What We Deserve
The last week or so I have spent a good deal of time on ferries and in buses, trains, and vehicles as I bounce around from convocation ceremonies to retreats and conferences in and around Vancouver. As such, I have had less time than usual to do any writing (in case you’re wondering about the lack of recent posts).
This week I’m at Regent College for a pastors conference. One of the interesting things about many events at Regent is the diversity (ethnic and theological!) of those present. Today I had two interesting conversations, one with an American and one with an Indonesian. In both cases, I found the presuppositions about God and human beings very strange and a bit unsettling.
Conversation One: In response to a sermon which dealt with the theological theme of the “sojourner” and what our posture to this group of people ought to be as Christians, the guy beside me remarked that he didn’t really get why we were being exhorted to work to improve the circumstances of this group of people. In his opinion, our primary responsibility to those less fortunate was “spiritual care.” We could pray for them, certainly, but he was of the view that everyone pretty much gets what they deserve. We live in a culture where we have the opportunity to make our own decisions and the decisions we make shape our lot in life. As this man seemed to understand things, the church’s role was to take care of the people’s “inner needs” but in the non-spiritual world (whatever or wherever that might be), he seemed to assume a fairly straightforward correlation between the choices people make and the material conditions they find themselves in.
Conversation Two: I had lunch with an Indonesian fellow and the conversation naturally turned to whether or not he was affected by the 2004 tsunami. Turns out he felt a bit of rumbling but was a fair distance from the epicenter of the destructive earthquake. He did, however, talk at length about the province of Aceh on the northern tip of the island of Sumatra which bore the brunt of the tsunami and also (not coincidentally) happened to be home to a large Muslim population. He seemed to feel that God had sent the tsunami to this region (at Christmas time, which was also instructive on his view) in order to somehow punish/instruct the Muslims. He was quick to also point out that the tsunami had had the positive effect of triggering a peace deal between the Aceh separatist group and the government (an example of something good coming out of something awful), but he didn’t seem to have much hesitation in attributing this horrifically destructive disaster to the direct and highly specific will of God.
In both conversations I was struck by the inability/unwillingness of my conversation partners to consider the possibility that misfortune and calamity might strike in ways that were just a bit more ambiguous than they were describing. Part of me wonders how you could go through life honestly believing that everyone who is the object of oppression or mistreatment has somehow gotten what they “deserved,” however this is understood or qualified; or how you could seriously believe that God’s best method of communicating with recalcitrant Muslims is indiscrimminately wiping out almost a quarter million of them (at least some of whom, presumably would be children and other vulnerable segments of the population). It was jarring to have belief in this kind of unambiguous straight line between one’s actions/beliefs and their lot in life presented in such stark terms.
It’s not that I find this understanding problematic for purely biblical or theological grounds (although I obviously think such grounds exist); rather, I think it is simply extremely difficult to make sense if you simply observe the world for a moment or two. Is the woman who was born to an alcoholic mother, who was sexually abused, and who has mental health problems as an adult really to blame for her poverty and the addiction issues she faces as an adult? Is the young Muslim child—who looks and sounds strikingly similar to our own children—killed by the tsunami really the object of God’s direct and specific judgment? Do these understandings really make sense of the world we see around us? Do they make sense of our understanding of the character of God?
I’m at a conference entitled “The Pastor as Preacher” and it seems to me that among other things, the sermons we preach need to be aggressively counteracting these kinds of “readings” of our world and of Scripture. The church has to believe and point, in word and deed, to a God for whom injustice and suffering represent forces to actively resist rather than the just rewards for our behaviour and beliefs in a sub-Christian, quasi-karmic system of cause and effect.
Shortly after these conversations we were in the chapel singing these words which point to what I think is a better, more empirically honest, and theologically accurate understanding of God, the world, and the role of the church:
We lay our broken world in sorrow at your feet,
haunted by hunger, war, and fear, oppressed by power
Here human life seems less than profit, might, and pride,
though to unite us all in you, you lived and loved and died.
We bring our broken towns, our neighbors hurt and bruised;
you show us how old pain and wounds for new life can be used.
We bring our broken loves, friends parted, families torn;
then in your life and death we see that love must be reborn.
We bring our broken selves, confused and closed and tired;
then through your gift of healing grace new purpose is inspired.
O Spirit, on us breath, with life and strength anew;
find in us love and hope and trust and lift us up to you.