The COVID-19 pandemic has increased anxiety levels for many of us. Would you agree that the pandemic along with economic insecurity and political animosities are making our collective society more anxious?
My good friend, mentor, and colleague pastor, Peter Steinke, passed away in July at the age of 82. The author of 14 books, he was the premier interpreter for faith community leaders of an influential human behavior theory called "family systems." Pete was especially adept at helping clergy properly understand the workings of anxiety in social settings.
In a 2015 interview, I asked him to expound on the role of anxiety in social interactions. He responded: "Anxiety is not a negative. Anxiety just is. It becomes a negative when it intensifies or becomes prolonged because it interferes with clear thinking. Anxiety is an informer, rather than an enemy. It tells us something about ourselves and the world around us."
Pete’s teaching and work is especially instructive during this time of heightened anxiety for many individuals, and for society as a whole. "Uproar: Calm Leadership in Anxious Times" (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019) is the last book written by Steinke. Intended for a general audience, it’s relatively short and encourages the practice of what he called "non-anxious presence" as a balm for conflicted relationships. To boot, an unanxious presence is also a good practice for keeping your cool while driving on Interstate 35.
I first met Pete 30 years ago when I was a newly ordained pastor in Houston. My church council hired Pete to guide staff conversations to help determine expectations and roles. The day-long retreat focused, among other things, on the importance of staying connected even when disagreements surface. In situations of conflict, the practice of unanxious presence, as opposed to the responses of defensiveness or attacking others, helps defuse potentially volatile situations which in turn frees up participants to consider best options for problem solving.
In John 8, Jesus is tracked down by a mob wanting his approval to stone to death a woman "caught" in adultery. It was a set-up and Jesus knew it. The woman’s male partner — also guilty — in the affair was nowhere to be seen. As if contemplating another topic while seated on the ground, Jesus paid the fomenting mob scant attention as he drew figures in the sand with a stick. He didn’t meet the mob’s energy level, but defused it with his supposed indifference.
He then spoke: "Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her." One by one, stones falling from unclenched fists plunked harmlessly upon the ground. The crowd dispersed. Jesus blessed the woman on her way and invited her to live in a new way.
Pete Steinke would say that Jesus in John 8 modeled an unanxious presence. Don’t misunderstand: There are appropriate times for lifting voices in loud protest, or publicly and forcibly confronting wrongdoing, or using anger as fuel for a much needed stand of self-protection. An enraged Jesus cleaned out the Jerusalem temple of greedy marketers who were taking advantage of poor and powerless pilgrims. Most of the time, however, Jesus chose not the path of violent force, but of calm confrontation as he challenged listeners to change their ways.
Like Jesus, Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. knew the power of an unanxious presence. Practicing and teaching the burdensome arts of nonviolent resistance to their followers, they knew the societal changes they sought would not be wrought by violent force.
The use of an unanxious presence can be a better first option for many of us in situations of conflict. If more of us choose to practice it, our collective society could be less antagonistic and would exhibit other improved outcomes.
Steinke also told me in that same interview: "We’ve got to work together more often . . . but when you’re anxious, what do you do? You pull apart, you separate, you get into your own little fortress, which is the opposite of what we need to do.
"We’re here to cooperate with one another — that’s civil society."
The Rev. T. Carlos Anderson directs social ministry efforts for Austin City Lutherans, and is the author of "There is a Balm in Huntsville."