Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Compassion

Bless our God, O peoples,
let the sound of his praise be heard,
who has kept us among the living,

and has not let our feet slip.

For you, O God, have tested us;
you have tried us as silver is tried.
You brought us into the net;
you laid burdens on our backs;
you let people ride over our heads;

we went through fire and through water;

yet you have brought us out to a
spacious place.

Psalm 66:9-12

Susanna has a gift of deep compassion, so strong and immediate that I often find myself confused, removed and dumb. An NPR report about the slain in Darfur, a Compassion International mailing with pictures of unsupported children, the documentary God Grew Tired of Us: the Story of Lost Boys of Sudan...these things leave her doubled over and in tears. In comparison, I seem callous. Am I so self-consumed? Or is this simply a gender difference?

Perhaps it does have something to do with gender, but to leave it at that would be denying the uniqueness of her special gift. Liberation Theologians call this "solidarity," a capacity to draw near to and share the suffering of others. Susanna wants to identify herself with the marginalized and the oppressed. I want to do this too. I'm just not that good at it.

Last summer Hope College asked her to prepare study questions on Tracy Kidder's book about Paul Farmer, Mountains Beyond Mountains. All incoming freshmen were required to read it. All the First Year Seminar profs then used her notes and questions. She and I read Mountains Beyond Mountains to each other in our first year of marriage as part of a book club in Oklahoma. I was challengd and inspired. Susanna, however, found a mentor of sorts in Dr. Farmer. She has re-read the book three more times with students in her course, "Ideas and Practice of Social Change." Even though Susanna is now teaching at Valparaiso, colleagues in Hope's English department knew she'd have the best handle on the book.

One question she considers is: What do you make of Farmer’s interpretation of the Haitian proverb, “Bondye konn bay, men li pa konn separe,” translated “God gives but doesn’t share”? (79)

Sus and I have been talking about this proverb this week. It can be read two ways: a theodicy, a defense of God's goodness in the face of evil, or it can be read as an indictment against civilization, particularly an idictment of the affluent. Neither reading is exclusive, yet, my sense is that Dr. Farmer is more interested in the latter, that we have failed to take care of each other.

Paul Farmer and Liberation Theology are helpful if only to draw us into the heart of the problem. Most of the affluent are like me, blind, deaf and dumb to the crisis of world health and poverty. We need whistle blowers and bell ringers to break through to us. We need stories like Dr. Farmer's, a life so shocking in its zealous service that it conjures resonances with the likes of Dorthy Day and even Mother Teresa. However, to fully serve and sustain advocacy on behalf of the oppressed, we need a more thorough theodicy, a more developed sense of who God is than what the Hatian proverb offers us. Once again, here I am ringing my bell, that our actions arise out of our beliefs. As a person thinketh, so he or she is.

The Hatian proverb suggests that God is not actively involved in suffering. This caters to the modern mind. It rationalizes God. Our definition of God as a benevolent being makes it impossible for us to understand how he could allow evil to exist in the world. So, we blame humanity and not God. The Hatian theodicy is a soft way of separating God's goodness from the failures of humanity; yet, God is not separate from suffering. He is intimately acquainted with and involved with humanity, yes, even our suffering.

The cross of Christ stands in opposition to the rationality that God is separate from suffering. The cross is considered scandalous because it offends our modern sensibilities. It suggests that not only did God allow Jesus to suffer and die, God planned it! Yikes! Tough stuff! This is where we learn to let God be God, to be the infinite Other that we can't squeeze into our minds. I'm not saying we can't wrestle with suffering and the problem of evil. I'm not suggesting we put our questions in a drawer and hide them away. I am saying that there are fundamental ideas about the universe, about God in particular, that are too lofty for us to grasp. Here in this particular situation, faith leads us to believe that God is good in the context of suffering. God is good even though he is actively engaged in that suffering. He has purpose for suffering that we rarely can understand. A life of faith is not a silent resignation to God's higher purposes; it is a resolve to wrestle and pray through our suffering in a way that ultimately leads toward deeper and deeper trust in God. We don't need to be the dutiful student at the front of the class, blindly following the teacher, nor do we need to be the flailing, obstinate child at the back of the class.

