Memorial Day Sale

All you out there who might not have my book, it’s on sale for 40 percent off right now. Go to the Wipf & Stock website, order The Love That Matters: Meeting Jesus in the Midst of Terror and Death, and when prompted for a discount code, type in MEM17 and receive your 40 percent discount!

Do it now! Read what one reviewer called a “spiritual adventure” that will take you from the suburbs of Southern California to the dusty streets of Dubai to the overly pious and uptight classrooms of the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago! And meet Jesus while you are at it!

Living In Terrorism

I have nothing of much value to say either way about terrorism — Islamic or otherwise. I think I’ve said most of what I want to say, most of what needs to be said, and no one is listening to me.

I have grown tired of the outrage and sentimentality of our times. Of the moral posturing and virtue signaling demanded. Weary. This itself is a statement, and likely even a posture and a signal. Such is life.

But William Dalton wrote in response to Rod Dreher’s most recent blog on the Manchester bombing something that needs to be remembered:

Islamic radicals do not attack us because they are Muslim, but neither do they attack us because of their ideology. They attack us out of their sense of grievance, their sense of victimhood. They attack us for the same reason Dylan Roof decided to attack a church full of black Charlestonians – because he didn’t see a room of friendly and accepting people. He saw creatures of a kind with those who made his life a life of futility and despair and he knew his life would never be right until they were all dead and gone. So he grabbed a Confederate flag to represent the cause which would give his life meaning and would justify his actions. So do all the young Westerners who have streamed to Syria to join ISIS, and come back to perpetrate acts of terrorism against us. Like our friend, Charles Featherstone, many have no Islamic background or connections whatsoever. But they live in the West, they don’t like what they see, what has been done to them, and the teachings of the imams and mullahs they hear give them an understanding of what is wrong with their lives and a path to free themselves of it. They join ISIS for the same reason young Westerners of generations past joined anarchists and communists and fascists and Nazis, each of whom also identified the evils of the decadent capitalist West and prescribed a plan for curing those evils.

But they go out and kill because they have seen their own, those with whom they identify, being killed. They go out and inflict suffering on others because they have been made to suffer. No ideology is responsible for the hatred and anger they feel and must express. Ideology, grounded in religion or political theory, only gives them an avenue to express themselves forcefully, in concert with others who feel the same grievance.

The answer to our dilemma is as clear as it has been since the days of the Hatfields and the McCoys, and before. There will be no end of them, and people like them, killing us until we come home from the far corners of the world and stop killing them.

I’m honored to be part of a conversation, no matter how obliquely, but Dalton makes a good point here, and I won’t repeat it. However, I’m not sure withdrawal is enough at this point, since empire and globalization intertwined European and Islamic societies in a way that have never been, and that has made for a great deal of discomfort on both sides. Most Muslims living in and with the secular West are happy to do so, but secular modernity has created enough malcontents (Muslim and otherwise) that they can cause trouble. And are more than happy to do so.

The approach of moderns — both conservatives and liberals — has been to double down. More secularism, more multiculturalism, more anti-racism, more immigrants, more openness, more more police, more violence, more occupation, more war. It’s a curious approach, one doomed to failure. It assumes that there is enough state power, enough suffering that can be imposed, enough ability to compel and kill, that will eventually inflict enough pain and trauma and suffering to end resistance.

But the idea just about every resister has in their head — or their souls, since I suspect most aren’t consciously aware of this — is the Algerian War. Algeria had been not just a French colony for more than a century, but had been settled and integrated into France proper. A place the French were willing to use brutal and inhuman force to keep, were willing to destroy their society to keep. The Algerians won few if any battles in that war, and had been decisively beaten by the late 1950s even as the continued to resist.

And yet they won anyway.

The French deployed nearly every resource at their disposal, knew the language and the culture and the country and could infiltrate just about bit of the Algerian resistance, tortured and imprisoned and disappeared and killed. They held the high ground and defeated the Algerians in just about confrontation that mattered.

Yet they lost anyway. The Algerians never stopped resisting.

What the 20th century showed us is that as long as resistance continues, whether we speak of France in Algeria or the United States in Afghanistan and Iraq, then the resisters have effectively won even if they remain conquered and occupied. It was a war for the minds of Algerians, to get them to accept and embrace their conquest and occupation. As long as they refused… they had won. No matter what things on the ground actually looked like.

