16 July 2009


The theme of "suffering" has been in my mind lately. It began last Sunday at North Valley Friends Church, where it was the theme of meeting for worship--in fact, of a series of meetings. (I admire a church located in affluent Western Oregon that is willing to devote a big chunk of attention to a theme that is unlikely to fit into any church-growth strategy.) A church member described her journey into the valley of addiction, arrests, and a slide to rock bottom that ended with God interrupting her suicide attempt. Concluding the meeting, Stan Thornburg suggested the church's goal: to become a community where it was safe to ask for help and healing in the midst of torment. The next evening, several of us gathered in a home to see a DVD that North Valley Friends recently bought, Pray the Devil Back to Hell, about the ending of the civil war in Liberia, the political campaign that ended with Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf's election as president, and the nonviolent women's movements behind both events.

Pray the Devil Back to Hell from BillMoyers.com on Vimeo.

Using contemporary news footage and low-fi on-the-run video clips from the civil war, the film gives us a glimpse of ordinary people's lives when bullets are flying--and all your child wants is just a little piece of doughnut, but you have nothing. We viewers are not sheltered from those scenes, but the film was produced with respect and dignity; there's no gratuitous disaster voyeurism.) There's a notorious link between suffering and passivity, and a lot of our post-film discussion revolved around the roles of faith and courageous leadership in mobilizing people to say enough is enough.

That same day the Christian Peacemaker Teams sent out a link to a video showing children in the Zharawa camp for internally displaced people, in Kurdish northern Iraq.

"These beautiful, wonderful, creative, joyful, talented and bright Iraqi-Kurdish children have been forced from their homes due to repeated bombing by Turkey and Iran," explains the caption. "They now live in a tent camp that offers no protection from the summer heat, the winter cold (yes, it does get cold), dust storms, or illness.  

"We asked them to tell us their stories and they did so by drawing pictures of their happy lives in their villages, attacks on their homes, and fleeing to the tent camp they live in now."

The accompanying CPT news bulletin tells the story of how CPT members have been trying to get permission for some of them to live within the camp itself. There's never a shortage of stories of suffering. Liberia's strong man, Charles Taylor, is right now on trial in Sierra Leone for contributing to that country's civil war, and on Tuesday, we heard his lawyer telling a BBC reporter about his humanitarian heart.

On Wednesday, Caspian Airlines flight 7908 crashes with the loss of all on board. On the same day, the Russian human rights organization Memorial loses its respected Grozny-based activist Natalia Estemirova, kidnapped outside her home and shot in the head, her body dumped out in nearby Ingushetia.

Today, the New York Times Web site included a moving video on the Cambodian atrocity tribunals. (Related article here.)

I don't have any special wisdom, just two thoughts.

First, I don't want to be sheltered from this raw data about the world's agonies and God's frequent (apparent) non-intervention, because denial would make a fraud of my faith. As I've probably said before, my mother saw the flash of Hiroshima, and therefore lived much of her life under the shadow (she was told) of leukemia statistics. In the city itself, thousands of innocents were vaporized, roasted, or lethally irradiated.

When the war finally ended, both her own country (Japan) and her parents' homeland (Germany), and huge swaths of the world, were pockmarked with smoking ruins and mass graves, as great-power politicians strategized to reassemble their empires, and the sober idealists among them cobbled together the new United Nations to slow down our perennial cycles of butchery. This is reality, every bit as real as the Bible. Zooming down to family scale, my mother also endured the kidnapping and murder of her own fourteen-year-old daughter in 1970--but Ellen was only one of 86 school-age young people murdered in Chicago that year. I study and pray and trust without pretending to understand. Through prayer, I can remain aware of suffering as a prod toward mindfulness, as a standing query about remaining oriented toward justice, without becoming morbid or paralyzed, without turning my back on God's equally pervasive provision of joy. (See the Zharawa camp kids!) 

Second, your sufferings and mine may seem mild compared to the Liberian civil war, Nazi atrocities, and Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge. We should not inflate our own woes, but neither should we deny or suppress them--they may be the key to our ability to empathize with those whose trials are more dramatic.

