Tag Archives: Christianity

The Stain of the Oppressor

A couple days ago I started Miroslav Volf’s excellent “The End of Memory.” In it, he examines the philosophical, theological, psychological, and sociological elements of memory, and in particular, “remembering rightly.” In this, he is primarily concerned with “remembering rightly” when you are the recipient of a wrongdoing. Can we remember in a way where both justice and reconciliation are possible? Can we remember in a way where the oppressed do not turn around and become the oppressor? Can we remember truthfully in order to pursue reconciliation?

I’m only three chapters in, so I cannot give a full exposition, but one quote in particular is worth pondering. After attending school in the United States and marrying an American woman, Volf returned to his home of Yugoslavia for his mandatory military service. His education, new wife, and pacifistic views proved an incredible obstacle to the strict socialist state under the reign of Tito.

During the year 1984, he went through endless interrogations at the hands of a Captain G. These Kafkaesque (think The Trial) interrogations were essentially sessions of psychological and emotional abuse that caused Volf a great deal of pain. However, he tries to remember the situation as truthfully as possible. It’d be way too easy to make Captain G more of a villain than he was. Volf could add physical abuse to the story, or even intensify the emotional damage done. He could also de-contextualize Captain G. By this, I mean remove him from his surroundings.

Captain G was a military leader, but still a cog in the system, of a strict military under an oppressive socialist state and leader. While what Captain G did was wrong, he was also following orders. If Captain G was interrogating and abusing Miroslav Volf on his own for fun, with no pressures coming from the state or society, he is considerably more culpable than a Captain merely following orders. While the results are the ultimately the same, the true picture of Captain G is important. If Volf incorrectly remembers (or more accurately imagines) Captain G as a sadistic abuser acting as an independent agent, he his placing more blame than necessary on his oppressor. When this occurs, there is a chance that the roles of oppressed and oppressor will reverse.

In thinking through all this, Volf makes a penetrating statement, “In memory, a wrongdoing often does not remain an isolated stain on the character of the one who committed it; it spreads over and colors his entire character. Must I not try to contain that spreading with regard to Captain G’s wrongdoing?”

While many of us cannot directly relate to Volf’s experience, or to that of a holocaust survivor facing the same questions with regarding, “how do I remember and deal with my past victimization?” We can easily apply the above quote to our lives. It is very easy to look at someone who hurt us and define them by the deed. If someone lies to me in a way that cuts deeply, I will most likely forget the positive qualities he or she has. This individual ceases, and becomes a liar. It is an easy thing to do. It’s harder to view a person who hurts us, and remember them in context of all the virtues they possess. Demonizing and casting more blame on an individual than he or she deserves perpetuates the wrongdoing.

“To triumph fully, evil needs two victories, not one. The first victory happens when an evil deed is perpetrated; the second victory, when evil is returned…. in my own situation, I could do nothing about the first victory of evil, but I could prevent the second.”  Volf (p.9)


Favorite Reads of 2011

Yes I am trading thoughtful (or merely time-consuming for me) posts for an end of the year book list. It’s not a top ten, and I do not have a “read of the year.” These are the books that lingered in my mind past the initial reading and were the ones I couldn’t put down.

Fear and Trembling: Soren Kierkegaard

– From his pseudonym Johannes Climacus, Kierkegaard explores the concept of faith. He examines Abraham’s obedience and willingness to sacrifice Isaac as a tool to explore the internal process of making an obedient decision out of faith. Here he deploys his famous analogy of the Knight of Infinite Resignation vs. the Knight of Faith. Making the topic more interesting, Kierkegaard’s seems to use his analysis as a way of coming to grips with his own personal failure of letting his beloved, Regine Olson, slip through his fingers.

