November 30, 2010 / Theology
This essay is neither for nor against Glenn Beck. The philosopher Michel Foucault warns us …
December 17, 2009
I’m going to start with a claim that I can’t actually substantiate but that I hope you’ll entertain as likely or at least interesting: I think that people who watch a lot of human rights documentaries have a problem.1 To be fair, I think that people who avoid watching them also have this problem, although they deal with it in another way. The problem is this: it seems there can be no role for joy when we are observers of suffering and injustice. How can one be both happy and well-informed in a world of so much grief?
I don’t think the concern for happiness is a trivial issue. From Aristotle to Thomas Aquinas, from John Stuart Mill to Stanley Hauerwas, philosophers have agreed that humans seek happiness. We want many things, but we want them for the sake of happiness. Everything hinges on what we mean by “happiness,” of course, but I’m going to sidestep that conversation for the moment. For now, let’s just say that people who immerse themselves in encountering the realities of human rights abuses have to figure out how they will reconcile their grief and rage with some kind of happiness, or maybe how they will live without happiness. Conversely, people who avoid knowledge of injustice for the sake of being happy will have to maintain their ignorance carefully if they want to continue to believe themselves to be conscious and moral.
This is a problem for people who watch human rights documentaries. But more broadly, it is a problem for our society, which is overwhelmed with information of all sorts. It is not surprising that escapist entertainment is a booming industry, given that people increasingly carry not only their own suffering, but also knowledge of the suffering of others. And it is a problem for the universal church, the Body of Christ, with regard to its specific kind of happiness that we call joy. The church, when it is living up to its calling, should—and in fact very often does—know firsthand, in great detail, about unjust suffering in a dizzying array of forms and locations. Yet, knowing all that, we still sing alleluia, we still offer our thanksgiving in the Eucharist, we still are instructed to witness in confidence to God’s goodness. The church, by its calling, must both face suffering and rejoice.
There are two distinct parts to this problem, as I see it. On the one hand, there is the general question of how grief and joy co-exist in Christianity. How can the call for Christians to rejoice, to praise, to wait in joyful hope be reconciled with the sorrow and outrage rightly evoked by learning about injustice?
But the second part of the problem is more specific. I’m not trying to answer the question, “How can people who suffer rejoice?” I have no intention to advise people who are being tortured or who are displaced by ethnic cleansing about how they can “turn their frowns upside down.” Nor at this point am I going to reflect much on the amazing examples of people who do create hope, who refuse to stop rejoicing in desperate circumstances. You may have seen examples of great courage in the midst of forces that would seem to overwhelm any human resistance. I know I have, and that witness gives me courage to pursue this topic. But it is not exactly my topic here. My question is not “How can people who suffer rejoice?” but “How can people who see and oppose the suffering of others also rejoice?”2
The two groups, people who suffer and the people who see suffering, can and often do overlap, but the two questions are not the same. Regardless of what injustice a person may face herself, when she watches documentaries about the injustice endured by others, she finds herself in the position of bystander to someone else’s suffering. When watching a human rights film, the audience is passive and distant from the suffering up on the screen. It is footage, documenting something past, something no one can now change or share. We watch from the outside.
The first time I got to thinking about how injustice might be different from the inside and from the outside was when I was working as a volunteer with the Peace People in Belfast, many years ago. The staff went to dinner one night with some supporters from the United States, and as the evening livened up, one of the staff began telling a story about an old friend. She said, “So one day I was talking to Marty, who was blown up by an IRA bomb—” Her colleague cut in, “And he said, ‘I’m falling to pieces! My life’s up in smoke!’” The two of them burst out laughing at her misplaced modifier.
