April 5, 2011 / Perspective
Doug Frank. A Gentler God: Breaking Free of the Almighty in the Company of the …
October 8, 2003
Editor’s Note: In honor of The Other Journal’s tenth anniversary, we’re featuring select articles from our archives throughout the spring and summer. Check back each Friday as we republish some of our favorite writing over the years.
“Why don’t the newscasters cry when they read about people who die? At least they could be decent enough to have just a tear in their eye.” –J. Johnson–
“I was just getting out of the taxi when there was a big explosion, and I fell down and found my blood everywhere…It was on my arms, my legs, my chest.” –Iraqi woman–
“Thank you!” –Iraqi woman–
“So now that I’m leaving, I’m weary as hell. The confusion I’m feeling ain’t no tongue can tell. The words fill my head then, fall to the floor…that is God’s on our side he’ll stop the next war.” –B. Dylan–
“Albert and Emerson had lived on the creek all of their lives and yet neither man professed to know it, understand its moods. Instead, they thrived on the creek’s limitless ability to astonish, beguile, enrapture, startle.” –H. Middleton–
What do we do with all of the images of the war that we see on the evening news and in the daily papers? Raging fires and billowing smoke in the streets of Baghdad in the opening stages of “Shock and Awe.” An Iraqi woman kissing the cheek of a coalition soldier. A child’s bloodied shoes laying beside a crater caused by a coalition bomb. Signs in Baghdad reading, “No Saddam! No Mr. Bush!” Dozens of Iraqis beating the toppled statue of Sadaam with the bottom of their shoes. The images form a collage that is extremely difficult to “make sense of.” They contradict and reinterpret each other; confusing, qualifying and complicating what we saw, thought and felt just a moment before. When faced with so many conflicting images we are tempted to either turn away from the complexity and disengage from the realities before us, or to minimize the complexity by only looking at the images that do not disturb whatever view we may hold about the moral legitimacy of this war.
I believe a more honest and helpful approach is to honor all of the images we are confronted with; keeping our eyes open to all that we see, and keeping our hearts open to all of the passions that these images arouse in us whether or not they are consistent with our perspective on the war. I suggest the Hebrew category of worship offers such a vision, a way of approaching the collage of images that make up our current historical moment without disengaging it and walking away, or simplifying it by excluding those images that threaten us. This may sound like a simplistic suggestion, but only if you are accustomed to modern anemic understandings of worship that have lost their grit and ethical thrust. Worship, in the way the Hebrews understood it, was a robust idea that didn’t simply refer to something they did to acknowledge their God in their religious gatherings. It was rather a mode of existence, a foundational posture toward their God and their world that gave shape and consequence to every aspect of their lives.
Worship as Living Between Apostasy and Idolatry
The identity of the Hebrew people was constituted around the Exodus Event. They were the people whom God had delivered from slavery in Egypt and then lead to Mt. Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments. These commands were the guide for how they were to live in right relationship with each other and with people outside of their national border, so that they could play an active role in God’s broader intention for the shalom of His creation. Shalom is the state of flourishing in all dimensions, in relation to God, one’s fellow human beings, nature, and oneself. It is what characterized life in the Garden when God pronounced it “Good!” and the word used to describe life in the new heavens and new earth that God has promised. And though, as it has been poetically put, after the fall we now live “East of Eden”, God’s desire for the shalom of His creation still stands. Within this Hebrew understanding, shalom was primarily measured by the extent that there was care for the other, least of these in society, or the widow, the orphan, and the alien.
Just as their identity was wrapped up in the Exodus event, their calling naturally flowed out of it. The Israelites had been delivered from their suffering under the Egyptians and it was the memory of their oppression and liberation that would shape their calling to be a people who would take responsibility for the well-being of other suffering people. In Hebrew categories, it is worship that constitutes being true to this identity and faithful to this calling. Put simply, to worship was to seek shalom through exercising responsible care for the other: the widow, the orphan, and the alien. Within the Hebrew worldview, there was no way of understanding their relationship to their God in a way that did not directly affect the way they handled their responsibility for their neighbor. Piety and responsibility could not be separated, but were both woven together in the Hebrew understanding of worship.
Throughout their history the Hebrews were chastened for forgetting their identity and calling. This failure of worship primarily took two forms, apostasy and idolatry. The Hebrews committed apostasy whenever they renounced their responsibility by ignoring the plight of their neighbor, and they committed idolatry whenever they abused their responsibility by exploiting their neighbor. If the apostate says, “I am not responsible”, then the idolater says, “I will use my responsibility for my own good.” Notice how closely the themes of forgetting God and forsaking their responsibility for their neighbor are linked. “Because they have forgotten me…they have filled this place with the blood of the innocent” (Jeremiah 19: 4)”. Whether through apostasy or idolatry, the failure to properly exercise their responsibility would bring the same result: injustice, victimization, and bloodshed of the innocent. To worship, on the other hand, was to walk the narrow path between these two temptations, pursuing shalom by exercising faithful responsibility for the sake of the other.
