I watched a powerful, heart–breaking, and hopeful speech recently. Valarie Kaur spoke at the watch night service on New Year’s Eve 2016 at the Metropolitan AME Church in Washington DC, which was organized by Rev. William Barber and the Poor People’s Campaign.
Kaur is a renowned Sikh activist, film maker, and civil rights lawyer. She is also the founder of The Revolutionary Love Project which champions the ethic of love in movements for justice. The website promises, “We commit to fight for justice through the ethic of love — love for others, our opponents, and ourselves. We are rising up across the U.S. and around the world in protest, music, dance, and direct action to declare that #RevolutionaryLove is the call of our times.” God knows we need an ethic of love right now.
Kaur begins with her Sikh grandfather’s experience of prejudice and hatred as he immigrated to the USA. That hatred intensified after 9–11. The same kind of prejudice continues to grow exponentially with the rise of white nationalist movements and in the wake of the Black Lives Matter campaign. Acts of hatred against Jews and Muslims and Sikhs and people of colour are on the rise. In the midst of this time of darkness for people of colour, Kaur asks, “What if this darkness is not the darkness of the tomb, but the darkness of the womb?”
Hold on to that powerful and provocative question for a moment. I’ll come back to it.
It reminded me of a column I wrote several years ago about what “compassion” means. It’s an important word in the lexicon of Christian faith, and indeed all the major world’s religions. For me, compassion and love are at the heart of our faith. It describes God’s relationship with the world. More than that, it describes a healthier way for all of us to live together. It is an essential trait for people to be truly human, whether you have faith or not.
The English word comes from two Latin words: “cum” which means “with” and “passio” which means “to suffer”. The etymology of compassion means “to suffer with” someone, to be for and with another. We experience what life is like from another person’s perspective, and we choose to inhabit that space with someone who is suffering.
In Hebrew, which is the language of the Old Testament, the word for compassion is “rechemet”. The root “rechem” means “womb”. Rechemet is a beautiful image of mother love and our amazing and miraculous home before we are born. The womb is a place of nourishment and protection. Although we are vulnerable, we are cradled in the womb and prepared to burst into life. But we can only stay in that warm and nourishing place for just the right amount of time. If we stay too long, unhealthy things happen to both baby and mother. It becomes toxic, and dangerous to both. If we don’t stay long enough, we take the risk of not being fully formed, and therefore unable to survive in the world, as well as being highly susceptible to diseases.
When we put these two understandings of compassion together, we are talking about showing love in that kind of womb–like way. We carry a hurting or needy person in the womb of our compassion. We build the person up, nourish and encourage and strengthen that person, and then we set them free to live and mature.
I love this image as a way of picturing God. God shows rechemet to the world and its creatures. God’s love is a mother’s love, who nurtures life with a gentle caring. God our Mother loves the world with a deep and abiding compassion. God our Mother guides us and helps us grow so that we can face life with a strength and maturity to make wise and responsible choices.
In this time of darkness … the darkness of the pandemic, the darkness of racial tension, the darkness of climate change, the darkness of prejudice and hatred being experienced by people of colour … we need this level of compassion. We do not live in this world by ourselves. We cannot insist on our own rights as if the rights of others had no value. We have to find healthy ways to live together, or we will surely fall into chaos.
When Valarie Kaur asks the question, “What if this darkness is not the darkness of the tomb, but the darkness of the womb?”, I immediately thought of this nuanced meaning of compassion.
She goes on to ask some other questions. She talks about the history of the USA (where she lives), and asks whether the story of the nation might be one long labour? “What if all of our grandfathers and grandmothers are standing behind us now, those who survived occupation and genocide, slavery and Jim Crow, detentions and political assault?” In Canada, we could ask the same questions about residential schools, the ‘60s scoop, and murdered and missing indigenous women.
Kaur continues with the image of the darkness of the womb. “What does the midwife tell us to do? Breathe. And then? Push. Because if we don’t push we will die. If we don’t push our nation will die. Tonight we will breathe. Tomorrow we will labour in love … and revolutionary love is the magic we will show our children.”
These prophetic words are even more powerfully true today. We must listen to Valarie Kaur, for she points urgently to a different way for us to live together. It is the way of radical, revolutionary love. It is the way of womb–compassion, in which we choose to see each other not through the lens of difference, but in our common identity as human beings.
Yme Woensdregt is a retired Anglican Priest living in Cranbrook