Monday, November 30, 2009

But for the grace of God...?

There’s an expression that we use in ordinary parlance which has begun to irk me as I work in the area of justice. You probably guessed it from the title of this posting – “but for the grace of God” - or, the longer version, "there but for the grace of God go I." Here’s how we tend to use it. Someone is down on their luck – that is, they’re having a tough time, either due to their own poor choices or because of circumstances beyond their control, and in an effort to avoid an appearance of judgmentalism or hard heartedness, we say “but for the grace of God.” Sounds innocent enough - even pretty spiritual - but what are we REALLY saying?

Well – this is what I’m thinking. We’re actually saying that God’s grace has kept US from harm and hardship but God’s grace has NOT been extended to this unfortunate person. This poor person is suffering BECAUSE they are outside of the range of God’s grace. In other words, if God’s grace was active in their lives they wouldn’t be in the mess they’re in. They wouldn’t be homeless, or suffering from mental illness, or unemployed, or in an abusive relationship, or filing for bankruptcy – you get the picture. Or, they wouldn’t have been born in a country where there is never enough of anything to go around – food, water, shelter, education, money, hope. In other words, the trials and struggles of life are evidence - for both individuals and for entire countries – of living outside of God’s protection – outside of God’s grace.

This is ridiculous! I would argue that God’s grace IS sufficient for ALL people in ALL circumstances. God’s grace is not a magic shield that deflects all hardship and suffering. God’s grace is IN the suffering. Could God’s grace even CAUSE the suffering? Hm. Or does it simply ALLOW the suffering? I suspect that we’re more comfortable with the idea that God allows suffering but does not cause it. I’m not so sure though. Of course this is not a simple thing. If we dissect ANY situation – trying to untangle the various factors that are involved – we discover very quickly that IT’S COMPLICATED. Sometimes it seems pretty straightforward – a bad decision, a bad gene, bad timing – but as we dig a bit deeper, we discover more complex explanations and relationships. Did God cause Job’s suffering? No – you might say – he ALLOWED it but he didn’t CAUSE it? But didn’t God turn Job over? Would Job have suffered as he did if God had not set him up? Now that I’ve mentioned Job, I’ve probably messed up my argument since in his case, suffering WAS evidence of God’s intentional removal of his protection, and then, when the period of testing was over, God restored to Job MORE than he had lost. But that was Job and that was BEFORE Jesus came. What about us? What about God’s grace today?

And what about EVIL? From a Christian worldview, I believe that there is evil and that our life here on earth is only the visible part of a broader reality. But is every “good” thing evidence of the work of good spirits (sometimes called angels) and every “bad” thing evidence of the work of bad spirits (sometimes called demons)? Of course not! Bad things – so called - DO happen to good people – so called - and good things – so called - happen to bad people – so called. What’s “good” and what’s “bad” after all? Doesn’t the bible say that it rains on the just and unjust alike?

God’s grace is not a shield but a force. It can be found in the most inhumane and unjust places and systems and relationships and it can be found in beauty and peace and relationships that honour the image of God in each of us. It cannot be manipulated or contrived. It is God present and persistently working to build his Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.

But for the grace of God? I think this is bad theology. Let’s stop using this platitude to excuse our arrogance and pride and our inaction in the lives of people who could really use our presence in the midst of hardship and suffering.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Why live simply? Does it make any difference?

I've just finished re-reading an article by Derrick Jensen called Forget Shorter Showers in Orion Magazine (see In this article Derrick argues that defining the global problems in terms of the individual, or positing that individual actions can really make a difference, is naive and misguided. He says, for instance:

I want to be clear. I’m not saying we shouldn’t live simply. I live reasonably simply myself, but I don’t pretend that not buying much (or not driving much, or not having kids) is a powerful political act, or that it’s deeply revolutionary. It’s not. Personal change doesn’t equal social change.

So - I've wrestled with this myself - for months. And I think I've come to a slightly different conclusion. I agree with Derrick that individual acts of kindness, simplicity, generosity, justice, etc. aren't going to fix a broken economy or suddenly resolve the moral confusion that has us so befuddled, or reverse the ravages of climate change, or even feed the hungry or cure the ill. Kindness, simplicity, generosity, and justice are NOT a sufficient response to the ills of humanity and our collective home. They are not, in themselves, political ENOUGH. But they are a first step - an important - no, more than that, a critical step. And I would argue that even if they do not lead to a second step of strategic political activism, they have inestimable value.

Here's the bottom line: we should ALWAYS live the life that God calls us to, no matter what it's outcome in human terms. We should NEVER live selfishly, greedily, wastefully, rapaciously - even when we can. Even when we have enough to waste - food, water, money, time, people - just because we CAN does not mean that we SHOULD!

