Aleppo and the Absence of God

I woke this morning to news that pro-Assad forces were leading an assault on the city of Aleppo in Syria, in the hope of wresting control away from rebel forces who have held part of the city for nearly four years. There were reports of civilians, including children, being murdered in the streets and widespread brutality and carnage. NPR reported that there may be as many as 100,000 people still in the devastated city. And across social media, citizens who remained in Aleppo filmed farewells, unsure if they would ever make it out of the city alive. The UN has been unable to act to evacuate survivors because of Russian dissent, and the unwillingness of Western governments to commit troops to the effort, though it seems that a few hours ago, (as of this writing) a tentative cease fire was reached, and a plan for the evacuation of civilians from the remaining rebel-held areas was called for. I am praying that those people remaining will be safely evacuated, and that most of those farewell videos won’t be necessary.

As I watched video from Aleppo, and listened to the reporting on the ground, I was struck suddenly with an image of Jericho, that story in Joshua of the Israelite’s “victory” and the subsequent slaughter of all the city’s inhabitants. It seems to me that the narrative in Joshua, and the description of the toppled city walls, must have looked something similar to present day Aleppo in the minds of the authors. From Joshua:

“On the seventh day they rose early, at dawn, and marched around the city in the same manner seven times. It was only on that day that they marched around the city seven times. And at the seventh time, when the priests had blown the trumpets, Joshua said to the people, ‘Shout! For the Lord has given you the city…” … As soon as the people heard the sound of the trumpets, they raised a great shout, and the wall fell down flat; so the people charged straight ahead into the city and captured it. Then they devoted to destruction by the edge of the sword all in the city, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and donkeys.”

I heard this story told as one of triumph when I was a child. I was instructed to look at the miraculous victory God had provided for the Israelites. I don’t remember reflecting too much on the divinely sanctioned genocide that follows the tumbling of the walls, but such is the way these stories are told. But, this is the story that suddenly jumped into my mind as I watched the coverage from Aleppo this morning. I imagined the fear of the citizens of Jericho; that their families outside the walls might never see them again, that they may not make it through the day. I thought of the shock and terror a parent must feel at the sight of their murdered child. Suddenly, this story felt monumentally different, because I was now confronted with the real horror of the story in the images from Aleppo. But, there is no message about a benevolent God taking sides in Aleppo. There is no meaning to be plucked from the very real apocalypse being faced by the Syrian people. There is only abundant and continuous violence.

At a staff meeting this morning at the congregation where I work, we reflected on the Christmas story, and on the name Immanuel; God is with us. We were asked to consider what these words mean for us. God is with us. All I could think about was Aleppo, and the Syrian people. I thought, “I have no idea what meaning these words have for me in a world where that level of violence can take place”. I considered all the answers that I was supposed to give. God is with us when we care for our neighbor. Or, God is with us when we forgive someone. Or even, God is with us in the midst of tragedy. But, I couldn’t bring myself to say any of those. They felt wholly inadequate. They felt like lies. I’m not attempting to get into some kind of “problem of evil” conversation. For me the problem of evil belongs to humanity, not to God. What I was troubled by was the language of God is with us, when the world just simply doesn’t seem to allow for that.

I’ve mentioned before that in the season of Advent there is a tacit admission that the world is not right as it is. If it were, we wouldn’t await the arrival of a savior with such fervor and anticipation. A savior simply wouldn’t be necessary. Our world is hurting, and as such we await the coming of Christ, trusting in the hope of a future world of possibility. But that waiting isn’t necessarily going to be joyful. Not only that, but as we wait for Immanuel, for God is with us, we may actually feel instead the utter absence of God. The abandonment of God. The Bible is loaded with language for this feeling of lack. The Psalmist cries out, “How long O Lord? Will you forget me forever?”. And in Habakkuk, “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen?”. Even Christ on the cross cries, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”. There is a fear among Christians to admit that often in our lives we are feeling abandoned by God, and that we experience a world that routinely reflects the seeming absence of meaning of any kind.

