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Buddhism And Christianity — On Loss, Grief, And Atonement

Life is not permanent. It’s frail. As much as we want to deny this truth, at some point we all experience the impermanence of life. In those moments, we often universalize our loss. We can get stuck in our grief, believing that this loss of a career, a loved one, a marriage, a wayward child, or our reputation now defines us.

What we do with loss and grief matters. Quite often, we make the situation worse by scapegoating. As René Girard claims, some of us externalize our pain by blaming it on someone else. We accuse others – a co-worker, a spouse, or even God – for causing our problems. We justify our anger at others by condemning them for our loss.

On the other hand, some of us tend to internalize loss by scapegoating ourselves. Some of us play an audio stream in our heads that torments us the voice of shame. “Why did you even try? You knew you were going to fail. See, you are a loser.”

If you are like me, you do both. I have a pattern of scapegoating others and myself. As long as I can blame someone else for my problems, then I can let myself off the hook. But that’s just a temporary fix, because I also have the voices in my head that taunt me with shame. Whether I blame someone else or myself, scapegoating is very destructive. It creates a cycle of blame that threatens relationships and personal health. And so I wonder if there’s a third way to manage the loss we inevitably experience in life.

Is there a way to atone, or reconcile, with our losses that doesn’t involve scapegoating? Yes. Buddhism and Christianity offer that important third way.

Buddhism, Loss, and Mandalas

A group of Tibetan monks make an annual trip to Laguna Beach, California. They gather at a neighborhood church to create Sand Mandalas. Also known as Compassion Paintings, the intricate Sand Mandalas take 6 days to create. Visitors come from all over the world to watch the Buddhist monks create their Mandalas. One visitor describes the process as “meticulous and seemingly back breaking work.”  These monks work hours on end, only taking short breaks from their work.

At the end of those six days, after all that hard work, the monks carry their stunning creations to the beach and do the unthinkable. They throw them into the Pacific Ocean.

Why on earth would they do that? To teach us a lesson about the impermanence of life. The monks spend days doing back breaking and often mind numbing work to create something beautiful and in an instant, it’s gone.

The Mandala is a metaphor. It represents those things that we work hard to create. A career, job, marriage, children, the list goes on. But we know those things aren’t guaranteed. We know those things are impermanent.

Whatever our Mandala is, there’s a good chance we will lose it. But the monks teach us how to manage ourselves during those losses. We don’t have to atone for our losses by scapegoating others or ourselves. Rather, we can reconcile with our losses in a third way. The monks believe that our losses don’t have the last word. They trust that in the face of loss, there will be more sand. There will be other opportunities to create more Mandalas.

Christianity, Loss, and Resurrection

The early Christians had to deal with the loss of their most important Mandala – the one they called Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Isn’t Christianity weird? I mean, Christians revere Jesus the Messiah, the King. That’s weird because the one Christians revere as the incarnate word of God was killed. He became a victim of human violence.

How do you atone for that? How do you reconcile with the fact that the one whom Christians worship became a victim of human violence?

The early Christians reconciled that fact through faith that loss and death don’t have the last word. They trusted that their experience of loss and grief didn’t have the last word because they trusted in resurrection.

Christians have placed so much of the Atonement on the cross. And rightly so, but many of us have neglected the resurrection. Atonement, the reconciliation of the world, runs through the cross and into the resurrection.

In the resurrection, Jesus didn’t atone for the loss of his life by scapegoating others for their violence against him. Neither did he scapegoat himself for being a conquered King, and thus a failed King. Rather, for Christians, the resurrected Jesus responded as the true King of the world. He made atonement by offering peace to those who betrayed and killed him. In this sense, Jesus was, as James Alison claims, the Forgiving Victim.

Conclusion

The losses in my life are often like a vacuum that sucks my soul dry. But I’m realizing that I’m the one who’s holding the vacuum’s hose.

So I’m learning to turn off the vacuum. It’s a slow process, but I’m learning to not scapegoat others or myself for the losses in my life. Instead, I’m learning to trust with the Tibetan monks that there will always be more sand by the oceanside. And I’m learning to trust with the early Christians that on the other side of loss there will always be resurrection.

Don’t Tell Me that God Is In Control: On Sovereignty, Tragedy, Sin

“God is in control.”

The statement comforts many people because deep down we know that we are not in control. We can do everything we can to protect ourselves and our families, but we know that despite our best efforts, tragedy can strike at any moment. And so it’s comforting to believe that if we aren’t in control, Someone else is.

But something inside of me recoils whenever I hear the phrase, “God is in control.” Many believe that God’s sovereignty means that God is behind everything that happens. But I find no comfort in that view of God. In fact, a God who micromanages and controls every event isn’t a God worthy of belief.

How to Respond to Tragedy

My community was struck by tragedy last week. A mother and her three children were walking to the grocery store. They waited for the crosswalk sign to signal that it was safe to cross the street. But it wasn’t safe. A driver ran the red light, severely injuring the mother, and killing her three children.

How does one respond to such tragedies? First, by mourning. The community held a vigil at the site to support the mother and father. People held candles, prayed, and sang hymns like “Jesus Loves Me” and “Amazing Grace.” Mourners turned the crosswalk into a memorial site with teddy bears, balloons, and other toys.

As the local paper reports, “There were children at the vigil, and parents held onto children tightly or kept a close eye on them. ‘Do not run!’ said one woman to a child near the street.”