Resurrection of the Son of God: NT Wright

– The third installment in Wright’s Christian Origins and the Question of God Series packs a punch for anyone interested in studying the topic of Resurrection and/or afterlife. He takes us culture by culture, thinker by thinker, philosophy by philosophy, examining what each people group thought of in terms of resurrection, afterlife, death, etc. Wright does this to set up a historical understanding of the concept in order to fully comprehend what Christians meant when they used the term in the New Testament. He then proceeds to argue that the best explanation for these Christian writings and the Christian movement, was a historical bodily Resurrection. This book is also helpful because Wright accurately critiques the all-too common unbiblical Platonic and Cartesian views of heaven present in many evangelical churches today. A “must-read” if you’re ready for 750 pages on the topic.

Exclusion and Embrace: Miroslav Volf

– Volf’s Exclusion and Embrace might be my book of the year. The book explores ideas of conflict, conflict resolution, reconciliation, forgiveness, justice, and evil all in relation to the cross. He skillfully critiques modernity and postmodernity’s attempts at deciding what we’re supposed to do with evil and atrocities in the world in favor of a Biblical view. An excellent read and a good way to brush up on post-modern thinking.

Evil and the Justice of God: NT Wright

-Yes another NT Wright book made my list. This book is highly influenced by Volf’s Exclusion and Embrace but more directly tries to answer the “Problem of Evil.” He attempts to present a Biblical Model and answer that is both enlightening and challenging. Wright’s handling of the problem will not satisfy all, but is a refreshing departure from the usual defenses and arguments presented in favor of Christianity. Like Wright’s other material, he astutely emphasizes the complete meta-narrative of scripture enabling us to see the problem, and the picture more clearly.

Generous Justice: Tim Keller

– Tim Keller released an excellent little book on the topic of justice. This was one of the more refreshing reads as Keller is an unashamed evangelical whose passion for evangelism and social justice are evident in all his writing. He effectively articulates God’s concern for the poor, making any theology omitting the poor, fallacious theology. Many books that address the issue of social justice come from the perspective of a more liberal-minded theology, Keller breaks that trend providing a breath of fresh air for those who feel that evangelicalism in the United States lacks passion in that arena. A short, but great read.

Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: Richard Bauckham

– An excellent read in the field of Biblical Studies regarding eyewitness testimony in the ancient world and specifically in the Gospels. While the book’s scope is broad, my favorite sections are Bauckham demonstrates the Bible’s internal textual evidence regarding the witnesses behind particular stories. His section on the eyewitness testimony of women in the Gospel of Luke is of particular interest.

I had other good reads this year, but these are the highlights.

In an effort to protect myself from Theological McCarthyism, I offer this disclaimer.  While I would highly recommend any of these books, I do not endorse all the ideas conveyed by the authors.

Guilty Pleasure of the Year: The Hunger Games trilogy: heck, I started the books and couldn’t put them down.

When the Sun won’t rise Pt. 2/Good Friday

I left off my last post saying that I believed that I was approaching the Problem of Evil with a “Biblical View.” I attempted to place emphasis on the importance of treating evil as a serious topic (not belittling it), and moving beyond a mere philosophical response. As finite beings, this is impossible to do as a whole since this very discussion is an exercise in philosophy. If you will notice, I am not very interested at this time in learning how evil came to exist.* The question of “why” is even more difficult and unhelpful in this discussion. The most important questions are, “what now?” and “what next?” This might seem odd, but I am not presenting an exercise in thought that will help for a Philosophy of Religion assignment, but rather a personal reflection, a Biblical reflection relating to the problem of evil.

No one usually approaches the topic intentionally trying to belittle someone’s suffering or issue. However, it happens quite often in theistic arguments when trying to answer the question of “why?” A popular Christian argument is the idea that God has a greater plan, and that evil is going to achieve a greater good through God’s help (Many times Rom. 8:28, Gen 50, or even the life of Christ are chosen for backup evidence). I generally agree with this, but holding this view alone reduces evil to a mere obstacle, or type of “boot camp.” This quasi-Hegelian thought process fails miserably when we arrive at an Auschwitz or tsunami. Very few people will call those two events mere bumps in the road. One could argue that the lives lost were relatively small considering the total population of planet earth’s history and future, but that would be diminishing the evil in a very unchristian way for a Christian line of argumentation. There are a couple issues with this view when it is given on it’s own. It creates a temptation that causes us to invent divine intentions for disastrous events. It is simply not our place. Also, for argumentation’s sake, there is no way an individual could satisfactorily come up with a reason for Auschwitz. An explanation could only come from God. However, my main issue with this incomplete response,  is that it conflicts with the God of the Bible.  The God of the Bible (the Trinitarian God: The Father, Son (Jesus Christ), and Holy Spirit) is described as the creator and controller of the universe, and one who cares deeply about people. Any Christian attempt in answering the “why” for has to take this into consideration.

