Perhaps there are two types of people in this world: Those who believe there are two types of people in this world and those of us who think that life is just a bit more complicated than that. It seems to me that the former group have a tight reign on most religious, political, scientific and social discourse in this country. Us/them dichotomies abound. Such dichotomies so saturate the air we breathe that perhaps we no longer recognize the stench.
I know that my people, Christians of all stripes – conservative, liberal, Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestants with all of are sectarian extravagance – have often led the way in this game, sometimes with violent pronouncements of who is in and who is out. But it is a guilt we all share. Read the thread on almost any facebook status or blog about any controversial issue to see that there are people – both men and women, in a kaleidoscope of skin colors, Christians as well as people of other faith commitments and rational empiricists united in their suspicions of faith commitments – who seem all too comfortable to proclaim (whether explicitly or implicitly) that the world would be a better place if we could just be rid of the “other.”
Sometimes this even becomes part of our sacred stories: ‘My God will get you’ instead of ‘Lord have mercy and compassion on us all.’ Sometimes our sickness of heart is allowed to grow so uncontrollably out of bounds we have the audacity to call our hatred hope.
But the hope of my people – and I truly believe the hope of the world – has been expressed so succinctly by a Hebrew prophet named Isaiah:
“In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it. Many peoples shall come and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.’ For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”
This week – this Holy Week – Christians of all stripes – conservative, liberal, Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestants with all of are sectarian extravagance – remember, mourn and celebrate the events of this climactic week in the life of Jesus of Nazareth. We declare our belief that that the restorative work Isaiah so longed for – the restorative work we all so long for – has been and is being done in and through him. This week we declare our belief that to him – not us – belongs the judgment of the nations for the sake of this worlds restoration: swords into plowshares, spears into pruning-hooks, tanks and f15′s into Combine harvesters. Our job until then is to live as he lived, beckoning all to the table that is a foretaste of the feast he establishes on that mountain.
So let us put down our us/them language of culture wars, even if we are outnumbered on all sides by people who refuse to put down the tools and language of war: On the blogs, the facebook status and even in the pews. Our job, our call, our gift is to love. While there is a spectrum of color, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation as well as a multiplicity of beliefs in this world, there is only one type of person, one type of humanity: the humanity that God loves so much that it has become inextricably intertwined with the divine in the person of Jesus. In him all things were made and it is in him – not in the divisive language of war – that we live and move and have our being.
Lord I believe. Only help my unbelief. And please let the hope of resurrection be renewed again in my heart – in all of our hearts – this Holy Week.
Today 38 year old Mother, Rachelle Grimmer shot her two children Ramie (age 12) and Timothy (age 10) and then herself. This happened at a Texas Health and Human services office after a stand off with police. It all began with Grimmer revealing a gun to a caseworker after being unable to get food stamps. As of story time the children have survived but are in critical condition. Rachelle Grimmer did not survive.
In Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov, after listing a horrific litany of violent transgressions against children by adults (including one child beaten and forced to eat excrement and another seized and torn apart by dogs in front of his mother), Ivan Karamazov offers this extended reflection:
Listen! I took the case of children only to make my case clearer. Of the other tears of humanity with which the earth is soaked from its crust to its centre, I will say nothing. I have narrowed my subject on purpose. I am a bug, and I recognise in all humility that I cannot understand why the world is arranged as it is. Men are themselves to blame, I suppose; they were given paradise, they wanted freedom, and stole fire from heaven, though they knew they would become unhappy, so there is no need to pity them. With my pitiful, earthly, Euclidian understanding, all I know is that there is suffering and that there are none guilty; that cause follows effect, simply and directly; that everything flows and finds its level — but that’s only Euclidian nonsense, I know that, and I can’t consent to live by it! What comfort is it to me that there are none guilty and that cause follows effect simply and directly, and that I know it? — I must have justice, or I will destroy myself. And not justice in some remote infinite time and space, but here on earth, and that I could see myself. I have believed in it. I want to see it, and if I am dead by then, let me rise again, for if it all happens without me, it will be too unfair. Surely I haven’t suffered simply that I, my crimes and my sufferings, may manure the soil of the future harmony for somebody else. I want to see with my own eyes the hind lie down with the lion and the victim rise up and embrace his murderer. I want to be there when everyone suddenly understands what it has all been for. All the religions of the world are built on this