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Response to Bill Harkins’s “Transition, Resilience, and Fireweed”

Bill Harkins begins and ends his evocative essay on resilience in the burned landscape of the Montana forest. In the midst of disorienting change, he shifts his attention and finds signs of hope, of the resilience of life, in the fireweed pushing upwards from the scorched earth.
Framed by this story, Harkins invites us to consider how systems respond to change and challenge, and what factors nurture resilience in the midst of such change. Drawing from the diverse fields of ecology, family systems theory, leadership, and neuroscience, he suggests several qualities that contribute to human resilience: ability to tell stories that shape meaning, willingness to admit vulnerability, strong community bonds, and finally, hope.
After reading Harkins’s ruminations, it strikes me that resilience (at least in human communities) requires two basic things in the midst of change and crisis: interpretive frameworks that enable people to make meaning, and embodied practices that nurture communal bonds and personal well-being. Though these are always intertwined in our lived experience, I will focus particularly on the first: the interpretive frameworks that help build resilience. Christians have deep resources for such meaning-making frameworks: in our core narratives of suffering and hope, of death and life, of God’s faithfulness in the midst of disorienting change. If we are interested in factors that nurture resilience, as Christians, we do well to nourish our imaginations on these central stories.

At several points, Harkins’s essay prompted me to think about specific Christian interpretive resources that might nurture resilience. In his exploration of family systems theory, Harkins introduces the work of Dorothy Becvar, who observes that “families that flourish . . . are able to make meaning in the face of adversity. They succeed in creating a story about events or finding a purpose in the midst of tragedy by means of which they are able to regain a foothold on life.” The vast and varied Christian phenomenon cannot easily be called one “family,” so Becvar’s observation does not apply universally to Christians at all times and everywhere. Nevertheless, the ability for Christian communities to flourish under difficult circumstances is surely funded by core biblical stories in which God is active in and through times of crisis, and refuses to let death have the last word. For instance, the story of the exodus, foundational for both Jews and Christians, narrates God’s presence with the children of Israel in the midst of slavery in Egypt, through the harrowing interlude of the plagues, to the flight through the waters of the Red Sea to freedom. This central narrative has for centuries shaped the imaginations of Jewish people, through its retelling at Passover, enabling them to “make meaning in the face of adversity,” even terrible adversity. It also shaped the imaginations of African-American slaves in 19th-century America, who sang “When Israel Was in Egypt Land,” and who dubbed Harriet Tubman “Moses” for her untiring efforts to lead slaves to freedom through the Underground Railroad. In the theology of James Cone the exodus has, since the late 1960s, functioned powerfully to reveal God’s passion for righteousness and liberation, and to inspire the oppressed of today to resist all forces that contribute to racial, social, or economic inequality. The point is simply this: the exodus narrative has functioned as a fertile source for meaning-making in the face of many harsh realities, enabling communities to claim God’s presence, even in the darkest times, and not to give in to despair.
The exodus narrative, the passage from slavery to freedom and death to life, was a powerful force that shaped early Christian interpretations of Jesus’ resurrection. This claim, that Jesus who was killed has been raised from the dead and now lives, is the pivotal proclamation of Christian faith. More than any other single claim, this mysterious announcement that Jesus Christ is alive can enable Christians in changing times to move beyond fear and anxiety to renewed strength. In Christ’s resurrection, God has shown us that death, though real, is not ultimate. If God has raised Christ from the dead, then we have hope in God’s power to bring new life out of every apparently hopeless case. A community set free from anxiety over its own decline might wrench attention away from itself and begin living in the confidence that Christ is alive and at work in the world. A church focused on Christ’s resurrection rather than its own survival might even thrive.

