Sometimes in order to become, to move to the next stage, to emerge as what we were truly intended to be, an unraveling, an un-becoming, a dark night of the soul perhaps is needed for growth to occur.
I recently saw a statistic that millenials are the first generation who don’t count themselves majority Christian in America. That’s right, the number has fallen to 49% of that generation identifying as “Christian” when asked. A few folks online posted this statistic with mournful comments, but a few different things immediately popped into my head upon seeing this.
The first is, why do some who call themselves Christians like to set up an “us vs. the world” persecution complex when Christians have literally had the majority in this country for, well, all the way since colonization. And no, I don’t need you to remind me that some of those same Christians don’t count Roman Catholics, or Orthodox, or heck, even us radical Episcopalians as “true Christians” but when more than half the population technically shares the same label, then it’s hard to say that this so-called persecution is a thing.
The second thing that popped into my head was just “good.” Good, let it unravel. Good, let the un-becoming commence. We may have to collectively experience a dark night of the soul to get to the next stage of our life together in community, but that’s okay, that can be a good thing.
Perhaps the caterpillar to butterfly analogy is way over done, but it still holds here. A caterpillar has to become literal mush, liquifying itself on the way to becoming a butterfly. And if one doesn’t trust the process, I can see how that would be terrifying, but I believe that a period of everything slowly becoming mush is just what’s called for right about now.
Why can I say this? Well, let’s just say, I’ve been doing this on a personal level for a while now, this dark night of the soul, this un-becoming, this questioning, and I don’t see wings yet, but I’m starting to get the sense that there’s a whole new way of being waiting on the other side of this cocoon.
Optimistic? Only because I’ve started to see the daylight after much darkness, and I’m not being unsympathetic to anyone’s personal or collective dark nights. They are painful, and messy, and absolutely no fun. But I’ve yet to find an alternative to working through them. What I’ve gotten out of them so far was a sense that God wasn’t letting go of me, no matter how angry I was at God, or the church, or my fellow humans who call themselves Christians. Sometimes that was the only thing I felt like I knew, except for the emerging realization that God can handle our questions, our anger, our doubt, and everything else. It’s generally other people that get uncomfortable when we express these types of sentiments.
But we need to get more comfortable with holding space for our own doubt as well as the doubt of those around us. A belief that cannot be questioned is not a belief worth holding, and from what I’ve seen the questions lead to growth.
I spent the last week having conversations around the ideas of justice, forgiveness, and trauma. It was extremely enlightening and exhausting, and so I’m here trying to make some sense of it.
A theme I saw repeated many times, both in the context of Brandt Jean (Botham Jean’s younger brother) forgiving his brother’s murderer this week and in conversations related to people’s private trauma, was the repetition of the idea that justice has to do with punishment and retribution for the offender, and that forgiveness is exoneration for the offender. As though justice and forgiveness are ideas which stand in opposition, and I don’t believe they are.
However, I understand why they are seen this way because of the way that forgiveness has been weaponized as a tool of oppression against many that have suffered various types of trauma.
I would like to posit that in order for forgiveness to be possible, understanding it in a framework of justice is the only way to move forward. God’s justice is considerably different than many of us have been led to believe–as is God’s forgiveness. Understanding this is key to our mutual liberation.
The idea that God’s forgiveness can include both accusation and condemnation isn’t one that you normally hear preached on Sunday. The idea that justice is good news for the oppressed and the oppressor isn’t something we normally want to chew on.
But if we are to reclaim these vital concepts and apply them with mercy to our broken world and our broken lives, we need to understand the origins.
And the origins are rooted in shalom. As Lisa Sharon Harper says, “Shalom is the stuff of the Kingdom. It’s what the Kingdom of God looks like in context. It’s what citizenship in the Kingdom of God requires and what the Kingdom promises to those who choose God and God’s ways to peace.” (The Very Good Gospel, p. 13). And Shalom is good news. It’s the promise of what is to come when God makes all things new, and it’s a reality we can live into even as we work with our own trauma and the brokenness of the world around us.
So if we understand that justice and forgiveness has to be rooted in the thriving of everyone, then we can see how the misuse of forgiveness in particular has been weaponized in a way that is antithetical to the kingdom of God. When abused women are told to forgive and stay with their abuser, when black people are expected to forgive white aggression even as the white people walk away from trials with minimal to no sentences in response to taking of black lives, when we go to our priests and pastors with our trauma and told simply that we must forgive without an understanding that forgiveness in itself contains an accusation and a condemnation, then forgiveness has been turned into a weapon of oppression. Doing this can cut off the survivor of trauma from the freedom that real forgiveness can give to them, a freedom that involves a cry for justice all wrapped up in this concept referred to as forgiveness. (Cf. Miraslov Volf, Free of Charge, 2005).
Forgiveness is not exoneration, and justice is not retribution.