But while the two native Belfast peace activists cracked themselves up, the Americans looked on in horror. We call this gallows humor, the way people can make very dark jokes in the midst of some horror. What I noticed that night was that those for whom senseless violence was home territory knew how to laugh in spite of it. They gave plenty of time to rage and weeping and the hard work of resisting injustice, and so there was for them also room for laughter, though of a very bitter kind. But for the outsiders, laughing was impossible—not because they knew and shared the grief, but precisely because they didn’t know and share it. Because the suffering was not theirs, they felt they did not have the right to laugh, and I do not think they could have anyway. Similarly, I once watched as a nonviolent activist was hauled away from a protest by police. The activist was able to cope with the rough handling, remaining calm throughout, but his brother, watching it happen, completely fell apart. Being the bystander who cannot control or assist at such a moment is a terrible thing.
I do not mean to compare the difficulty of being a bystander to that of being a victim of injustice. I certainly do not want to turn our attention away from what’s happening to refugees or child soldiers. But I do want us to think more carefully about the problems of being observers. If we hope to pay attention to injustice and suffering, then we need to work through all that prevents us from seeing them. Only in that way will we ultimately be able to stand with victims.
That’s the issue—how can we be people who rejoice, people who hear good news, when we are also people who pay attention to injustice and misery in the lives of others? I’m going to address this important question by first talking about comedy and tragedy as moral categories, then discussing some theological resources on lament and praise, and finally returning to the matter of how we might better face injustice and suffering.
The Moral Importance of Tragedy and Comedy
I myself am one of those people who prefer to avoid knowledge about human rights abuses. Me and my kind, we go home to escapist fiction, to romantic comedies and martial arts films. But there are other more sophisticated ways to avoid seeing injustice. A more advanced form of this evasion is the outright denial of suffering, re-narrating it as progress toward a happy ending. People suffer because survival of the fittest is a necessary element of evolution or because their economy is going through an inevitable developmental phase or because they have brought it down on themselves by their culture. Suffering is explained so that the big story can be a comedy, in the classic sense. According to this perspective, everything is working together to bring about a good ending, an ending in which we will live happily ever after.
Christianity has certainly spawned its own legacy of this kind of comic evasion. We might say that the whole project of theodicy, the attempt to prove that God is good in spite of the suffering of the innocent, is one long intellectual attempt to avoid being a witness to unjust suffering. Terry Tilley argued years ago that all theodicy is in the end morally reprehensible, because it attempts to justify what ought not to be justified, to make us feel at ease with unjust suffering.3 These kinds of comic evasions have given rise to the old saw about Christianity being about pie in the sky when you die, the claim that Christianity teaches passivity in the face of present evil.
Because we’ve realized that this need to fit reality into a comic mold is in some sense pernicious, tragedy has become an important term in moral theology. You remember that in the classics, tragedy refers to stories about lose-lose situations. There is no way out, and not because the protagonists are evil or foolish but because they face irreconcilable duties. Agamemnon must do as Artemis commands so that his troops can get to Troy, but she commands him to kill his own daughter. Antigone ought to be loyal to her city and her sister, but she must also bury her brother’s body, even if the law forbids it. Orestes must avenge his father, but to do so, he will have to kill his mother. It’s a grim world. The reason such a genre would be important for moral theology is that in tragedy, the moral question ceases to be, “How shall I act so that everything turns out right?” and becomes instead, “Given a world where I cannot make everything right, how will I live?” Alasdair MacIntyre wrote, “What matters most in a period in which human life is tragic is to have the strength to resist false solutions.”4 This may help us make sense of the fact that catharsis, as it was used of Greek tragedy in the era of the great tragedians, did not refer so much to an outpouring of emotion that improved one’s mental health, but to a cognitive process that resulted in clarification of the mind.5 Tragedy cuts through our self-deceived attempts at comedy, to show us what we cannot do, so that we will rightly understand what we can do.
That’s how comedy and tragedy work in moral theology, but the word tragedy is also widely used now as a way to refer to what might also be called crimes or human rights violations. My Lexis Nexis search a few days ago for “human rights” and “tragedy” from the last ten years turned up nearly a thousand hits, and a quick survey of the first few hits brought up stories about Darfur, Columbine, the World Trade Center, a battle in Columbia that killed thirty-eight civilians, riots in Indonesia, repression in Burma, human trafficking, and so on. These cases are not like the ancient tragedies. A tragedy is inevitable because of a conflict between two duties. Human rights violations are not inevitable. If we learn in studying a case of suffering that it could have been avoided or was caused by malice or ignorance, then we are really looking at injustice, not tragedy.
