Saturday, October 15, 2011

Creativity, courage and a confession



Here's a theme I keep noticing: the link between creativity and courage. Steve Jobs had it, yes. But he's not the most remarkable person who's been in the news lately.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Leymah Gbowee, and Tawakkul Karman - the trinity of women who just won the Nobel Peace Prize - are much more interesting to me.

If you don't know their backgrounds, read them here. Gbowee encountered harsh opposition to the peace movement she began in Liberia. Sirleaf, and Karman each spent time in prison for following the courage of their convictions. Wangari Maathi, who until this year was the only African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize, was also imprisoned. Sadly, she died weeks before this round of prize winners was announced. They all have remarkable courage. You don't get the Nobel Peace Prize without it.

They are also all creative people, and I don't mean creative in the limited meaning of being good at painting or singing, though they may be that as well.

They are creative in that they can imagine something different than what exists now. They imagined a different Liberia, a different Yemen, a different world. They are creative in the way that each of us, when we sense that things could be different, daydreams about a better world.

They are creative, but also courageous enough to make their visions a reality. The link between courage and creativity is apparent in the headscarf that Karman wears. She abandoned the full niqab for a variety of pink scarves so her face could show. Yes, I get tired of people commenting on powerful women's clothing, but so many people comment on her headscarves because they symbolize the change brought about by her courage and creativity.


A few years ago, Wangari Maathai was interviewed on Krista Tippet's Speaking of Faith. At the end of the interview, she sang a song. Listen to it here. The song was simple and powerful. The reason the song was powerful wasn't that her voice was trained, it was that she had courage to sing. She wasn't performing. She was creating with courage.

So here's a confession. When I graduated from Divinity School Wangari Maathai got an honorary doctorate from the same University. I hadn't heard of her and I am embarrassed about that. I didn't take a class with her. She'd been a visiting professor that year and I could have, but I had no idea. That's something I'll always regret. But those aren't my confession.

I happened to have a front row seat which meant that thousands of people were sitting behind me. As I read her biography in the program, I realized she was amazing and she dedicated her life to working on things that I care about deeply - justice for women and global environmentalism.

As she was introduced I felt somewhere inside me a call to stand up to applaud. We'd stood for Willie Mays as he got his honorary doctorate; surely this remarkable woman deserved the honor too.

I nearly stood, and because I was in the front row I think others would have followed. But I was chicken. I stayed seated. The moment passed. And we didn't give Wangari Maathai the standing ovation that she deserved. I didn't create a brief moment of honor because I didn't have the courage. Only a short while later, she received the Nobel Peace Prize and you can bet we would have all stood for her then.

Something about courage and creativity requires that we stick our necks out and take on the work of God in the world before it is recognized as popular. It's another reason why I am grateful to follow Jesus who models the combination of courage and creativity, showing us that it temporarily lands us in the worst places in the world - Yemeni prisons, exile, crosses - but also leads to peace.