Second, by empathizing. Every young parent knows that this tragedy could have happened to any of us. It could have happened to me or to you. I can do everything I can to keep my children safe and yet tragedy can still strike in an instant. Empathizing opens our hearts and minds to compassionately suffer with others as they go through their pain.

How Not to Respond to Tragedy

But there is a theological response that I find extremely pernicious. In the face of such tragedies, many people claim God’s sovereignty in an attempt to provide comfort, but it’s actually quite harmful. They say things like, “God is in control,” or “It’s part of God’s plan,” or “Everything happens for a reason.” But after experiencing tragedies like the one that struck my community, I can no longer believe in that notion of God’s sovereignty.

Please, don’t tell me that God is in control of such events.

Don’t tell me that they are part of God’s plan.

Don’t tell me that these things happen for a reason.

While these statements are usually delivered in an attempt to provide comfort in the midst of suffering, they aren’t comforting. They’re harmful because they actually minimize suffering. The statements imply that, since God is in control and tragedies are part of God’s plan, people should “just get over” their feelings of grief, suffering, and loss. But people don’t “just get over” these kinds of tragedies. The best way to manage the feelings that emerge from tragedy is not to repress them or get over them, but to go through them. The way to go through those feelings is to talk about them. Unfortunately, phrases like, “God is in control,” serve to stifle honest conversation about those painful emotions. Thus, it stifles the healing process.

Tragedy and Sin

But if God isn’t in control of those tragedies, why do they happen? The best answer I’ve found is summed up in one ugly word: Sin. The concept of sin has become taboo in many progressive circles, but I think progressives need to reclaim it. Sin says that there is something wrong with the world, that the world isn’t how it’s supposed to be, that a man running over three children is not part of God’s plan.

In his book, The Wounded Heart of God, Andrew Sung Park states that, “Sin is a conscious offense committed against God or neighbors.” To sin is to go against the desire of God for us to love God and love our neighbors as we love ourselves. Sin rightly puts the responsibility for such tragedies on humanity; it refuses to allow us to project our own responsibility for violence upon God.

Unfortunately, some Christians don’t intend to comfort so much as to blame when they say that “God is in control.” They claim that if something bad happens in your life, you deserve it because you must have sinned. In other words, God causes bad things to happen to bad people. Well, let me be as clear as possible – that’s theological bullshit. It’s an abuse of the concept of sin. This mother did nothing wrong to deserve such horror and neither did her children.  Any religion that blames victims of violence by piling on guilt and shame is a religion that should be thrown into the garbage dump of history.

This tragedy happened because a man decided he was in a hurry and so he ran a red light. My community is now turning against this man, but part of me empathizes with him, too. Who among us hasn’t been in a hurry? Who among us hasn’t ran a red light?

By all accounts, he’s not an evil monster. And so, along with the legal consequences of his actions, he will have to face the fact that he destroyed the lives of three children and their parents. He knows as much as anyone else that this was the result of sin. He knows that he should not have been driving recklessly. He knows that this tragedy should not have happened.

Sin names events that shouldn’t happen. The theological concept of sin is a protest that claims the world isn’t right. It claims that these tragic events are not part of God’s plan. Sin claims that God is not all-powerful and in control of these tragic events.

Of course, I want to believe that God is like an all-powerful superhero in the sky, keeping me and my family safe from tragedy. That might provide me comfort, but where was that god on the night those children were killed?

The fact is that God doesn’t promise to keep us safe from what’s wrong in the world – not from reckless drivers, not from cancer, and not from violence. But I do believe that God is sovereign in two ways.

Reinterpreting God’s Sovereignty

First, God is sovereign in God’s promise to be present in our suffering. As Park claims, in the face of suffering caused by sin, God’s heart is wounded. God suffers with us. In Jesus we discover that God empathizes with our suffering. God enters into the violence and despair of human sin and by doing so, God seeks to heal us in mind, body, and soul. It takes a certain amount of control to be present in the midst of suffering. The Atonement is God’s ultimate way of entering into the tragedy, violence, and absurdity of suffering caused by human sin. As Lindsey Paris-Lopez puts it, in Jesus God exposes “himself not as the commander of our violence, but as the victim of it.” The cross tells us that we are not alone in our suffering. It tells us that Jesus, God in flesh and bones, doesn’t orchestrate suffering, but rather goes through suffering with us.

But that’s not enough. God calls the church to be the Body of Christ on earth. The church is to receive its identity from Christ. As the Body of Christ, the church’s mission is to enter into suffering with our fellow human beings. The world needs the church to do its mission because sometimes the absurd happens. Sometimes tragedy strikes. In the blink of an eye, our children can be taken from us. And our best response is to walk with mothers and fathers and all who hurt through the immense suffering caused by sin.

Second, God is sovereign in God’s ability to heal, reconcile, and restore the world to himself. As the Book of Revelation claims, in the end God will wipe away every tear. Until then, God is working for the “time of universal reconciliation.” And, until that universal reconciliation happens, we have work to do. God is calling us to participate in God’s sovereign reconciliation of the universe because, as Second Corinthians claims, “In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their sins against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.”

God’s sovereignty has nothing to do with causing violence, pain, and suffering in the world. Rather, God’s sovereignty means that in the end, sin doesn’t have the last word. In the end, everything that’s wrong will be put to right, every tear will be wiped away, and every life will be restored to God’s loving embrace. The good news is that we don’t have to wait for that day. We can participate in God’s universal, loving embrace of the world right now. Indeed, that is our mission. In the face of absurd suffering and sin, that is what God is calling us to do.