As an aside, this relates to the spirit in which I've been attempting to write these blogs. When trying to talk about anything difficult (theodicy, prayer, politics, art, etc.), our dialogue requires a gentle firmness. Jesus calls it meekness; it is a tender strength, a loving confession, a "generous orthodoxy." There is a connection between the way we posture ourselves towards our neighbors and the way we posture ourselves towards our deepest convictions. If we have a white-knuckled stranglehold on our beliefs, most likely we will also have a white-knuckled grip on the people around us. Faith and love allow us room to maneuver without going astray. We can have a gentle grip because we participate in a faith so abundant, so powerful, that it holds onto us much more actively than we can hold on to it. This is our highest sense of the peace of Christ; he holds us, defends us, advocates for us; he keeps us safe.

Some may object here and argue the slippery slope. Room to maneuver? You may wonder. That will lead to abuse and heresy!

Perhaps. Perhaps it can or will lead to abuse, yet here is the freedom God has already given us, the very freedom that allows the affluent to ignore local and global suffering. However, the slippery slope is a logical fallacy for a reason. If A leads to B, B leads to C, and C leads to D, it doesn't rationally mean A automatically leads to D or even Z. Slippery slope is inspired by fear. Fear overtakes rationality; it clouds reason. Yet faith is not essentially rational either (even though faith can engage and participate with rationality--a whole other conversation) and I'm not arguing for rationality here either. Faith springs out of love. Love can be rational, but love supersedes rationality. You may have many good reasons for loving, but "love has its reasons which Reason knows not," proclaims Blaise Pascal.

One friend wrote Susanna and me an email in the wake of the 2008 election that asked whether we have room in our hearts for a friend who didn't vote for Barrack Obama? I must have failed to write in a way that meekly asserts my convictions. I'm trying to be strong in way that opens conversation, that gives room to readers, and I guess I didn't accomplish this as thoroughly as I have wanted...at least for that friend.

Getting back on the topic of suffering, I offer that it is possible to hold civilization accountable for its failure to take care of the weak, further I'll add that it is possible that God is more than permissive of suffering, that he uses it for his purposes, and finally, that God's purposes for suffering push us to concieve a kind of love that far transcends what makes sense to our minds. If we are left with our own resources of love to respond to the enormity of global health crises, we will drown. In retrospect, God's active participation in our suffering gives meaning to it. By faith, what seemed senseless emerges with sense, a trust in the eternal goodness of our divine Father. On this side of heaven, we may not be able to understand his good purpose; it is here that we begin the agonizing soul-work of faith.

What Susanna offers me, in the context of my triumphal hope of God's eternal and global plan of salvation, is the opportunity to learn how to put on sack cloth and ashes, to go between the porch and the alter, to weep and to wail, to groan with all of Creation for the revelation of the children of God, for the final things. This itself is a witness of the church that God is not standing idly by. We, his children, are his vice-regents testifying to the truth that as Julian of Norwich has said in one of Susanna's (and T.S Eliot's) favorite sentiments:


"All shall be well,

and all shall be well,

and all manner of things

shall be well."

5 comments:

Josh said...

Josh,

Once again thank you for your words. Honest. Penetrating. Provoking. Wrestling out loud.

I'm like you. I struggle to enter into what the lib theo's call "solidarity" with the marginalized. I want to become more like the prophets in this way. Our involvement with Hope Chest will hopefully continue to move both Amy and me toward the least, last, and lost.

Reading Abraham Heschel's God in Search of Man. In one passage, Heschel argues that the primary question the Bible asks us to wrestle with is this one: What does God demand of us?

Henri Noweun wrote a long meditation on compassion. What I vividly recall from his reflection was the idea that to be compassionate means to move into the places of suffering and build a home.

