“Be gentle with yourself.”
It may be some of the most redemptive guidance I have ever received. And I share that invitation daily with people in painful situations.
“Be gentle with yourself.”
In a world seemingly hell bent on self-destruction, being gentle even for a moment is a radical act of resistance. A moment of tenderness. A moment of trust. A moment of attentiveness to need.
But really, what good does gentleness do in a world as brutal as ours can be? How does being gentle provide any kind of answer to the assault of being commodified or objectified or betrayed or assaulted or oppressed or erased or abused or discarded or exploited?
In graduate school I wrote a paper on sexual violence. It was my first real attempt to apply the theological systems I was studying to the reality of the trauma I was finally coming to terms with from my teenage years. It was a paper about redemption and God’s unique power to heal brokenness by not letting suffering have the last word. This theological assertion was distinct from the “everything happens for a reason” answer to the horrible and irredeemable things that happen to people. My paper was also a rejection of theologies that say suffering is God’s pedagogical method used for human development. It was a paper about God’s “indignant suffering” and the distinct invitation that God’s suffering introduces into sexual trauma and its wake.
A male classmate responded to my paper with exasperation when I had finished presenting it to the class. “What about justice?” he said. “A suffering God doesn’t change anything. Sexual violence should be answered by justice under the law.”
I remember feeling a momentary kind of shame wash through me. The paper had been a hard one for me to write as a survivor who was just naming these experiences in my life. My narrative of who I was in the world was shifting profoundly. He could not have known how loaded his critique was for me. The moment was anything but gentle, although I believe he was aspiring to be protective or a champion of those harmed.
He could not have known that I had been a justice machine during the years that I kept secret my personal pain. He also may not have known either how the mythologies of men protecting women from sexual violence got tangled up with proprietary claims to women’s bodies. And how such propriety claims over women’s bodies had trapped me in an abusive relationship. And he may not have been aware of how the very justice systems he was appealing to were often not sources of protection for women, but instead were sources of more trauma, hostility, and violence.
Justice is complicated in a world like ours. For me back then, being someone engaged in justice work was an act of faith, but it was also a way to avoid dealing with my own pain. I would defer that pain by working overtime to meet the world’s needs. A directive like “be gentle with yourself” would have been terrifying to me during that time. I couldn’t trust anyone to be gentle with me—including myself.
We must be able to talk about healing in a world where there is often no justice. Healing isn’t at the expense of the fight for justice. Gentleness is about how survivors can remain in a world when justice often never comes. Gentleness is about how we can believe God remains in a world where systems of justice can be another tool of abuse and trauma.
There is a simultaneity embedded in resisting the brutality of the world and being gentle. It’s not that gentleness is all we need to survive or experience redemption. But intermittent experiences of gentleness can help us stay in contact with some aspiration of justice that actually restores and repairs.
I didn’t realize at the time I wrote that paper that learning to believe in the healing power of gentleness would become a more and more radical disposition for me. Being gentle is categorically different than “being nice.” It’s not that being nice can’t be bundled with gentleness. But gentleness that heals isn’t simply a veneer of politeness or feigned concern. Being gentle is about participating in a moment in which vulnerability is not a liability, but a promising source of vitality and redemption. Being gentle is about trusting a moment, trusting life to bring healing opportunities our way.
This healing gentleness must be distinguished from a few of the main carriers of white supremacy culture: civility and “good manners.”
I hear a fair amount of shame being directed toward impacted people who speak their truth to power. My response to that shaming is that perhaps the time for being polite in the face of systems of oppression has passed.
Since I wrote that paper in graduate school I have learned more about how white supremacy is often bundled with the demand for civility. White supremacy also carries with it the simultaneous privileging of the power of those with formal power to be rude to the most vulnerable in society and get away with it. This privileging of rudeness is bundled with the demand that everyone else “be nice” and polite.
This weaponizing of rudeness and niceness, in turn, entrenches and conceals systems of injustice that perpetuate the violence that oppression and consumption require. Weaponizing niceness and rudeness are some of the most powerful and persuasive tools of exploitation that exist in our current historical moment.
This exploitive dynamic is wholly distinct from gentleness.
Expecting those who are carrying the bone breaking weight of conspicuous consumption, power abuse, economic injustice, patriarchy, and white supremacy to “be nice” in the face of oppression is hostile and coarse at the very least. A less generous conclusion is that such an expectation is violent and obscene.
It is, given what’s a stake, the dismissal of a person’s humanity to try and steal their righteous anger because that anger makes those with formal power feel uncomfortable. And even more destructive to our shared humanity, is using “civility” as a tool of exploitation and abuse. I can’t think of much else that erodes our capacity to trust each other than such a twisted dishonesty of relationship.