We’ve seen how this has played out in colonial struggles. But a version of this has come home. If the United States is currently working on a slow motion civil war, it is because we have become roughly two societies which cannot accept the legitimacy of rule by the other, and everything becomes resistance. The Algerians won against the French because the French, even the Pieds Noirs, many of whom had been in Algeria for a couple of generations, could pack up and leave. The Palestinians are facing Israelis who see themselves as having no other home, and who are able, and probably very willing, to do everything necessary to keep that home. Red and blue America, Islamic and non-Islamic Britain, where does anyone go? What happens when everyone sees themselves as the FLN, and no one sees themselves as the Colons or the Metropole — everyone is resistance, and no one is the accountable power of authority?

There is something I encountered at seminary that long troubled me. We took classes on liberation theology, studying the American Civil Rights movement as a theological and religious struggle, and to a lesser degree, the fight against Apartheid in South Africa, but we did it entirely from the standpoint of those resisting. Martin Luther King, Jr., and his critique was the operative frame.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, but we got a very one-sided story. We never studied the effect any of this had on the powerful and how their hearts and minds were changed. A lot on the suffering of Black people, how Western Christian theology had dehumanized and justified their enslavement and mass murder, but absolutely nothing — nothing real — on how a church like the Dutch Reformed in South Africa shifted its position in its encounter with the very people it oppressed and eventually came to see Apartheid itself as a sin.

There was no engagement. Just resistance. In the belief that a forceful and determined enough resistance would, like the Algerians, eventually win.

Except very few wars are colonial wars of liberation anymore. Does Red America occupy Blue America? Does Blue America occupy Red America? To hear from frightened, angry, outraged partisans, we are either a moment away from living out The Handmaid’s Tale or Brave New World, in which camps and the gallows or nine grams in the back of the head await all who cannot or will not conform.

Or accept their defeat.

So … Everything becomes defense. Everything becomes resistance.

Too much is at stake. No one has power, no one has authority, no one can show restraint, no one can accept responsibility, no one can be magnanimous.

Because if there is always resistance, there is never victory. Never an end.

One of the reasons I stepped back from becoming the kind of person who could strap a bomb and blow myself up, or wage a nihilistic war of resistance, was because I came to see myself — even before I was Christian — as responsible. For myself. For my wife. I have an obligation to the world around me, to love and be kind, whatever circumstance or situation I find myself in, no matter how I or even others have been treated. I do believe the Gospel is resistance, but it is a resistance grounded in love and hope, not fear, that lives knowing Caesar is called king but Jesus really is. It is resistance with real authority. I have always lived in two places at once — the world of unjust rules in which suffering and anger and fear hold sway, and another one in which love is all that matters. I arrived in this place long before I became a Christian, long before Jesus called me, but it was in the midst of a terror attack, in the midst of the kind of death I was more than willing to wish upon people, that I was forced to see, for real, what I wanted.

In the face of the violence of the world, I really only have one answer — Love.

This situation we have trapped ourselves will very likely only end in calamity, in civilizational, and possibly global, disaster. I don’t have an answer to that. There are no guarantees in life except maybe death and some amount of suffering. It’s wonderful to live through the reign of Augustus or Trajan, sucks to live in mid-third-century Rome. We don’t get to pick.

We just get to live. Even in the midst of terror and death.

My Meaning, Or Not

In a really piece at The Atlantic about parents who cope with children diagnosed as psychopaths, Barbara Bradley Hagerty writes this as she discusses life for a profoundly troubled 11-year-old girl she calls Samantha:

Watching them in the darkened room, I contemplate for the hundredth time the arbitrary nature of good and evil. If Samantha’s brain is wired for callousness, if she fails to experience empathy or remorse because she lacks the neural equipment, can we say she is evil? “These kids can’t help it,” Adrian Raine says. “Kids don’t grow up wanting to be psychopaths or serial killers. They grow up wanting to become baseball players or great football stars. It’s not a choice.”

Yet, Raine says, even if we don’t label them evil, we must try to head off their evil acts. It’s a daily struggle, planting the seeds of emotions that usually come so naturally—empathy, caring, remorse—in the rocky soil of a callous brain. Samantha has lived for more than two years at San Marcos, where the staff has tried to shape her behavior with regular therapy and a program that, like Mendota’s, dispenses quick but limited punishment for bad behavior and offers prizes and privileges—candy, Pokémon cards, late nights on weekends—for good behavior.