Back when I was working with Right Sharing of World Resources, we had a partnership with a grassroots group in India that was developing a dairy cooperative. We provided seed money that was supposed to go into the bank to secure loans for 30 women. But as we found out, another dairy in town was selling watered-down milk. At first, this seemed great for marketing--"our" milk would be more attractive. But the owners of the rival dairy wanted to head off competition, so they told the women that if they went ahead with their plans, they would tell all their business friends to make sure that the co-op members' husbands would lose their jobs. They also pressured the bank to deny loans. Showing the photos from India, it was hard to convince some American audiences to see these co-op members and their husbands as neighbors, Biblically speaking--the outward differences were so stark. None of my audience members were depending on milk from one or two water buffalo to put food on the table. But who among us hasn't suffered some kind of analogous injustice? Who doesn't have a story of political corruption and discrimination somewhere in their past, or the past of their community? (Being from Chicago, I don't have to work my memory very hard!)

The hardships we acknowledge can build a human link to others far away, and we can become mutually supportive companions in building justice. (And we in Right Sharing had to learn to be far more systemic in understanding what grassroots-level development aid could and couldn't accomplish.)

I took some time yesterday and today to listen to the Senate Judiciary hearings on Judge Sotomayor's nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court. Just a few impressions: First, her opponents who criticize her for identity rhetoric, fearing subjectivity and bias (although I doubt they truly fear it; the worry is so blatantly ideological and contrived to score political points) can't have it both ways. They admit that diversity on the Court is a virtue, but seem to imply that the diversity must only skin-deep.
White males are still the gold standard for objectivity. One or two of her critics have said that if a white male had made a statement analogous to the "wise Latina" wording that they're hounding her with, he'd be out on his can. But that would not be a true analogy--unless white males represented a traditionally marginalized viewpoint. We white males seem to have fairly weak irony detectors, especially when we're in positions of power.

Friday PS: I have empathy, if that's allowed, for the New Haven firefighters whose case eventually prevailed (barely) in the current Supreme Court. Today, plaintiff Frank Ricci appeared as a witness at the Sotomayor hearing. According to the New York Times, he "call[ed] the Federal District Court ruling that rejected his and others’ claims of discrimination flawed. 'Americans have the right to go into our federal courts to have their cases judged based on the Constitution and our laws, not on politics or personal feelings,' he says. The lower-court ruling, he says, reduced them to racial statistics and served to divide people." Earlier, he talked about how hard he'd worked to prepare for the promotion exam.: "I was a virtual absentee father and husband," the Times quoted him as saying. (See, he wants empathy, too, and I'm not going to fault him for it.)

The confirmation issue, of course, is not whether we sympathize with his entirely understandable anger, it is whether Judge Sotomayor correctly navigated issues of law and precedent when the case reached her panel. The true villain in Ricci's case is the cumulative load of sin represented by Jim Crow. For that deep social poison there has never been a perfect antidote; and, sadly, the chosen correctives caused private pains for the public good. I'd argue that without those imperfect solutions and private pains, our national search for justice would be decades behind where we are now. There may be nothing but cynical politics in an attempt to pit Frank Ricci against Sonia Sotomayor, but when her approval process is over, I hope we can continue to talk as a country about the poison, the antidotes, and the human beings who are affected.

A feast of theological links: From zoecarnate: "Theodicy (’the problem of evil’) is with us almost no matter what we believe, and panentheism does not come out unscathed – indeed, it’s even more vulnerable, I think, because (unlike Deism or a highly ‘Sovereign’ removed God concept), panentheism seems to implicate God rather intimately in life’s hurts as well as joys." ~~ Two items from the Pew Forum's Faith Angle conference: a "short course" on Reinhold Niebuhr, Obama's favorite philosopher, and a conversation on faith and science with Obama's NIH director nominee Francis Collins. ~~ From Sightings: "The radicalism of Caritas in veritate?" ~~ Are men from Mars and women from Venus?--the Christians for Biblical Equality are about to meet. Also: The courage of Natalia Estemirova. ~~ Tomgram: Are Afghan lives worth anything? ~~ Caritas in blues ... Taj Mahal and Bonnie Raitt alone and together.

Mentioning Chicago gave me a serious case of nostalgia. The cure, at least for now: Chicago blues. This video from 1981 is fuzzy, but just listen: from the very first guitar notes you'll know that this is the one and only, the GREAT J.B. Hutto performing "Too Much Alcohol."
[The video I had here has been removed, but here's some documentary footage featuring this wonderful musician.]


Mary Ellen said...

Thanks for the reminders of what I'm most prone to avoid knowing about - not in service of protecting some notion of the Divine, but just out of - weariness, perhaps. It's good to get shaken out of that from time to time.

Johan Maurer said...

Not sure which of my denial zones is worse--ignorance or indifference. I remember once, during a civil war period in Central America, forcing myself to listen to an account of torture on public radio even though they warned us in advance of the distress. I realized with a start that willful ignorance was becoming habitual.