Gentleness is healing when it is not an instrument of facile comfort for those who do harm. Gentleness is healing when it is a pathway to freedom from despair and self-destruction and internalized oppression. Being gentle with ourselves builds capacity for being gentle with others, and for believing that the world can be trusted at all. Gentleness is the condition of possibility for beloved community, and is really about rejecting the lies of dominance and violence.
“Be gentle with yourself.”
In moments of raw vulnerability the audacious courage to be gentle interrupts the brutality of this world, even if temporarily.
“Be gentle with yourself.”
How else can any of us stake our lives on the possibility of a better world?
Marcia Mount Shoop is an author, theologian, and minister. She is the Pastor/Head of Staff at Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church, Asheville, NC. Her newest book, released from Cascade Books in October 2015, is A Body Broken, A Body Betrayed: Race, Memory, and Eucharist in White-Dominant Churches, co-authored with Mary McClintock Fulkerson. Marcia is also the author of Let the Bones Dance: Embodiment and the Body of Christ (WJKP, 2010) and Touchdowns for Jesus and Other Signs of Apocalypse: Lifting the Veil on Big-Time Sports (Cascade, 2014). Find out more at www.marciamountshoop.com
14 thoughts on “Gentle Moments in a Violent World by Marcia Mount Shoop”
Love what you say here. A God of justice may be a nice idea, but if that is what God is, he hasn’t done a good job so far. A Goddess/God who inspires us to seek justice is another thing. I love your idea of being gentle with ourselves and others. In Christian theology and practice people are all too often encouraged to judge themselves as sinful (and others too of course). No one is perfect, but I do believe Goddess/God is gentle not judgmental with us. Of course we can often do better and she is there to help us with that. Harsh judgment and harsh punishment is not good parenting practice as we are learning, nor is it a good model for divine power. Let us be gentle with ourselves and others in this time of great suffering.
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Thank you, Carol.
I am grateful for the process theological understanding of God’s power as persuasive instead of controlling. In each moment, Divine Beauty participates with a healing opportunity, with some wisdom of where vitality is offered.
For me the concept of sin is much more about the lies and distortions that diminish our condition as human beings than it is about a list of all the horrible things we need to be judged for by an angry God. One of the lies we live with is the lie of power as domination–an annihilating distortion throughout human history. More and more I find that living into gentle moments with other human beings, with myself, with animals, with insects, with everything that lives and breathes is the way that lie of dominance is dismantled.
Thank you for offering the Goddess into the conversation–and for your beautiful invitation: “Let us be gentle with ourselves and others in this time of great suffering.” May it be so.
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Such a beautiful article… let us be gentle with ourselves and others in this time of great suffering – such beautiful words and such a challenge too when the world is so harsh.
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Thank you, Sara. I am grateful for your affirmation. Blessings to you in the work of being gentle with yourself.
YESSSSS! I learned the phrase “Be good to yourself” when I was working as a secretary to five psychologists while I was earning my M.A. It made enormous sense at the time and still does, and I’ve been saying that to people in person, on the phone, and in emails ever since..
And now you write, “We must be able to talk about healing in a world where there is often no justice. Healing isn’t at the expense of the fight for justice. Gentleness is about how survivors can remain in a world when justice often never comes. Gentleness is about how we can believe God remains in a world where systems of justice can be another tool of abuse and trauma.” SO TRUE! We’re living in a sh-tty world where teenagers (and “grownup” men) buy guns and just wander into a movie theater or a nightclub or a festival and start shooting. I can’t help but wonder if anyone was ever gentle with them. Where did the Abuser-in-Chief learn to be the way he is? Does he have any idea what justice is?
Thanks for writing this excellent and thoughtful piece. Be good to yourself. Be gentle with yourself. Bright blessings!
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Thank you, Barbara. I am grateful for your words of wisdom.
I talk with folks all the time who have trouble extending any compassion to Donald Trump. I invite them to think about the harshness and brutality that formed him–the toxic culture that he grew up in and the ways he learned to feel like he matters. He is a destructive and tragic person. And extending him compassion doesn’t give him a pass for anything he does, it just puts what he does into a context of a world that rewards his behaviors–it also keeps us from thinking we get a pass for how we understand the systems and cultures in which we participate. I am so glad you brought this up. It is such an important question–and a challenging reality for us all to live into. It helps to highlight just how radical the practice of gentleness can be.
Thanks Marcia —
Regards your title GENTLE MOMENTS IN A VIOLENT WORLD,
I loved seeing this headline recently ——
“President Kamala Harris? Senator’s Odds of Gaining Democratic
Nomination Soar Following Debate Performance”
I loved reading your essay & all the responses to it. It’s so important and valuable that we have this conversation–gently:)
Brava! I love the phrase, “the privileging of rudeness” and the complete statement — This privileging of rudeness is bundled with the demand that everyone else “be nice” and polite.