Why God is Sending Christians Straight to Hell

Sign leading to Hell, Michigan.

Sign leading to Hell, Michigan.

So much of Christianity has become about avoiding hell. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned as a hospital chaplain, it’s that God is sending Christians straight to hell.

Christians need to stop thinking of heaven and hell as primarily places we go after we die. Heaven and hell are primarily realities that we experience here on earth.

Jesus said, “the kingdom of God is among you.” For Jesus, the kingdom of God, also known in the Gospels as the kingdom of Heaven, is a present reality. You don’t have to wait until after death. In fact, you shouldn’t wait because it’s here. It’s now. It’s among you.

Now, if the kingdom of God is a present reality, we can safely assume that hell is also a present reality. In fact, the word Jesus frequently used for “hell” was the term Gehenna. Gehenna was well known in the ancient city of Jerusalem as “the valley of the son of Hinnom.” Within the valley was a place called Topheth, where people would sacrifice their children, thinking that God demanded this sacrificial violence. As the prophet Jeremiah explains, this hell on earth is a purely human creation and God had nothing to do with this hell. Jeremiah said about those who sacrifice their children, “And they go on building the high place of Topheth, which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire—which I did not command, nor did it come to my mind.”

God doesn’t command the fires of hell; it doesn’t even come to God’s mind! Who, then, does command those fires? We do! René Girard said it succinctly in his book The Scapegoat, “[We] create [our] own hell and help one another descend into it.”

Hell is a place of suffering caused by spiritual, emotional, and physical violence. What does the kingdom of Heaven do when confronted with the violence of hell? The kingdom of Heaven goes straight into it.

Unlike so many Christians today, Jesus didn’t try to avoid hell. When people suffered from physical, social, and spiritual diseases, Jesus entered into their hells and he brought the healing power of Heaven with him. He healed people in mind, body, and soul. He invited them into the kingdom of Heaven, where, as Jesus’ prayer teaches us, people are given daily food to eat, everyone’s debts are forgiven, and we are delivered from the evil of inflicting physical, emotional, and spiritual violence upon our fellow human beings.

Many of my patients suffer in hell. They frequently call it “the pit.” In the pit of hell they often suffer relational torment from alcoholic, drug addicted, and abusive parents. Tragically, they medicate their physical and relational pain with the medication their parents modeled for them – alcohol and drugs. By the time they enter the hospital, many have lived this pattern of behavior for so long that they lack any hope and live in despair.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned as a hospital chaplain, it’s that God is calling Christians to meet people in the pit of hell and despair. I can tell you that the pit of hell is among us and it is a damn scary place to be.

But the kingdom of Heaven is also among us.

The fourth century saint John Chrysostom, known as the greatest preacher in Christian history, claimed that Jesus “descended into Hades, illumined it, and made Hades Heaven. For where Christ is, there also is Heaven.”

In the same way, God is sending Christians to hell in order to bring the light of heaven. Hell may be scary, but you don’t have to fear it. My mantra before I enter a room is always, “though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for God with me.” Christ is with us, turning our hells into heaven.

If you are a Christian, don’t avoid hell. Go straight there. Sometimes the pit is so dark, so deep, and so painful that there are no easy answers or quick solution. Sometimes all you can do is be present and listen to the other’s story with an accepting, nonjudgmental spirit.

And if that’s all you’ve done, you’ve done enough. If just for that moment, you’ve followed Christ into hell. If just for that moment, you’ve illuminated the pit of hell and you’ve brought a bit of heaven.

Saved From Violence Part 3: The Social Dimension of Mental Illness

As the nation seeks a meaningful policy response to the Newtown mass killings, the role of mental illness is rightly being examined. We need to make whatever changes are necessary to ensure adequate care is readily available. Alleviating the suffering of individuals is the right thing to do. But mental illness is not, strictly speaking, an individual illness. It has a social component as well and that’s the subject of my reflections today.

The easiest social component to see is what those we label mentally ill suffer as a result of our culture’s response to them. Being misunderstood, judged, ostracized and bullied is unfortunately a central part of their life experiences. A friend of mine who suffers from learning disabilities, mental illness and has been diagnosed with autism! recently sent me a poem about his experience of being abused by so-called normal society. It’s called Autism is a Gift. Here’s just one stanza:

Do you know what it’s like to be the victim of name calling?! the bullying?! and the stigma?! Do you have any idea what it’s like to be such a lonesome enigma?!  Do you know what it’s like when no one wants to be your friend?! Do you know what it’s like when the torment seems to have no end?! You don’t know how any of this feels! it may seem really strange to you, but for me it is normal and ever so real, but I’ve got to find a way around it so that I can begin to heal.

My friend deserves more compassion from our society not as a defense against potential violence, but because he’s a human being. As the poem’s title suggests, his difference does not torment him. We do.

Would it be so hard to understand the social component, if my friend had suicidal thoughts now and then? I think not. But there are those whose suicidal thoughts stem from depression, a mental illness that seems to strike without rhyme or reason. It’s harder to see the social component to depression and by raising the question I am not trying to suggest that society is responsible for suicide or that we could have done something differently to prevent it. But rather than see depressed individuals as isolated, autonomous actors, we need to understand that suicidal thoughts do not arise spontaneously. They originate in the connective tissue that binds the individual to the culture at large.