I know that Derrick Jensen is not suggesting that we NOT live simply - he says so quite clearly. It's just that we're kidding ourselves if we think that this is a sufficient response. But I guess that depends on what our fundamental purpose is. He's right if our purpose is to "save the world" but if our purpose is simply to please God, maybe we're making it too complicated. I know that may sound like an over-spiritualization and a cop out. But let's leave room for God to act. I'm thinking of a quote by Abraham Lincoln that says "Public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment, nothing can fail. Without it, nothing can succeed." You see, we can invest our time and energy into all manner of political activism. We can attack shoddy public policy and pester politicians to enact legislation that is more humane, more fair, more responsible. But the places where opinions are formed - at the coffee shops, over dinner tables, on facebook, in class, through the media, in our places of worship - that's where the real work is to be done. Bob Briner says that "when we try to change the world using the ways of the world, we will always fail."

Definitely, BE POLITICALLY ACTIVE! But don't make the mistake of thinking that politics - or any strictly human response - is going to make everything right. Can we be content to do our part - to take shorter showers and drive less and give more and consume less and invest in people rather than profits, and encourage others in our sphere of influence to do the same? Can we be responsible citizens - being and staying informed about the issues which are before our legislatures and parliaments and working with and through our elected officials to make good policy decisions? And then - when we're doing our part - can we leave room for God to use our obedience - as small as it may seem in the scheme of things - and take those small acts of kindness, simplicity, generosity and justice - and perform the miracle of transformation... again and again...?

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Lest we forget...

It was a stunningly beautiful fall day yesterday as a hundred or more of us gathered for the Remembrance Day services in my small community. I think that it was perhaps the largest gathering I can remember in the 24 years I've lived here - and it seemed that there were more kids in attendance too. That was encouraging. I know that as the veterans of the "war to end all war" have gradually passed from our midst, there has been some concern that we will fail to take seriously our responsibility to remember the sacrifices they made on our behalf.

I suppose that at every service in every community in every corner of this country, someone recited the poem, In Flanders Fields, written by a Canadian - Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae on May 13, 1915. Yesterday - as I pictured the row on row of crosses and the poppies bowing in the breeze, I was struck anew by the words:

To you from failing hands we throw The torch; be yours to hold it high.

It's a powerful image... But I got thinking about exactly WHAT the torch is and how we are to hold it high. There's the Olympic torch, triumphantly making it's way to Vancouver for the opening of the 2010 Winter Games, but that's a different matter. Is this a torch of freedom? Of hope? Of justice? Of victory?

What exactly is it that we are to remember? At the service I attended there was only one World War veteran in attendance - he's the only one left in our community. He placed a wreath on behalf of all veterans, walking carefully but with simple dignity to the monument, wreath in hand. He laid it - the first of many - took a step back and saluted - and wiped tears from his eyes as he returned to his place among us. I can only imagine the "remembrances" that were stirring in his heart and mind...

I always think of my grandfather on Remembrance Day. He too was a veteran. I can remember - as a child - asking him questions about the war as we did dishes together. I was standing on a chair, wiping the dishes as he washed. And I asked him innocent, childish questions, about the war. And you know, he never wanted to talk about it. I know that he was an ambulance bearer. Though I suppose this is my own image - filling in the blanks, so to speak - I suppose that meant that he would go onto the battle field to pull the wounded out of the fray and to the relative safety of a make shift first aid station. It must have been both dangerous and gruesome work. I really can't imagine. Probably it's no wonder he didn't want to talk about it. Maybe he worked hard to erase those images from his mind.

My husband tells me that years ago, when there were 30 or 40 vets still living in our community, most of them didn't attend the Remembrance Day service. Hm. Were they too, trying to forget?

A young man from our small community - 21 years old - is now serving in Afghanistan. We pray for his safety every week in church and I add an urgent plea that God will protect not only his body, but also his mind and his heart. And even as I pray, I confess that I have doubts that even God can protect him from images that he will want to forget.

I confess that in an ideal world, I would be a pacifist. Of course, in an ideal world, there'd be no need for war! But still, I long for peace and justice and a world where we all look out for one another. But that's NOT the world we live in and I suppose my pacifist ideals are naive. But as I look at the injustices - which I've spoken of often in these postings - I wonder if this is what the veterans of the 1st and 2nd World War really had in mind. Did they sacrifice themselves - their physical and emotional health - so that the victors might use economic carrots and sticks to dominate and exploit weaker countries to the point of intense suffering?

It seems to me that victory - and the passing of the torch - carries with it a responsibility to ensure that the ideals for which these battles were fought, are not lost in the shuffle. YES - by all means - let us hold the torch high, but let it be a torch of hope and peace and freedom and justice!