Jen and Danny have spotted green shoots of empathy. Samantha has made a friend, and recently comforted the girl after her social worker quit. They’ve detected traces of self-awareness and even remorse: Samantha knows that her thoughts about hurting people are wrong, and she tries to suppress them. But the cognitive training cannot always compete with the urge to strangle an annoying classmate, which she tried to do just the other day. “It builds up, and then I have to do it,” Samantha explains. “I can’t keep it away.”

This is an outsider’s musing about the meaning and purpose of someone’s life, about how to cope with young people seemingly incapable of empathy and all-too-capable of harming others.

We do this all the time, and while we often times muse on the meaning of good and evil in the face of what we conclude (at least right now) to be a random, biological inheritance. “This is not a choice.”

And yet, meaning and sense must come out of this. We make them. We try to figure out the point and purpose of a life and events we didn’t or even couldn’t choose. (Even as choice is the idol on our altars before which we all bow and sacrifice.) Yes, Samantha will have to figure out who she and the purpose of her life. But to say she is the only one is to take autonomy too far. Her mother, her friends, the people she meets and encounters, will tell her story too. In the end, their version of her life — their understanding of why she is — will likely be more important then her own.

This is hard, because our ethic on this is one of absolute autonomy — no one has any right to tell Samantha’s story, determine Samantha’s meaning, except Samantha herself.

But I go back to the Gospels. Jesus does not tell his own story. We do not get things from the point of view of Jesus. The story of Jesus is told by people who are not Jesus. We have several different takes on who Jesus is, and who we are given who we think Jesus is. I could go a little farther, and that whatever the provenance of scripture, what comes through is an anonymous narrator who is close to the action but not attached or invested in its outcomes, a narrator who is omniscient and in which God, rather than the author, is simply another character whose actions are related with almost no judgment and whose motivations are a near complete mystery.

It is our story, but it is only kind of told by us, told about us by someone who sits a little bit outside of us. It is God’s story too, but it isn’t told by God, it’s told about God.

If we take the relational nature of our lives at face value, then we aren’t autonomous in many meaningful ways — certainly not as autonomous or self-defining as we’d like. We don’t determine our own meaning. We don’t impose our own meaning. We can’t. We struggle to define our lives to ourselves, and express some of what that meaning is to the cosmos, but those around us — and possibly the cosmos itself — will come to its own conclusions about who and what we are, and what we mean.

We can tell our own stories, but we cannot impose that meaning on others. We don’t have that power. It may be the only meaning we ever have of Samantha are the stories told about her.

So, when I consider the suffering of the world, and those who suffer, I find myself increasingly drawn to an unpleasant conclusion for a modern — suffering exists, in part, as something for the world to look it, to consider, even contemplate, and then respond to. Think of how Jesus describes the judgement of the nations in the second half of Matthew 25. We’d like the suffering to tell their own stories, create their own lives and futures that do not involve suffering, but that understanding puts us in a place where the only meaning suffering has is its elimination. And we can extract nothing else. Liberation is one response, but it has become our only response, and for many deeply committed Christians, it has become the only faithful response. Especially when we speak of inequality and violence as measured against our ideals of justice and equality.

And so we increasingly cannot find meaning in suffering. Cannot discern meaning in the suffering of others, especially when we are powerless to do anything about it. Cannot faithfully live out grace and mercy in a world where power, agency, autonomy, accountability are all we have. Grace and mercy, the true power of forgiveness, can only really exist in a world where our power and agency are not a possibility. (Though God’s always is.)

I know what my life means to me — I wrote a book, told that story, got it published — but I also am becoming increasingly convinced that my life is also not my own and never was. Whatever my suffering meant — it was mine, it was all I had, and I understand both its limits in the scheme of things and its blessing, that it opened me up to a world much bigger than I am, to at least try and meet those whose suffering was and is much greater than mine and very different than mine — I am only partly in charge of what it means.

We are not in charge of who we are. Not as individuals, not as communities, not as assemblies, not as nations or peoples. We struggle to tell our own stories, but in the end, stories will be told about us. And we won’t write them.

LECTIONARY MONDAY The Lord Reigns

Psalm 93

1 The LORD reigns; he is robed in majesty; the LORD is robed; he has put on strength as his belt. Yes, the world is established; it shall never be moved.
2 Your throne is established from of old; you are from everlasting.
3 The floods have lifted up, O LORD, the floods have lifted up their voice; the floods lift up their roaring.
4 Mightier than the thunders of many waters, mightier than the waves of the sea, the LORD on high is mighty!
5 Your decrees are very trustworthy; holiness befits your house, O LORD, forevermore. (ESV)

“The Lord reigns.” יְהוָה מָלָך He is sovereign. He rules. The world is his. The world, the cosmos, is his.

