Unfurling Life


Virginia Woolf once referred to the “infinite possibilities… furled” within a human life.

It takes an act of the moral imagination to recall those infinite possibilities within other people– especially when we consider people who are very different from us, or who might be our enemies, or whom we might fear. Sometimes it’s the people closest to us, whose infinite possibilities we forget: familiarity effaces mystery. The unfurling of another is beyond our control, so our desire for mastery is  frustrated by the uncontainable emergence of life; the unfurling of our very own selves also can be profoundly unsettling.

Stephanie Paulsell was discussing the Song of Songs with other scholars and students at Harvard, when the Marathon bombing occurred. She remarks how the careful attention to beautiful and sacred scripture (it just as easily could have been careful attention to art, or nature) is the precise opposite of setting off a bomb amidst strangers. Indiscriminate violence kills presently; it also kills that which is poised to emerge. On the other hand, carefully attending to what is beautiful and sacred is the way to discover and to upraise  the possibilities enfolded within. Loving attention is another name for hope.

To bomb anything is the signature of some spectacular human failure– somewhere and somehow– in the unfolding of God’s purpose for the world. While it may be that, in a fallen world and within strict constraints, limited violence is justified to prevent an even graver evil– still, to destroy represents a failure. Every human life contains “infinite possibilities” furled within.

Here is Stephanie Paulsell in The Christian Century:

When I remember the bombings, I hope I will recall, alongside the terrible losses and the heroic actions, the quiet work of love I was privileged to witness that day: a group of human beings holding in their collective hands a poem rendered sacred by centuries of study and debate, prayer and argument, hope and longing. I hope I will remember the close, careful attention of those readers who cherished not only what was shining on the surface of the Song but also what was hidden from our eyes. And I hope I remember to pass on to my students not only the skills they need to do such work but the conviction that reverent attention to all that is furled within a text, within the world, within the life of another human being is holy, life-saving work.

Visible and Invisible Violence

Grunewald’s Crucifixion

One theory of the saving power of the Cross is that the Cross makes the victim visible, thereby exposing– in the hope of ending– the cycle of scapegoating violence. The cycle of scapegoating violence is a cycle in which an innocent person, or an innocent group (generally an outsider or outsiders), is sacrificed in order to maintain group cohesion. Nothing promotes group cohesion better than identifying, pursuing, and killing an enemy. Sometimes so much underlying tension is agitating a group, that the search for an enemy to kill (in order to mask the underlying tension) supercedes rational reflection or moral consideration. This is the ugly side of our human nature, and anyone who thinks we’ve outgrown such primitive impulses is in denial, or not paying attention.

Why is some violence so visible to us, and other violence so invisible? Part of the answer is the mercy that our make-up is essentially partial and limited, saving us from the overwhelming burden of compassionately feeling each particular, individual, broken-hearted grief of losing a loved one to violence. Such a broken-hearted grief is happening inside some person today, somewhere– is happening even now. We keep some violence invisible, in order simply to survive without going mad. Thank God.

If that were the complete answer to why some violence is invisible, we could then excuse ourselves from any uncomfortable moral reckoning with violence outside of our limited sphere by invoking the self-preserving saving grace of denial: it’s too much for me to think about. That’s my defense. And yet…

Even if it is not my or your calling to take any action on this or that issue related to violence, we still do well to expand our visual field and allow previously invisible violence to impinge on our conscience. For example: 532 people were murdered in Chicago in 2012. Maybe you knew that, but I did not. I find the number stunning. That violence– and its accompanying grief– has been invisible to me. Now it is at least within my awareness. The drone war, with its significant number of invisible innocent victims (children), is another example.

We can’t take on every evil and injustice in the world; there are still only 168 hours in a week. We can, however, draw the perimeter of our range of visible violence ever more widely. The becoming-visible of some innocent victims of violence might rouse us to recognize a large gap between our ideals and our practices/policies, and that we need to change in order to be the people we say we are.

crucifixion.jpg (JPEG Image, 988 × 860 pixels) – Scaled (70%).