One of the themes on this blog lately has been the propriety – or not – of railing against God in times of distress. I tend to (surprise!) take a liberal view on this topic, that God not only can handle our complaints and frustrations but wants us to bring them to him. He made us to be emotional beings, and stifling our emotions is neither healthy nor productive.
Many Christians disagree, and I confess it’s difficult to listen when someone truly “goes off” on God – as happens in the Season 2 finale of The West Wing, which my wife and I are working through on Netflix.
Below the jump, I’ll post the speech in its entirety; most Christians, I suspect, will wince multiple times. You might even be offended. But the question we need to ask is this: Are we offended because God is, or are we offended because we have been taught to be?
[This paragraph contains spoilers] The speech occurs in the National Cathedral, after a funeral for President Jeb Bartlet’s longtime assistant, Mrs. Landingham, who had died in a car wreck. The death occurred after a string of crises and tragedies – including an assassination attempt that nearly killed his deputy chief of staff, Josh Lyman – that, let’s be honest, serve to make the show interesting, but would lead a normal person to consider whether she had been singled out to play Job in some sort of modern-day heavenly remake. [End spoilers]
Bartlett asks the Secret Service to close the cathedral so he can spend some time alone, and after some unnecessarily loud and echoey door slamming to let us know the cathedral has been closed, Bartlett begins walking up the aisle toward the vestibule.
You’re a son of a bitch, you know that?
She bought her first new car, and you hit her with a drunk driver. What, was that supposed to be funny? “You can’t conceive, nor can I, the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God,” says Graham Greene. I don’t know who’s ass he was kissing there ’cause I think you’re just vindictive. What was Josh Lyman? A warning shot? That was my son.
What did I ever do to yours but praise his glory and praise his name? There’s atropical storm that’s gaining speed and power. They say we haven’t had a storm this bad since you took out that tender ship of mine in the north Atlantic last year… 68 crew. You know what a tender ship does? Fixes the other ships. Doesn’t even carry guns. Just goes around, fixes the other ships and delivers that mail. That’s all it can do.
Gratias tibi ago, domine.
Yes, I lied. It was a sin. I’ve committed many sins. Have I displeased you, you feckless thug? 3.8 million new jobs, that wasn’t good? Bailed out Mexico, increased foreign trade, 30 million new acres of land for conservation, put Mendoza on the bench, we’re not fighting a war, I’ve raised three children…
That’s not enough to buy me out of the doghouse? Haec credam a deo pio? A deo iusto? A deo scito?
Cruciatus in crucem! Tuus in terra servus nuntius fui officium perfeci.
Cruciatus in crucem. Eas in crucem!
Setting aside the likelihood of a Nobel winner in economics cum president of the United States somehow knowing Latin, the wonders of the Internet allow me to tell you what Bartlet says at the end of the speech:
Thank you, Lord. (sarcastically spoken) …
Am I to believe these things from a righteous God, a just God, a wise God?
To hell with your punishments (literally: To a cross with your punishments)! I was your servant, your messenger on earth. I did my duty.
To hell with your punishments. And to hell with you!
What are we to make of speeches like this? Perhaps we are not to make anything of them at all. Perhaps speeches like this are a natural – even healthy – part of what it is to be human.
That, I think, is what Walter Brueggemann would say. In his Theology of the Old Testament, he discusses texts that describe Yahweh’s partnership with humanity. After moving through some core characteristics of the human person as described in the Old Testament, he moves to a second series of characteristics – those that define a person when “human existence is troubled, disturbed and at risk; when obedience, discernment and trust have either failed or are shown to be inadequate” (470).
The three characteristics of the human in crisis are complaint, petition and thanksgiving. And Jed Bartlet is clearly engaging in complaint.
The complaining person is one who treats his or her troubles as serious and legitimate and not to be accepted as normal. The complaining person refuses silence and resignation, but rather issues a vigorous and shrill protest grounded in the covenantal right to be granted well-being and to be taken seriously. … The complaint psalm is expressed variously in a mood of vexation, insistence, anger, rage, indignation, doubt and hope, but never indifference or resignation.