A person can be forgiven and still serve their jail sentences. In fact, I would argue in our moment, if Amber Guyger appeals her sentence, she was not actually repenting of her sin against Botham Jean. Repentance involves facing–even welcoming–the consequences of your actions as the road to redemption.
Forgiveness is not reconciliation. There are two parts to this story.
One can extend the accusation that is forgiveness, the condemnation of the act that wounded you, the recognition of the impact of the actions that abused you, and in the same moment can walk away from the people who are committing wrong against you if that is possible. I’m thinking more of personal relationships in this instance, people who are traumatized by systemic racism for example cannot get away from the systems that are causing that trauma.
Forgiveness is also a path to freedom for the survivor of trauma. However, with no repentance and no consequences for the one who did the wrong, there is no requirement for reconciliation. In fact, reconciliation without repentance not only does no favors for the survivor nor the perpetrator, it actually removes the accusation and condemnation and thereby removes the requirement for repentance on the part of the perpetrator. Not only does this do no favors, it is actually wrong. And for the church or any organization or institution with power to say that forgiveness requires forgetting, or that forgiveness requires reconciliation without repentance and without consequences, is an abuse in itself. This falls into the category of spiritual abuse: an abuse that often is tied up in the traumas of so many because it served to compound and exacerbate situations that were already beyond bearing for so many.
Jesus promises that his “yoke is easy and his burden is light” and all too often the church forgets this and piles so much weight onto already broken and abused people when it should be coming alongside them and taking on the weight of their trauma and making it easier to bear. This is so opposite the actions of the wounded Savior they claim to worship that I can hardly comprehend it, and yet the first is all too often the response of those who claim the name of Christ.
Forgiveness and supremacy culture
In their new book Activist Theology, Robyn Henderson-Espinoza talks about divesting ourselves of our privileges “and from practices that support supremacy culture” and calls us to “chart a different path–one that is animated by the radical act of bridging radical differences” (p. 28). Reading this in the context of thinking about justice and forgiveness, I see a call to all of us to divest whatever privilege we have–and some of us have much more than others–and to come together to promote shalom–that mutual thriving of everyone, regardless of that person’s original “status” in society.
And in light of forgiveness first being an accusation and a condemnation, we can forgive those who participate in systemic wrongs even as we call for justice and an end to the systems of supremacy and oppression.
Justice for the oppressed and the oppressor
In his book on eschatology (or the theology of “what comes next”), Jurgen Moltmann talks about God’s creative justice at the end of all things. This justice “brings the victims justice and puts the perpetrators right.” The perpetrators “will be saved through the crucified Christ, who comes to them together with their victims” (emphasis mine). He goes on, “As the coming judge of victims and perpetrators, the risen Christ will do away with the suffering one and the burden of the other, and will bring both out of the dominion of evil into the community of God’s righteousness and justice” (p. 143).
Now I have to admit, when I first read this, it made me mad. Justice for the oppressed and the oppressor. And then it hit me, this is fabulous news because I am both oppressed, and oppressor, I am victim, and perpetrator, and there will be justice for the wrongs I have suffered and a path to repentance for the wrongs I have committed. That path, that justice, is offered through repentance and if I take it, I have the opportunity for reconciliation.
Moltmann goes on to say that the purpose of God’s judgement “is not reward or punishment, but the victory of the divine creative righteousness and justice, and this victory does not lead to heaven or hell but to God’s great day of reconciliation on this earth” (p. 143).
Justice for the oppressed and the oppressor is an amazing gift! One that should give all of us hope even in the here and now.
But we must be careful to note that this ultimate judgement and justice and the reconciliation made possible by it is mediated by God through God’s judgement, and the reconciliation offered to the oppressors is only offered in the context of facing what they did. It’s not just “between them and God,” it’s between them, God, and their victims.
God’s forgiveness is a path to freedom for all of us, but reconciliation may have to wait until God makes all things new. Even then, it is predicated on the response of the oppressor.
I for one hope I will walk into the forgiveness that I need for the wrongs I have committed, and I want to start that path now–on this side of God’s great day of judgement. And in that light, I also commit to the process of releasing those who have wronged me. I hope that they also begin their own paths towards being forgiven and towards reconciliation. But there is some reconciliation that is only possible on the other side of God’s great day of judgement when God sits as mediator and advocate.
Note: If you read this when it first went live, I revised two sections after feedback. I did not mean to imply that victims had power over their oppressors salvation, but it read that way, and I apologize. That’s the opposite of the overall thrust of this piece, and it was poorly worded. Also, when I said that we could walk away from some of the ongoing impact of trauma, I meant that we could leave toxic relationships that were continuing to perpetuate that trauma. For some of us, trauma–especially childhood trauma–has changed our brains and impacted our bodies in such a way that we live with chronic illness and there’s no walking away from that. Also victims of systemic oppression such as systemic racism cannot walk away from the systems as they encompas everything.