This is the absence I felt as I watched the coverage from Aleppo this morning, the modern-day Jericho. I cannot imagine the absence the people of Syria are collectively feeling as the fighting continues, and more and more people are killed or displaced. Not only that, but so many refugees face rejection and persecution in those places that are meant to provide sanctuary. The U.S. has been locked in a political battle for years about whether or not to allow Syrian refugees into the country, based on some irrational fear that we will inadvertently smuggle in terrorists along with them. Are the Syrians supposed to express some kind of feeling that God is with them in the midst of all this suffering? Are we, from a distance, truly comfortable professing that God is present despite the reality on the ground? What might happen if we allowed ourselves during this season of Advent to experience that feeling of absence, of abandonment. What if we forgo our need to avoid the troubling theological implications of suffering, oppression, and injustice? What if, rather than quickly reminding everyone that things will be OK once Christ appears, we put on ash and sackcloth and cry out “Where are you God?!”.

We are living in a frightening world, and in some ways this season of Advent is perfectly timed. The world is broken, as it has always been, and we need saving. We await the coming of Christ, not as some magical repairman, but as a vision for the future world of possibility that we hope for. We remind ourselves that “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes in the morning” (Psalm 30). This is our hope, but our hope must not suppress our true feelings of absence and abandonment, but must spring from them. This absence may also remind us that the world’s brokenness does not mend with our inaction and our silence. We can lament God’s distance while bringing ourselves ever nearer to our neighbor, and the victims of violence and oppression. We can cry out “How long, O Lord?”, while creating safe spaces and sanctuary for those who have been displaced here and now. Let us offer comfort and safety, to the best of our ability, if it seems that God is not, and in this way, we may get a glimpse of the hope we are waiting so desperately for.

Voices in the Wilderness

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,
     ‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
     “Prepare the way of the Lord,
      make his paths straight.” ’
Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

 But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

 ‘I baptize you with* water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with* the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing-fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing-floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’ Matthew 3:1-12 Gospel reading for 2nd Sunday in Advent

John the Baptist, clad in camel hair, points and gestures from atop a rock in the Judean wilderness. Repent, he cries. He shouts down the religious elite who have appeared amongst the people, and promises the coming of one more powerful than himself. One who John the Baptist is too unworthy to carry the sandals of. “I baptize with water for repentance but…He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire”.

This image of John the Baptist is one we have encountered since Sunday school. A rugged and unkempt prophet, living in the wilderness on honey and locusts. In the movies, he is always shouting, perpetually angered and unafraid to name that which angers him. He is someone, I think, most of us would avoid if we saw him shouting in the street. And yet he is one of the most important characters in the Gospels. In fact, Jesus says, “…among those born of women, no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist” (Matthew 11:11).

What is it that continues to draw us to this itinerant prophet? For myself, it is the seeming single mindedness of the man. His dedication to the future, and his consistent appeal to a better world. He withdraws from the life of world (many scholars think John may have belonged to the Essenes) and preaches repentance. And not repentance only to the weak, but also to the powerful. It is this dogged pursuit of righteousness and justice, even in the face of powerful violence, that is the defining characteristic of the Baptist. It is this pursuit that results in his imprisonment, and finally in his execution.

I hear the words of the Gospel on the 2nd Sunday of Advent and I am drawn to the dedication of a person so convinced of the truth and necessity of his words that he can do no other, but shout them for all to hear. In this shouting, there is more than simply judgement or admonition. There is an invitation. An invitation into baptism and the practice of repentance. An invitation to wake up and see the world as it is, to see ourselves as we are, and to ask if we can do better. Once we have asked that question we are invited to do just that.

John the Baptist is also a character that offers hope. In many of the most famous paintings of the Baptist he can be seen pointing. Always he points to the coming of Christ, to the incoming and indwelling Kingdom of God. The Baptist points toward a future of possibility, and peace and justice. In this gesture, he asks that we not focus too intently on him, but on what is to come. He asks that we repent so that we might hope, and that our hope might encourage us to repent.

Events of this week caused me to consider again this voice crying out in the wilderness. News broke on Sunday that the Army Corps of Engineers had denied an easement permit to Dakota Access, and would begin to seek out alternative routes for the 1,200-mile-long pipeline that would carry crude oil from North Dakota to Illinois *. The news was seen as a victory by the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, and the thousands of other water protectors at the Oceti Sakowin camp.  Images swirled around the news showing the camp and its supporters celebrating the decision.

For months, water protectors have been gathering at the camp and at various construction sites to demand that Native rights and sovereignty be upheld, and that the pipeline be rerouted or eliminated completely. They have faced violence and arrest from private security and law enforcement, while the rest of the world largely ignored the struggle. And now, after all that they have faced, after months of gathering at Oceti Sakowin, after water cannons and attack dogs, the water protectors can celebrate this decision by the Army Corps of Engineers as a victory, and can say that giving voice to justice and the side of right can bring about change. Those voices that cry out from the margins and demand that we look towards a better future, that call us to repent, are themselves pointing towards the coming hope and a future of possibility.