What does this mean for us? It is is easy to despair. I come back to that fact again and again because it is true. The flood washes around us, encompasses us, carries us aloft and takes us places we don’t want to go. We are no longer in control, the flood is. It even threatens to drown us, this flood, as it carries us away.

And some … it does drown.

But no matter how cast adrift, no matter how threatened we are, no matter the tide and the rush and the wet and the power in those waves, the Lord is sovereign, is master, over even this. These waters speak and shout and roar their power — their power to submerge, to carry away, to reshape, to inundate, to drown, to destroy — but this Lord who is enthroned, he is master even of these waters.

Even of this power.

It may not answer to the Lord, but it will never overcome him. Never overcome the one enthroned, enrobed, who sits over the world and is mightier than all the terror and confusion the waters can muster.

The Lord reigns. And the Earth, no matter how flooded, shall never be moved.

On Liars, Church People, and the Church

The ministry I do online with kids continues, but it’s suffered a rather severe blow this week.

It turns out that Bethany — about whom I wrote about here, and here, and here — wasn’t real. Or rather, nothing she told me about her life was real. She lied. About almost everything. Beginning with her name. I won’t say how I found out, only that I did. (I am a journalist, and I’ve got mad Internet search skills, and when I go digging, I find what I’m looking for, or I know why I haven’t.) I was always a little suspicious given the sheer and unending amount of violence in her life. After one of the foster couples she claimed enslaved and pimped her out was arrested in 2016, I did a public record search with the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services — which oversees the state’s foster care system — and was told there was no record they had ever been licensed foster parents. After that, there was always a little doubt in my mind, especially given that I’d caught her in several big lies previously.

I’m waiting the results of a few more public records searches, just to see what I can find out. I’m not expecting the records I have asked for to exist, however.

This might not be a big deal — she’s just one teenage girl, right? — and none of it appears to have been malicious. But she was part of my life for 18 months, and she became very important to me. When Bethany stopped texting me in January, the ministry work dropped off to nothing, leading me to think that much of the work I’d done was this one young woman pretending to be various different other young women in dire need. So, at this point, I have no idea what was real and what wasn’t.

I know Kaylie’s real. And I believe her story — I’ve seen her nightmares, I met her and spent time with her and I trust what she tells me. But there’s a whole host of kids I’ve texted with that I can no longer trust or know how real they were. For example, Bethany was one of only two people (along with Francisco Herrera) who could quote my book to me, and two text exchanges I had with “two” young women in February and March involved these young women, in two very different ways, quoting my book to me. Could be coincidence, but it seems a stretch. So… Bethany?

I don’t know. I’ll likely never know.

I bring this up for two reasons. First, I accept the risk of anonymous ministry online means I’m going to get played, for whatever reason, at least a time or two or three or five. As I said, I have no idea what Bethany’s motivations were — they don’t appear to have been malicious, and if I have to guess, she got in over her head and didn’t know how to simply walk away and was too afraid to fess up. Second, and this has always been my greatest fear, that the whole enterprise I’ve engaged in has been a lie. That none of it was real, that much of the purpose and point of my life in the last two years has itself been a complete and absolute lie, some 14-year-old girl’s strange game or entertainment.

And yet it continues. I don’t think it was all Bethany. Some of it was real.

I’ve been texting this week with a 10-year-old. I have assurances that she is real — since Kaylie started at Job Corps, some of the young people there have texted me, and shared my number, and this young woman contacted me earlier this week got my number that way. Yes, she’s using TextNow to contact me (I always check), so could be texting me from anywhere. At this point, I can’t help but wonder if whoever is texting me isn’t Bethany pretending to be someone else. It’s just where I start.

Still, I engage. I won’t stop. I care for these kids. It means I’ll get played a few more times. I don’t like that idea, but I can live with it.

