In my first year of divinity school, I have learned, among other things of course, this: It is not apparent that life is good. I had always understood this point intellectually. Because of my multifaceted privilege, my economic stability, my education, the democratic and affluent country in which I was raised, and my comforting childhood, it is easier for me to see how life is indeed good in many ways. It is easier for me to feel at peace with God. I am closer to beautiful things, both emotional and material.
For the majority of the world’s population and this country’s population, it is not evident that life is good. Life is so often and firstly painful. The rest of us can quickly forget the inexplicable suffering that permeates borders, that happens in remote desert camps we will never visit, or in the corners of the housing projects down the street. Now, in our hyper-nationalist political climate, certain groups, politicians, constituents, and arms of the media, repeated blame our neighbors who are suffering at the hands of unimaginable justice for their own pain.
Beauty, like resources, like light, like hope, is cached in our culture, increasingly. It is not apparent that God is speaking in the face of injustice because there is so much that is evil (and I do not use that word lightly) and cruel in the physical world that does not make sense tangibly or theologically if God is loving and present. To understand God as loving and to see the world as incredibly unjust begs for deep theological inquiry, by which I mean legitimate theological discussion, not the styrofoam theology that grips much of the modern, conservative American religious imagination today: theology that reconciles Jesus with the alt-right, for example.
Since my spring term ended several weeks ago, I have had more space to reflect on the whirlwind of a year it has been, and slowly, I have begun to remember what drew me to divinity school in the first place. (This was not so evident as I was writing my final exegesis paper.) Much to the surprise of my friends and some relatives, I chose divinity school and not law school. I chose divinity school because I saw potential in faith.
I looked out onto the broken, cracked, dried discourse of American life – a context in which virtue has been hijacked by people who know nothing of virtue and in which justice is held by one side of the political aisle, but often knows very little of how to frame justice and mercy compellingly – and I thought here is where religion can help. Spirituality, religion, ethics, virtue in public life have always been a part of great political work: more overtly within the Civil Rights Movement and Gandhi’s resistance, and undergirding, at least I believe, President Obama’s leadership.
The past few weeks, however, have reminded me of how faith can be used as a smokescreen and a weapon. I saw again how faith, how “principles,” can be used to enact violence. This week, the minions of the nationalist Right used the Bible to defend the family separation at the U.S. border. Cue eye roll and fist banging on table. This is completely inaccurate for several reasons, which is not the point of this essay and too dry to flesh out here, but such statements wield a messy, challenging, difficult, composite text to make cruel oversimplifications upon which tyranny and totalitarianism thrive.
What does the New Testament speak of over and over and over and over again? The exact thing that translates over time and place in multidimensional and unmatched ways? It speaks of love. Love of God and love of neighbor. The law, in Jesus’ terms and in the Bible’s terms, was not and should not be directly applied to certain legal codes crafted up to 2,000 years ago. The law, more often than not in the New Testament, related to higher laws, to God’s law. And what is the ONE unwavering divine principle upon which the Christian way is ideally founded? Again, love. In Galatians, for example, it is written: For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
Listening to the cries of the children ripped from their crying mothers’ arms and seeing children crouched in locked cages with nothing more than a foil blanket to cover them is chilling. We can here the trauma and terror in their voices. We thus witness the faithlessness, of politics and nationalism, of power’s high inhumanity.
Crisis is one of the few pain points that offers our culture expedited redemptive possibility. Crisis, unlike systemic injustice, locates pain on particular soil. In the wake of a natural disaster, the nations eyes move directly to the site of the event. We become laser focused disaster-response organizations; our efforts and love and maybe prayers move right to those most affected. This crisis, on American soil, has tested the limits of our collective love in the face of disaster and localized trauma, but also could offer a new, more loving, more Christian way of moving forward, if we continue to pay attention.
I am a brown woman, and I am the daughter of an immigrant. Witnessing terrified families being separated and caged, knocked the wind out of me. I have been walking around with a heavy heart for weeks thinking of them, sending prayer, love, money, support their way. It struck me. To the parents who have lost their children, to the children who are shaking and screaming: it is not apparent that life is good. Life must seem cruel. And who is engendering such cruelty? Not God, but people.
The contingent of the “people” who are standing by this cruelty are lying. They cannot defend their actions or beliefs in the light without lying. Thus, if we are awake, paying attention, and want to live out higher principles, then our work is two-fold. Our work will always involve contending with present injustice, reckoning with the laws in front of us. But our work is also much deeper and perhaps, you could say, more hopeful. Our work, at its best, must hold higher laws at heart and seek to bring mercy and love into fruition: God’s grace poured out through our human hands.
* * *
He asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’
“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”
The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”
Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”