That said, I realize that for the people who endure the abuses, tragedy may be the right word, as they may be trapped by forces they cannot control. And in a different way, for readers (and maybe reporters), the experience of learning about human rights abuses is also tragic. The events have happened, they may continue to happen as we read and watch, and we feel duty-bound to continue to learn about them even as we are helpless to change what has already been and are overwhelmed by the number of cases and circumstances that demand our attention and action. To be a person of conscience in our day is, it seems, to be overwhelmed with the scale and depth and diversity of human atrocities. In that sense, there’s a tragic quality to our experience of watching documentary films, because even our best qualities can leave us with no good way out. We have to go on living, loving each other, and looking for happiness, and we have to keep learning about the horrors people perpetrate on each other. To evade the reality that the innocent suffer is cowardice, a failure of the gutsy virtue of hope, as well as a loss of faith.
Still, if it is cowardice and faithlessness to refuse to recognize the reality of tragedy, then it is also cowardice and faithlessness to refuse to recognize the reality of comedy.
I stand by my criticism of comic evasions of tragic reality, but I do want to defend the impulse that leads people to try to make everything happy. The people who take that approach are right that Christianity is supposed to be comic. They are trying to preserve the Christian comedy in the face of some rather impressive evidence that life is tragedy, and that’s a sign that they have understood something. Don’t get me wrong: they did a really awful job at it. But the root instinct, the desire to show that there is good news, that joy wins, that is not altogether wrong. We are meant for happiness. That’s what makes that kind of comic evasion of reality so hard to overcome.
I realize that claiming Christianity is supposed to be comic might sound strange to some. The fascination with sin and penance, the sober rituals, the arguments about who’s in and who’s out among theologians and denominations—sometimes it may seem to be comic only in the sense that it provides material for a certain bitter kind of stand-up routine.
Nevertheless, Christianity is a comic faith because it claims that all will be made right. In fact, all has already been made right, though we seem to be having trouble adjusting. At any rate, Christianity does claim that the world and all in it are destined for peace, and so people can and should approach life with a kind of patient confidence. There is resurrection, the outpouring of the Spirit, healing, reconciliation, forgiveness, and the promise of new life, not because we work hard for it, but because the Lamb that was slain is victorious. Gratitude and praise and Sabbath rest are requirements. God’s law requires of Israel, among other things, a number of festivals. Celebration is not a suggestion; it’s a mandate.
That may sound like something out of a Disney movie: at the end of history when Jesus comes, we’ll all have learned a valuable lesson from our adventures, and as the music swells and the credits roll, we will be at home together with the lost pets and the estranged parents reunited and the kids finally getting along and the mean old teacher starting to recognize the error of his ways, and it’s just so darn heartwarming. We walk out feeling perhaps not exactly satisfied but at least a little dopey and complacent.
It is important to realize that Christian comedy is not like that. In Flannery O’Connor’s short story, “Revelation,” Ruby Turpin, a self-righteous, racist, middle-class Christian lady, receives a revelation from God. This revelation is delivered by a teenager who hurls a book titled “Human Development” at Ruby’s head and then growls at her, “Go back to hell where you came from you old wart hog.” (Now that’s comedy, if you ask me.) Ruby, who has been quite confident until then of her place among the respectable people of the world, is more than a little shaken, and at the end of the story, she has a vision of the saints parading into heaven, the white trash and the blacks and
battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs. And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people whom she recognized at once as those who, like herself and Claud, had always had a little of everything and the God-given sense to use it. They were marching along behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior. They alone were on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away.6
The Christian comedy is not the kind of schmaltz that comforts us into a moral snooze. It is about new life, about reversals and transformation, about pulling the rug out from under us. The Christian comedy is, actually, like one big joke—the world is the straight man telling you how things must be, and then God comes along with his judges who were all misfits and his great king who was a little shepherd. If that weren’t funny enough, Jesus enters then with his “last shall be first” and “turn the other cheek,” tricking Satan into letting him into hell so he could bust out of it. Great comic reversals seem to be part of God’s style.