And we had this conversation this morning:

Her: Hi.
Me: How are you this morning?
Her: I can’t sleep. I couldn’t sleep all night
Me: I’m sorry. I’ve had nights like that. I slept okay last night
Her: That’s good. My mom wants me to go to church with her today but I don’t want to.
Me: Okay
Her: Church is full of stuck up self righteous people who think they are so amazing and try to tear you down if you admit to not believing the lies they try to force down your throat like cough medicine.
Me: That’s one way to look at it. I’m sorry church people have treated you so badly. I don’t like church people much either.
Her: They all need a big scoop of Jesus in their lives. Or an awakening. Jesus himself could show up and be like, what the heck is wrong with you?
Me: Yep
Her: People would still not care
Me: Nope. They’d probably be mad at Jesus. Tell him he was a bad Christian.
Her: Probably

I realize I’ve spent the first half of this essay completely discrediting my ministry, so I suppose any conclusions that flow from this “conversation” are suspect, but let’s take it at face value for a minute.

There’s an interesting truth about the church in this conversation. An abused 10-year-old — because yes, as a general rule, abused and autistic kids are the only ones who contact me, assuming anyone who contacts me is real at this point — knows the difference between who Jesus is and how the church lives out its call to follow Jesus. And the church doesn’t even begin to measure up to Jesus, fails spectacularly and utterly and stunningly to be Jesus.

And that the church needs Jesus. To keep it from being something other than self-righteous, judgmental, cruel, and abusive.

I’ve found the churches here in Moses Lake to be tiny little family clubs, suspicious of and terribly unwelcoming to outsiders. I realize strangers and guests have much to prove, but I’ve been a stranger and guest my whole life, and I’m tired of trying to prove anything to people who refuse to meet me in any meaningful way. I’ve found more welcome and belonging, more acceptance and camaraderie, at the local dive bar — The Hang Out, if you must know — then I have in any church I have been in since Peace Lutheran in Alexandria, Virginia.

I love worship. I love leading worship. I love preaching and singing and living the Gospel. I love caring for people. Few things make me feel whole, like I am being exactly who God made to be, the way pastoring does. But I simply do not know what to do with church people anymore. I know I am not sanctified enough for either bourgeois pietists or followers of the prosperity gospel (and there’s a lot of overlap there, even among progressives), not clean enough, not a good enough example of right living, but I do try to love my neighbor, to be Jesus and to meet Jesus. I try to bear witness to the truth as I can.

But none of this ever seems to be enough for church people. And I don’t know why.

My young friend had locked herself in her bedroom (though for other reasons), and that seems to me to be a really good idea. I might want to put the phone down while I’m at it and maybe lock it away too.

However, it’s a nice day outside. Too nice to hide from the world.

But I have a question maybe someone out there will answer. Anyone else in the Moses Lake area tired of church people, but aching to be part of the people of God, and looking for a place to hear a word of Grace and Truth, to meet Jesus? Can we start something?

Because I want to start something. I don’t want to be with church people, but I do want to be with the people of God.

Our Cassius Chaerea Moment

I don’t suppose I have to give anyone here any background on the current state of the presidency, and where the squalid leadership of Donald J. Trump, billionaire, has led us.

Or rather, has led the commentariat. I don’t for a moment doubt that Trump is incurious, incompetent, self-centered, and utterly unfit to be president. He is more gangster than politician, more thug than real estate magnate. He has also run rings around his political opponents ever since he set foot in the presidential race, which says something about the quality of our political leadership and its alleged fitness to lead — that it cannot deal with, much less less defeat, Trump is as clear a sign of elite incompetence and failure as there can be.

We have earned Trump. And whether the is clever or simply really lucky, for the moment, he remains about three-and-a-half steps ahead of just about everyone else.

Rod Dreher, quoting a text from a friend, referred to our current crisis as “Our Caligula Moment,” though this is surely hyperbole. We’re nowhere near there yet.

But it suggests something terrible that few, in their fantasies of indictments, impeachment, and the invocation of the 25th amendment, are ignoring — there is no legal, gentle, proper, constitutional way to deal with a Caligula. Our constitutional system, such as it is, is not set up to deal with such things. No constitutional system is. If things get as bad as many fear they will, then men and women will have to act outside the constitutional and even legal arrangements to solve the problem. Trump is unlikely to go quietly, or quickly, or even all that voluntarily.

Suetonius, in his history The Twelve Caesars, writes of Caligula this way:

Everything that Caligula said and did was marked with equal cruelty, even during his hours of rest and amusement and banquetry. He frequently held trials by torture held in his presence while he was eating or otherwise enjoying himself; and kept an expert headsman in readiness to decapitate prisoners brought in from gaol. (Caligula, ¶32, translation by Robert Graves)

The constant fear and cruelty by which Caligula lived and governed — Suetonius reports that he drew up lists of senators he wanted to murder in books labeled The Dagger and The Sword denoting how those listed in each group would die — eventually prompted a conspiracy by two senior officers in the Imperial Guard, Cassius Chaerea (whom Caligula would torment “for his supposed effeminacy” because of his age, according to Suetonius) and Gaius Sabinus, who ambushed him and stabbed him to death as he was walking from his seat in the theater.