The Gospel of John has one of the most fascinating stories regarding the topic of evil and pain, the resurrection of Lazarus.* I will summarize it, but you can read it in full (John 11). Lazarus is dying and his good friend Jesus, a known miracle worker, is in another town. Word reaches him, but surprisingly Jesus does not rush to Lazarus’ aid. Instead he claims, “This sickness is not to end in death, but for the Glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified in it.” (John 11:4). It is a very interesting statement considering the gravity of the situation, but the disciples believe Him and continue on.  To our greater surprise, Jesus waits two more days before heading over.

Finally, Jesus starts to leave and explains to His disciples,  “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I must go awaken him out of his sleep.” The disciples don’t seem to get it, so eventually Jesus has to clarify “Lazarus is dead, and I am glad for your sakes that I was not there, so that you may believe; but let us go to him.” At this point, it seems like this pain is purposeful and that I am wrong for dismissing this line of thinking two paragraphs earlier. Keep in mind that I said the explanations of “purposeful pain” are terrible when used alone. However, let us continue because we haven’t reached the interesting section.

Jesus returns to Lazarus’s family to find that he was buried and has been dead for four days. He talks with the mourning and deeply affected family for a while, sees everyone’s pain, and asks to go see Lazarus’ tomb. Then, the remarkable happens, “Jesus Wept” (John 11:35).

“How is that more remarkable than the resurrection that follows?” I’ll admit, crying at a grave site is not a very impressive or unique act contrasted with a guy returning to life. What is so strange is that Jesus wept, knowing full well what He was about to do. Sorrow was present in the midst of purpose. It would have been easy for Jesus to show no emotion and just raise Lazarus. The story would still maintain its astonishing quality and display God’s power. But, we’re shown something much more. Even if God truly does have a purpose in pain, even if He knows that His next action will thrill us, he still weeps out of compassion!

Of course, being Good Friday, we have to recognize God’s ultimate response to evil. He sent his son live amongst the poorest of the poor, suffer with the weak, get mocked with the fools, associate with the outcasts, die with criminals, and feel the Father turn his face away. This response to evil was not pain free, but wrought with it. If that is God’s ultimate response, we have to recognize what question matters to God. God does not completely answer our question of why; He gives us a victory over evil and gives us the answer to “what now?”

Victory is won, the now is taken care of. The “what next?” is the only remaining question. This is where we have to follow.  Instead of explaining pain, shifting blame, or discovering an end-all theory, we need to fulfill the call to “bear one another’s burdens.” I am not saying that we must all go and find a place to get killed for a good cause. No, but we have to be on the forefront of combating, and reacting to evil. We need to come along side those in pain, fight it when we can even if we believe that there is a purpose behind it all. I will finish (sort of) with a final quote.

“One day I think we shall find out, but I believe we are incapable of understanding it at the moment, in the same way a baby in the womb would lack the categories to think about the outside world. What we are promised however, is that God will make a world in which all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well, a world in which forgiveness is one of the foundation stones and reconciliation the cement which holds everything together. And we are given this promise, not as a matter of whistling in the ark, not as something to believe even though there is no evidence, but in and through Jesus Christ and his death and resurrection, and in and through the Spirit through whom the achievement of Jesus becomes a reality in our world and in our lives.”*

I know that this was much more of a Sunday-school post than some of you anticipated. I guess that’s what happens when you finish writing something on Good Friday. I hesitated on posting any of this because it is such a big and sensitive topic. I know that if I read this again, I will be upset that I missed something, or excluded something obvious. I apologize for questions raised that are left unanswered. Unfortunately a blog does not provide the adequate medium for a full treatment of the topic. I pray that in some way you the reader have gained something out of my musings. I, like many of you will continue to wrestle with this issue. Have a great Friday and I hope to get a few more posts I’ve been thinking about on here.

