I get off at the Sherbourne subway station and take the Glen Road exit toward my flat on Bleecker Street. A woman is walking ahead of me. As we climb the stairs onto the narrow street she glances at the tunnel on the left where someone was stabbed to death a few days ago. The sun has set. Wet snow is falling. We both walk up the secluded street on the side with the abandoned houses. She's very nervous and keeps partially looking back at me. I try to slow down. She seems even more nervous. I cross the street. She still seems afraid. I feel utterly powerless to take away her fear.
Years later, I'm walking in a secluded back lane near Queen and Greenwood in the pre-dawn darkness. The July heat hasn't diminished overnight. It's so quiet I can hear the sound of a raccoon's paws against the pavement as it nervously scurries away from me. I'm carrying my newborn son in my arms. Suddenly, a woman opens her backyard gate.
By reflex, she gasps at the unexpected silhouette of a stranger in the dark. Fear covers her face. Then, as the gate fully opens, she sees the sleeping baby in my arms. Light laughter floats out of her mouth. The originally tense situation is so radically transformed by the baby that a graceful conversation ensues.
I am struck by the baby's very real power to transform this woman's fear into relaxed delight. Fear is at the root of most violence. The capacity to transform fear is true power. Imagine a whole people capable of transforming its fear into passionate non-violent strength in the face of terrorism.
My newborn has tremendous power. No one, not even my spouse, could so radically have altered my life - depriving me of sleep, relentlessly demanding attention and preventing me from attending to vital tasks. All this is very real power. And yet my newborn child is utterly vulnerable. Is this not the essence of the Christmas story?
The sleeping child trusts fully. The mystic trusts fully. Vulnerable trust in God and utter renunciation of violence, especially the atrocious lie of war, is the mystic's real power - a power "that even death cannot overcome," insisted Oscar Romero. (Years ago, while working in a very poor mountain village in Nicaragua, I noticed the image of Romero in almost every humble house and hut. Power beyond death.)
What is power? Rabia Terri Harris, director of the Muslim Peace Fellowship in the U.S., offers one of the most eloquent descriptions of power I have ever read: "Whether aspiring champions of religion are motivated by private ego or by that collective manifestation of ego known as empire, the results are likely to be the same. Power is not a magic trophy to be fought for, but an infinite spiritual resource.'
Part of war's profound spiritual naíveté is the premise that evil, in the form of "enemies," can be "disappeared," bombed or tortured out of existence.
The way we respond to vulnerability determines how we use power: as radical service or as domination. The urgent spiritual message of the Christmas story - the story of a child's birth revealing God's nature - is this: separating vulnerability from power leads to violence. Those who exercise power divorced from their own vulnerability exercise it with brutality and empty victories over others. Power connected to vulnerability is the indestructible freedom of reconciliation with oneself and with others - including the enemy.
There is more, much more, to the story of the newborn baby Jesus than our culture would have us believe. I have held the wrinkled hands of my newborn son and I have held the wrinkled hands of my dying mother. From beginning to end, the intense demands of life lived to its fullness - affordable housing, public transportation, good work, public health, quality education - leave absolutely no room for the grotesquely wasteful demands of a perpetual war economy.
The carols, festive meals and bright lights of the season will someday become a celebration of both power and vulnerability, the Newborn's gift to every person and nation.