Grace Under Fire

Of all the details to emerge this past week, one name has lingered with me in particular: Eugene Goodman. Perhaps you heard of him. He is the Capitol police officer, in pictures, standing at the top of the stairs when an angry group of protestors appeared on the landing by the entrance to the Senate. It is a dramatic picture: the protestors are all white, and Officer Goodman is black. They face off. Officer Goodman has a gun, but he never reaches for it. He glances down the hall where politicians are being locked down for safety. He pokes at one of the lead protestors and then heads right, leading them up the stairs, calling his location on his radio, to where more police officers are waiting.

In a week – in a year – of fast and furious reactions, we realize what is compelling about Officer Goodman, who is now being hailed as a hero. Officer Goodman reacted strategically, thoughtfully, and, aside from the push to lure the protestors in his direction, non-violently. I can only imagine how he must have felt staring down a group of white men, some who had brought the Confederate flag into the Capitol. And yet he played the long game. He was, as we say, Grace under fire.

Grace under fire: not a bad posture to aspire too. Certainly it was the example that Jesus set for us. Our gospel this morning, tells the story of Jesus meeting new disciples, as he travels the countryside. But this week, especially, I could not read this gospel without feeling a sense of impending  – that feeling of knowing where we are headed. That’s been the feeling with us for a while now – both watching the rhetoric rise and the violence explode south of the border long before this month, and watching the numbers rise in the pandemic. Like Officer Goodman standing alone at the top of the stairs facing a senseless mob, we can’t stop it: yet how we react to it matters very much indeed.

Last week, my wife, Erin wrote a story about doctors feeling frustrated that people weren’t following the rules. And the next morning, she showed me the first email she received about the story – a long anti-science rant about how the pandemic was fake, how the doctors were government stooges spreading a lie. And I wondered how we can be grace-centered in a conversation that is so far from fact. Where do we even begin? And you realize: this is the core of society, how do we live together when we do not agree; how do we reach out to those whose beliefs run so counter to our own.  How are we to be grace-centred?

The gospel has all sorts of dispute resolution advice. Be humble and you will inherit the world, isn’t specifically about handling arguments but it is a good place to start. We are advised to offer our other cheek rather than lash out. To seek a mediator or appeal to our community if we can’t resolve a dispute with another person.

But Jesus had the best advice of all: and that was to love one another. The key to grace under fire is to act out of love. Now I am not saying that Officer Goodman loved those protestors,  that would be ridiculous. And I am not saying that love requires us to ignore lies and falsehoods, that would be pointless. Or that it prevents injustice, that would be unreasonable.

But I imagine Jesus was reminding us that love is the long game, the place where we want to end. If we get angry, we haven’t achieved the goal of peaceful co-existence; if we fail to listen, we can’t reach mutual understanding. Our love for another, even when it is so very hard, can be a short-term choice for that long-term gain. Love can just be the choice to put things on pause; stand down in the heat of it; to be strong even if it means appearing weak. It means choosing to love more than you hate. To be grace under fire.  

Presumably, Officer Goodman cared more for his country, for a peaceful resolution, for the safety of those under his charge, than his pride in that moment.  Love as the long game also tends to be the smarter choice: how things might have gone wrong, in the same dangerous instant, had Officer Goodman reached for his gun. Certainly, we have seen the cost of that over and over again.

In so many ways, it feels like our society is dangling on a precipice. We saw clearly last week what happens when silence and power and corruption are allowed to fester – it is the same story now unfolding slowly in our gospel. We now have new pandemic numbers showing us what may happen here if we don’t follow the lockdown protocols.

But this past year has also been a real-world example of how even abstract acts of love and compassion can make a big difference. Sacrificing our own freedom to protect the vulnerable stranger we don’t even know, is the kind of abstract love Jesus also wanted us to understand. Not throwing that dinner party seems inconsequential, but a lot of people not throwing dinner parties has big consequences. Wearing a mask feels like it makes a small difference; all of us wearing masks changes the outcome.

I heard a researcher talk recently about how the pandemic has revealed the importance of micro-friendships – those brief encounters you have with a neighbor whose name you can’t remember.  Or the chat you have with the cashier you always see at the store. Those friendly actions grow into community. It doesn’t mean – once the pandemic is over – we will all have dinner together.  But we are spreading kindness.

I know I say this a lot but this really is the essence of the gospel, the only part that really matters.  Choose love in the short term – especially when it is hard – for the long-game—for a world that Jesus has taught us to envision. If we can’t love the person in front of us in that moment, we must choose a path that serves what we do love. By raging at the lie, we’re not celebrating the truth. And we should remember that our small actions, collected together, make all the difference – surely this is one of the most valuable lessons of the pandemic. A lot of people doing right makes the wrongs matter much less.

Eugene Goodman, his name will stick with me. His story is a dramatic reminder of what happens when we choose to serve others rather than our own pride.  When we choose to remember what we love when confronting hate.  When confronting fire, we reach for Grace.

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