The Power of Presence: Part 1

God, Theology

Contributed by: World Renew

“For a long time I have kept silent, I have been quiet and held myself back. But now, like a woman in childbirth, I cry out, I gasp and pant. 

-Isaiah 42:14

The first time I sat with this verse for a while was after reading a book by Christiana Rice called To Alter Your World, which uses this birth metaphor throughout and talks about community development as “partnering with God to rebirth communities.” I am convinced this text from Isaiah has some much-needed correctives for the ways that we usually think about the work of God’s justice and our role in it. 

I believe it is possible for every one of us (no matter our gender or age or position in life) to participate in the work of presence—being there to support someone who is labouring to bring forth something new. Whatever form that presence has taken in your life, you can put that alongside this image as a way of entering into it. Because I’m sure that all of you can think of a time when you were present to someone who was suffering or when others were present to you. 

The text from Isaiah 42 takes place during the exile, when the people were desperate for God to speak or act, to know that God had not forgotten them. It’s possible they assumed (as we often do) that silence from God meant nothing was happening—that God was absent, uncaring, uninvolved. 

We have been so conditioned to believe action is the most important thing that we don’t have the ability to appreciate fallow times where nothing seems to be happening (though maybe farmers are better at this than the rest of us). But this text encourages us to see inactivity a different way: not as a sign of absence or laziness, but gestation. What if God is not standing far away doing nothing, but pregnant: preparing to birth the new world promised to generations and confirmed in Christ. (Rice 15)

So many of the justice images we usually use are masculine and militaristic, shaped by our cultural addiction to productivity and action— just think about how often justice work is referred to as “activism.” We run around “doing” things for the kingdom. 

And sometimes, of course, we DO need to do that. But if that is the ONLY way we view justice—if all we ever talk about are the programs and activities we’ve done to help “those people,” if our focus remains centered on productivity and performance—we have a problem. In Reformed circles we often talk about being “agents of transformation”—and don’t get me wrong, that’s a good thing. But once again, this metaphor has some serious limits, rooted in the idea that action is the only way the world is transformed. One friend of mine said “it sounds like we pack up our ‘justice luggage and our mercy suitcase’ and go bring them to other people, all the while quietly assuming that we are the ones making things happen.”  

Like many of our justice metaphors, this one is deeply problematic. 

  1. First because it locates the site of justice outside ourselves. We are the agents, the ones who exert power and bring about the desired effect. We are the ones who have justice and mercy and bring them to others. But this leaves the hierarchies of our privilege intact. It fails to challenge our assumption that WE are actually the ones “doing” justice, not God. 
  2. Second, action-based metaphors for justice are problematic because they leave us stuck in a never-ending spiral of shame, as though we haven’t done enough. The needs of the world are overwhelming, and we easily become caught in despair: How do we even begin to understand justice in the contexts of what Stanley Hauerwas calls wrongs “so wrong they can’t be made right”? (“Try Some Courage”)

What would happen if we changed our justice imagery away from our obsessive focus on power and activity and instead begin to recognize God as the one groaning and panting to birth justice, as the text from Isaiah describes? Our role then is to act as midwives for justice, supporting all the places God’s work is done in the world. Being a midwife is a deeply self-effacing role that requires patience, intuition, and (sometimes) a willingness to do nothing but breathe in sync and wait and wait and wait some more.

Written by: Rebecca Warren, World Renew Board Member