November 30, 2010 / Theology
This essay is neither for nor against Glenn Beck. The philosopher Michel Foucault warns us …
February 18, 2010
We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.
I don’t know. I suspect only fools understand prayer.
—David James Duncan, The Brothers K
As a trained theologian, I tend to agree with the latter position (about which I will have more to say later), but it is important here to pause and to recognize the perceived need for all this talk to which I’ve been referring. We are, after all, in the language of the Western tradition homo sapiens; we are beings animated, it seems, by a wisdom that seeks to know and to understand with as much comprehensiveness and coherence as possible. And so when what little coherence we have come to make of our world gets shattered by such events as the earthquake of January 12, it is understandable that we should look to those who are in the know for words of wisdom, as if from on high, as it were. I say “as if from on high” because it is almost certainly the felt loss (however prolonged) of an all-loving or all-powerful (or both) “God”—the typically symbolic name we use to give coherence to that little bit of the world of which we cannot make sense1—that we seek to make up for with all of the words (religious or otherwise) that we allow to come pouring from our mouths and into our ears in the wake of such a tragedy.
Perhaps there is an observation to be made here, one analogous to the one made by Rowan Williams after September 11, viz, when it comes to all the noise and talk that follows such a disaster, our words about “God” cannot but fail, theologically speaking. Theologically, then, we must look for ways in which the hiatus that religious language takes at such moments creates a void—Williams calls it a “breathing space”—into which the Spirit might enter freely, such that God might be “rediscovered” anew, that is, “heard or seen where there aren’t yet words for him.”2 What I am suggesting is that if we are going to go on speaking of God, as distinguished from merely speakingabout God, in the wake of the events of January 12, we shall have to relearn the language of prayer. We shall have to learn a peculiarly wordless kind of language, a language that speaks to God by way of an outgoing action that is open to and waits vulnerably upon the free coming of God. To relearn such a language, we shall have to be humble enough to forget for just this moment at least that we are homo sapiens, to admit that we as human beings were created to be vulnerable and open before God, to admit “that you and I are homo precarius.”3 And that will require that our lives be given over to those who are in the most precarious and vulnerable position of all. In this case, that will require us to find our words and actions yielded to the victims of this tragic event, so as there to abide with them, in such a manner as to learn cruciformly to inhabit their loss and disorder in a way that moves at one and the same time into the new life of resurrection.
Were one to put an audio track to these wordless images—and there is some raw video footage of the immediate aftermath—it is uncertain as to whether one would hear anything that is to be straightforwardly understood at all. One would hear words, of course, shouts and cries of broken French and Creole that would no doubt be intelligible to the trained ear. But beyond these words we would hear—if we are given the ears to hear—in these shouts and cries the sounds of prayers being uttered with “sighs to deep for words” (Rom. 8:26). For what these victims are speaking in these shouts and cries is something of a spiritual tongue, a divine language; that is, they speak with tongues that can only be understood through the Spirit of love, which binds us to these victims in lived solidarity. If we shall so allow ourselves by the power of the Spirit to be given over to a lived solidarity with this victimized and long-oppressed people, then perhaps we shall be given to hear in their shouts and cries the rawest, purest form of the language of prayer.
At the heart of all Christian prayer is the cry “Thy kingdom come!” It is with this cry that we move out into the action that speaks to God by waiting upon the free coming of God. It is with this cry that we speak to and for the coming again of Christ—that decisive action of God by which the powers and principalities of this world are to be subverted and creation is to be opened anew to its revolutionary transformation into new life. In prayer, we come to participate in this revolutionary transformation. Thus, Barth says, the action to which Christians are called by Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit is a specific kind of revolt.5 Specifically, the Christian prays in “revolt against all the oppression and suppression of humans by the lordship of the lordless powers,” against those powers that have gained their lordship by virtue of their refusal of humanity’s and creation’s relationship to God.6 At the same time, the Christian prayer of revolt is rooted in an equally specific kind ofhope. The Christian acts against the lordship of the lordless powers not so as to win her own freedom from their rule (as if by some equally autonomous power), but rather in the recognition that she has been implicated in a struggle that refuses their rule as false and illusory, in recognition that she has already been liberated from their rule in the original revolution of Christ’s cross and resurrection.7 For Christians to cry, “Thy kingdom come!” in revolt against the lordless powers is to act “in the sphere of freedom” from the powers which “is already given to them here and now on this side of the fulfillment of the prayer.”89 Prayer, Barth is saying, should make revolutionaries of us all. Indeed, what kind of an invocation of God’s kingdom would it be if it did not testify through specific ways of working and living and loving to the path through and out from under the lordless powers—cosmic, political, and religious alike—that enslave the powerless poor by presuming to deny the resurrection of the crucified?