For example, it is hard to deny that our culture is fixated on death. We live so much in fear of our mortality that we marginalize the old and idolize youth. By trying to push death to the margins, we paradoxically place it at the center of all our psychic energy. We also use our suffering, what might be thought of as little deaths, as a weapon against others. Acting the martyr means that we are resentfully occupying the place of victim as an accusation against our persecutors. And let us not forget the complex life-death calculations we make as part of our armed invasions, drone attacks, and the endless war on terror. We target some for life and some for death, tolerating the collateral deaths of women and children as the cost of killing our enemy. Death and calculations about death permeate our culture. That death would occupy a central place in the mind of an individual, then, is not so strange or abnormal. Perhaps their “illness” lies in a weakened ability to practice sophisticated forms of denial. My point here is that if we diagnose someone who is fixated on death as mentally ill, then perhaps our entire culture is suffering from the same illness.

Let’s turn to the social component in the use of violence by those we label mentally ill. In a recent article in the New York Times, author and professor of criminal justice Adam Lankford shared the results of his three year study of the causes of both suicide terrorists and suicide rampage shooters and found that they shared three things in common. The first we have already discussed, a desire to die. Another is the desire for fame and glory through killing. That hardly needs my commentary – we glorify violence and those who use it on TV, at the movies, in video games, and in war. If it’s a symptom of mental illness to think killing will bring you glory, then again, we all suffer that illness in common.

The other thing Lankford discovered that they shared in common is “a deep sense of victimization… the aggrieved individual feels that he has been terribly mistreated and that violent vengeance is justified.” I’d like to suggest that the sense of victimization and the justification of violence against persecutors is hardly a symptom of mental illness. Victims hold a privileged position in our society. We listen to victims, we feel compelled to take their side and punish whoever they identify as their persecutors. Feeling like a victim is not an illness; it is part of how we experience ourselves on a daily basis. We feel insulted, aggrieved, annoyed, misunderstood and ignored every day. The problem with mentally ill people, we assert, is that their claims of victimization are delusional or exaggerated while ours are reasonable. When they use violence we say that no matter how aggrieved they may have felt, they are no longer victims but perpetrators. If that is true of the mentally ill, then I’d like to suggest that it is also true of us. When we use violence to soothe our wounded pride, even to retaliate for violence perpetrated against us, we are no longer victims. We have become perpetrators just like those we seek justice against, just like suicidal rampage shooters. But we continue to insist the opposite is true: Our violence is different; our violence is justified, noble, necessary. And we insist that our victims are the right victims, but I wonder how long we can maintain the charade that it’s not okay to kill children in Newtown, CT but it is okay to kill children in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Our mentally unstable suicide killers are the mirror image of ourselves, using our own logic against us, and haunting us with the consequences of our love affair with violence. We label people mentally ill, we bully and name-call to avoid seeing the painful truth about ourselves. Adam Lanza (Newtown), Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold (Columbine), and Seung-Hui Cho (Virginia Polytech) are the identified patients but our whole society is sick. If we want to develop a meaningful response to suicidal violence, we will need to develop a treatment plan for all of us.

 

(This is part 3 in the Raven Foundation’s series on the Newtown tragedy. Click here to read Saved From Violence Part 1: A response to the Newtown tragedy, by Suzanne Ross and here for Saved from Violence Part 2: What we owe our children in a violent world, by Adam Ericksen

The Dark Knight Rises: Why I Am Bane and So Are You

Maybe it’s time we all stop trying to outsmart the truth and let it have its day.

– Alfred Pennyworth from The Dark Knight Rises

The most fascinating aspect of The Dark Knight Rises is the constant search for truth amidst countless lies. The truths explored throughout TDKR are spiritual truths, and these truths are surprisingly rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition. They are the truths of immortality, resurrection, hell, identity, love, hate, good, evil, exodus, and liberation.  In the quote above, Alfred challenges Bruce Wayne to let the truth “have its day.” That’s a challenge we need to take upon ourselves, too. But what is the truth? And does TDKR let the truth have its day, or does it perpetuate the lie?

One of my favorite characters in the movie is the great villain Bane. He’s a scary, evil, killing machine bent on terrorizing the citizens of Gotham through violence. He kills anyone who gets in his way, his public show trials end in death, and he threatens to destroy Gotham with an atomic bomb. And yet he denies being a violent conqueror. Instead, he justifies his violence by claiming to be Gotham’s liberator.

Bane defeats Batman in a brutal fight, but instead of killing Batman, he tells Batman that his “punishment must be more severe” than death. He enjoys torturing Bruce Wayne in a foreign prison known as “the worst Hell on Earth.” The prison sits at the bottom of a tall, dark tower that opens into sunlight. It’s rumored that only one person has succeeded in escaping this Hell on Earth by climbing the tower – and that person was Bane himself. For everyone else, the sunlight presents a despairing hope as it beckons them to a futile attempt in escaping their hell. Adding to his torture, Wayne is forced to watch Bane terrorize Gotham on television screen. Only after Wayne has been sufficiently tortured, Bane says, “then you have my permission to die.”

All of this is a truth about Bane. But the movie insists that it’s not the whole truth about Bane.

My favorite part of the movie is Bane’s back-story. We are told that Bane was “born and raised in Hell on Earth.” While in the prison, Bane fell in love with a girl and helped her escape. After helping her, his fellow inmates united in violence against him. (Apparently, no one is supposed to escape Hell!) Bane became their scapegoat and they severely beat him, deformed his face, and broke his body. Bain survived the attack and was rescued from this “Hell on Earth.” But after the brutal beating, he suffered chronic, severe pain and had trouble breathing. A doctor created a mask that would provide medication to numb his pain and help him breathe.

