Sunday, August 19, 2012

Teaching History, Confronting Suffering (Part 1 of 2)

I have never prayed for patience. Scripture says that suffering produces patience, so praying for patience is praying for suffering, and I’ll do without patience if it means I get to do without suffering. Nevertheless, despite studiously avoiding such a prayer, I found myself in the midst of a good deal of suffering this year. In the introduction to The Gospel According to Job, Mike Mason describes my situation fairly well:
A few years ago I went through a difficult time. Never mind what the problem was. It was nothing compared to the trials of Job. In fact, it was nothing at all compared to the sufferings of many of my neighbors right there on the quiet street where I lived. But pain is pain, and suffice it to say that my pain was enough to drive me to my knees, totally defeated, half-crazy at times, and crying out for relief. Month after month the battles raged on, thick, dark, agonizing. I prayed, but somehow prayer did not “work.” Usually nothing at all worked, except lying low and gritting my teeth until, for reasons entirely obscure to me, the straightjacket of oppression began to loosen a little—at least enough for me to get on with my life for another day or so before the screws tightened again. What else could I do? How was I to fight this? In retrospect I can see that a large part of my anguish was rooted in the fact that there really was nothing I could do to control what was happening to me. I was absolutely helpless, and it is this, perhaps, that is the soul of suffering, this terrifying impotence. It is a little taste of the final and most terrifying impotence of all, which is death.
I have thought about Job and his endurance, and as my own little drama went on, I wondered if God wasn’t producing patience in me despite my reluctance. As if to confirm this, it seemed that everything I read—in Scripture and elsewhere—directly spoke of waiting on the Lord. I felt as though I were in my own personal Lenten or Advent season. And so I waited, and I hoped that my season of waiting would lead to an Easter or Christmas.

My mom used to tell me that anticipation was half the pleasure—in place of impatience I should take joy in anticipating something good. I think that’s true, and I’ll go one step further. Sometimes anticipation is all the pleasure when the anticipated thing lets us down. Watching The Matrix Reloaded as a high school sophomore comes to mind.

In the midst of this, I wrote in my journal, “Is this a season of Lent or Advent, of waiting on a blessing? Or is it waiting on a collapse? What then? What sort of waiting would that be? Unjust waiting. Waiting on suffering.” In other words, it would be suffering in anticipation of more suffering. It would be, I wrote, waiting on what turns out to be merely a deeper confirmation that—and I wrote this in all caps—“THE WORLD IS NOT AS IT SHOULD BE.”

I am sorry to say that there is no happy ending to my story. I may be out of the woods when it comes to the worst of it, but there hasn’t been any Easter or Christmas moment. Instead there was an intensification of suffering—that collapse I mentioned, more or less—followed eventually by the natural dulling and fading of pain.

The epigraph to The Gospel According to Job quotes chapter 27, verses 5-6, where Job rather shockingly says, “I will never admit you are in the right; till I die, I will not deny my integrity. I will maintain my righteousness and never let go of it; my conscience will not reproach me as long as I live.” Job’s friends constantly try to get him to admit that his own sin has brought about his suffering, and Mike Mason repeatedly points out that in this situation—with Job maintaining his blamelessness and his friends calling him to repent—Job is actually the one in the right.

Last week I read Psalm 44. In it, the Sons of Korah protest what they see as unjust punishment by God. When they tell God how poorly things are going for them, the bitterness is palpable: “You have sold your people for a trifle, demanding no high price for them.” This doesn’t turn into your typical lament, where the prophet calls on Israel to turn away from the wickedness which brought down God’s wrath. Instead, the Sons of Korah vigorously protest at the injustice of their suffering:

All this has come upon us,
though we have not forgotten you,
and we have not been false to your covenant.

Our heart has not turned back,
nor have our steps departed from your way;
yet you have broken us in the place of jackals,
and covered us with the shadow of death.

If we had forgotten the name of our God
or spread out our hands to a foreign god,
would not God discover this?
For he knows the secrets of the heart.

Yet for your sake we are killed all the day long;
we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.

Awake! Why are you sleeping O Lord?
Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever!
Why do you hide your face?
Why do you forget our affliction and oppression?

For our soul is bowed down to the dust;
our belly clings to the ground.
Rise up; come to our help!
Redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love!

Like Job, these men are not prepared to admit any culpability for their suffering.

A strain of contemporary Biblical scholarship suggests that we in the West have overstated the introspective angst of the great men and women of faith in Scripture. A piece called “The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West” written back in 1963 by Krister Stendahl, instigated this conversation. Basically Stendahl points out that, taken on the whole, St. Paul’s conscience is remarkably robust, characterized less by guilt or angst than by an utter certainty of his blamelessness before God.

I find this sense of one’s own blamelessness quite off-putting in some ways. Everything—every breath—is grace. But then Paul and the Sons of Korah and Job knew this, even as they maintained their blamelessness. The blameless still need grace.

Blamelessness and innocence, I’m saying, are not the same thing. Holding fast to one’s blamelessness has nothing to do with a self-justifying sense of innocence or innate “goodness.” We do not need more people—certainly not more middle schoolers—running around thinking of themselves as good people who deserve, say, the American life of luxurious ease. Self-appointed good people are often, though not always, the most self-deceptive people I’ve known.

I’m not a theologian, so I won’t try to expand on this too much. To put it simply, while we are sinful creatures who deserve nothing from God—to whom God does not owe a thing—through Christ we are nevertheless blameless and freed from our guilt. Blame has been lifted by grace.

So even though I know that God’s grace is totally unmerited, I also know that by his grace I am blameless. And it’s from this odd, tenuous place that I identify with the Sons of Korah in wanting to protest, to ask God what in, you know, God’s name he is doing. Like Job, I want an explanation.

I have not, however, gotten one. Sure, God is producing patience. Yet I cannot help but find that end incongruous with the means, with the suffering. This has left me thinking about the Christian response to suffering and tragedy—in lives and in history. How should we respond to the suffering of others? Moreover, how do I, as a historian, teach tragedy? These are questions that have been with me for years, but I must say that 2012 has given them fresh impetus.

Read Part 2 here.