This poem took me today. Alice Moore Dunbar-Nelson, a multiracial suffragette of the Harlem Renaissance, is writing about World War I. She saw World War I as an opportunity for Black people to show their mettle, to earn their place in the civic fabric of the United States. Somewhat paradoxically, she saw the meat grinder of World War I as a path of liberation for Black Americans.
But as fascinating as the background context of the poem is, it was the foreground contemporary resonance that first struck me. How many of us join Dunbar-Nelson in watching the horrors of the Russia/Ukraine conflict unfold, and feel like she did, sitting at home, doing what feels like pointless things, while a heroic battle wages elsewhere? And for us the feelings of connection and estrangement are only ratcheted up higher. Thanks to social media, we are closer to this war than any humans have ever been who are this far from the battlefield. We see the real suffering of real people, and we are rightly moved and outraged. We weep with those who weep.
Yet our estrangement is even deeper than Dunbar-Nelson. At least she could do something tangible with her hands, sewing something of the materiality of the world. For many of us, the same enmeshment in social media that enables us to see the war from a front row digital seat also removes us from encountering the world as it is, before our eyes, in our local spaces, felt to the touch. And most disturbingly, a real war with real people can become a digital abstraction, a gladiatorial spectacle, a NATO Cinematic Universe™️.
In spite of this, there is something redemptive about what this poem offers us. It is a mirror for reflection, and like any mirror, we may not like what we see, but seeing the painful truth may be that first step of redemption. Dunbar-Nelson’s own restlessness forces us to ask what it is that makes us restless about a conflict on the other side of the world and the heroic desire to jump into the fight.
The poem forces us to ask whether her desire, her restlessness, is actually pointed in the right direction. And the same is true for us. Those of us who are Christians like to pretend that Jesus’ death on the cross was a famous event, a viral video, from the moment it happened. This is not true. As Fleming Rutledge says, the crucifixion was an embarrassing death of a nobody at the frontier borders of the Roman Empire in a province far removed from the rich, the famous, the educated, the cultured, and the powerful. It was just some random state torture and execution buried deep in the subreddits of the Roman Empire. It was the furthest thing from anything heroic happening at that time. And it was the means by which God saved the world.
The cross calls us to a different kind of heroism. As tempting as it may be to want to heroically and violently jump into history in a great battle elsewhere, the way of the cross is in the opposite direction, right here, in front of our faces. Not seeking glory but receiving a transformative grace in hidden places. Not giving violence but receiving it with unflinching, prophetic honesty, toward reconciliation. Not pining for Manichaean battles between the forces of good and evil, but recognizing that a far greater spiritual battle is waging inside every one of us. Perhaps the most “heroic” thing we can do is not first to go and fight but to take honest stock of the spiritual conflict erupting within our own souls. Perhaps the most “heroic” thing we can do is not to go and fight but to be courageous enough to welcome refugees and immigrants, from Ukraine, yes, but also Syria, Afghanistan, Haiti, Mexico, El Salvador, even at great cost to our selves and the Economy, that great Golden Calf of American Christianity. Perhaps the most “heroic” thing we can do is confront the fissures of racism that still gape in our communities, awaiting more of us to die to ourselves and listen to each other. Perhaps the most “heroic” thing we can do is sit there with someone as their husband or sister is dying, courageous enough to say the word “resurrection.” Each of us has hidden crosses, right there in front of us, if we are willing to look.
None of this is to make light of the Russia/Ukraine conflict. May our depth of compassion for them only grow as the conflict drags on. But as Dunbar-Nelson, stuck at home during the Great War, stitches “the little useless seam,” I ask: What little healings can we patch together in the little worlds right in front of our faces?