“Hope expressed without knowledge of and participation in grief is likely to be false hope that does not reach despair. …it is precisely those who know death most painfully who can speak hope most vigorously.” (Brueggemann, “Prophetic Imagination”)
One aspect of Christianity that I both love and hate is what I think of as the call to live life in tension.
The same faith that tells us to “mourn with those who mourn” is the same faith that admonishes all to “rejoice in the Lord always.” The same faith that caused Teresa of Avila to proclaim:
“Let nothing trouble you,
let nothing frighten you.
All things are passing;
God never changes.
Patience obtains all things.
He who possesses God lacks nothing:
God alone suffices”
is the same faith of who Jesus cries, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The same faith that produced the fearsome non-violence of Martin Luther King Jr. produced the gruesome righteousness of Nat Turner. I’ve heard Christianity derided as too timid, too extreme, too pliable, too puritanical, too forgiving, too angry, too abstaining, too engaging, too strict and too loose.
Of course, man interprets religion himself, for his own ends. But, there’s also something to be said for a faith that places tension at the very center of its narrative: the tension of a God who chooses to be killed by his own creation. For most of us in modern America, we have no sense of how repulsive such an idea must have seemed to those hearing it for the first time. (Blasphemy! How can God be killed?) The site of this greatest injustice is yet the site of the greatest mercy on earth. From death comes life. Divinity made low that man may be lifted high.
Chesterton captures this central paradox of Christianity symbolically through the image of the cross: “The cross, though it has at its heart a collision and a contradiction, can extend its four arms forever without altering its shape. Because it has a paradox in its center it can grow without changing.” (Chesterton, “Orthodoxy”).
The substance of why this topic interests me involves how Christians interact with pain. Christianity is a faith that invites us to lament, but not despair. This is problematic for me for a number of reasons, starting with the fact that I struggle to separate these two ideas in my mind. Because I in large part interpret my faith through an intellectual lens, the fact that I cannot adequately understand the distinction tempts me to ignore it altogether.
What I have come to realize, though, is that while I remain intellectually unconvinced of the specific way a Christian should navigate between these two conditions, my heart feels the distinction in my own emotional reactions. I cannot adequately define what it means to lament without despairing, but I can recognize in myself when I have slipped from one condition to the other. This leads me to remind myself of two facts: 1) Faith cannot only be filtered through an intellectual perspective (my brain is not big enough to understand all that faith entails) and 2) I have to be careful when deciphering the reactions of others through my own intellectual lens. If I am not capable of fully understanding my own emotions, nor of understanding how to tread the line between lament and despair, then I am certainly not capable of fully grasping the nuances of someone else’s emotional responses to pain. Crucially, I am also not capable of fully appreciating the calculations that lead to joy directed toward the object of another’s despair.
In the aftermath of the presidential election I read many articles (and had conversations with many people) evaluating others’ emotional responses to the election. I primarily experienced these articles and conversations in Christian circles. On the one hand, I heard a crowd of people berating negative responses to election results, because “God is in control.” On the other hand, I also heard a crowd of people berating the detached response of “churchy” people as “insensitive” and “condescending.” I myself had my own opinion in these debates, and happily criticized the side that I disliked.
However, with some time and reflection I have had to admit that scripture and tradition speak in the affirmative of both responses, the lament and the constancy. The first part of this blog post points to the fact that Christianity contains both strands of thought, and in fact there are too many such examples to mention. Just as I struggle to reconcile a proper understanding of faith, pain and hope with my own emotional conformity to the ideal, so too I have to give space to others who also fall short of the ideal.
This, then, is another tension in Christianity. We do not want to hastily declare that all responses are good or equal; yet, we also do not want to paint the picture of a faith that is inhuman in its inability to cope with the spectrum of human emotions. Detaching oneself from hardship and suffering does not make a person more Christian; it does make one less human. It’s one thing to use Jesus as a pair of glasses to see the world more clearly, and another to use him like a drug to numb oneself to the world. We all, regardless of how we view the election, must reaffirm these tensions if we truly wish to see the world as Christ does, rather than deaden ourselves to those things we don’t wish to see.
This blog post does not really add to the post-election and pre-inauguration conversation, except to say that all who call ourselves Christian could stand to be more cognizant of the Christian call to embrace both lament and hope, and the call to humility when evaluating the reactions of others. How we strike that balance is an open question, but it will never be answered if we dismiss the tension itself.