John Milbank wrote a brilliant and disturbing piece arguing that Christianity is in fact so comic that it is immoral. His point was that morality as we usually imagine it is heroic in genre. It is a hero’s struggle to protect a vulnerable center from some vicious external onslaught, to beat back the enemy at great personal cost, or to hold back the darkness even if only by lighting one candle. But Christianity, Milbank points out, is not a heroic adventure story; it is comedy.7 Christianity is neither about cursing the dark nor lighting one candle. It is about standing in daylight. There is no vulnerable center to protect, no sacrifice to be made, and no onslaught that could begin to compare to the strength and victory God has already won. “Of whom should I be afraid?” the psalmist asks. Or as U2 puts it, “Stop helping God across the road like a little old lady.”8
I’m a great admirer of this peculiar argument. But it does cause me to wonder how to talk about the world we live in. We suffer losses, we see good thwarted, we see young, promising lives turned to misery. I want to share with you a passage I found on the website of the Tsholofelo community, a diocesan order that works with residents of shantytowns in South Africa. A film, Tapologo, documents the courage of the women who run a clinic there.9 Tsholofelo’s website is quite matter of fact, for the most part, until near the end of a section describing their recent work in one shantytown:
Some months ago a gang came in shooting at random at tin shacks. One of the crèche owners was lying in bed and the bullet came through the wall of her tin shack and hit her in the leg. It smashed her femur into pieces and she has been crippled ever since. Three other people were killed in other incidences that same night. Just a few weeks ago ten people were gunned down over a period of three days [. . .including] one of our care givers and her son, his girlfriend, and her mother. It created such fear and distress among my staff and in the camp as a whole, especially the children. Life seems so worthless at times. But we feel we are here to support the most vulnerable and help even a few build a better life for themselves.10
“Life seems so worthless at times.” That’s the voice of grief, right on the edge of despair. Who can deny the heroism of not giving up in the face of such violence?
I don’t think that Milbank means that such grief is not real or that Christians should somehow pretend not to see it. Instead, he’s saying that the good news means we can face the reality of sin without mistaking it for the truth. Christianity, when we see it lived most fully, is about being able to stand in that suffering without despair, without evasion, and even, miraculously, without violent rage or hatred.
I can’t tell you that I can do that. I don’t know many people who can. But I think he’s right that that is what we see in the saints and martyrs: they go and stand in the middle of the storm, and right there, eyeball to eyeball with disease and war and injustice, they live in some kind of joy.
So what is this peculiar kind of happiness, this “joy”? It’s not a virtue, a habit, or a skill. It is traditionally classified as a spiritual fruit, the fruit borne when the virtue of love attains its end. Joy comes from being with one’s beloved. It is about completion, fulfillment, and therefore, rest. But Thomas Aquinas, who was very good at making distinctions, noticed that there are two distinct kinds of joy. When our love enjoys the vision of God, who is all good, the resulting joy can have no mixture of any sorrow. On the other hand, our enjoyment of our participation in God’s life can be mixed with sorrow, because our participation in God’s life is not perfect.11 In fact, it stands to reason that the more we understand about the joy of communion with God, the more we may also understand and feel our lack of it. Living in the midst of a world alienated from Love, a saint may have profound joy in who God is, and also profound sorrow at the disorder of creation. For the saints, the path to joy is not separate from facing human suffering. Far, far from it.
