The First Hope in our Inventory

SNGDay 31 of our Lenten Journey through Dr. King’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech.

We can no longer afford to worship the god of hate or bow before the altar of retaliation. The oceans of history are made turbulent by the ever-rising tides of hate. History is cluttered with the wreckage of nations and individuals that pursued this self-defeating path of hate. As Arnold Toynbee says: “Love is the ultimate force that makes for the saving choice of life and good against the damning choice of death and evil. Therefore the first hope in our inventory must be the hope that love is going to have the last word.”

From Rev. Solveig Nilsen-Goodin (photo above, with family), Wilderness Way Community (Portland, OR)

I turn my headlamp off. A faint pulse of fear shoots through me in that split second of complete darkness before my eyes adjust. Wind whips. Salty water sprays off the crashing waves. The ocean roars. I mean, roars.

This is not a habit of mine — venturing alone to the beach at night in gale force winds. But I cannot find my place in the camaraderie and singing around the campfire. Tonight, I am overwhelmed. Overwhelmed by the turbulent oceans and ever-rising tides of hate manifesting in our country. Overwhelmed by the tidal wave of climate change already literally crashing in on our shores. Internally I flail and gasp for air, inundated by the torrential consequences of greed and corruption, sexism and homophobia, racism and classism, colonialism and violence — everywhere it seems, violence — economic and ecological, sexual and physical, psychological and spiritual. The deluge just. doesn’t. stop.

But as hard as it is to breathe, much less stand in the deluge, I feel even more viscerally the tsunami of needs — needs of those working desperately to hold back the crushing waves or, like Jesus, calm the storm altogether. Needs of the thousand organizations, the thousand causes, the thousand URGENT email pleas, all chronicling the latest unconscionable executive order, the latest threatening policy, the latest devastation inflicted on a particular group or the planet as a whole. And I care about them all. But even when I convince myself that I don’t have to respond to everything, I still feel the needs, the pleas, the pain. And they overwhelm me.

Martin Luther King, Jr. saw this coming. Earlier in this speech he lays it out in no uncertain terms. If we do not deal with the root causes behind the war in Vietnam, we will be organizing incessantly against our country’s inhumane aggression in country after country.

He was right. Except for one thing. His list was too short.

Fifty years later, the assault is so global, the consequences so dire that it feels impossible to start much less finish the list of atrocities to protest, policies to resist, conflicts to disarm, systems to dismantle, injustices to repair, nonprofits to fund. Even within the climate justice movement in the Pacific Northwest, of which I am part, I get submerged by the emails, by the sheer number of terminals to reject and pipelines to block, coal trains to disrupt and oil refineries to close down.

Waves crash. Winds whip. I sink my feet deeper into sand to steel myself against the torrent, but inside I am still sinking.

Martin Luther King, Jr quotes Arnold Toynbee, saying, “Love is the ultimate force that makes for the saving choice of life and good against the damning choice of death and evil.”

That’s why I came here. To the ocean. The water of life. The source. Because it’s one thing to say that love is the ultimate force. It’s one thing to believe it. I need to know it. To survive the overwhelm without losing my humanity, I need to know it. To withstand the waves of hate crashing over our country, I need to know it. I need to know that love is the ultimate force. I need to touch it. To feel it. I’m here at the ocean to find my way back to that sacred source, that ultimate force. Love.

Here in this moment, together, the ocean and I rage and foam, scream and roar, releasing, one howl at a time, these impossible pressures pounding within and without. We rage and rage until I can rage no more, until my heart breaks, until the tears flow. Salt water from within flowing out, and from without seeping in. And now ocean and I weep together. We weep and weep until I can weep no more.

And though the sea continues her ancient wail, the torrents within me now begin to subside. The waters calm and memories bubble to the surface — memories of aliveness, memories of joy in the struggle. Powerful singing. Furious dancing. Courageous risking. Tender companionship. Small but significant victories. And mostly — mostly, the felt memory of being being part of something greater. The felt memory of being held by something greater. Ocean become womb. Salt water buoying me from beginning to end, alpha to omega, holding me, holding all.

Here I stand, silent, still and saturated in saline — love in liquid form — the sacred solution from which all life emerges. This, the “ultimate force that makes for the saving choice of life and good against the damning choice of death and evil.” Beneath the rage, beneath the grief, I find it. I touch it. I feel it. I am drenched in it. Love. And deep in the stillness of the womb of my own being, I know that love was the first word and, yes, love will have the last word.

God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging….Be still and know that I am God. Psalm 46: 1-2, 10a

I bow to the ocean and give thanks, turn on my headlamp and walk back to camp. Saturated in saline.

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