Part Four of Reading the News Like a Christian
By Abigail Woolley Cutter
When I am tuned in to national and global events, I can’t avoid being aware of trouble in our world. So how can I possibly go on being joyful? In this post, I’m not talking about the possibility of anxiety and depression, or addressing the trauma that could be involved in encounters with the news (I’ve addressed that in a previous installment). And I’m certainly not talking about merely falling into a bad mood, with the assumption that I really ought to avoid that. What I mean now is: How dare I be joyful, knowing what I know about the world?
It’s a version of the classic theodicy question (How could God be both all-powerful and completely good, and yet allow evil and suffering to exist?), but mapped onto the experience of reading the news. When it is clear that terrible things are going on, how can I carry on as if, not only God, but this human life itself, is good and beautiful? If I were perfectly content to be happy as long as just my life, and just right now, is good and beautiful, what kind of small-minded, narcissistic monster would I be? Tell me one good reason why reading about disasters in the news should not spoil my outlook on the goodness of God and human life!
There are a host of bad reasons, which nice church folks often have at the ready. “It will all work out.” “Focus on the positive.” “There’s always a silver lining.” “God has a plan.” There’s much to say to interrogate each of these comments, but in the moments they’re said, it’s not worth it. These simple pronouncements are not designed to start conversations but to end them. In fact, they come across like a reminder of etiquette: to talk feelingly about things that are wrong with the world is almost like walking around with your fly down. You really shouldn’t leave home without your providence-tinted glasses, which highlight the hunky-dory and obscure the dismal.
In response to this method of saving God’s reputation, many wise things have been said. Church historian Kate Bowler is currently saying some of them in her podcast Everything Happens, where she draws on her scholarly study of the Prosperity Gospel and her personal experience of cancer, which she was not expected to survive. Among other things, she acknowledges the social awkwardness of suffering and is working to make space for it in the characteristically squeamish social spaces. What can be said at coffee hour that does not deny suffering and silence the sufferer?
However we work it out socially, I am convinced that nothing I say about God and the world should require minimizing suffering or wearing blinders to block it out. No avoiding.
Why? Well, even if I’m not enduring pain now, other people are. The mere fact that I am the center of my own consciousness does not mean that my beliefs about God should revolve around my own experience. Surely there is nothing about me that is more deserving of God’s attention than the child who is neglected or abused. I cannot say, “Things have turned out well for me; therefore, praise God.” Things do not turn out well for everyone; isn’t God God for them, too?
Furthermore, I myself have suffered, and in all likelihood, I will again. It makes no sense to believe that there is something about me now that is more deserving of God’s attention than in those times. So even when I am joyful, I resist saying, “I have everything I need; see, isn’t God good?”
The Jewish rabbi and professor Abraham J. Heschel similarly — though much more profoundly — thought it was important to avoid saying anything about God or human life that depended on bracketing out suffering. For him, the images he held in mind were the faces of his mother, his sisters, their families, many of his friends and colleagues, and the communities of his childhood, who were killed by Nazis in concentration camps. Within the space of a few years, the whole Eastern European Jewish landscape — the world that had made him — had been obliterated. He himself had narrowly escaped with his life. He then had to find a way to make sense of his own ongoing existence, not only in a foreign country and culture (the U.S.) but also in the world in which the Holocaust was possible.
For Heschel, the Holocaust became the insistent reality that measured every word or deed. He would not dishonor the dead by saying something that would be revealed as drivel if spoken before families at Auschwitz facing the gas chambers. He even said as much to Pope Paul VI, when insisting that the bishops of Vatican II repudiate any efforts to proselytize Jews. (To understand the import of this, it is necessary to realize that for Heschel, the horror of the Holocaust was not “only” the destruction of millions of human lives. The existence of the Jewish people was a testament to the presence of God in the world. When so many Jewish lives were extinguished for their Jewishness, God’s very presence in the world was called into question. And for Christians to try to further reduce their numbers through conversion was tantamount to spitting on the graves of the dead.)
So nothing should be said or done if it showed up as absurd in the world in which the Holocaust had happened. With such a radical litmus test for worth, did his life become one of mourning and renunciation? One might expect so.
In fact, he did remember the dead solemnly, such that his prayers were never the same. Daily prayers normally included the Tahanun, a prayer which in his Hasidic community would not normally have been spoken on the anniversary of the death of a notable rabbi. After Heschel’s escape to the U.S., and as reports made clear the extent of what was occurring in Europe, he stopped praying the Tahanun altogether. Every day was now the anniversary of some holy rabbi’s martyrdom.