I want to think for a minute now about the psalms, and specifically the psalms of lament. They speak out of the worship and wisdom of Israel, and they are part of the core of the Christian life of prayer. Although the Hebrew name of the book is “Praises,” the psalms of lament do not explain suffering away to save God’s reputation or to spare the listener’s sensibilities. They do not try to find a way to make suffering acceptable. They certainly don’t evade it. Listen to this: “Oh my God, I cry by day, but thou dost not answer; and by night, but find no rest [. . .] I am a worm and no human, scorned by all, despised by the people. [. . .] I am poured out like water and all my bones are out of joint, my heart is like wax, it is melted within my breast [. . .] yea dogs are round about me, a company of evildoers encircle me [. . .]” (Ps. 22). The psalmist knew how to put wailing to words. In itself, that’s no small thing: the very act of making one’s suffering into a hymn already changes things, because the voice refuses to be silent. We know that from the testimony of the blues and from Victor Jara, who died not a victim, but a witness.12
Lament isn’t just about getting it off one’s chest; it is about acting in circumstances that might seem to leave us without any way to act. The psalms of lament are complaints. They cry out for God to act, to change the misery, because the psalms know that the suffering that exists is not consistent with God’s way with Israel. The story is supposed to be comic, and that makes the lament all the sharper. They even accuse God: How can you do this to us?
The psalm I quoted above and others like it then break out into praise. After eighteen verses of lament and three of petition we reach a final nine verses of praise:
All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord,
and all the families of nations shall worship before him.
For dominion belongs to the Lord and he rules over the nations.
Yea, to him shall all the proud of the earth bow down;
before him shall bow all who go down to the dust,
and he who cannot keep himself alive.
Posterity shall serve him;
they shall tell of the Lord to the coming generation
and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn,
that he has wrought it. (Ps. 22)
What is all that praise and confidence doing at the end of such a wrenching psalm of lament? Some scholars have postulated that in its use, there would have been a kind of bridge between the two parts, a ritual action by which some assurance that God had heard the prayer was made. In that case, the turn to praise was simply a response to that ritual. But we don’t have any other evidence of such a ritual. Another scholar argues that the praise section should be understood as an attempt to shame God into action—I will continue to praise you, O God, no matter how long you ignore me.13 I find that an odd suggestion. The simplest and clearest explanation is that the heroes of Israel’s faith were people who in suffering cried out to God for help, in fear and pain and some kind of really stubborn trust, and the stories say they were heard.14 So that’s what happens in the psalms, and that’s what I mean by the discipline of praying them, learning to pray like that. Jesus learned these hymns and both Matthew and Mark put the words of that very psalm on Jesus’s lips on the cross.
So the psalms’ laments only makes sense because Israel clings to the knowledge that God did not make the world to be like this, that God’s work for salvation means this grief is wrong and should be taken away, because God feeds the hungry and rewards the just and deserves to be praised by all the world. But to fulfill the promise to them, God enters into human pain and joins even in the lament. Lament now becomes a place where it is not impossible that we may grow in love of God. In fact, if we want to grow in love of God, and therefore in joy, we cannot skip lament.
You know, Aristotle famously taught that virtue is to be found at the mean between the extremes, as courage is the correct point between foolhardiness and cowardice. It’s become an instinct for a lot of us, to look for solutions at the mean between extremes. With all due respect to Aristotle, I think Christianity often is not about finding the correct balance between two extremes. It seems to be much more often about finding how the extremes meet. It’s not that we need moderate joy, a sedate cheerfulness, mixed with lukewarm lament. It’s more that we need both to wail and to exult in awe at eternal beauty. Without the joy, we don’t yet know the extent of our grief, and without some joy, I don’t think we could bear to begin knowing.
Christian joy, as best we can know it short of the fullness still coming, has a strange look of suffering to it. One of the martyrs of the early church, Perpetua, wrote that she pitied her father, because he did not know how to rejoice that his daughter was being honored by sharing in Christ’s suffering. Her passion account tells about the discomfort of imprisonment, the insults of her captors, and her anxiety for the young son she would leave behind. But it also records that she and her companions went to their deaths joyfully. After being attacked by a wild cow in the Roman games, she stopped to pin her hair up properly, “for it was not meet that a martyr should suffer with hair dishevelled, lest she should seem to grieve in her glory.”15 Christian joy, the hallmark of the presence of the Spirit, cannot avoid the depths of suffering, but it meets there the glory of the cross.
