I’m going to lay my cards on the table as I try to reflect on the momentous event that happened this week. I do not have a nationalistic or patriotic bone in my body. I did not personally lose any loved ones on September 11, 2001, nor did I lose any loved ones in the ensuing war. I am a pacifist. I am white, middle-class, well-educated, and I do not know suffering first hand. For these reasons, and probably others as well, I can find it difficult to construct deeply empathetic feelings when great tragedies occur. I can look upon an earthquake, or a tsunami, or hunger, or slavery, and feel saddened and upset, but because of my status and my residence within the locus imperium, I can take comfort in knowing that I can continue my life unaffected. Part of my own journey lies in dismantling my indifference and discovering ways in which my own status, wealth, and privilege can be used for goodness, equality, and justice, rather than for comfort.
I assume this indifference is true for the majority of Christians living in the United States. Our popular theology reveals this reality. The American narrative, deeply intertwined with Protestantism, reflects themes of election, exodus, and promise. God is on our side. Stir into the batter interpretations of Romans 13 that implore Christians to obey, support, and be subject to governing authorities, and we are left with a confidence that the directions that our nation takes are surely ordained by God at some macro level.
I’d like to posit two things, neither of which are new by any stretch of the imagination. The first is this: unless dominant Christianity adopts a theology that appropriately deals with suffering it will be bankrupt in its ability to deal with oppression and poverty, both asking the questions and searching for the answers as to why people are oppressed and poor, and what roles we knowingly or unknowingly play in perpetuating unjust systems. Wrapped up within a theology that appropriately deals with suffering is the notion of justice and exactly whose side God really is on. I feel quite confident in looking at our nation’s imperialism, military-industrial complex/disease (I’ll stop at those two) and say that God is not on our side. To be perfectly clear, this means that God is not responsible for, nor is God the cause of suffering in the world. Rather, when women, children, men, and the earth suffer, God suffers with them.
The second thing is this: God cares about this world. Much of Christianity theologically affirms a balance between the immanence and transcendence of God, but completely eliminates such a balance in worship and practice. Lurking behind the heavy emphasis on God’s transcendence is spirit/matter dualism and the subjugation of the lowly physical to the holy spiritual. There is so much to be said about the damage this has done, but for our purposes here, in removing God from within all of life we have desacralized creation and allowed ourselves to desacralize people who are different than us, destroying both. More than desacralizing our ‘enemies,’ we have made enemies out of our sisters and brothers. In light of this, we must allow the incarnation to teach us that God values all life, broadening our scope of both the incarnation and the atonement to include the breadth of creation.
Therefore, must affirm that God is on the side of life. When lives are taken it should grieve us. It should grieve me. As many other bloggers have expressed this week, rejoice is never the Christian response in the face of death. Justice is not served when life is taken. Rather, justice is served when life is redeemed, renewed, valued, and invigorated. Justice is served when schools and hospitals are rebuilt, when communities are restored, when gunfire ceases, and when weapons of mass destruction (ours) are dismantled. Justice and death are not related, but justice and life most certainly are. When we believe this, our theology changes and our actions then change.
Two particular responses to this week’s events are worth sharing. The first is from Miroslav Volf, and the second is from D.W. Horstkoetter writing for The Other Journal.
The words of the poet Andrea Gibson are gut-wrenchingly apt as we recognize that the death of one man will not eradicate violence, terrorism, death, oppression. We are far from peace, but I hope with all of my being that there is life and justice and peace in the way of Jesus.