There are three things that are important about Bane’s truth.

First, the backstory confronts us with the uncomfortable truth about our enemies – about the “Banes” of our world. It is all too easy to dehumanize our enemies – but here we gain a glimpse of Bane’s humanity. He loves. He feels. He protects. He suffers. He risks his life so that the one he loves could survive. It is here, in the depths of hell, where we find that Bane is not as evil as he seems. Indeed, it is in this hell on earth where we discover Bane’s humanity.

Second, like all humans, Bane is formed by his environment. We are mimetically structured by our social setting. By “mimetically structured” I mean that we observe and absorb what’s happening around us. Rather than being fully independent creatures, we humans are structured by our environment. And so Bane is formed in the depths hell. There he is molded into the image of hell’s hostility and violence. Bane reveals this truth when he tells Batman during their first fight, “Oh you think darkness is your ally? You merely adopted the dark, I was molded by it.” In the darkness of hell, Bane’s fellow prisoners united in violence against him. They scapegoated him. This is the risk of love. When we find the courage to turn away from the crowd so that we might love another, there is always the risk that the crowd might turn against us. After this experience, Bane’s heart was hardened, his body was nearly destroyed, and yet Bane arose from depths of hell.  He resurrected. He was rescued from the prison of Hell on Earth, but he couldn’t escape the ways of hell. He was molded by it. He mimetically absorbed his environment. He escaped only to spread the hostility and violence of Hell on Earth to Gotham City.

Third, Bane wears a mask to numb his pain and hide his facial deformity. The mask is an interesting aspect of the plotline. Indeed, it numbs his physical pain, but the mask also numbs the emotional pain of his past. Because he can numb his physical pain and hide his facial deformity, he doesn’t have to deal with the emotionally painful experience of being scapegoated in hell. Bane can hide that pain from himself, but that pain needs an outlet, and it finds an outlet as he mimics the violence that was inflicted upon him in hell.

Bane’s story matters because there is a bit of Bane in all of us. We are all mimetically formed by our environment. Those of us who perform acts of physical, verbal, and emotional violence have been raised in a culture that foments hostility and violence. We have all experienced the Hell on Earth of being scapegoated. I hope a mob hasn’t united against you in physical violence, but I’m sure a group has united against you in either verbal or emotional violence. We’ve all been scapegoated. Like Bane, we usually respond to this scapegoating mimetically. We imitate that violence by either redirecting it in acts of revenge against those who scapegoat us, or against someone else. By doing this we become scapegoaters ourselves. This only spreads the pain of Hell on Earth throughout our world. And in a culture that encourages us (especially us men) to hide our pain, we all wear the mask of Bane. Our culture interprets any expression of pain as a sign of weakness, but just like Bane, our pain needs an outlet. If we don’t deal with that pain in constructive ways, it will lead to destruction.

I appreciate Bane’s backstory, but I do wonder if it is enough. TDKR might provide the viewer with a bit of compassionate understanding for Bane, but we don’t see that compassion expressed in the movie. Instead, Bane is portrayed as the personification of evil. There seems to be no hope for Bane’s redemption. He is an evil villain who must be killed and so the movie mirrors Bane’s violence: just as Bane kills without remorse, we are invited to celebrate Bane’s death, when it comes, without any moral misgivings. This, I think, is the tension within The Dark Knight Rises, and the movie does little to resolve that tension.

If we are to follow Alfred and let the truth “have its day” we need to understand the mimetic power of human relationships – that we are formed by others. Understanding that Bane is formed by his experience of hell enables us to have some compassion for him. But we also discover that Batman is formed by his relationship with Bane. In their second fight, Batman finally defeats Bane by destroying his mask. As Bane suffers in pain, Batman mimics his violent words and we cheer him on, “Tell me where the trigger is [for the bomb] … then you have my permission to die!” The tragic truth revealed here is that violence makes us look, and sound, just like our enemies.

What’s the answer to the mimetic cycles of violence? Since Judeo-Christian themes are so prominent in this movie (there is even a reference to an “Exodus” across a river!) I feel justified in pointing out the theme that is conspicuously absent from these films: “Love your enemy.” At its best, I think The Dark Knight Rises provides us with a warning: This is what the world looks like when we fail to live by the spiritual truth of loving our enemies. It looks like Batman trying to cast out darkness with darkness, only to make the world a darker place. Sure, Bane is killed. But other supervillains will come. Thus the need for another superhero, Robin. Without the spiritual truth that guides us into loving even our enemies, The Dark Knight series comes dangerously close to perpetuating the lie that darkness can be defeated with darkness. The culmination of the Judeo-Christian tradition claims otherwise.

Alfred was right. It’s time we all stop trying to outsmart the truth and let it have its day. For us, the greatest truth that needs to have its day is the truth that only love can defeat darkness.

Olympics 2012: A Golden Moment

I wasn’t going to write about the Olympics, but David Brooks started it. He’s my favorite New York Times columnist and on July 26 he opened his column, The Olympic Contradiction with this observation: “Abraham Lincoln said that a house divided against itself cannot stand. He was right about slavery, but the maxim doesn’t apply to much else. In general, the best people are contradictory, and the most enduring institutions are, too.” Brooks meant it as a description of something good and enduring about the Games, but I’ve been thinking about it ever since because the phrase “house divided against itself” is a caution against divided institutions, not a complement.

