Pastoral work is not glamorous. All told, there’s very little baby-kissing and baptizing. But I did once spend six hours creating a giant twister board for a lock in. Last spring, I spent an afternoon chopping fir branches into eco-friendly “palms.” On occasion, I even get to fold bulletins. All things that need to be done. It’s just, there’s nothing glamorous about doing what needs to be done.
This week, petitions were flying all over my email. On Monday, four days ago, Kelly Gissendaner was set to be executed in Georgia, for a crime she committed and admits to. The execution is bullshit, for a number of reasons that are evident here and here, but foremost because execution is antithetical to God’s work and to the work of keeping ourselves human. In the days her execution was delayed due to weather, a swarm of voices rose on social media to advocate for Kelly. On Sunday night, at 11pm, I was tagged in a Facebook comment pleading clergy members to sign a petition for Kelly. The deadline was midnight. I signed as quickly as I could type. The next day, I called Gov. Nathan Deal to ask for clemency.
The next day, I got word of a Mennonite pastor in Iowa who was picked up by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement and set for deportation. A request to call the ICE office; a petition.
I believe in a miracle working God, whose goodness flows regardless of human activity. I also believe in signing petitions.
Petition signing seems so small, compared to the radical acts of marching in the streets; exposing pharmacies that make lethal drugs; or actually visiting the courts or the prisons where death penalties and deportations are carried out. We say to ourselves, “What does my one petition matter, next to the more radical activists?” It can be discouraging, even feel meaningless, to send your name into the ether with the hope it will change something evil in the world. In that way, it’s a little bit like prayer. To beg the vastness of God to answer to and change the particularity of the evil you see in your one, small life.
Well, you know what happens when you compare: it makes an ass out of you and me. I know, the saying is what happens when you assume, but comparison is an act of assuming: that you know your work is hopeless. And I’ve never heard a more un-Christian idea than hopelessness, than not doing shit because it might not amount to shit. Of not sharing your bread because you only have five loaves and two fishes.
Maybe God won’t change the world, this time. Maybe your petition won’t, on the fact of things, “matter.” But it matters in the act of things; it is a gesture of faith to believe that pleading for justice will bring justice. As my dear friend Soren Kierkegaard says, “The function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays.” Petition-signing is as much about changing ourselves, about the discipline of being the person we say we are. It is the act of being Christian. Of doing the unglamorous work of doing what needs to be done.
As Mother Theresa said, “There are no great acts; only small acts done with great love.” If we refuse to sign a petition, or call a politician, “because my act doesn’t really count,” how can we count ourselves as Christians? If being Christian doesn’t shape your actions, how can you call yourself a person of faith? And if you can’t be trusted with these small acts of faith, how can you be trusted with to the bigger ones? Jesus said something like that, once.
I sign all the petitions, because all the petitions are both prayers and actions. They are the small acts that shape my ethics, my person, into the sort of person who does more radical acts. It feels meaningless to sign a Groundswell petition, until you see the boxes and boxes of 80,000 petitions overflowing Gov. Deal’s office.
I sign all the petitions. And as I sign each one, I pray. After all, the etymology of the word “prayer” comes from the Latin word “precarius.” It means “to obtain by entreaty.” And isn’t that a Christian thing to do?
PS. The petition for Kelly Gissendaner is here and the petition for Max Villatoro is here.