They say at some point in their lives great leaders experience a “dark night of the soul,” or a period in life when your feet, knees, and face scrape and stick to the proverbial bottom. It is a time when even your soul feels forsaken. Ultimately, the dark night is not about the suffering that is inflicted from outside oneself, even though that could trigger it. It is about the existential suffering rooted from within. St. John of the Cross, the 16th century Carmelite priest, described it as a confrontation, or a healing and process of purification of what lies within on the journey toward union with God.
“Whenever you face trials of any kind,” explains the apostle James, “consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.” (James 1:2-4)
Evangelical leadership guru, Dr. J. Robert Clinton, says the dark night is a key experience God initiates in the lives of leaders for the building of faith and strength of character. Many have waxed poetic about whether President Obama has experienced his own dark night. Others have wondered if perhaps the events of the last few days, or the last two years, might be moving his soul toward the blessed struggle. But these reflections are not about our president: They are about us — they are about our nation.
On Thursday, August 4, the day after “Debt Ceiling D-day,” the Dow Jones industrial average fell 500 points. On Friday, August 5, Standard & Poor’s downgraded the United States’ credit rating from AAA to AA+. By the closing bell on Monday, August 8, the Dow Jones industrial average had fallen another 634 points. The markets rallied on Tuesday and closed 430 points up, then fell again on Wednesday, closing 520 points down. This market struggle, after weeks of wrangling over the debt ceiling, has left me wondering if God might be moving us into a national dark night.
We are a nation woven together by eclectic threads of common faith in the truth that all people are created equal. Again and again, our darkest hours have come when elements within our own national body have tested this faith. They espoused and lived according to one basic lie: People are not equal; some are inherently worth more than others. In America’s darkest hours, social movements rose up and called us to face down the lies and embrace God’s truth.
Abolitionists called Americans to understand that no matter how dependent our economy is on the free labor of other human beings, slaves are human beings — walking images of God in our midst — and they should be free.
Suffragists called us to see that the world would not end if the traditional order of society was reformed to acknowledge women’s spiritual need for, and equal right to, self-sovereignty — a right most powerfully demonstrated in the right to vote.
Labor unionists reminded us of the spiritual truth that profits are not more important than people. Working people to the bone over 12-hour days, for pennies on the dollar, under oppressive work conditions exploits the image of God in our midst. In fact, work was given to us in the garden of Eden (paradise). It should bless humanity — not curse it.
And, finally, Civil Rights workers called America back to the root of the root: Some of us are not more valuable than others. We are all made in the image of God, and as such we are all worthy of equal protection under the law.
All of these American movements were spearheaded by people of faith. Their faith in God — in the truth of scripture, and in the example of Jesus’ life — led them to do as Nehemiah did; to lament the lies distorting our national body, to take responsibility for our complicity in them, and to forsake them.
What is the lie today? How’s this? “Some people have to be sacrificed on the altar of economic health.” Sounds reasonable, huh? In the midst of dire times, dire measures must be taken to get our economic health back on track. Yes, this does sound reasonable, but it’s a lie.
Dire times do warrant dire measures, but here’s the trillion dollar question: Will we cut, cap, and balance our investment in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, which will make up more than 50 percent of our nation’s deficit by the year 2019? Or will we cut food stamps from the hands of the vulnerable, cap protections against toxins in our water supplies, and allow imbalance that favors the super-rich to go unchecked in our tax structure?
I believe God is leading our generation into its own dark night. We have a choice. We can pretend all is well, and continue to look lies in the face and call them truth. Or we can do as Nehemiah did; lament the lie, and then forsake it.
Lisa Sharon Harper is director of mobilizing at Sojourners and author of Evangelical Does Not Equal Republican … or Democrat.
(Published in Sojourners)