Throughout this Lent, we’ve been digging into the depths of the human experience, exploring different ways Christians throughout history have responded to the Darkest Nights of their lives, and of their societies: illnesses, invasions, oppression, and social collapse. My hope for the series was that by hearing the voices of those who have had to live out their faith ‘from under the rubble’, both metaphorical and literal, we might gain insights and tools for how we might live out our own faith with boldness and resilience in our own challenging and uncertain times. Today, I’d like to wrap up the series by bringing together some of these insights from our tradition.
From the biblical book of Lamentations we learned the importance of grief. If we have any hopes of moving forward healthily, we must acknowledge and talk about our experiences of loss and not bottle up our feelings of grief. Black theology, specifically the tradition of the Spirituals, echoes this important insight, but adds an aspect of hope lacking from Lamentations, a faithful insistence that a better day can, must, and will arrive.
From St. Augustine’s City of God, we saw that, as Christians, this world is not our home. Our true home, our true identity, is in the Kingdom of God, of which any earthly country or community will only ever be at best a poor caricature. We therefore can never conflate or confuse the values, goals, and structures of our countries with those of our faith. In this world, because of human sinfulness, we can always expect troubles and reversals of all kinds. In a similar way, John Donne’s Devotions upon Emergent Occasions reminded us of our mortality, but how we also have the freedom to use any circumstance in our life, including and especially those marked by suffering, as an opportunity to meet and experience communion with God.
The theology of late twentieth-century Russian theologian Alexander Men situates this pervasiveness of struggle and pain in our world within the narrative of Jesus. It is nothing more or less than our participation in his sufferings and death. But, he adds the valuable theological perspective, straight from the Apostle Paul, that even as we participate in his suffering and death, we will also participate in his resurrection. History is not simply a story of loss after loss, but of victory snatched from defeat at the last moment.
Howard Thurman, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the whole Black theological tradition, similarly provide a theological grounding for experiences of suffering, but rather than trying to understand why suffering happens, they are more concerned with how we meet it. They locate experiences of oppression within the doctrine of our creation in the image and likeness of God. We are all, whether oppressed or oppressor, marginalized or privileged, alike in fundamental, inalienable dignity. This has practical consequences for how we respond to oppression in the world. Oppression of all kinds is a violation of God’s image in our shared humanity. If we are oppressed, that does not mean we are less than human; but we also cannot respond in ways that violate the humanity of those who oppress us. If, on the other hand, we have privilege, we must use it as much as is in our power to tear down oppressive systems and work towards the fulfillment of God’s Very Good Gospel, which is a message of true peace, whole and healed relationships with God, each other, and creation.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Jürgen Moltmann, in their own ways, represent examples of the kind of response to the sins of one’s own people that Dr. King was calling for. Both emphasized the importance of Christian responsibility in the face of evil, especially the evils of one’s own country. For Bonhoeffer this first and foremost meant “resistance through confession” — refusing to accept the Nazi Party’s lies and insisting on speaking truth, no matter the consequences; but later, when the full scope of the unfolding horrors came to light for him, he realized that this also meant “confession through resistance.” Moltmann, emerging from the other side of the War, responded to the sins of his people by working for a better, more just world. In ways reminiscent of both Black theology and the thought of Fr. Men, he insisted that hope can only be legitimately understood through the lens of the cross. And, as history unfolded and his context shifted from belonging to a shamed and defeated nation to being a citizen of a renewed European economic power, Moltmann was wise enough to cede the floor (so to speak), and allow voices from marginalized communities — women, the poor, and colonized peoples — to take the lead in theology.
The tie that binds all of these responses is that the way forward, the way out, is always through. There is no way around pain, suffering, and disappointment in our world, but there always is a way forward. Suffering is just as much a part of human experience as joy and pleasure; but, this basic ‘curse’ of human nature never overshadows or undoes our original blessing. By virtue of our humanity, our being created in the image and likeness of God, we are called not only to stand with dignity in the face of oppression and pain but also to act in solidarity with those who are being oppressed or experiencing pain of all kinds.
No matter what may lie ahead for us in these uncertain times of climate change, pandemic (and pandemic fatigue), and political instability, our tradition reminds us that we are not alone. We are not the first to have gone down uncharted and unwanted roads. We have thousands of years of faithful witness in the face of tragedies of all kinds to help guide us and remind us that no matter what, God is still with us. I can think of no better way of ending this series and entering into the mysteries of Holy Week than to return to some favorite words from the Epistle to the Hebrews:
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God. (Heb 12.1-2)