Worship as Creative Tension
The primary question for the Hebrew people was not whether or not they were responsible, rather, how, or in what manner, ought they to faithfully exercise their responsibility? This is where the role of the Law must not be misunderstood. Though the Law given to the Hebrew people functioned as a tool to help them learn what it meant to incarnate their ethical responsibility in their own unique time and place, the presence of the Law never relieved the tension of living between apostasy and idolatry. Not only could the Law not speak directly to every situation the Hebrew people were confronted with, but the application of the Law to the practicalities of daily life was never a simple one to one correspondence. The task of being a people called to seek shalom was difficult, demanding that they honor the complexity of their situation without shrinking from their ethical responsibility. The emotional anxiety and moral ambiguity that came from living in this kind of tension can be seen in the Hebrew peoples’ cry to their God in the book of Micah, “With what shall I come to the Lord and bow myself before the God on high?” (6:6). They knew they would find favor by pursuing shalom, but they wanted God to help them by giving them more clarity on how to do so. Yet God did not provide them with clarity, He provided them with poetry, saying through His prophet Micah,
He has told you, O man, what is good;
And what does the Lord require of you
But to do justice, to love kindness,
And to walk humbly with your God (6:8).
His way of helping was not to relieve their tension, as the Hebrews wanted, but to intensify their tension by reinforcing their ethical obligation without providing further clarity. It is this intensification of tension through His poetic utterance that held the clue to mystery of their calling. The thwarting of shalom would always result from the failure to think poetically, with imagination. The Hebrew people would seek shalom by faithfully incarnating their responsibility to the widow, orphan and alien not to the extent that they had clarity, but to the extent that had poetry, living with imagination and creativity birthed in the tension between apostasy and idolatry.
If the God of the Hebrew people, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, is indeed the Creator of All things, then every person, government, institution and authority on earth is ethically obligated to seek shalom in their own unique time and place in history. The local story of Israel carries the meaning for the universal story of all of humanity because the God of Israel is the God of the universe. In this way, the very meaning of our humanity is the reality of our shared ethical obligation to be responsible for the wellbeing of the other.
Not only is the Hebrew calling to be responsible binding on all of humanity, but the nature of the way they were to exercise their responsibility is instructive. If Hebrew faithfulness was to be characterized by creativity, then all the more ought ours to be, living in cultures thousands of years removed from the context in which the Law was originally given. The calling to be responsible still stands, but fulfilling that calling is now even more poetic, more mysterious, more hidden, requiring more risk, more courage, more humility, and ultimately more creativity. We must enter our world, getting our hands dirty for the sake of shalom, but we must be humbled by the possibility that we might end up with blood on our hands, using shalom as a scapegoat for our own gain. To remain in this tension, neither forsaking our responsibility for the other, nor minimizing moral complexity or the complexity of our world in the process, is indeed what it means to embrace our human situation. And it is this embrace, this tension, which can be the catalyst for creativity, for living with imagination.
In many ways, the history of our world is the story of what humans have done with their responsibility. Throughout the centuries, tragedy after tragedy has been brought about by human beings ignoring the plight of the other, or abusing the other for one’s own gain. The temptation has always been either to flee from our responsibility, or to abuse our responsibility. To release the tension by disengaging from reality (apostasy), or engaging reality naively or with intentions outside the context of shalom (idolatry). All individuals and institutions encounter these temptations, but in the sphere of government, they are most evident in the extremes of isolationism and imperialism. The isolationists tend toward apostasy, saying, “It is not our problem, let’s not get involved.” The imperialists tend toward towards idolatry, saying, “We have something to gain by getting involved.” Though these are different ideologies, the result is the same; injustice arising from a decision based on national interest rather than sacrificial service for the wellbeing of the other.
So what ought we to have done with Iraq? And what ought we to do now? The Judeo-Christian tradition doesn’t offer a unified response to these questions. Without minimizing the significance of the great amount of thinking and writing on different political and social theories within the tradition, I must confess that I don’t believe there is one perspective we can fall back on that relieves the anxiety that arises from trying to live responsibly in a complex world. There is no risk free formula or system that is safe from the temptations of apostasy and idolatry. Like the Hebrew people during the time of the prophet Micah, we are looking to God asking, what is good? If we are responsible, then tell us how we are to respond in the midst of such moral ambiguity and epistemological complexity? We want certainty and clarity, but it is not to be found. Yet, as he did with the Israelites, so he does with us. He responds with poetry, “Do justly, walk humbly, love mercy.” He reminds us of our calling to be responsible without telling us what that looks like. God uses poetry to put us in a bind, asking us to live faithfully in the midst of high stakes and much ambiguity. He uses poetic language to keep us in a tension that has the potential to produce poetic living. Yet this is an extremely difficult way to live. It would be much easier to turn away from those who suffer and the infinite complexity and nuance of our current historical moment, or to reduce the complexity in order to fabricate a solution that we believe is true and good and right. Much of the discourse surrounding the moral legitimacy of the war can be read along these lines.