Again, anything you read here which might spoil your enjoyment of the Olympics is Brooks’ fault because he’s the one who said that the Olympics provide a perfect example of divided institutions. He contrasted the peaceful and romantic opening ceremony with what we all know is to follow: bare-knuckled competition. He observes: “If the opening ceremony is win-win, most of the rest of the games are win-lose. If the opening ceremony mimics peace, the competitions mimic warfare. It’s not about the brotherhood of humankind. It’s about making sure our country beats the Chinese in the medal chart.”

That’s a brilliant observation: first we celebrate the brotherhood of mankind and then we go at each other with ruthless intensity because only one competitor gets the gold and frankly, that golden moment on the podium is what it’s all about. A romantic notion like brotherhood, or the sacrifices of the athletes and their families pale in comparison. Those things are secondary to the glory of gold, as is the suffering of the also-rans. The difference between glory and ignominy may be paper thin, a fraction of a second or one tiny wobble on a dismount, but it is that difference that matters above all else. Certainly not global unity or peace, despite the propaganda of the opening ceremony.

I’m not trying to ruin the Games for you, but Brooks is the one who used Lincoln’s phrase which evokes (I think deliberately) the New Testament saying of Jesus, “If Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself; how then will his kingdom stand?” (Matthew 12:26) Here Jesus (the Prince of Peace, by the way – the gold medal winner, maybe?) is referring to the Satanic principle of unity through violence and, despite its promises, it does not result in one happy and peaceful world. It’s a partial peace for some won at the expense of others. Look at your own emotions as you watch the Games – joy and elation when your nation succeeds, deflation and a bit of let down when you lose. And if you are heavily invested in the Games, losing can be down right depressing. But winning, ah winning! The camera may show us the dejection of the defeated, but it’s expected that we turn away and refuse to let their suffering dampen our joy.

Through the agony of defeat and the joy of victory, we learn soon enough that in order to avoid suffering, someone else must endure it for us. What kind of peace is it that has the suffering of others as its foundation? It is a divided and contradictory peace and it will not stand forever, and Brooks is wrong to think institutions so divided will long endure. It is what Lincoln meant when he said that a nation which builds economic prosperity for some while remaining blind to the suffering of the enslaved, cannot long endure. Because the ones who are not included in the peace will always clamor to be included, and when denied they will seek to turn the tables and take the political power, the championship, the job or the gold medal from us. Hence the endless cycling between peace and wartime – the interludes are just the calm between storms. When we use violent and exclusionary means to achieve peace we will find ourselves in a perpetual state of defense, always on alert for the next contender seeking to do to us what we have done to them.

But hey, everyone can’t be a winner, right? Is it silly to focus on the downside of losing a competition? As Brooks points out, participants in the Games learn “the competitive virtues: tenacity, courage, excellence, supremacy, discipline and conflict.” Isn’t that takeaway worth a little heartache? Aren’t losers stronger and better people for the effort? Yes, of course. However, their suffering is their own. Losers benefit from their experience but it is not at the expense of others. A house divided continues to make the Satanic bargain: your suffering is a very agreeable price to pay for my peace.

The Olympics invite us to celebrate competition, dominance, and rivalry in order to conceal the way in which our celebration rests upon the foundation of exclusion and the suffering of others. This wasn’t always obvious to us, but our eyes are becoming more open, our hearts more compassionate, and it is becoming harder and harder to celebrate without a nagging doubt creeping in. As you watch the competitions, I hope you find the tenacity, courage and discipline to sit a bit with that nagging doubt. No one will play the national anthem for you or give you a bouquet of flowers if you do, but it will be the beginning of building a solid foundation for truly enduring, peaceful institutions. A golden moment, indeed.

And P.S., if you’d like to see an example of how to build enduring peace, take a look at the 2012 Raven Award winner’s peacemaking program for Chicago. Indira Johnson is an artist with a vision worth celebrating. Join us if you can on September 19 to meet Indira and learn more about her work.

Meeting God in South Africa

Meeting God in South Africa

My mother-in-law and I in Johannesburg.

“Get your father-in-law home,” he said.

“I will,” I replied. And then I left our church service.

That was Sunday morning. I didn’t know that by Tuesday afternoon I would be on a plane, flying from Chicago, Illinois to Johannesburg, South Africa. As I write this I’m sitting in the waiting room of the Johannesburg hospital. I’ve come here to do one thing: Get my in-laws home.

They came on a vacation to South Africa about a month ago. That vacation was cut short after two weeks. While lifting a suitcase filled with school supplies they donated to a local orphanage, my father-in-law ruptured a disc in his back. Since then, they have found themselves in a Johannesburg hospital. My father-in-law has experienced some complications and is currently in the intensive care unit.

I arrived on Wednesday evening. My mother-in-law and her driver met me at the airport. I walked toward her, we embraced, and she wept in my arms. I told her we would get through this together.

This is hard. I’m trying to process the events of the last few days and weeks, but it’s overwhelming. Life is often that way. One minute you are on a vacation in Africa, the next you are in an African hospital. One minute you are at work in Chicago, the next minute you are dropping everything to fly to South Africa because you want the people you love to know that they are not alone.

This brings up the questions: What do we do in the face of suffering?

Because that’s the thing about suffering. No one gets a free pass. So, what do we do about it?

You do the best you can to travel the road together. You demand that suffering will not have the last word. And you love people through it.