It’s a strange faith, Christianity. I’m spending my life trying to make sense of it.
Once we understand that going deeper into Christian love brings both greater grief and greater joy, we are on our way to working out that problem of how to watch human rights documentaries without becoming paralyzed or brutalized or running away to the bar for a bit of relief. As seriously as we take the obligation of facing the reality of suffering, Christians have to also take seriously the obligation of continuing to know and love God, and loving God bears the fruit of joy. It’s a duty, a responsibility, to cultivate our lives in the fellowship of the Spirit, to become people of joy. That’s not for the sake of mental balance or avoiding burnout. The point is that entering into Christ’s death and resurrection, becoming members of a crucified and raised body, puts Christians smack in the middle of the best and the worst news there is. God has gone into the eye of the storm, and if our joy is in communion with that God, then that is where we have to be. If we hide from sharing in the life of the crucified Lord because we fear it will cost us our happiness, then we will not come to know the joy of resting in the fullness of Augustine’s beauty ever ancient, ever new. If we go there, we should go not to be heroes or sacrifices, but to be joyful companions of the One whose love draws us there.
One day while I was thinking on this, Aretha Franklin’s version of “Mary, Don’t You Weep” came on.16 (I know, Springsteen’s is closer to the old traditional one, but it’s Franklin’s version I have in mind.) The refrain, if you don’t know it, is “Oh, Mary, don’t you weep; / Pharaoh’s army drowned in the Red Sea; / Oh, Mary don’t you weep, / tell Martha not to moan.” It’s an old gospel song that pulls together two moments in scripture—God’s rescue of Israel from the Egyptian army sent to bring them back to slavery and Jesus’s raising of Lazarus, whose sisters Mary and Martha had been grieving. It’s a big, bold, robust song about salvation, a song of confidence in God’s care to overcome every obstacle. It is joyous. But you have to remember that this is a spiritual, and singing it was a sacrifice of praise from people who endured slavery and who saw lots of death, early and unjust. So what is it, to sing a song like this in the midst of suffering? This is the church at work. This is what we do for each other, in the Spirit. The church, surrounded by those who would deny the humanity of its members, stands in the midst of the suffering and declares God’s comic reversal. That kind of joy is strong medicine.
But the raising of Lazarus, for all that it is such a triumph, is the only story in Scripture that tells us Jesus himself wept. When we enter in love into the reality of grief, that’s where the love can grow and bear its fruit in joy.
On Watching Home Movies
I pulled a bit of a trick on you there, turning to a spiritual when I’ve said that the sense in which I’m talking about tragedy is the tragedy felt by the relatively helpless bystander, the audience of documentaries and news reports. Spirituals are music of the sufferers themselves, which may explain why they are the most important Christian music we have. But let’s come back to the original point, how to be an audience to someone else’s suffering. If joy and lament are both so important, how do we who are bystanders do either?
Vaclav Havel wrote once, before the fall of the Soviet Union, about westerners who during visits to Prague would stop to visit with some dissidents. He took a pretty dry view of their visits: “Beside the Gothic and Baroque monuments, dissidents are apparently the only thing of interest to a tourist in this uniformly dreary environment.” Good intentions and bits of interesting news aside, Havel says he found in these conversations a “built-in misunderstanding.”
Take for instance the question, “What can we do for you?” [. . .] in the last instance, the point is not to help us, a handful of “dissidents” to keep out of jail a bit more of the time. It is not even a question of helping the nations, Czechs and Slovaks, to live a bit better, a bit more freely. [. . .] In the deepest sense, something else is at stake—the salvation of us all, of myself and my interlocutor equally. [. . .] Was not my arrest an attack on him and the deceptions to which he is subjected an attack on me as well? Is not the destruction of humans in Prague a destruction of all humans? Is not indifference to what is happening here or even illusions about it a preparation for the kind of misery elsewhere? Is not their misery the presupposition of ours? The point is not that some Czech dissident, as a person in distress, needs help. I could best help myself out of distress simply by ceasing to be a “dissident.” The point is what the dissident’s flawed efforts and his fate tell us and mean, what they attest about the condition, the destiny, the opportunities and the problems of the world, the respects in which they are or could be food for thought for others as well, for the way they see their, and so our, shared destiny, in what ways they are a warning, a challenge, a danger or a lesson for those who visit us.17
Why do you turn up here feeling sorry for my problems, when you are supposed to be working on them as our problems?