longing, and I am a believer. But then there are the children, and what am I to do about them? That’s a question I can’t answer. For the hundredth time I repeat, there are numbers of questions, but I’ve only taken the children, because in their case what I mean is so unanswerably clear. Listen! If all must suffer to pay for the eternal harmony, what have children to do with it, tell me, please? It’s beyond all comprehension why they should suffer, and why they should pay for the harmony. Why should they, too, furnish material to enrich the soil for the harmony of the future? I understand solidarity in sin among men. I understand solidarity in retribution, too; but there can be no such solidarity with children. And if it is really true that they must share responsibility for all their fathers’ crimes, such a truth is not of this world and is beyond my comprehension. Some jester will say, perhaps, that the child would have grown up and have sinned, but you see he didn’t grow up, he was torn to pieces by the dogs, at eight years old. Oh, Alyosha, I am not blaspheming! I understand, of course, what an upheaval of the universe it will be when everything in heaven and earth blends in one hymn of praise and everything that lives and has lived cries aloud: ‘Thou art just, O Lord, for Thy ways are revealed.’ When the mother embraces the fiend who threw her child to the dogs, and all three cry aloud with tears, ‘Thou art just, O Lord!’ then, of course, the crown of knowledge will be reached and all will be made clear. But what pulls me up here is that I can’t accept that harmony. And while I am on earth, I make haste to take my own measures. You see, Alyosha, perhaps it really may happen that if I live to that moment, or rise again to see it, I, too, perhaps, may cry aloud with the rest, looking at the mother embracing the child’s torturer, ‘Thou art just, O Lord!’ but I don’t want to cry aloud then. While there is still time, I hasten to protect myself, and so I renounce the higher harmony altogether. It’s not worth the tears of that one tortured child who beat itself on the breast with its little fist and prayed in its stinking outhouse, with its unexpiated tears to ‘dear, kind God’! It’s not worth it, because those tears are unatoned for. They must be atoned for, or there can be no harmony. But how? How are you going to atone for them? Is it possible? By their being avenged? But what do I care for avenging them? What do I care for a hell for oppressors? What good can hell do, since those children have already been tortured? And what becomes of harmony, if there is hell? I want to forgive. I want to embrace. I don’t want more suffering. And if the sufferings of children go to swell the sum of sufferings which was necessary to pay for truth, then I protest that the truth is not worth such a price. I don’t want the mother to embrace the oppressor who threw her son to the dogs! She dare not forgive him! Let her forgive him for herself, if she will, let her forgive the torturer for the immeasurable suffering of her mother’s heart. But the sufferings of her tortured child she has no right to forgive; she dare not forgive the torturer, even if the child were to forgive him! And if that is so, if they dare not forgive, what becomes of harmony? Is there in the whole world a being who would have the right to forgive and could forgive? I don’t want harmony. From love for humanity I don’t want it. I would rather be left with the unavenged suffering. I would rather remain with my unavenged suffering and unsatisfied indignation, even if I were wrong. Besides, too high a price is asked for harmony; it’s beyond our means to pay so much to enter on it. And so I hasten to give back my entrance ticket, and if I am an honest man I am bound to give it back as soon as possible. And that I am doing. It’s not God that I don’t accept, Alyosha, only I most respectfully return him the ticket.
That is a lengthy quote. Ivan expresses a wide range of emotions: from a desire to see punishment for those who would perpetrate such a heinous crime against a child to a hope for all things – even the vilest offenders – to be brought into reconciliation with God but finally he comes to a rejection of God. Essentially for Ivan, no ultimate ends justify the means. Eternal punishment perpetuates suffering. Universal salvation for Ivan makes a mockery of the offense and our desire for justice. Even if every last vile offense is forgiven, all are reconciled to God and each other and all created things are in harmony for Ivan it does not justify the suffering of one child beaten and forced to eat excrement or another torn apart by dogs.
At the end of the day I hope with all I have that Ivan is missing something, some piece, something only God in God’s infinite wisdom can understand and that somehow someday harmony will come, and all will say of the God revealed in Christ, “Thou art just, O Lord!” And somehow in someway that we cannot really envision right now God will be all in all.
But when we read stories like this one, we ought to feel Ivan’s sorrow and his rage, as only a person who really believes in a God said to be at once all powerful and benevolent can rage (and Ivan does believe – he just rejects the God he believes in). If we can’t feel deeply Ivan’s sorrow for the suffering of children and sympathize with his anger, then perhaps we don’t really believe in this God we claim to believe in.
In fact from Job to Christ himself on the cross and many places in between the Old and New Testament scriptures provide ample example of those who express their sorrow and indignation to God. This space in the tradition to express lament and frustration – culminating in God crying out to God ‘Have you forsaken me?’ – is perhaps the main reason I am Christian.