In my previous post I wrote about Balaam and his donkey. It’s a little known bible story about meeting God while traveling on a road. I think it is packed with wisdom. Balak, the King of Moab, sent the prophet Balaam to curse the Israelites, to make Israel suffer, as they traveled to the Promised Land. Balaam traveled the road on his donkey to meet King Balak, but on his way he met an angel of the Lord. The angel stopped Balaam from cursing the Israelites.  But Balaam went a step further. At great risk to his own life, the prophet blessed Israel.

Balaam learned something about God on that road. He learned that God isn’t in the business of cursing people. God doesn’t make people suffer. Rather, God blesses people, and asks us to follow in God’s footsteps by blessing people, too.

There are others who have learned this lesson on the road of life. For example, after Jesus was put through suffering and death, two disciples traveled on the road from Jerusalem to a town called Emmaus. (Luke 24:13-33 Watch this video for James Alison’s interpretation of the Emmaus story.) Cleopas, and another disciple who isn’t named, were processing the events of the last few days. But it was all so overwhelming. Jesus, their messiah, their king, the one they hoped would redeem Israel from the Roman Empire, was recently killed on a Roman cross.

As they walked the road to Emmaus, the disciples were suffering. The story states that “their faces were downcast.” Their hopes and dreams for Israel’s expected redemption were dashed with the death of Jesus, their King. They hoped for a king that was like King Balak – someone who would curse others and lead a violent rebellion against their Roman occupiers, making the Romans suffer as the Romans had made them suffer. But Jesus was no Balak. He refused to curse; he refused to make others suffer. Instead, the way Jesus redeemed Israel, the way he redeemed the world, was to go through the horror of suffering. The early Christians believe that Jesus reveals who God is at a fundamental level. If that’s the case, Jesus reveals that God doesn’t inflict suffering upon us, but rather that God suffers with us.

But suffering doesn’t have the last word. God’s love is greater than suffering and death. That’s the truth of the resurrection. And it’s the truth that the disciples met while they walked the road to Emmaus. The resurrected Jesus met them in their suffering and walked along with them. Cleopas, and the disciple who is not named, didn’t recognize Jesus when he met them. Jesus asked them what they were talking about. They told their fellow traveler everything that happened to the one they hoped was the king. As they struggled to process the last few days, they told this stranger that the rulers sentenced the one they hoped would redeem Israel to death and crucified him.

The disciples missed that Jesus did redeem Israel, but not in the violent way they expected redemption.

“How foolish you are,” the stranger responded. “And how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?”

And then Jesus “explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.”

We aren’t told what exactly Jesus explained to them about the scriptures. But we know his explanation was consistent with his life, death, and resurrection. Jesus explained that God is not in the business of cursing people. Humans do that. Jesus explained that God doesn’t make people suffer. Humans do that. Jesus explained that God does meets us in our suffering. And that that is where we meet God. We meet God when we meet one another in the place of suffering. When we suffer together.

The best argument for the God of Jesus is not provided with words. The best argument for the God of Jesus is provided in being present amidst the suffering of the world. Because that’s precisely where we meet the God who suffers with us.

So, this morning I held my father-in-law’s hand. I told him that I loved him. That I would go through this with him. And that I am going to bring him home.

pieta

Suffering and the God of Love

I recently searched on Google for my mother. Google, via the website 123people, told me that Donna Ericksen is 65 years old and lives in Forest Grove, Oregon. 123people then sent me to its partner website, intelius.com, which told me that I could “Get the report on Donna G. Ericksen” for a special price of $.95 – a whole 67% off the regular price!

Well, for once, I know more than Google. Yesterday my mother would have turned 65 years old. But, tragically, she died in the year 2000 after a 10 year battle with cancer.
She spent the last six months of her life in a hospital room. I was 21 at the time and just finishing my sophomore year of college, which was about 45 minutes from the hospital. I had sympathetic professors who understood my need to visit with my mom during her last few months, weeks, and then days of life. My dad and I would frequently visit her together. During one of those visits, the three of us sat at the edge of mom’s hospital bed. The door to the room was shut and I remember mom turning to me and saying, “Adam. Why don’t you open the door and bring in the elephant from the hallway?”

Dad and I made eye contact. I had no idea what to do. She was under the influence of some severe medication, which made her hallucinate. My dad took her in his arms and replied, “I’m sorry, Donna. There is no elephant in the hallway.”

She cried in his arms. And then she laughed as she said, “Boy, are you both going to have a story to tell.”

That experience was a gift. The gift was this: My mom invited us into her suffering. We shared it. We went through it together. We loved each other through the horror of cancer. Love, in the midst of suffering, gave meaning and made us stronger.

It’s a story I’ve been sharing with my closest friends ever since. It feels strange sharing this very personal story on the internet, but mom gave me permission. And I share it because there’s something big happening in that story. There was a giant, two ton elephant in the hallway that wanted to enter our room, but we kept it in the hallway. It’s an elephant that appears when people suffer. That elephant in the room or hallway is the question:

If God is good, then why is there suffering in the world?

Many people have tried to answer that question throughout human history. One popular answer can be found in an article by Marc Barnes at Patheos.com with the clever title “Why Christianity Is Far More Sensible Than Whatever You’re Doing Right Now.” Barnes claims that “Christianity is the only existing worldview with a satisfying answer to the mystery of why we suffer.” He goes on to claim that the answer to the problem of suffering is that “Suffering is an attempt to regain the Good.” (It’s a bit unclear, but I think by “Good” he means God.) The argument claims that suffering is redemptive. Suffering “is the method by which we are saved,” claims Barnes. Suffering “is an attempt—whether by the body or by the will—to get back to the Good.” His argument leads him to state, “An infinite Good requires infinite suffering.” (That last quote might be worth reading again.)

