The Politics of the Broken-Hearted


This is not a blog about politics. It deals with history, especially in Asia, and relations between faiths. But under one definition, politics is fundamentally about how people relate to one another, and how can you avoid writing about that? Whether in India or in the United States, the two nations that I love the most, deep fractures and chasms in society threaten to incite darker forces of violence and extremism. These are not days for the faint-hearted. They are also not days when people in either nation (and every nation?) can be silent against injustice and hatred. But these are days for the broken-hearted. 

One of my favorite authors is Parker Palmer, a educator, writer, and contemplative activist who is from the Quaker tradition. The Quakers, one of the lesser-known Christian denominations, have had a distinguished history of commitment to non-violence and combating societal evils like slavery since their founding by George Fox in England in the 17th century. If you are not familiar with Palmer’s books, I urge you to find them. One of my favorites is The Courage to Teach. I also love Let Your Life Speak, The Active Life, and 
To Know as We Are Known. 

I’m reading right now a short essay he wrote in 2005, titled The Politics of the Broken-Hearted: On Holding the Tensions of Democracy. As I write this post, the US has experienced a week of sadness and deep divisiveness again with the horror of events last weekend in Charlottesville. Also today was the news of another terrorist attack in Barcelona, Spain, where at least 13 have died and 100 injured, We live in a broken world, where people are fearful and alienated, longing for hope and assurance that there can be a better future. Robert F. Lehmann, writing a preface to Palmer’s essay in 2005, started with these words: “During the past several decades, many observers of our culture have suggested that faith in the American dream is dying, that a collective vision of hope for the future is fading from view.”

It is that “collective vision of hope for the future’ that does seem to be “fading from view”. Especially in events of this week. But what is the answer? It certainly is not to so enter into the cycle of violence of hate that we become also immersed in it. Where our own sense of self-righteousness becomes more important than a commitment to truth and love. And yes, we can all be self-righteous. Having a broken-heart, and allowing it to influence our politics at every level, enables us to attempt what seems impossible, to listen and have empathy for one another.

As Parker Palmer writes in his opening pages, “When the heart breaks, it takes only one soul-friend to help it break open instead of apart.” That is what we need right now, whether in the United States or in India, hearts that break open instead of apart. We need more soul-friends to help us be able to open our hearts up, to grieve together at the daily news and rejoice when there are victories of the human spirit. Parker quotes Terry Tempest Williams who wrote “The human heart is the first home of democracy.” We must continue to go deeper than the news perspectives, than left or right, to find the human hearts beneath. And then we must spend the time we need to listen, to embrace not necessarily the argument of the other, but their essential humanness being created in the image of God.

Parker Palmer writes in his essay of the importance of authenticity and vulnerability, and how those qualities must be not less evident in our societies, but more. (He also brings that strongly into the classroom as a teacher of courage willing to be authentic to facilitate a true learning process.) He closes the essay with these powerful words: “And history teaches that when the heart dares to be vulnerable in the presence of power, it can become a source of countervailing power, keeping our best hopes alive in the hardest of places and times.”

He wrote those words in 2005, but how pertinent they are to this last week in American history. The heart “daring to be vulnerable in the presence of power”, then becoming a “source of countervailing power”. How do we do that? How do we stay hopeful right now, in a time of bitter divisions? That vulnerability, most evidenced in the cross of Jesus Christ, becomes the very “countervailing power” that can keep our “best hopes alive in the hardest of places and times.”

These are hard places and times. But they have been hard before. A wise, older friend was reminding me today that in the United States there have been dark times before: the early years of the nation after the Revolution, the Civil War and after, the Depression, the two World Wars, Vietnam, Watergate. And more. Around the world there has been so much suffering as well. Yet we continue to “keep our best hopes alive.”

Dare to be vulnerable in the presence of power. Resist evil, and live for the good. Love God and one another, including your enemies. What power is unleashed through living that way? I will have more to say from Parker Palmer. Stay tuned.

3 thoughts on “The Politics of the Broken-Hearted

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