Caligula’s uncle Claudius would later have the assassins executed.

The genius of Augustus was that he was able to institute a hereditary monarchy while carefully keeping everything within the constitutional forms of the Roman Republic, and thus acceptable to a roman elite desperately wanting stability after nearly a century of conflict. And even those constitutional niceties fell apart once bits and pieces of the army found themselves needing to deal with an emperor who’s character was nowhere near that of Augustus. This isn’t a flaw in a constitutional system. One of the great conceits of liberal thinking is the belief that mere machinery and process can handle or contain the human condition. And they can’t. Character will always matter. There will always be the ambitious, the incompetent, and the downright evil, who will find their way to power in any political system, no matter how it is constructed.

Which means a couple of things.

First, Donald J. Trump will not be the last utterly unfit person to occupy the presidency. Gaius Caligula was not the last cruel, capricious, and monstrous Caesar. No matter how an office is structured in law, it is only as good as character of the person occupying it, and the commitment of all involved to adhere to custom and culture and not step outside those informal but highly important bounds. Not all emperors can be good, or thoughtful, or self-restrained. And even the good ones eventually produce a Commodus or two. Or five.

But there’s also this point noted by Peter Van Buren:

The very tools that made it possible to take down a bad emperor — Caligula — now make it possible to take down a good one, or even stake a claim to leadership based on sheer ambition alone. (Which would be Rome’s condition during the Crisis of the Third Century.) The series of military uprisings that led to the collapse of senatorial support for Nero, and the chaos that was rule in Rome, prompted the commander of the legions besieging Jerusalem, Vespasian, to return to Rome and seize power for himself. the Flavians and the Antonines would restore order, but like all things, it was not permanent.

If Van Buren is right, and the intelligence services are engaging in a slows-motion coup against President Trump, that should be a cause for concern. The intelligence community has become our Praetorian Guard, with the ability to make and unmake presidents. It has not been used yet, but there are an awful lot of people cheering for just that to happen. And once that weapon is unsheathed, for good and ill, and it will only be a matter of time before some ambitious soul realizes you can get and keep the presidency that way, instead of actually having to get elected.

I don’t know if Van Buren is right. Part of me still isn’t sure Trump isn’t playing all of us for fools. But if things are as bad as some say or report they are, then at some point, some people will act. If only, in their minds, to save the republic. And perhaps, in acting, the will save the republic.

But they will also be crossing a Rubicon we’ve not yet crossed. And there is no coming back from that.

Some Thoughts on Suffering and Powerlessness

I meant to write this some weeks ago. Months ago. For Holy Week. Because that’s where this belonged.

But as you have noticed, the blogging has been light of late — almost nonexistent. I have no good reason for that except “bleh, I didn’t feel like it.” For some weeks. Which ought to be good enough.

At any rate, some weeks ago, I came across the column on theodicy — the perennial question of how a just and omnipotent God can allow or even countenance human suffering — from the always thoughtful Peter Berger at The American Interest. It starts out a review of sort of the movie Silence, but moves into some well trod territory as it asks a very hard question:

Most of what passes for atheism is either a naive belief that science can explain everything or a childish desire to upset pious grandparents. I would propose that the only serious atheism comes out of the problem of theodicy: Arguably its most powerful expression occurs in Dostoyevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov, where Ivan Karamazov refuses to accept any acceptance (say by promising solace in a future life) of the death of a child (in this case, the killing of the child of a serf for the amusement of a feudal lord). Why is the death of a child so special? I think there is a fundamental anthropological reason for this: The first smile of a child stakes a claim to non-negotiable happiness. Speaking of human universality, Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), the Bengali poet who was the first non-Westerner to receive a Nobel Prize for Literature, wrote: “Every child is proof that God has not given up on humanity”—serious atheism is the sense that God, if he exists at all, has forgotten humanity.