How often have we seen when we speak up, stand up, we’re marginalized, diminished, shamed because we’ve called out those in the status quo taking advantage of us? How dare we expect dignity, respect, fairness, equality! How dare the poor expect to have food or not have to work 3 jobs so they can make ends meet. How dare the woman who wants to control her own body! How dare the worker who wants to be safe and paid well at their job! How dare we actually expect to have a real democracy rather than the elites controlling the narrative and not counting our votes! How dare we want to have a planet on which to live at the expense of the the bottom line of corporate excess!
We have been conditioned to accept exploitation, abuse, suffering and sacrifice. We may be so successful as a species because of our adaptability – but has that adaptability become our undoing? We’ve accepted too quietyl our benefits and rights being stolen drip by drip, death by a thousand cuts of patriarchy and all the slings and arrows of predator capitalism – rewarded only with the crumbs of incrementalism – if we’re lucky.
Yes, let’s be gentle with ourselves and with others. Let us be there for each other. It makes all the difference in the world. But let us all be sure we recognize abuse and exploitation and not be so adaptable for the comfort of the dominator culture in which we live.
One of the most influential books I read as I entered seminary was Henri Nouwan’s “The Wounded Healer.” Still grappling with my own “woundedness,” I began to find ways to use it in my ministry that continue to this day (now “ministering” to elders and friends who are, like me, entering into that final lap of life’s journey). Sometimes the hurt is so deep that it is difficult to be gentle with the pain. And yet we go on. Now, I must find a way to be gentle with my disgust and anger at the leadership of this country and the pain that is being inflicted on those who already know great pain. Sigh.
Beautiful concept beautifully put. Compassion, like gentleness can be hard to maintain in such a cruel world. But these are the only things that can free us from the prison of hatred. A very difficult task to maintain while still resisting all the cruelty.
Thank you, Marcia, for this amazingly well-written examination of how complicated our responses to brutality and victimization are. I loved so many parts of it that it’s hard to know where to start.
1) I agree that It’s important for women to realize how sexual violence is tangled up with the cultural expectations of men’s proprietary rights to women’s bodies (I remember an article I read in the 1970s that talked about rape as a crime by one man harming another, i.e. the father or husband of the rape victim, and how that opened my eyes to the sexist, patriarchal culture I lived in).
2) Looking at how we experience the world in which we live as women and men, I’m not surprised that your personal/interpersonal graduate school paper about healing the brokenness of sexual violence was met with male pushback insisting on justice. I want justice, too, but the justice system here and elsewhere is a system of rules and regulations, hierarchical understandings, and abstract reasoning, the kind of system that was created by men for men, and as you say, it is often the tool of abuse and trauma. (This reminds me of Carol Gilligan’s _In a Different Voice_ in which she critiqued Lawrence Kohlberg’s study of ethical development as based on Piaget’s masculine model of childhood development, so that the women in his study always fell short, because of their ethic of caring relationally as opposed to Kohlberg’s understanding of ethics as based on fairness, rights, and the Golden Rule).
3) “We must be able talk of healing in a world where there is often no justice.” At the best of times, we can see that we are in transition from an extremely violent world to a less violent world, hopefully on the way to becoming the world we want to see, a world where justice really exists and is administered with compassion. But we aren’t there, so gentleness is an absolute necessity. As you say, “experiences of gentleness can help us stay in contact with some aspiration of justice that actually restores and repairs.”
4) And of course, the importance of distinguishing gentleness from “niceness,” civility, and good manners. Your description of how white supremacy (and patriarchy, I would add) allows rudeness in the privileged few while demanding “niceness” from the rest of us is spot-on.
5) “Vulnerability is not a liability, but a promising source of vitality and redemption.” I’ve been saying for years before Brené Brown came on the scene that vulnerability is not a weakness, it is a strength, so I love this statement of yours.
6) “Being gentle with ourselves builds capacity for being gentle with others, and for believing that the world can be trusted at all.” Given the betrayals that women experience in their lives (from small to huge, almost daily), being gentle is a radical attitude. Instead of judging ourselves (as you and I spent years doing), we need to love ourselves and be gentle with ourselves, so that we can even imagine a different world in which trust and compassion AND justice can exist.
I LOVE THIS ESSAY! It’s one of the most powerful things I’ve read in years. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
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“Be gentle with yourself”.
Thank you for passing this along to me and so many others, Marcia.
I try to practice it daily and pass it along to others that need to hear it.