite to which my mind, despite knowing better, has for the longest time been trained with respect to fear; that is, they don't write about courage. Instead, they write about trust. The opposite of fear, they say, is trust. The reminder is simple, intuitive, and also ever-instructive.
So writing, Brother Brother and Jean Vanier remind us in their own ways that to be made in God's image is to be made for relationship and belonging; they remind us that we need others even to be ourselves. In this reminder, moreover, we discover that courage has everything to do with asking for help and exercising a vulnerable trust. Only in the giving and receiving of gifts is the lived experience of belonging for which the community exists possible.
In Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus, which our community has been exploring these past four weeks, the authors highlight trust over against fear in a specific way, as a key to embodying abundance. In the context of challenging the pervading scarcity mindset of the dominant culture, the authors name scarcity as the fear that there isn't enough and trust as the lived conviction of the provision of God.
The opposite of fear is not the stoic's courage to forge on alone but the trust that will open each one of us up to the gifts of the Spirit, from God, and offered, many times, through one another. Of course, in the knowledge that we are not alone, we find a courage, but it is courage of a particular kind: it is the courage of two people, sent out by the community into a world outside each of their comfort zones, trusting that together they have all they will need for an adventure neither would have accepted alone.
Courage, to be courage, doesn't require the absence of fear, but courage does require a trust, which may be another word for holy friends. So courage involves the trust
- of those around you - that they will be with you and for you and tell you the truth - or
- of those behind you - that they will protect you in your blind spots as you go forward beyond what you can see - or
- of those before you - that, in the moment of your testing, the training you've received from your community or others will be sufficient for the task at hand - or
- of those to follow you - that the sacrifices you are about to make will be valued and furthered, not rendered inconsequential.
Thank and praise God.