[Elie] Wiesel’s memoir [Night] is almost unbearable to read (I read it in English). In it is a scene that screams. In one of the death camps of Wiesel’s captivity a young boy was sentenced to death for stealing food (the inmates were always on the verge of starvation.) Wiesel only describes the boy as having the face of an angel. He was to be hanged, but he was too light to have his neck broken when he was thrown from the scaffold. The guards had to hold him and pull him down in order to strangle him. It took him a long time to die. All the inmates had to watch. The prisoner standing next to Wiesel whispered: “Where is God?” Wiesel answered: “He is there, on the scaffold.” Long after I read this passage, it occurred to me that Wiesel’s answer could be understood in two different ways: As meaning, “In some way God is sharing the agony,” or “Belief in God is no longer possible before this horror—if there ever was God, he is now dead.”

I’m partial to Berger’s first consideration — “God is sharing in the agony.” Not just the agony of boy, but the agony of those forced to observe. “All the inmates had to watch,” which means they were utterly powerless in any meaningful sense to do anything about the execution.

Powerlessness. That’s the only real way we come to any meaningful terms with suffering, either our own or the suffering of those around us. The suffering of the world. And this goes against just about everything we moderns haver come to believe. We are agents, actors, we are responsible. We tell our own stories. And the only meaning suffering has is told by the one who suffers. Anything else robs someone of their voice. Their agency. Their power.

We are a people obsessed with power above all things. Ideologies and theologies of liberation promise power to those long deprived of the ability to shape and determine their own lives. Power has become the only form of meaning-making that we have, and we demand the right and ability to tell our own stories our own way, to have the power to negate circumstance and nature and history.

As Rod Dreher wrote last month, quoting Israeli philosopher Yuval Harari:

Yet in fact modernity is a surprisingly simple deal. The entire contract can be summarized in a single phrase: humans agree to give up meaning in exchange for power.

And thus, power becomes the only meaning we have. The only meaning we know and understand.

I think this demand, this expectation, for absolute power and agency is what is driving much of the discontent in the world. We want control we are never able to fully have.

But power itself is a lousy form of meaning. The inability to have as much of as we feel necessary to secure our lives, our loved ones, our possessions, and the space to construct a fully autonomous understanding of our lives leaves us feeling deeply fulfilled. We are promised all, and as we seek, we get less than all (usually a lot less), which keeps us struggling for more, because we believe the promise that we can and should and are entitled by right to have all. And we compete against those driving by the same urge to different ends, ends that don’t appear to include us or even give us space to exist under any conditions that resemble ones we’d choose for ourselves if we could.

And we are driven by the desire to use power and agency to ensure there will never be any more suffering — at least unearned or innocent suffering — ever again.

Meaning can, I think, only truly come to us in moments of true powerlessness, when we are either faced with situations we have no control over, or we accept that we don’t have anything remotely resembling the resourced to affect the change we’d like to see. When we appreciate we have no control, no promise of control, and no ability to grasp at control.

Two things have happened in my life to lead me to this place.

The first was being a first hand witness to the attack on the World Trade Center in New York on September 11, 2001. To stand underneath those burning buildings and know nothing you can do — except maybe run away — is going to save you, is going to save anyone, is a quite a realization. To watch people die and know you have to watch — you are made to watch — and can do nothing. To know, as I wrote in my book The Love That Matters, that as I stood underneath those towers and looked up, these buildings are coming down and nothing anyone can or will do can stop that. All smart little animals will run away as fast as they can.

In that powerless, I heard the words of Jesus — My love is all that matters, and this is who I am.

This is not something I likely would have ever heard absent the terrible events of that horrible Tuesday morning. Jesus, and love, is how I make sense of what happened on that day.

But something else happened in the last year to heighten this. My foster daughter Kaylie stayed with us for a while, and I would keep watch over her as she relived much of the abuse she suffered in some very vivid and active nightmares. (At this point, I want to say that I was only up to this work with Kaylie because of what my wife Jennifer taught and told me, and how I learned to love and care for her.)

It is hard to describe just how powerless I felt. Kaylie would lie on the floor next to Jen and me, and I could hear her crying. She would tap on my arm in her sleep, demand to hold my hand. She would relive the events — I won’t describe them here, you don’t need to know. But most nights, in her worst nightmares (she had four different kinds), even in her sleep Kaylie knew I was there. A couple of nights, she would grab my hand, ask me “can I tell you something?” and then mumble sometimes incoherently and sometimes all too coherently what was going on.

All of it.