With this in mind, let’s alter that question. Instead of asking, “How can we as bystanders rightly share in both lament and joy?” we ought to wonder, “Why do we see ourselves as bystanders?” Can we learn about suffering in other places, among groups whose physical or cultural characteristics we do not share, whose histories we do not share, and nevertheless claim the ways their suffering and their joy are also ours?
We can do this, in the first place, simply by paying attention to the details of the stories. When I watch the film I mentioned above, Tapologo, I am learning about the lives of HIV-positive women in a shantytown in South Africa. My life initially seems far removed from theirs. But when I learn about gender relations there, can I not recognize in that something of my worry about the way male and female students relate to each other on the campus where I work or the attitudes people hold toward prostitution in my neighborhood? If getting sick is enough to write you out of the society of the shantytown, can I not see in that something like the struggle over health care in the United States? When I see the church there, tearing at itself over how to uphold a vision of the goodness of sexuality and how to confront the present context of sexual activity in their community, is that not part of the same struggle that goes on in my local church? I am not a South African woman with HIV, yet I am all too aware that sexual violence, disrespect of women, sexualization of children, violence against immigrants, globalized economic relations, and lack of adequate health care are part of my own life. I don’t equate my share of the world’s troubles to anyone else’s—but I cannot say that I am simply an outsider to it. As perpetrator, as victim, as defender or detractor, I play a role. I am in fact not a bystander.
We can try to avoid recognizing those connections. They are not always explicit or direct. But that is not the path of Christian love, which is to say, the path of Christian joy. So how will we engage tales of human rights abuses? In the case of documentary films, we can think about them as home movies. Although I sit in the audience and watch, it is my family up on the screen, and sometimes I notice myself up there too. I am watching my people, the ones I love, in familiar and strange settings, but people whose lives are part of mine. I cannot carry all of their burdens, nor can they carry mine. But we are not strangers to each other.
That shift can help us with thinking about this whole business as the church’s problem, not just ours individually. Christian joy is about participation in the life of the source of our love, the One we love; and because we know God most in the crucified and risen Jesus whose Spirit has been poured out now on all nations, our participation in his life is also participation in the lives of all those he has called his brothers and sisters. That includes, at its narrower definition, the estimated one-third of the world who share in Christian baptism. We who have died in Christ are now one body, and that one body is around the world, worshiping in a thousand languages. The majority of members in that one body live in what we call the third world. When we think that “our” issues are defined by constructs like race or nation, we forget that our truest, most lasting family ties cross all such boundaries.
But our “home movies” approach can reach further than that: “The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the people of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ.”18 That famous opening line of the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World from Vatican II makes a claim that we need to consider carefully. In what way could it be true that Christians share in the joys and hopes of all people? The idea was worked out richly in Pope John Paul II’s writing. In his first encyclical, he laid the groundwork.
Jesus Christ is the chief way for the Church. He himself is our way “to the Father’s house” and is the way to each man. [. . .] Out of regard for Christ and in view of the mystery that constitutes the Church’s own life, the Church cannot remain insensible to whatever serves man’s true welfare, any more than she can remain indifferent to what threatens it. [. . .] Man in the full truth of his existence [. . .] is the primary route that the Church must travel in fulfilling her mission: he is the primary and fundamental way for the Church, the way traced out by Christ himself, the way that leads invariably through the mystery of the Incarnation and the Redemption.19
In other words, Christ is not an obstacle to the church’s connection to all people; Christ is the source of it.
John Paul II developed this line of thought more in his writing on solidarity as a Christian virtue, a bond to humanity more profound than human rights talk usually dares.