To those protesting the war without offering any other way of engaging the suffering and lack of justice in pre-war Iraq, I ask, What about the thousands of children who have died from malnutrition and insufficient medical care in the decade during the sanctions since the Gulf War? What do you with a leader who has continually sacrificed the wellbeing of his own people for his own gain? One who killed five thousand Kurds within his own border with chemical weapons? One who has ruthlessly tortured and killed those who speak out against his suppression of basic human and political freedoms? One who has harbored known terrorists, and continues to refuse to comply with United Nations resolutions to show concrete evidence of the destruction stockpiles of chemical weapons. To think that simply not having gone to war is a sufficient expression of human responsibility is to be naïve to the lack of peace and justice and great amount of suffering present in pre-war Iraq.
At the same time, to those who seem convinced that an official declaration of war with Iraq at this time was the only way to deal with Hussein, I ask, how do you speak about such a profoundly tragic reality as war without evidence of moral ambivalence? What objectives are of higher priority than the wellbeing of the Iraqi people? Is the targeting of Saddam Hussein a way of dealing with our anxieties in lieu of failing to capture Osama Bin Laden? Was every diplomatic effort truly made before declaring war? Is our present form of engagement an attempt to restructure the Middle East without acknowledging our contribution to its history of instability; including post WWII structuring of national borders, American double standards in assessing human rights violations between Israelis and Palestinians, and supplying Dictators, including Saddam Hussein, with technology for the development of weapons of mass destruction?
I am not suggesting that these are THE questions to be asking, but they are my questions, and they are the questions that keep me from siding with those on either side of the debate that feel more secure in their perspective than I do. My questions will not allow me to read this war by only looking at some of the images and closing my eyes to others. And when I do this I see more complexity and nuance than those who advance pro and anti-war agendas seem to believe exists. I believe this is why many of us have felt so alienated, saddened, and often angered with a discourse that has asked us to stand either with those who describe the war as “Iraqi Liberation” or “American Empire Building.” “This war will bring peace in the end!” What do those words mean to the woman whose liberation from Sadaam Hussein’s regime is caused by the same bomb that shoots shrapnel through the body of her daughter? “This war is antagonistic to peace!” What do those words mean to the woman whose child has died from a treatable disease because of a lack of medicine and whose husband has been tortured and killed for having political opinions that differ with those currently in power? We are not left with the simple choice between war and peace, or with the choice between the language of “Liberation” or “Empire Building.” We are left with a thousand images and a thousand questions. Though this is a place of ambiguity and tension, it is not a place of hopelessness. The tension has the potential to help us transcend partisan and ideological thinking, and is necessary if there is any hope of offering more creative proposals.
Worship as Poetic Justice
I’ll never forget watching Bill Moyers interview Ellie Wiesel, a profound thinker and writer, and a survivor of the Holocaust. Moyers was questioning Weisel on his Jewish roots trying to get him either to dismiss or sanction the violence and war chronicled in the book of Joshua. Wiesel would not do either, he would not flee the tension by answering Moyers’ question directly, but rather made a poignant observation, “There is no poetry in Joshua.” What do we do with an answer like this that is so insightful, so rich? It is the most violent book in the Old Testament and it is the only book that does not have any poetry. It is a tragedy that the phrase “poetic justice” is primarily used to describe retribution, someone finally getting what he or she deserves in the end. Retribution is so simple and predictable, and simplicity and predictability is not the nature of poetry, and does not explain why we as humans are so drawn to poetic expression. It is the nuance, the innuendo, the metaphor, the metonymy, the fluidity, the beauty, the surprise, and ultimately the creativity that speaks to us. And the poetic life, the artful life, the life of imagination, the life of hope is the calling of worshippers. To be about true poetic justice, or better said, doing justice poetically, with creativity, imagination, and unpredictability. I am not saying that to sanction or dismiss this war is to commit idolatry or apostasy, but I must confess that I hear very little creativity in the words of those who are quick to do either. To limit ourselves to the terms of the current discourse is to yield one of the most precious endowments of having been made in the image of God, our imaginations. And the consequences are simply too great to do so, because shalom is not possible without the presence of imagination. This is the hope of worship, that living in the tension between apostasy and idolatry would ultimately be the crucible for the kindling of imagination so that we might creatively engage God’s world for the sake of shalom.
This is not a time for obtuse, one-dimensional analysis; it is a time to honor every image that we are confronted with. This is not a time for moral certainty; it is a time for moral agony that matches the agony of our world. This is not a time to speak quickly; it is a time to earn the right to speak from having wrestled with the complexity of our situation. And it is not a time for party loyalty and ideological commitments that preclude our ethical obligations to our brothers and sisters; it is a time for responsibility and creativity. It is a time for worship.
Revive our imaginations…Have mercy on all those who suffer.
Jon Stanley is pursuing a Ph.D. in Interdisciplanary Philosophy (emphasis: Theology) at the Institute for Christian Studies. Also a therapist, he is very interested in how the biblical tradition can be a resource for (sexual) healing in our time. Jon and his spouse, Julie, enjoy living in Toronto.