By Dr. Allyson Carr, Justice Ministries
While the world struggles with our current global crisis and with rising protests in the face of systemic racism, it has become painfully apparent that those who were already vulnerable before the pandemic are even more vulnerable now. Clearly, justice issues—be they anti-Black racism, Indigenous rights, food or housing insecurity, domestic violence, climate change, or other challenges—are exacerbated in a pandemic. And these questions are of course interlaid with issues surrounding access to safe healthcare.
Pursuing justice in this context can feel overwhelming, especially when many of us are already struggling with feelings of isolation, or frustration in the face of systemic racism. The pandemic is also a reminder that there is much in our lives we can’t control. Finding ways to understand what those things are and come to terms with them is an age-old human dilemma, and in response, many turn to what is known as the “Serenity Prayer”:
“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
The prayer seems simple, but it arises from a complex background with striking familiarities to our own. It was first published in the early 1930s by theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. Niebuhr was one of the most important North American theologians of the twentieth century, but was also an important political thinker and public figure. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. held him in great regard, and cited Niebuhr as an important influence on his own thinking.
Niebuhr was no stranger to having to figure out where change was needed, nor was he afraid to take a stand on contentious issues. He began as a pacifist, but—for better or worse—changed his stance in the approach to the Second World War. He advocated for organized labour and workers’ rights. And early on, while pastoring to a German congregation in Detroit, he spoke out publicly against the Ku Klux Klan, which was gaining power in the area, calling them, “one of the worst specific social phenomena which the religious pride of a people has ever developed.”
Knowing this background illuminates the type of courage he sought when asking for courage to change the things he could. Knowing that he lived through two World Wars also gives one insight into the complexity of issues he faced when asking for the serenity to accept things one can’t change (as well as for wisdom to know which was which). The experience of losing loved ones to death is something we cannot change, and war is similar to a pandemic in that it brings us abruptly face to face with such loss on an unprecedented scale.
Knowing all that is presupposed in the prayer, its words take on a much deeper meaning, especially if you’ve only ever seen them copied in fancy script on inspirational posters. Niebuhr was talking about struggling with life’s most vicious, embedded, and leave-you-feeling-powerless issues. He was asking for the kind of courage that speaks out against racial justice from a faith perspective, and for serenity to continue acting in the face of life-sucking grief or fear.
Streams of Justice highlights areas of injustice, many of which can feel overwhelming. In the past months, I have returned again and again to this prayer and its context. It is now my prayer for everyone in these difficult times; may we too be given the serenity, courage and wisdom we need in order to act as we must.
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The articles in the Spring 2020 edition of Streams of Justice include:
Visit this web page to read letters from the PCC to the government about recent issues of concern and use them for inspiration in your own advocacy letters.