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A malnourished hope: God is with us in our greatest suffering

3.22. 2018 Written By: Ben Tapper 404 Times read

This article comes from the March issue of The Mennonite, which focuses on spiritual resilience. Read more reflections online or subscribe to receive more original features in your inbox each month. 

When I was 6 years old, I saw my stepfather attack my younger sister. She gasped for air as his hands tightened around her throat. Panic crept over her face and swept through me. As her older brother, I wanted to protect her. I tried desperately to move or speak, but I froze, overwhelmed by fear. I could do nothing but watch in horror. After what felt like eternity, my mother intervened, and my stepdad released my sister. She survived with no long-term physical trauma, though we continue to carry the scars from that day, I imagine.

It seems like the most unhelpful questions are the easiest to ask. Where was God? Was that part of God’s plan? Why didn’t God intervene sooner? Such questions are based on unhealthy assumptions about who God is and how God relates to us. The assumptions that God is all-powerful, loves everyone and that everything happens according to God’s plan are problematic when taken together, yet we’ve peddled these in church for years. There is no more obvious example of this than the narrative of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection.

Every spring, congregations commemorate Good Friday and recognize the death of Jesus while also looking toward the main event of the Resurrection. We have reduced Holy Week to a lengthy celebration of the Resurrection. We don’t mourn the devastation of Good Friday because our eyes are already turned toward the celebration that comes two days later. We accept the premise that both Good Friday and Resurrection Sunday were part of the divine plan. God intended Jesus to be betrayed, murdered and resurrected so that humanity could be atoned. Out of love, God wanted there to be a way made for humanity to reconnect with the divine, so he sent his Son, Jesus, to become the ultimate sacrifice needed to restore humanity in our sin.

But if God uses violence for redemptive purposes in the Crucifixion story, what keeps God from doing so in our lives today? With this understanding of God, isn’t it possible God wanted my sister to be choked in order to accomplish some greater purpose? Or did God even passively allow it? Another conclusion we could draw is that God would have stepped in and either saved or resurrected my sister. My mom would not have needed to save her because God would have done so.

Every day, human beings become victims to acts of violence. Christians who faithfully follow God die from starvation, genocide and various forms of violence while some theologians tell us God cares for us, has a master plan and will make all things right. Yet it is the Crucifixion, rather than the Resurrection, that feels closer to our everyday experience in this world.

With this in mind, what does it mean to speak of hope? Hope has become this fuzzy thing we equate with sunshine and rainbows, but in reality, hope has its roots in our darkest of nights. Hope is the belief that things can be better rather than the certainty that they will. Hope requires doubt in order to truly be fruitful. Without doubt, hope can lead to inaction or complacency, and for too long the Western church has fed its people this insufficient hope.

When we mask the pain of the Crucifixion with the joy of the Resurrection, we rob from ourselves and from each other the power of Jesus’ life-affirming good news. Perhaps worst of all, we do a disservice to those experiencing pain or oppression.

However, the perpetuation of a malnourished hope is only part of the disservice. The other problem is that, without doubt, hope reduces the incentive for people to take ownership of problems like systemic racism and misogyny and thus perpetuates those problems. Put another way, if someone believes God is going to make all things right, what motivation or incentive does that individual have to use their abilities or resources to combat systemic oppressions? Hope that God will prevail in the end takes the responsibility off the church. Only when we make that shift from a belief that God will prevail to a belief that God can prevail does hope truly become powerful.

We can begin to foster a healthy hope by re-examining the messages we tell about certain narratives like the Crucifixion. The Asian liberation theologian C.S. Song postulates that God didn’t plan for Jesus to be crucified at all and that God was actually horrified at the violent death Jesus suffered. This horror manifested itself in stunned silence after Jesus cried out, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” God is silent, Song notes, because God is horrified.

As someone who has been horrified to the point of silence, I can relate to this understanding of God during the Crucifixion. In that moment when the pain on the cross is most intense, God, too, is feeling the weight of death as Jesus cries out. In that moment, there is only pain. Hope is a distant memory replaced only by sorrow and doubt.

It didn’t have to end like this. Jesus could have continued to minister to people. He could have continued to train his disciples. He could have returned home and started a family or even helped organize a localized reform movement within Judaism. Instead he ends up hanging from a cross after suffering one of the most brutal forms of capital punishment the world has ever known.

In response to this shocking turn of events, the Resurrection occurred and reignited the possibility that there is power greater than Rome. It stoked the flames of hope that told an impoverished and destitute people there was a more life-affirming way of living and being. Only as a reaction to the horrors of the Crucifixion does the hope of the Resurrection truly birth resiliency. The good news of the Resurrection is not that God planned for Jesus to die brutally so that we can be forgiven. The good news is that even in the midst of the worst pain and oppression that can befall us, God is with us, actively working to bring freedom and healing.

This good news is salient for those who suffer in ways that more traditional notions of understanding the Crucifixion and Resurrection are not. Rather than relying on optimism to convince ourselves God will eventually make everything all right, we should understand that safety and freedom are not guaranteed but that God is always working to make them a possibility. It is then up to us to work alongside God in order to help bring these liberating possibilities into reality.

Ben Tapper is faith formation coordinator at First Mennonite Church in Indianapolis.

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