Barnes is close to something profoundly real about the human experience, but his proximity makes his argument very dangerous for two reasons. First, to claim that “An infinite Good requires infinite suffering” is to glorify suffering with sacrificial logic. God does not require suffering in order for God to be God, or to be “Good.” God doesn’t require suffering, humans do. Take the cross, for example. It is true that in Jesus God suffered on the cross. But it wasn’t God who demanded that Jesus suffer on the cross. Humans demanded that Jesus suffer. It is precisely because God does NOT require the suffering of humans that Jesus refused to violently defend himself. Any violent defense would have put others in the place of suffering. Jesus freely went to the cross to end our habit of violence, of causing others to suffering. (More on this below.)

Second, suffering does not lead the individual to the good. A community based on love and solidarity in the midst of suffering leads us to the good. The problem here is that Barnes emphasizes the individual’s quest for the “Good.” This is problematic because we don’t exist as individuals. As much as we want to claim our individuality, we exist as interdividuals – in relationship. It is because of our interdividuality that our quest for the Good is not simply a quest toward God, but a quest we make toward one another and with one another.

That quest toward God is a story we share. Not an answer we provide.

So, let’s explore a story. One of the oldest stories in the bible is about a man named Job. (You can find the story of Job in the Bible under the creative title “Job.”) Job had everything. He was loved by his community. He was a successful farmer, with great wealth. He had a large family and many servants. Job’s life had meaning, not because he saw himself as an individual, but because he recognized his interdividuality with his community.

But everything was taken away in six quick verses. (See Job chapter 1:13-19.) One day, a few Sabeans came to his farm and killed some of his servants and then stole his oxen and donkeys. Then, some Chaldeans came and killed more of his servants and proceeded to steal his camels. To make matter worse, while his children were having a wine and cheese party at his oldest son’s house, a great wind blew down the home, killing all of his children.

Ouch.

A few days later, Job found himself suffering from a skin disease that produced “loathsome sores … from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head.” Job’s only relief was to scratch himself with a shard of pottery.

Fortunately for Job, he had three friends who “met together to go and console and comfort him.” They went toward Job and met him in his suffering. Job invited them into his suffering. They suffered together as interdividuals. Job and his friends sat and wept together for seven days and seven nights. No one spoke a word. They were simply present with Job in his suffering. It wasn’t because Job suffered that he found the “Good” – he had the “Good” before he suffered. It was because his friends suffered with him that they all experience the love and goodness of God.

But then, someone invited the elephant to enter the room. One friend after another tied to answer the question of suffering with some form of, “Well, Job. You must have sinned for this suffering to occur.” Job, on the other hand, held on to his innocence. He didn’t deserve this. The punishment didn’t fit whatever crime Job may have committed.

Which leads me to ask some questions about that elephant – When we suffer, do we really want answers? Are philosophical, or even religious, answers going to alleviate our suffering? Because such answers are a veiled attempt at finding a cause, which inevitably leads to blame – blaming the victim for sinning or, the even bigger answer, blaming the human race for sinning.

Maybe it’s better to keep the elephant in the hallway because in the face of suffering, questions and answers aren’t what we really need. We need solidarity. We need community.

Job’s friends sat with him for seven days and seven nights in silence. If there is an “answer” to suffering, that’s it. Suffering, in and of itself, is absurd. There is no satisfying answer to suffering. It’s meaningless. It shouldn’t happen. That’s why I find answers to suffering like, “Suffering leads us to the Good,” “Suffering is the method by which we are saved,” and “This happened because we live in a sinful world” to be empty platitudes based on sacrificial logic.

I much prefer the secular answer “Shit happens.”

I don’t find meaning in suffering. I find meaning in a community of love that meets suffering, not with answers, but with compassionate solidarity. This, after all, is what Christians mean by the doctrine of the Incarnation. In Christ’s suffering on the cross, we see that the fullness of God suffers in interdividual solidarity with the fullness of humanity.

Progressive Christians would do well to re-examine the Incarnation because it claims that God is not somewhere “out there” aloof from the suffering we all experience. Christianity is not primarily about our “attempt to regain the Good” but God’s attempt to regain humanity by entering into our suffering. God regains humanity, not because God requires suffering, but because God is Love. The Incarnated Love of God in Jesus that is right here, right now, suffering in interdividual solidarity with us.

The Incarnation of God in Jesus is an important part of any discussion of suffering. But the importance of the Incarnation is not just about some dude (or is that Dude?) who lived 2000 years ago. The Incarnation is about you and me.

The 16th century mystic Teresa of Avila said it best:

Christ has no body now on earth but yours,
no hands but yours,
no feet but yours,
Yours are the eyes through which to look out
Christ’s compassion to the world
Yours are the feet with which he is to go about
doing good;
Yours are the hands with which he is to bless men now.”

In the end, answers to the question of suffering are religious and philosophical distractions from what matters. Maybe it’s better to keep elephant in the hallway because no answer to the problem of suffering will truly satisfy. There is no satisfaction, but there is healing. Healing begins by recognizing our interdividuality – that we are dependent upon one another. We are dependent upon one another to be the hands, feet, eyes, and compassion of the God who meets us in our suffering. Healing begins in our imitation of the Incarnation of Love. In the absurd face of suffering, the world is in desperate need of more incarnations of Christ.