One’s neighbor is then not only a human being with his or her own rights and a fundamental equality with everyone else, but becomes the living image of God the Father, redeemed by the blood of Jesus Christ and placed under the permanent action of the Holy Spirit. One’s neighbor must therefore be loved, even if an enemy, with the same love with which the Lord loves him or her; and for that person’s sake one must be ready for sacrifice, even the ultimate one: to lay down one’s life for the brethren (cf. 1 John 3:16).20
So for the church, the question is not, “How will we Christian bystanders face the suffering of other humans without losing all of our joy?” As Christ united himself to all humans, so the way of the church now, following Christ and growing in love of him, is in the mysterious, God-beloved life of each human person. In sharing in the life of Christ, who gave himself completely for all humans, we can find, perhaps, not what we would think of as safety or comfort, but a joy that can witness to God’s comedy, even in the face of human rights tragedies.
2. The best treatment I know of this topic can be found in the final chapter of Stanley Hauerwas’s The Peaceable Kingdom: A Primer in Christian Ethics (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1983). Hauerwas there explores how Christians face tragedy and live in joy. It is characteristic of the difference between my temperament and his that he is worrying about the challenge of remaining nonviolent in the face of tragedy whereas I worry about the danger of sinking into self-indulgent despair.
3. Terrence W. Tilley, The Evils of Theodicy (Eugene, OR:Wipf and Stock, 2000).
4. Stanley Hauerwas with Richard Bondi and David B. Burrell, Truthfulness and Tragedy: Further Investigations into Christian Ethics (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1977), 184.
5. Martha Nussbaum, The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001) 388-89.
6. Flannery O’Connor, “Revelation,” in Flannery O’Connor: Collected Works (New York, NY: Library of America, 1988), 654.
7. John Milbank, “Can Morality Be Christian?” The Word Made Strange: Theology, Language, Culture (Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishers, 1997), 219-232.
8. “Stand Up Comedy,” lyrics by Bono. No Line on the Horizon (Universal-Island Records Limited, 2009).
9. Tapologo, directed by Gabriela Gutierrez Dewar and Sally Gutierrez Dewar (South Africa: Estación Central de contenidos and Uhuru Productions, 2008).
10. http://tsholofelocommunity.com/nkaneng-squatter-camp.php. Accessed December 3, 2009. Emphasis added.
11. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, vol. 2 (Westminster, MD: Christian Classics, 1981), part II, Q.28, A.2, 1306.
12. “They Couldn’t Kill His Songs,” BBC World News, September 5, 1998, Americas section, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/165363.stm. Accessed December 3, 2009.
13. Stephen P. Ahearne-Kroll, The Psalms of Lament in Mark’s Passion: Jesus Davidic Suffering (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007).
14. Frans Jozef van Beeck, S.J. “Israel’s God, the Psalms, and the City of Jerusalem: Life Experience and the Sacrifice of Praise and Prayer,” Horizons 19.2 (1992): 219-39.
15. See “The Passion of Sts. Perpetua and Felicity,” http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/perpetua.html. That version is adapted from The Passion of Perpetua and Felicity, trans. W.H. Shewring (London, UK: 1931).
16. The recording I refer to is from Aretha Franklin, Amazing Grace (Atlantic Recording Company, 1972).
17. Vaclav Havel, Living in Truth, ed. Jan Vladislav (London, UK: Faber and Faber, 1989), 148-149.
18. Second Vatican Council, Gaudium et Spes (Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World), #1, http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_cons_19651207_gaudium-et-spes_en.html.
19. John Paul II, Redemptor Hominis, #13-14, http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_04031979_redemptor-hominis_en.html.
20. Ibid., Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, #40, http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_30121987_sollicitudo-rei-socialis_en.html.
Kelly Johnson is associate professor of religious studies at the University of Dayton. Her first book, The Fear of Beggars: Poverty and Stewardship in Christian Ethics (Eerdmans, 2007), traces the impact of Christian mendicant orders on the development of economic thought and stewardship rhetoric. She is a founding member of the Ekklesia Project and a participant in the New Wineskins group of Catholic moral theologians.