And yet, we must be clear: such prayer, such living and working and loving, is born out of, not apart from, the crucible of lived solidarity with those victims who have been rendered powerless by these lordless powers. Whatever else we might say about the geological causes and the religious significance of the January 12 earthquake, surely we must resist any interpretation of this event—either as mere cosmic chance or as the outworking of some inscrutable divine will—that refuses ways of living and working with the Haitian that affirm again the goodness of creation. It may be groaning in enslavement to powers hostile to God, but creation is nevertheless there to be received anew as gift and sign of God’s coming new creation. Whatever else we might say about the impoverished working conditions, crippled health-care system, and gross economic oppression of the Haitian people that this tragic event has made all the more apparent, surely we must resist any benevolent posturing that presumes to offer economic and medical aid while leaving these exploitative structures in place. Whatever else we might say about the covert political alliances that have suppressed Haitian democracy, limited Haitian immigration to the United States, and curtailed Haitian economic “growth” for the sake of the increased wealth of the Western international superpowers, surely we must resist any sloganeering cries for equal rights and economic development that leave unchallenged the hegemonic politics of the West whose ideology creates the very space for such sloganeering.
If this is what solidarity with the oppressed and victimized Haitian people calls us to resist, to revolt against, what then, one might ask, are those ways of living and working and loving that constitute the “obedient human action” of one who prays, “Thy kingdom come”? To begin with, we shall have to be obedient to the command of God to go—to be with these people, indeed, to live with these people and to have these people live with us(whether permanently or for a time). We must be willing to work with these people and to love these concretely broken bodies (the immense significance of the word concrete here does not escape me) and this specific space of broken earth. And as we go, we shall have to ask how to receive again the goodness of creation by rediscovering a distinctively liturgical agrarianism for a people whose population is 75 percent rural. As we go, we shall have to ask what kinds of economic and business ventures promote healthy and faithful city dwelling in the midst of Haiti’s now-impoverished urban centers. As we go, we shall have to ask what kinds of living and loving and working together will continue to feed and clothe the illegal Haitian immigrants when, in eighteen months, their temporary asylums have expired.
These are the questions that all manner of disciplined experts are asking in some way, on some level. But we must recognize that to ask these questions in the mode and posture of Christian prayer is to ask these questions differently. For to ask these questions in the mode of prayer is to be humble enough to admit that we do not know the answers to these questions in advance, that we are not, after all, the homo sapiens we think we are. To ask these questions in the mode of prayer is for once to be silent just long enough to be obediently open to—to “hear toward”10—the ways in which these questions take specific shape in the broken speech and painful cries of this victimized and oppressed people. To ask these questions in the mode of prayer is for once to be vulnerable enough to find that the precariousness of these persons’ very lives is to be borne in solidarity with them. To ask these questions in the mode of prayer is to discover ways unseen in which we might be called to live and to work and to love with these oppressed persons, to go to them and to pray with them, and in doing so, to become homo precarius.
This is dangerous. To pray in this way, to actively wait upon God, is inevitably to not be in control.12 Yet such lack of control is precisely what is required of us if we are to find ourselves thrown into solidarity with the suffering and oppressed victims of this tragic event. Such lack of control is precisely what those indelible images of the victims bespeak. Such lack of control is precisely what makes of their shouts and cries a tongue not to be understood, a groaning of “sighs too deep for words” that is nothing if not sheer, raw prayer. It is precisely such lack of control that makes these people appear to us to live, in that moment, by the Spirit alone. And so it is precisely this lack of control that makes us to hear in these shouts and cries a divine language, the language of the Spirit that binds us to them in love.