I was powerless to stop any of it. I wasn’t there when she was 14 and 15 — or eight, or 13, or 17 — when any of this was happening to her. I was powerless to stop her nightmare, her reliving all this, even as I was there in her dream and she was talking to me in her nightmare. I tried short-circuiting the nightmare a time or two with “I’m here” or “You’re safe with me” or “Grab my hand and follow me” or “I’m going to take you away” and it never worked. Kaylie would take me through the whole awful experience, narrated it, as if she believed it was important for to me to be just be there holding her hand and witness the whole horrifying thing. To be made to watch. She was truthful and honest in her sleep in ways she was not awake, and told me — showed me — things she was too afraid or embarrassed to say when she was awake.

Yes, Kaylie struggles with the meaning of what happened to her. She will for much of her life.

But I struggle with that meaning too. I witnessed something both sacred and horrifying, was made to watch the very real abuse someone I love and care for a great deal suffer over and over again. And there was nothing I could do. Nothing.

And so I watched. With a broken heart, a soul torn in two for what I was made to watch. But I watched.

I’m a Christian. I have some pretenses to, at some point, actually being a called pastor some place. (Don’t laugh; it could have happened two weeks ago.) To preach and teach the Gospel, to walk with a very particular group of God’s people as they struggle with meaning and power in their lives, with what it means to be called to follow Jesus.

So as I consider what it means to face the suffering of the world, I consider the crucifixion of Christ. If we are true in our belief that the only real story that matters is the story told by the one who suffers, then we need to consider the passion narratives of Christ.

In Matthew and Mark, from the moment Jesus is delivered by Pontius Pilate up to be crucified, he says only one thing — “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” In these two gospels, the only words Jesus speaks during the whole ordeal of mocking and flogging and carrying the cross are words of despair and abandonment. Words spoken by Wiesel’s fellow prisoner — Where is God? Because it doesn’t feel like he’s here in this place of suffering and death.

These are not words of power of agency.

In Luke and John, Jesus is much more talkative. In Luke, he tells the women of Jerusalem to weep for themselves, and to consider the awful things that are coming. He says “Father, forgive them, for they not what they do” after being raised up to his place between the thieves. He proclaims the penitent thief will join him in paradise. And as he breathes his last, commends his spirit to God.

In Luke, Jesus is very outwardly directed. In his suffering, he focuses on others. Warns them, forgives them, promises them paradise. This is agency, but it is not power the way we understand it. Jesus does not stop his own suffering, or that of the thieves crucified with him. He does not despair. He forgives.

In John, after Jesus is handed over to be crucified, he says little except to tell his mother that the beloved disciple is now her son, and she is now his mother. He cries out, “I thirst” and then “It is finished.”

Again, Jesus is not a man of despair here. To the extent he says anything, he is outwardly focused, adopting his beloved disciple to his mother. Even as it is the most spiritual of gospels, John is also the most carnal, and only here do we have Christ complaining of thirst as he dies.

We have no record of the crucifixion from Christ’s perspective, unless you consider Psalm 22, which is an intriguing mixture of despair and hope, though for the future, and not necessarily for the here and now.

Jesus doesn’t tell his own story. We tell the story of Jesus. That’s what the Gospel is all about. All we have are these gospel witnesses of those who were made to watch. And we are made to watch, every Holy Week, and I think we frequently forget what we are really watching. Just as it took me time to understand quite what Kaylie was saying and showing me. And we forget that we are in that place where we can only just watch.

I will not deny Kaylie her agency. I am too modern for that. And I love her too much for that as well. She is not Christ, she is not bearing the sins of the world. She will have to find some kind of meaning in what has happened to her. I can’t tell her what it means, and I won’t even try.

And yet, in watching what I have watched, in hearing what I have heard, I remember a morning mass sitting and looking up at the bloody and agonized Jesus hanging from the cross, I had been given the terrifying, horrible, staggering privilege of witnessing Christ’s suffering in Kaylie (and Bethany). Of watching, knowing I could do nothing but watch. I can find meaning in this.

And tell what I have seen. Bear witness.

Thankfully, unlike the story of Hussein and his followers with their backs up against the Euphrates near Karbala, this story doesn’t end with death. And because of that, it doesn’t demand our suffering either. Kaylie’s suffering was not necessary, and could have and should have been avoided, but in her suffering, I have again met Christ. She bore her wounds to me. I can testify to a crucified and risen Lord who shows us his wounds and demands we muck around in them — “My Lord and my God!”

But only because I have no power to change or undo any of this.