But at the same time — and here is the most poignant part — Heschel writes in many places of joy as a moral obligation. No, he’s not doing that irritating semantic magic trick where “joy” is something totally separable from “happiness” and doesn’t relate to circumstances. Instead, to go on living, specifically as a Jew — but also as a human, for that matter — is an act of defiance. And to live fully into the joys one can find is to insist stubbornly that life is still worth living. For Heschel, to live joyfully is not to live in denial of suffering. It is to work hard — even painfully — against cruelty and despair, to craft beautiful things and set them up rebelliously, ranging them as monuments to goodness and worth. They stand up almost like tally marks, determinedly working to outnumber the evils and make the world into a place worth living.
The reason I find this determination so poignant is that to be joyful in the face of devastation is itself a kind of sacrifice. It is a terrible thing to decide that joy is possible without the ones you have cherished and lost. It can take not only courage but also, in a sense, more loss to let go of the parts of life that have been destroyed — for Heschel, it was almost all of his life — and try to imagine how this world could be good.
Now, about God. For Heschel, does God survive the Holocaust? Indeed, for many — including many Jews — he does not. But Heschel’s understanding of God is important, both for accounting for God’s whereabouts during the slaughter and to provide a background to Heschel’s insistence that one must answer the Holocaust with life and even joy. As he says in God in Search of Man, God “needs” humans to be his image in the world, to carry out mitzvot, the righteous deeds that collaborate with God to sustain the world. So in the Holocaust, where was God? God was in the concentration camps with his people, his image born by his people. And as for everyone else: God was waiting for them to come to the rescue, to do his work. What disturbed Heschel most was the sluggish indifference of the global community — including the American Jewish community — who knew about but did not stop the slaughter. They abandoned God to the camps.
As a Christian, I don’t think I can follow Heschel in saying that God “needs” humans. But at the same time, I think Christians must admit truth in the startling degree to which Heschel believes God has called humans to represent him in the world. Christians, too, believe that humans bear God’s image. Further, we believe the Church is the body of Christ that, animated by the Holy Spirit, bears witness to God and God’s vision for restored humanity in Christ. Not only this, but Jesus assigned his disciples a certain responsibility over judgment and forgiveness in this world. So for us, too, it makes sense to imagine humans representing God in the world where the stakes are extremely high.
All this is why, while I object to any Christian cultural tendency to say, “Just focus on the positive,” which silences lament and avoids addressing injustice, I am compelled by Heschel’s insistence that we have a moral obligation to cultivate joy. Unlike “just focusing on the positive,” this is a picture of hard, painstaking building of lives that thrive. It is a stubborn “nevertheless” that takes everything into account — even a Holocaust you’ve stared in the face — and then welcomes joy and new life. Far from merely “focusing on the positive,” to cultivate spaces and lives of joy means naming brokenness, because only by doing so can we open space for healing, confession, mercy, and reconciliation.
Maybe God himself does not “need” us to work tirelessly toward this vision in our lives, homes, and communities — but maybe God’s reputation does. We do not make God good, but perhaps we make good on God’s goodness in the world. It may be up to us to make God’s goodness believable.
Finally, if we have managed, despite all obstacles, to create a space of health, where people can thrive and joy is possible, the fitting response to reading the news must be to extend hospitality to others. Someone’s home or homeland has been destroyed, and the people who have been left bereft will need not only glimpses of hope, but also places for respite and a community within which to begin building again. Perhaps it is a child who is homeless from the start, and we choose to become and/or support an adoptive family. Perhaps it a refugee who needs to begin again, and we not only help house them but also embed them in a community. Perhaps it is a transitional young adult, single parent, divorcee, or isolated older person, whom the forces of our society have left “bowling alone.” (See Robert Putnam’s wonderful book of that name on the decline of social capital.) Most of the time, we won’t be responding directly to the people involved in the news reports, but we will be living appropriately in light of them.
At this very moment, however, I realize that the call to extend costly hospitality may sound tone-deaf. I realize that nearly all our homes, and certainly our homelands, are struggling to thrive or even survive. But I will offer a few concluding remarks about how we might think about hospitality, when we ourselves are not thriving:
- If you find yourself scoffing at the idea of extending hospitality, because your resources are inadequate even to your own survival, notice that and don’t forget it. Health is not mere survival or even self-sufficient thriving; health involves extending a welcome to others. When we are far from being able to do that, we know just how much we have to aspire to.
- Asking for help and being willing to receive the hospitality of others is also a step in the right direction. Even the willingness to receive gifts encourages their movement throughout a community.
- Imperfect offerings are also a step toward health and can create great joy. You can host without deep cleaning. Don’t apologize for the noisy child. A last-minute invitation just might be accepted. Most people are so frayed that a humble offering is likely to be kindly received.
- Kindness and hospitality to weary middle-class people is needed and good; hospitality to people in extreme need is another thing altogether, and will have to be shaped by listening and learning. Try it anyway.
- As the Omicron variant subsides, more and more people feel able to consider all possibilities for interacting again. We’re in a time of transition and discernment. As we negotiate this, let’s prioritize using our spaces in ways that offer hope to others. Can our agenda for re-opening be driven by hospitality and the need to rekindle hope?