Switching subjects. I am in Iowa for the week. I hope to get some reading and writing done. I am trying to craft an article for Relevant magazine in honor of MLK (perspective as white father with black son).

My phone went dead. I am in the process of buying a new phone. Or getting Amy's hand-me-down.

Our first shipment of books came in. We will send you and Sus one when we return next week.

What's the word on your essay? All systems go?

I miss you. I hope you too have had a restful holiday. I certainly have enjoyed the time off to be with Silas and family. The time with Bow, Megan, and Wyatt was particularly sweet. Bow ships out for Iraq in March. He will be there until November 09. He will be serving as a judge advocate to Iraqi judges Bow believes his battalion will be the last in Iraq. Bow's primary job is to train judges to adjudicate in a democratic system with integrity and objectivity. There are still tribal leanings that corrupt the law system.

Give my love to Sus.

Bottomly

Anonymous said...

Dear Josh, I happened on your blog quite accidentally this early Sunday A.M. Iam a student at St John's Seminary in Boston a M.A. program for lay ministry. I was looking to get some inspiring words from Henri Noweun and must have misspelled his name 'as that is my personal defect, and your blog came up I was instantly drawn in when I read about Paul Farmer as he is also one of my role models.{have you ever heard him speak ?] Anyway I was preparing to write a reflection paper about John Pauls teaching on the Holocaust or as he puts it "Shoah" as a Holocaust is a burnt offering to God where as Shoah is a fire with an intention to completely destroy. So, your blog as well as your wonderful wife's example of compassion has ignited and re kindled my passion,though at times reluctant ,voice to speak out for justice ! Louise Cocuzzo

Anonymous said...

Dear Josh, I happened on your blog quite accidentally this early Sunday A.M. Iam a student at St John's Seminary in Boston a M.A. program for lay ministry. I was looking to get some inspiring words from Henri Noweun and must have misspelled his name 'as that is my personal defect, and your blog came up I was instantly drawn in when I read about Paul Farmer as he is also one of my role models.{have you ever heard him speak ?] Anyway I was preparing to write a reflection paper about John Pauls teaching on the Holocaust or as he puts it "Shoah" as a Holocaust is a burnt offering to God where as Shoah is a fire with an intention to completely destroy. So, your blog as well as your wonderful wife's example of compassion has ignited and re kindled my passion,though at times reluctant ,voice to speak out for justice ! Louise Cocuzzo

Anonymous said...

Dear Josh, I happened on your blog quite accidentally this early Sunday A.M. Iam a student at St John's Seminary in Boston a M.A. program for lay ministry. I was looking to get some inspiring words from Henri Noweun and must have misspelled his name 'as that is my personal defect, and your blog came up I was instantly drawn in when I read about Paul Farmer as he is also one of my role models.{have you ever heard him speak ?] Anyway I was preparing to write a reflection paper about John Pauls teaching on the Holocaust or as he puts it "Shoah" as a Holocaust is a burnt offering to God where as Shoah is a fire with an intention to completely destroy. So, your blog as well as your wonderful wife's example of compassion has ignited and re kindled my passion,though at times reluctant ,voice to speak out for justice ! Louise Cocuzzo

Anonymous said...

Dear Josh, I happened on your blog quite accidentally this early Sunday A.M. Iam a student at St John's Seminary in Boston a M.A. program for lay ministry. I was looking to get some inspiring words from Henri Noweun and must have misspelled his name 'as that is my personal defect, and your blog came up I was instantly drawn in when I read about Paul Farmer as he is also one of my role models.{have you ever heard him speak ?] Anyway I was preparing to write a reflection paper about John Pauls teaching on the Holocaust or as he puts it "Shoah" as a Holocaust is a burnt offering to God where as Shoah is a fire with an intention to completely destroy. So, your blog as well as your wonderful wife's example of compassion has ignited and re kindled my passion,though at times reluctant ,voice to speak out for justice ! Louise Cocuzzo