If everything happens for a reason, if the prosperity gospel is taken literally, then we don’t have to help anyone. It works great for easing our consciences on the poor, the sick, the refugee, the prisoner, or anyone else we can call the “other.” Everything happens for a reason means that they are responsible for their own situation whether it’s through bad actions, lack of faith, or maybe just God’s will. And who are we to interfere with that?
When author Kate Bowler got sick with stage four cancer, people told her that maybe God had let her get cancer so she could help other people. (See her TedMed Talk). There’s multiple parts to this sort of statement. And I haven’t read her book yet, (it’s on my list!), she may get more into some of this, but here’s my take on everything happens for a reason.
People desperately need to make some sense out of bad things that happen. The world can be scary and dark and chaotic, and maybe, just maybe, if the bad things happen for a reason, then there’s sense to be made out of it all. People quote or misquote that Bible verse “All things work together for good for those who love God and are called according to his purpose.” (my paraphrase of Romans 8:28 but it is similar to multiple translations of this verse). This verse, this one tiny phrase from the whole library we call our Scripture, gets turned into “everything happens for a reason,” the beloved American proverb quoted by religious and non-religious alike.
This misquote or misunderstanding is scary; this underpinning of a five-word phrase that can literally shape the course of a nation. It is so commonly said, commonly quoted, commonly believed.
Everything happens for a reason allows us to distance ourselves from someone who is suffering rather than entering into their pain with them. When I got pregnant the first time, I made the mistake of telling a whole lot of people right away. So then a few short weeks later, I had to go and tell them that I’d miscarried. I received so many reactions, and almost all of them were distancing ones. People needed to put distance between my pain, my loss, and their lives. “Oh, everything happens for a reason!” “The baby must have had something wrong, this is a good thing!” “At least you know you can get pregnant.” Needless to say, all of those rubbed salt in my wound. I was excited to be pregnant, excited for the possibility of a child, and my hopes and dreams in that moment were dashed. The second time it happened, I was somewhat wiser, but as it was later along and I had one child, I needed support. It was hard to find people to just come watch my kid so I could deal with the physical symptoms I was experiencing. People don’t want the awkwardness. I had one friend who volunteered, just one. To be fair to some of my long-time friends, they didn’t live nearby and I know they would have helped if they could.
Everything happens for a reason allows us to distance ourselves from poor people and from addressing poverty as a system of injustice. If God blesses those with the “right” kind of faith, then they are poor through their own fault, right? And people who are sick are sick because they lacked faith, and the prisoner is in jail because of their actions and the sentence was surely just because, everything happens for a reason. And the refugee, and the immigrant, well, if their faith is right it will get them where they need to go, no need to reform immigration, or offer our aid.
It’s great for justifying ignoring everyone, putting all the onus on God to bless or not bless, and then we can just sit here and judge people because of their lives, after all, aren’t their lives the fruit of their faith?
And that’s all well and good for soothing consciences, except…
Except, literally none of that is scriptural. In fact, it’s as close to the opposite of the story God is telling us in Scripture as I can think. The story that follows God trying to be in relationship with messed-up, broken people. That follows those people of God through slavery, through the desert, as refugees, as people displaced from their homes and carried off into captivity. And yes, I’ve heard all the arguments about how those people disobeyed God and brought all that one themselves. Everything happens for a reason, after all. But if we follow the story, it was God that led them to Egypt in the first place as a salvation but they were later enslaved. Where babies were killed because Pharaoh was worried they would outnumber the Egyptians and take over. If God led them to Egypt and left them there, and everything happens for a reason then God is the author of all that evil too. But we don’t usually like to think of the full implications of that statement. Obviously there’s more there than can be tackled in one blog post, but it bears thinking about.
Perhaps most clearly, everything happens for a reason ignores the very Saviour it claims to worship. The Saviour that was born a poor brown baby in a kingdom ruled by an evil king. A Saviour who had to flee a massacre–becoming a refugee from violence–when he was just a little boy. A Saviour who did nothing but kindness and mercy and healing, but was still wrongfully convicted by a justice system that was anything but just, and put to death at the hands of broken, messed-up people who thought they were doing God’s will.
If Jesus came to show us God, and also came to show us how to be human, then what Jesus shows us is a God who enters into human particularity and doesn’t shy away from the hard stuff. Doesn’t blame people for circumstances wrought by unjust systems, doesn’t leave those who are grieving or without hope. He sits with those society shunned, touched the unclean, and broke the rules of the religious orders of the day. He was executed by the government for fear he would cause an unrest. His arrest was instigated by religious leaders because they thought he’d blasphemed God.
The cross has many lessons for us, but the one for today is this: we must be very very careful thinking we know what God looks like, especially when that picture of God we hold looks like us and agrees with us. Scripture shows us that wherever God is moving it’s disruptive. Things that Jesus did in Scripture were revolutionary and even transgressive. So we must be wary of a picture of God that makes us too comfortable with what we believe, because there’s a good probability that picture is an idol.