Sunday, December 18, 2016

Advent Four: Reality, Grief, Hope

I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day.
What hours, O what black hours we have spent
This night! what sights you, heart, saw; ways you went!
And more must, in yet longer light's delay.
     (Gerard Manley Hopkins, 1885)
The darkest days of the year are here. As I gather food for dinner, a great horned owl calls from the tree behind my house. Later, my husband heads out in the dark to deliver compost to the pile beside our shed. The owl calls again, alone in the dark.

Saadallah, Aleppo
In Aleppo more than 400,000 people have died since fighting began in 2011.  My mind balks at the number:  that's more than the population of Iceland, or Belize.

More than all the towns and cities of my county combined.

More than Pittsburgh. Or Cleveland.

Yesterday, driving home from the grocery store, I caught part of President Obama's final press conference. 
The world as we speak is united in horror at the savage assaults by the Syrian regime and its Russian and Iranian allies on the city of Aleppo,” he said. “We have seen a deliberate strategy of surrounding, besieging and starving innocent civilians. We’ve seen relentless targeting of humanitarian workers and medical personnel, entire and neighbors reduced to rubble and dust. There are continuing reports of civilians being executed. These are all horrific violations of international law.
 Someone from the press pool asked: "Do you feel responsible for the deaths in Syria?"

What an awful question.

I could hear the grief in his voice as he answered: 
I always feel responsible. I felt responsible when kids were being shot by snipers. I felt responsible when millions of people had been displaced. I feel responsible for murder and slaughter that’s taken place in South Sudan that’s not being reported on, partly because there’s not as much social media being generated from there. 
There are places around the world where horrible things are happening and because of my office, because I’m president of the United States, I feel responsible. I ask myself every single day, is there something I could do that would save lives and make a difference and spare some child who doesn’t deserve to suffer? So that’s a starting point. There’s not a moment during the course of this presidency where I haven’t felt some responsibility.
What I heard in his voice was the helplessness so many of us feel.

In the face of atrocity, what can we do?

President Obama described the agonizing hours, days, weeks spent reviewing political realities, realistic options, uncomfortable conclusions.

As he said, more than once: in the face of evil, there are no magic bullets.

In a complex, dangerous world, darkness sometimes seems to win.

I have friends who tell me evil isn't real. Moral agency is one of those figments of our religious imagination. Things happen. No one's to blame.

I disagree sharply. People choose.

Yes, there are people who get trapped in ways they couldn't predict, small people held hostage by forces they can't control. They fall prey to evil and find themselves caught. Are they evil themselves, or simply prisoners of evil? Either way: evil exists. If you need evidence, I have plenty.

Then there are people who embrace evil, revel in it, leverage lies, prioritize power, mindlessly trample the weak. 

Hitler, by any measure, was evil. Stalin. Mao. Pol Pot. Bin Ladin.

Bashar al Assad? Putin?

Donald Trump?

Here's how Jeremiah defines evil:
Like cages full of birds,
    their houses are full of deceit;
they have become rich and powerful
and have grown fat and sleek.
Their evil deeds have no limit;
    they do not seek justice.
They do not promote the case of the fatherless;
    they do not defend the just cause of the poor.
If we see a proliferation of evil leaders, what does that say of the people who promote and defend them?

As the days grow darker, I've been turning back to books that have helped me in the past.

Walter Brueggeman's Reality, Grief, Hope describes three essential callings.

The first is to bear witness to broken systems and distorted ideologies, to speak truth in a time of deception, to name the injustice and exploitation too often accommodated or embraced.

The second is to confront a culture of denial with insistent lament, "to embrace, model and practice grief in order that the real losses in our lives can be acknowledged."

Third, in the face of honest despair, is insistent hope, a hope beyond human agency, a hope that acknowledges and moves beyond our human helplessness.

Those themes are entwined throughout the prophetic books as God's messengers denounce a hypocritical religion that pretends to seek God while ignoring the requirements of justice and mercy: 
Woe to those who call evil good
    and good evil,
who put darkness for light
    and light for darkness.
Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure,
    and oppress all your workers.
Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
    and to hit with a wicked fist. . .
“Is not this the fast that I choose:
    to loose the bonds of wickedness,
    to undo the straps of the yoke,
to let the oppressed[b] go free,
    and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry    and bring the homeless poor into your house.
 More than a year ago Tyler Wigg-Stevenson, author of TheWorld Is Not Ours to Save, wrote of the suffering in Syria. He wrote of the need "to bear witness to the images of drowned refugee children washing up on Mediterranean shores  – even though most U.S. publications couldn’t, wouldn’t, and perhaps even shouldn’t publish the pictures."

In a raw, honest reflection, Wigg-Stevenson fiercely confronted the challenge of reality, grief and hope: 
Alan Kurdi, photo taken by Nilüfer Demir
There is no politics that will give these children another life that does not end in terror and despair and cold water. (God, God, how does one write words like this?) There is no politics that will give their parents anything but the end they had: of going into the dark knowing that their dear ones were lost forever. 
All this is permanent. It is done and cannot and will not and will never be undone. And while I am all for good politics, which is to say I am all for a good future, and so I am all for doing better by the refugees that yet live, I also refuse to let the past go as if it were merely the gravel under the sub-foundation of whatever shiny tomorrow we happen to build next.
There is no politics that can redeem what time has irretrievably taken. To stand as witness to the past is to stand either in utter nihilism and despair, or in the desperate, desperate hope that in the end a Redeemer will walk upon the earth, who will bring forth those whose flesh was destroyed, to see and be loved forever by God.
In Advent we pause and name the darkness around us, grieve at the power of evil, the foolishness of the blind, the heavy weight of injustice, the mounting loss of life and liberty.

We work for solutions, pray for repair, live in resistance with kindness and grace.

And stand in determined, insistent hope: light is coming. 

Evil will one day be defeated.

In our service today we sang a refrain we've been living into this Advent season:
Although we are weeping
Lord, help us keep sowing
The seeds of Your Kingdom
For the day You will reap them
Your sheaves we will carry
Lord, please do not tarry
All those who sow weeping
Will go out with songs of joy.
We weep.

We sow.

We wait for songs of joy.
Sacrificial love, once born as a fragile baby, will someday have the final word.
The people who walked in darkness
    have seen a great light;
those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness,
    on them has light shone.

For to us a child is born,
    to us a son is given;
and the government shall be upon his shoulder,
    and his name shall be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
    Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

This is the fourth is an Advent series of four.

Earlier Advent posts:
Advent Three: Repentance and Return, Dec. 11, 2016
Advent Four: For You, Dec. 20, 2015

Advent One: Hope is Our Work, Nov. 30, 2014