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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 epicentre 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 indiscriminately 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
and hate.

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.

17 Comments Post a comment
  1. Not only do the points of view you outlined (from these two individuals) problematic from a theological or hermenuetical perspective but they reveal a far more insidious racism propped up by conveniently careless spirituality. Consider for a moment that the people who lost their lives in the province of Ache were situated there primarily due to the presence of foreign tourist resort facilities. It should not be lost on us that people serving the tourist industry migrated to the coastal region due in large part to the way globalized capital has made former subsistence ways of live virtually impossible for the regions indigenous populations. (This is the common story of the banana republics in Central America). The causal line runs through Western preoccupation and domination of global systems of wealth directly (if somewhat covertly) to the causes of poverty and racial subjugation.
    Impoverished and unfortunate people do not get what they deserve they get what we (Western, wealthy, comfortable, and Christian influenced) have forced them to take.
    We should not just be countering faulty theological rhetoric but should agressively preaching towards repentance and redemption from our selfish evils…

    May 6, 2009
    • Dale, I absolutely agree that we need to move beyond just correcting bad theology and toward repentance for our contribution to the factors that lead to unjust suffering. There’s obviously a lot more that could be said about these conversations, but I wanted to keep the post to a manageable length.

      May 7, 2009
  2. jc #

    are you suggesting that tourism is evil because it encourages people to migrate to coastal regions where they could be killed by a tsunami? should we perhaps move these hotels inland provided they are not near a fault line or a volcano? or is it evil and selfish because it removes them from their subsistence way of life? is it evil to travel because you might indirectly influence someone to change their current vocation from one of farming to one in the service industry? should we barricade western culture from other cultures in order not influence them?

    May 7, 2009
  3. jc,
    a longer answer might derail the true intent of Ryan’s post so i will consider posting a longer response on my blog but as for your questions:
    partly, no, partly,not how would you prove that?, we should be more careful about how western values negatively influence and subjugate people groups.

    May 7, 2009
  4. Ken #

    I think number one was perhaps thinking of the idea that humanity does not live by bread alone, but not giving due emphasis to God’s concern for the physical conditions of our lives, which is expressed in many places in the Bible.

    I think number two was perhaps thinking of the idea in theodicy that goodness is rewarded and badness punished, which is a major Biblical theme, but not remembering the book of Job and not remembering that God (as presented throughout the Bible) is more merciful than just, more likely to forgive than to punish.

    If number one and two represent the theology that many preach in your denomination, then I certainly agree with your concerns here. Even in the liberal denominations of which I have been part, there is a greater emphasis on spirituality than on physical conditions and a greater emphasis on justice than on mercy. At the same time, although number one and number two have inappropriately limited and distorted Biblical and Christian theology and theodicy, I doubt that their beliefs are ultimately “beliefs in a sub-Christian, quasi-karmic system of cause and effect.” They are perhaps leaning against other distortions of Christian theology, distortions more common on the left than on the right – just leaning too far. On the other hand, you may have encountered a couple of people who have been badly injured psychologically and their expressions reflect their attempts to deal with those injuries.

    May 7, 2009
    • Thanks, Ken, for your gracious interpretation of the two conversations. I appreciate the reminder to not make sweeping generalizations of people based on limited interaction—that there is always a “rest of the story.” I think that we all lean against theological distortions, whether on the “left” or the “right.” I guess the trick is to learn how to lean in ways that are appropriate to the gospel we espouse.

      Incidentally, the conversations did not take place within the context of my own denomination but in an interdenominational setting. My own denomination undoubtedly has its own distortions, but part of the historical Mennonite ethos has always been care for the poor, the marginalized, and the suffering.

      May 7, 2009
  5. len #

    “Paradoxically, Christianity professes to trust the most peculiar deity of all religions, the God who has incarnated, become a servant, and died for the sake of something more important to him than his own life.

    “The future of Christianity depends on its willingness to serve something larger than itself. If Christianity is to be resurrected into a new life, it must aspire to be like the God it professes and take a backseat to something more dear than its own life. And what can be better than Christianity? The kingdom of God, of course! This kingdom supersedes Christianity in scope, depth and expression. This is true regardless of whether we talk about “Christless” or “Christfull” Christianity. Even in its best form, Christian religion is still an entity in the human realm.”

    Samir Selmanovic, “The Sweet Problem of Inclusiveness,” in An Emergent Manifesto of Hope.

    May 7, 2009
  6. len #

    btw, you have probably seen it but Brian Walsh recent paper on homelessness is outstanding in this regard.. countering the narrative of Empire with a minority report..

    May 7, 2009
    • Thanks for the heads up—haven’t heard of this paper, but I’m going to have to see if I can track it down.

      May 7, 2009
  7. Ken #

    Yes, your emphasis is right. Concern for those us who are poor, marginalized and suffering has always been part of Christianity and even predate it. It is seen in the Old Testament and in the Apocrypha as well as in the New Testament and orthodox Christian theology for all the centuries.

    May 7, 2009
  8. Ryan – I recently had a similar conversation with someone around the issue of poverty and the downtown eastside. We can talk all we want, but when you get right down to it, the problem is we are dealing with dramatically different views of God and Jesus. Not sure that to do with that.

    May 7, 2009
    • Always good to hear from you Mike. I had a conversation with a respected friend today about similar issues and his advice was very simple: speak and act truthfully and humbly wherever you find yourself and whatever stupid theology/politics/combination of the two you come across. Perhaps not the most profound answer, on one level, but probably a good start (and at least enough to stay sane).

      May 7, 2009
  9. Ken #

    Mike, Ryan: I agree with Ryan’s friend advice here. It is very good advice for maintaining our own integrity and for maintaining peace. In addition, I look at it this way: We live in a pluralistic time and place and the existence of many different views is normal. Living with each other in pluralism requires a mutual appreciation of the stress that places all of us under and accepting the existence of others with dramatically different political and religious views. The alternative is fighting, or an escape from pluralism and freedom into the certainty and uniformity that is only possible without them.

    Now, when someone gets in your face, conflict resolution skills (which include the one Ryan’s friend suggested) are helpful. Otherwise, the alternatives are to fight or flee.

    May 8, 2009
  10. Paul Johnston #

    Maybe what we deserve, is better left for our Lord to decide. Maybe how we should respond to what we encounter, is the question better left for us.

    May 8, 2009
  11. len #

    Pretty sure there is a link to Brians paper here..

    May 9, 2009

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