Where was God in the earthquake? It is a question I hoped to avoid, but I have been hearing it from every corner of my life this past month. It is a question that, again, we must not approach as if speaking theologicallyabout God, but in prayer, in the language of speaking to God in active waiting for God’s coming. Perhaps, then, we shall find that the “where” of God is the space opened by this prayer itself—indeed, God’s Spirit is the breath that alone opens this space of prayer. God is in the shouts and cries of this oppressed people and in the hopeful laboring of going to and prayingwith this oppressed people that their shouts and cries call forth from us. God is in those cries, in that going, and in that labor, as the power of the Holy Spirit draws us into the very work of prayer that took Christ to the cross, subverting the lordless powers by making of the cross a way out of death into new life. And so now we go. We work. We pray.
1. Here I am reminded of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s incisive rejection of “God as a stop-gap for the incompleteness of our knowledge.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer,Letters and Papers from Prison: The Enlarged Edition, ed. Eberhard Bethge (New York, NY: Touchstone, 1971), 311.
2. Rowan Williams, Writing in the Dust: After September 11 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), 6.
3. Craig Keen, “Homo Precarius: Prayer in the Image and Likeness of God,”Wesleyan Theological Journal (Spring 1998): 144-45.
4. Karl Barth, Evangelical Theology: An Introduction, trans. G. Foley (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1963), 160.
5. Karl Barth, The Christian Life: Church Dogmatics IV/4, Lecture Fragments, trans. G.W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1981), 207. For this reading of Christian revolt as developed by Barth in The Christian Life, I am indebted to David E. Demson, “The Advantages and Limits of Irregular and Regular Dogmatics—Political Responsibility According to Lehmann and Barth: A Discussion Pertinent to the Notification to Jon Sobrino,” in Explorations in Christian Theology and Ethics: Essays in Conversation with Paul L. Lehmann, ed. Philip G. Ziegler and Michelle J. Bartel (Burlington, VA: Ashgate, 2009), 92-96.
6. Ibid., 205.
7. Demson, “Advantages,” 93.
8. Barth, Christian Life, 213.
9. Demson, “Advantages,” 96.
10. See The Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “obey.”
11. See Barth, Evangelical Theology, 164, on the importance of theology as prayer: “Human thought and speech cannot be about God, but must be directed toward God, called into action by the divine thought and speech directed to men, and following and corresponding to this work of God. Human thought and speech would certainly be false if they bound themselves to a divine ‘It’ or ‘Something,’ since God is a person and not a thing. But human thought and speech concerning God could also be false and would at any rate be unreal if they related themselves to him in thethird person. What is essential for human language is to speak of men in the first person and of God in the second person. True and proper language concerning God will always be a response to God, which overtly or covertly, explicitly or implicitly, thinks and speaks of God exclusively in the second person. And this means that theological work must really and truly take place in the form of a liturgical act, as invocation of God, and as prayer.” Italics in original.
12. Keen, “Homo Precarius,” 144. On this point, in relation to the understanding of the Spirit’s role in prayer and with reference to Romans 8 and the notion of “wordless” prayer especially, though with distinctly different emphases, see Sarah Coakley, “Living Into the Mystery of the Holy Trinity: Trinity, Prayer, and Sexuality,” Anglican Theological Review (Spring 1998): 223-32.
Nathan R. Kerr
Nathan R. Kerr is Assistant Professor of Theology and Philosophy at Trevecca Nazarene University in Nashville, Tennessee. He has published numerous essays and articles and is the author of Christ, History, and Apocalyptic: The Politics of Christian Mission (Cascade Books, 2008) and Exodus, Exile, and Ecclesia: In Search of the Church of the Poor (forthcoming).