Yet the interpretive framework of Christian proclamation does not move to resurrection without the cross. We do not develop resilience without acknowledging, grieving, and making meaning of the real suffering in our lives. Later in his discussion of family systems, Harkins draws on the work of Froma Walsh, who makes an important distinction between resilience and “faulty notions of ‘invulnerability’ and ‘self-sufficiency.’” According to Harkins, “Walsh notes that the American ethos of the rugged individual with its associated images of masculinity and strength, has led many to confuse invulnerability with resilience. ‘The danger inherent in the myth of invulnerability is in equating human vulnerability with weakness, and invulnerability with strength’.” This distinction between invulnerability and resilience resonates deeply with a Christian faith which proclaims “Christ crucified” as “the power of God and the wisdom of God” [1 Cor. 1:23, 24]. The Christ who is risen is the same Christ who was tortured and killed, and the resurrection does not erase the wounds on Jesus’ body. Here, too, a Christian imagination fundamentally shaped by faith in Jesus’ death and resurrection has a particular capacity for resilience, because cross-resurrection faith necessarily recognizes the reality of wounds AND refuses to let those wounds have the last word.
There is a story of resilience in my own family that suggests the power of Christian cross-resurrection faith to enable people to go on in the face of tragedy. In 1933, my grandfather, Walter Moore, Sr., was a Southern Baptist minister in Waynesboro, Georgia. He and my grandmother had three daughters, Miriam (called “Sunny”), age 5, Carol, age 3, and Martha, age 1. One day my grandfather was standing in front of the church manse with the girls. One of Sunny’s friends called from across the road, and Sunny ran out to meet him. But she did not look before crossing the street, and she ran into the path of an oncoming car. Before the car could stop or my grandfather could call her back, Sunny was hit and killed.
The car was driven by an African-American woman, who (likely out of panic, recognizing what had happened and anticipating the consequences) sped away without stopping. Some hours later, a group of men from the church, who had learned of the tragedy, came to the door of the manse. They announced that they had found the woman who was responsible, and were ready to lynch her. My grandfather, however, responded that if they intended to lynch her, then they should bring two ropes so they could string him up, too, because he was just as guilty. That evening, fearing for the woman’s life, he went to the jail where she was being held, and stayed with her through the night to guarantee her safety. Charges were never brought against her, and eventually she was set free.
My grandparents never talked much about this incident, though others did. The story itself has played an important role in shaping the faith of my grandfather’s children (including my father, born two years after Sunny’s death), and my own Christian faith, my own understanding of forgiveness and the power of non-violence. Further, it demonstrates a resilience that is not invulnerable, but that depends on faith in Christ who also died as an innocent victim. My grandfather trusted, and preached, that Christ is with those who suffer, because he suffered on the cross. My grandfather also trusted, and preached, that Christ had been raised to new life, and so too shall we be. This faith forged an imagination that enabled him to survive tragedy—and more. He lived through the tragedy in a way that shaped the resilient imaginations of others.1

In the witness of my grandfather I glimpse, among other things, the power of cross-resurrection faith which shaped an imagination able to make meaning in the face of tragedy. In the midst of his own shock and grief, he managed to see beyond himself to the shock and fear of another, and to take concrete action to protect her life. Resilience and imagination, in this case, enabled new vision to emerge out of terrible loss.
Harkins highlights this connection of resilience and imagination in “boundary leaders,” a term coined by Gary Gunderson. As Harkins says, “Gunderson believes that boundary leaders have strength of imagination intimately connected to resilience—a ‘subtle capacity to see what could be. Their capacity to learn and discern,’ he suggests, ‘gives them a wide range of images of hope’.” In other words, resilience, for both Gunderson and Harkins, seems to be rooted in an imaginative capacity to see beyond the obvious, to what could be. The ability to flourish in the midst of change depends on a certain way of seeing, which refuses to be bound to the most obvious facts before us, but sees possibilities and newness, fireweed emerging from scorched earth. Such ways of seeing engender hope, and thus enable people to flourish rather than fold in the face of crisis.
In his own final reflections, Harkins returns to this theme of hope as central to resilience: “As a pastoral counselor, Episcopal priest and pastoral theologian, it is increasingly my conviction that resilience is best understood in the context of hope amidst anxiety.” Whereas Gunderson focuses on the quality of hope in individual leaders, Harkins shifts attention to hope as it is nurtured in communities. How might we nurture communities of hope, who have the capacity to thrive in the midst of change? Harkins could say more—and has in other contexts said much more—about how Christian communities might do this. As I have suggested, I think one promising approach is to nourish our imaginations regularly, through reading and wrestling, prayer and proclamation, singing and meditation, on the varied scriptural narratives that testify to God’s activity in the midst of change, turmoil, even destruction and death. Most especially, we do well to return, again and again, to the cross and resurrection, to the movement between Good Friday and Easter morning, to hone our attention to God’s presence in the midst of darkness as well as our hope that darkness is not the final victor.


1 Based on the story as recorded in Great-Grandfather Tales: The Life of Walter L. Moore for His Great-Grandchildren, as told by Walter, Jr. (unpublished manuscript, September 2008), 3.