Of course, there are many psalms in this vein. There is also Jeremiah 20, in which the prophet accuses Yahweh of seduction, force and deception – even rape – and the many complaints of Job, who directly accuses Yahweh of injustice and unfairness in his treatment. Jeremiah and Job share much in common, including the blunt sentiment (paraphrased): “If I forced you into court, you would rig the system to convict me without cause.”
This is difficult for modern Christians to grasp. Such open questioning of the goodness, justice and mercy of God is seen as a calamity – a blasphemous rejection of faith. Perhaps we should change our lens and begin seeing it as the opposite, a courageous expression of it.
Yahweh is said in these prayers to be not only negligent and guilty by default, but more directly and aggressively involved as the perpetrator of trouble. … Israel is clear, moreover, that such angry and and insistent protests addressed to Yahweh are not acts of unfaith, as they are often thought to be in quietistic Christian piety, but are a vigorous act of freedom and responsibility. The human person must insist on his or her own well-being, even with shrillness; therefore, when appropriate, the person must call Yahweh to accountability. Thus humans in trouble are mandated by the character of Yahweh to take the initiative toward Yahweh. (471)
As a church we simply do not allow this kind of talk. Lament in general makes us uncomfortable and an angry lament that lashes out at God is simply rejected. By making God too big, by worrying so much about preserving his holiness and his sovereignty, we have made it impossible to truly express to him how we’re feeling, for fear that he will be offended. Which frankly seems even more insulting.
The result has been what we see in American churches today – the culture of “fine,” in which we rarely acknowledge pain, grief or despair and certainly never anger, fear or doubt.
The loss of this standard practice of complaint and petition … is precisely what has produced “false selves,” both in an excessively pietistic church that champions deference and in an excessively moralistic, brutalizing society that prizes conformity and the stifling of rage. Quietistic piety and conformity moralism together have encouraged docility and deference that generate phoniness at the most elemental levels of human existence. (474)
Why has this occurred? I’d argue it’s a side effect of what I’ve dubbed “I’ll Fly Away” eschatology, in which we are all simply waiting to die so we can truly begin living our lives in heaven. Along with promoting a modern day version of gnosticism, in which the physical world is despised in favor of a spiritual one, such a focus has discounted the realities of lived experience. The true Christian is focused on “things above” and should not be so concerned with the problems here below.
But that flies in the face of the testimony of the Bible, both Old and New testaments. Paul in Romans 8 is very much attuned to the suffering inherent in creation, noting that it groans as it waits for restoration. And the psalms of complaint and petition that litter the Old Testament make clear that our lives and emotions matter as we plead with God to restore creation and banish the pain and suffering of this world so that his will may be done here as in heaven.
The hope is that the absence, abrasion and distance that occur between God and human persons are provisionally overcome in cultic worship, and are finally overcome in the full restoration of creation, wherein the human person may appear in the presence of Yahweh naked, defenseless, unashamed and unafraid.
Worship, then, should be an expression of the hope we have, but hope can only be expressed after our grief and pain and anger are acknowledged. Christians express plenty of hope, but without acknowledging or expressing the pain and doubt of lived experience, that hope becomes more stifling than freeing. Hurting people are made to feel inadequate because they cannot skip right to the hopeful parts, thus compounding their tragedy.
If we are to find the light, we must first grope in the darkness. Denying the darkness’ existence – or toning down our description of it – does not make it go away.
“It is the central conviction of Israel that human persons in the Pit may call to the One who is powerfully sovereign and find that sovereign One passionately attentive,” Bruggemann concludes. “That is the hope of humanity and in the end its joy” (491).
As Jed Bartlet railed against God in the National Cathedral, many I’m sure were shocked, even offended. Myself, I was inexplicably moved. A tear slipped down my cheek because somehow, this seemed OK. A man of faith, hurt and wounded, expressing, however crudely, to his creator that hurt, grappling with the wound he had been dealt. Jed Bartlet might have felt lost in utter darkness, but he was closer to the light than many of us.