The other day a mate of mine asked me what I thought about the Machine Gun Preacher who was coming to town ‘on tour’. Having watched the movie (and gathered some more reliable info) I explained that I remain deeply moved by this story of a hard man (and his family) finding God’s love, helping kids in Africa and killing some baddies, but that I pretty much knew what was going to happen to him before I even heard he would be doing the rounds of a preaching circuit. And sure enough, when my friend went to the show it was a disturbing mix of a man confronting hypocrisy and cowardice but at the same time putting on an ‘all about me’ event.
It’s what we—the bored Christianised westerners—do: we have to video, package and sell anyone who does something we consider ‘great’ in the hope that somehow their ‘message’ will make us feel better and fix everything up in our messed up world. But our hunger to ‘borrow from other people’s biographies’ is delivering up these heroes and heroines to a kind of strip-tease act—on the soul-destroying altar of the microphone and the camera lens. Our motives, rather then being about learning and growing, are more to do with our desire to experience life through the imagination, feelings or actions of other people, to glean vicarious pleasure from their struggles.
This temptation to the vicarious (or even voyeuristic*) is inevitably rampant in societies, families and individuals that are breaking down and feeling impotent in the face of what they perceive as evil influences—but more often than not the ‘evil’ is largely due to the fact that their own pride is under assault and all this angst is so unnecessary if only they could get over their tragic ‘violin-playing’ about the way life ought to be or used to be and simply walk across the road to their neighbour and choose to ‘mine compassion out of the pit of the world’s woes’.
It’s exactly this kind of thing that the Explorer’s Prayer Part II speaks to when it says, ‘This story is much greater than we know and to despair (even if it is romanticised and made pretty with clever words) is to sulk, to sit on the fence and to refuse the obvious: that life is ‘a mystery to be lived not a problem to be solved.’7 So we choose to ‘bet our lives upon one side in this great war’6 and to join with You in the sweet and patient work of grace, like the priest who—faced with the overwhelming burden of human suffering— refused to be intimidated by his own grief and by the scorn of those who demanded that he first answer their philosophical chess-plays about their conveniently manufactured idea of god: a straw god in fact. Instead, like Christ, he chose to turn his back on their contempt and to ‘mine compassion’1a out of the pit of the world’s woes. Amen.’
Walter Brueggemann has more to say about the wider context of this phenomenon in his essay, ‘Conversations Among Exiles’**. He says, ‘Our society is marked by a deep dislocation that touches every aspect of our lives. The old certitudes seem less certain; the old privileges are under powerful challenge; the old dominations are increasingly ineffective and fragile; the established governmental, educational, judicial and medical institutions seem less and less able to deliver what we need and have come to expect; the old social fabrics are fraying under the assault of selfishness, fear, anger and greed.
‘There seems no going back to our former world, since the circumstances making that world sustainable have changed. Because the church has been intimately connected with the old patterns of certitude, privilege and domination, it shares a common jeopardy with other old institutions. Church members are confused about authority, bewildered about mission, worried about finances, contentious about norms and ethics, and anxious about the church’s survival.
‘Our numbed and bewildered society lacks ways of thinking and speaking that can help us find remedies—that can enable us to go deep into the crisis and so avoid denial, and to imagine a better future and so avoid despair. But when the church is faithful to its own past life with God, it has ways of speaking, knowing and imagining that can successfully address our cultural malaise. When it remembers its ancient miracles, has the courage to speak in its own cadences, and re-engages old seasons of hurt, the church possesses the rhetorical and testimonial antidotes to denial and despair.
‘When thinking about dislocation, an Old Testament teacher moves by “dynamic analogy” to the exile, the determining and defining event of the Hebrew scriptures. By its stubbornness, its refusal to heed the purposes of Yahweh and its resolve to act against neighbourliness, Israel brought upon itself the great crisis of 587 B.C.E. In that year Jerusalem was burned and its temple destroyed, the king was exiled, the leading citizens were deported and public life ended. For ancient Israel, it was the end of privilege, certitude, domination, viable public institutions and a sustaining social fabric. It was the end of life with God, which Israel had taken for granted. In that wrenching time, ancient Israel faced the temptation of denial—the pretence that there had been no loss—and it faced the temptation of despair—the inability to see any way out.
‘The Old Testament stories of exile might be a resource, perhaps the only resource, to move us from denial and despair to possibility. Ancient Israel understood that unless loss is examined and understood, newness will not come. The traditions of exile suggest four ways of speech and of faithful imagination that the church can practice and offer as antidotes to denial and despair.
‘The ancient community of exiles learned, first of all, to express sadness, rage, anger and loss honestly. The Israelites lost nearly everything when they lost Jerusalem. Similarly, the current loss of old patterns of hegemony that gave privilege to whites and males and their various entourages seems immense. The enormous rage that accompanies such a loss shows up in family abuse, in absurd armament programs and budgets, in abusive prison policies, in a passion for capital punishment and in assaults upon the poor in the name of “reform.”
‘From Israel the church can learn a better way to deal with grief and rage. It can learn to address these emotions to God, for it is God who is terminating our unjust privilege and deceptive certitude. Ancient Israel broke the pattern of denial by engaging in speeches of complaint and lamentation that dared to say how overwhelming was the loss, how great the anxiety, how deep the consequent fear. Lamentations expresses the sadness of this experience by describing a bereft Jerusalem: “She weeps bitterly in the night, with tears on her cheeks; among all her lovers she has none to comfort her” (1:2).’
* a person who gains sexual pleasure from watching others when they are naked or engaged in sexual activity … a person who enjoys seeing the pain or distress of others.
7. Deborah Smith Douglas
6 Studdert Kennedy’s poem ‘Faith’
1a Les Miserable
** Walter Brueggermann is professor emeritus of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia. This article appeared in The Christian Century, July 2-9, 1997, pp. 630-632. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This article prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.