* The Genesis narrative discusses humankind’s seduction to sin, but does not actually seek out evil’s origin. How did “the accuser” become evil enough to tempt, and how did “the accuser” make it into the Garden of Eden. Ultimately, the origin of evil is not given to us. Also, even with free will, how could an evil choice be known? Interesting topic but unfortunately not pertinent for this discussion.

* Even if one does not believe the validity of this story, it gives insight into the Christian perspective of God’s character. The loving, redeeming, savior-God is compatible with this somewhat shocking story.

*Wright, N. T. Evil and the Justice of God. Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2006. Print

When the Sun Won’t Rise Pt.1

Some of you expecting a blog much sooner from me, probably assumed that my first post was going to be my last. The delay is a result of my hesitancy to write on anything other than the topic of Japan.  I pondered if it was wise for me to even approach the tragedy, or the accompanying questions of “why?” or “what’s next?”  I am not a pastor, nor philosopher, nor teacher. Take these words with a grain of salt. Silence is sometimes the better option, but I will attempt to choose my words wisely and hopefully write something worthwhile.

For many, including myself, Japan has been imprinted on our hearts and minds. It has been nearly six days since the earthquake and tsunami struck, but it appears that we haven’t fully realized the devastation that took, and is still taking place. As an abundance of pictures are displayed, the horrors seem all the more real, and in our globalized society, close. I’ve found that the news has become too difficult to view as we witness yet another natural disaster decimate a people.

It gets to the point, where watching a girl’s body go limp from shock and loss becomes too much to bear from our living rooms. Not a month ago we were seeing people crying in New Zealand, a little earlier Chile, and just over a year ago Haiti. The pictures of the atomic-bomb like devastation are haunting, but watching the survivors emotionally torn apart utterly heart-breaking

It is in times like these when we ask God, if we believe in God, “how can this happen?”  This question is the emotional voicing of the ever disturbing and perplexing “Problem of Evil/Pain.” The reason that this issue is more difficult than say, a theistic or atheistic argument on free will vs. either divine, biological, or psychological hard determinism is that everyone at some point must stare pain in its eyes. While most of us do not go around wondering if the Trenta coffee we just purchased was of our own volition or not, we all face pain regardless of our worldview. The Christian, Jew, Muslim, Atheist, Agnostic, Buddhist, and Hindu all have to deal with loss of some sort. As a result, the undeniable reality and physical manifestation of the problem, make a simple or even complex philosophical answer unhelpful. We even run into the danger of making light of the situation.

I am not trying to diminish what philosophers do. On the contrary, I believe that work on this topic is vitally important, but not enough in of itself. This is because the “real” answer might not be helpful one its own. The answer to the Problem of Evil is not necessarily a solution. If the atheist is right in saying that we live in a random disastrous world, we are still left with the same problem. If the Christian asserts that God has a greater ultimate good in store, we are still left facing the problem and are in danger of belittling a the severity of a tragedy. This idea is akin to that of a doctor telling a patient that his or her pain is the result of a tumor that may be malignant. The diagnosis, while important, is not helpful on its own. What is important is that the problem is treated and the patient made well.[1]

At this point, you might think that I am merely towing the middle of the road to appease any theistic or atheistic readers. I can guarantee you that I have satisfied neither at this point, nor is it my intention to present a surface-level postmodern idea that would present nothing of value. I believe that I am ultimately working with a Biblical response very similar to that of NT Wright’s as his works are fresh on my mind. I will expound upon this in part 2.

[1] Unlike the “Problem of Evil,” all parties involved agree upon the diagnosis and the correct answer is known. I will assert that proper diagnosis is vitally important to treating a disease.   Like a physical or cancerous tumor, the “correct” philosophical diagnosis may not be easy to hear and is useless when presented alone. I admit that the metaphor has problems and I will flush it out at more length and fix the errors at another date.