It must be said that there is still much work to be done, and there is danger that a Trump administration may overturn the decision. Energy Transfer Partners will most certainly challenge the decision, and will seek ways to continue building the pipeline across sacred Native lands. In fact, on Monday, Energy Transfer Partners said as much. But this victory by water protectors points towards a future and a world that we can hope for. Like the Baptist’s finger pointing towards the incoming hope of the world, we can also point in the direction of hope ourselves. We can hope that this decision sets a precedent for future government and Indigenous interactions. We can hope that as a nation we might follow the example of our Native brothers and sisters in pursuing energy policies that consider the protection and intentional stewardship of creation. We can hope that the wisdom of peaceful resistance may filter into the national consciousness, and that we may begin again to listen to those voices among us that cry out in the wildernesses of our own world. The cynic in me wants to smash all this hope with a hammer, but I am going to reject that line of thinking. There will be fights ahead but the strength and perseverance of the water protectors offers us a glimpse at something so much more hopeful.

This victory comes also with a renewed invitation, like that of the Baptist. It calls for us to repent. It asks that we reflect on the events at Standing Rock, and those that lead up to this decision, and ask if we can do better. Can we truly begin to hear the voices of Indigenous people, and repent of our history of violence and genocide? Can we seek ways of living in this world that do not harm and corrupt the incredible gift of creation? One thing is for certain, we cannot lose sight of the work ahead. We cannot rest on the good feelings of this victory for our Native brothers and sisters. Rest assured, vigilance and resistance will be called upon again. The pursuit of justice, and of the future world of possibility must be relentless. Victories must be celebrated, but we must also continue the work before us. We must continue having conversations with those around us who might think differently than we do. We must be ready to stand with those who face oppression. For some of us that means finding ways to participate in action and conversations that are already happening around us. There are organizations all over the country working to support and advocate for Native rights, and environmental justice. If this movement awakened something in you (as it did for me) then seek out ways to continue the work in your daily life. Small acts of justice and peace in the daily monotony of our lives contribute to the larger pursuit of a better a world, and your voice is needed.

Another thing we must consider, one that we can observe in the Gospel reading from Sunday, is the continued call to repentance John extends to the Pharisees and Sadducees. This “brood of vipers” shows up as John is baptizing, and bears the brunt of John’s righteous anger. “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham”. John really lets them have it. He speaks truth to power and reveals its own hypocrisy and sinfulness. But, John does not send them away. He does not say “This invitation to repentance is not for you, nor is the soon to arrive salvation unavailable to you”. He calls them also to repent, to “bear fruit worthy of repentance”. As nasty and as angry as John’s words sound, he is still inviting the Pharisees and the Sadducees into the incoming beloved community, the Kingdom of God. And this is what we must remember as we seek to engage those we might consider our enemies, those who hold seats of power, or those who pursue and inflict violence. We must call out what is evil, but we must do so while pursuing the hope that all the world will one day be reconciled to each other. If we are to have hope for the future it will require that everyone come along. This means that we must consider the ways we talk about issues of justice. We cannot continue to play into the division and politicized rhetoric that contributes to fear and anger. We need everyone. John cries out in the wilderness hoping that everyone will change, and it is our responsibility to cling to that hope, however unlikely it may seem.

In the season of Advent, we await the coming of the Christ; of the future world of possibility, hope, and peace. We hear John crying out in the wilderness, calling us to repent and we hope to respond. I hope also during this Advent season we might identify those other voices crying out in the wilderness, begging to be heard, and asking for us to respond in the hope of the incoming Kingdom. Our responses will vary, but let them all seek to live into a reality that grounds itself in hope. Find those small ways in your own life that you can be about the work of justice. Seek out organizations and communities that are focused on pursuing this work. Your voice and your hands are needed at all levels. Let it also be known that, as we saw at Standing Rock, when one voice crying out becomes many the world can be changed. Amen.

*NYTimes “Protesters Gain Victory…”

What the Hell Are We Waiting For?

I’m not really good at waiting. Once I’ve decided I want to do something, I want to do it right away. I’ve always been this way. So here comes Advent with all its language about waiting, and I start to feel a little itchy. I understand, and can appreciate, the beauty in the expectancy and the here-but-not-yet-here-ness of it all. But I’m still feeling a little antsy. What the hell are we waiting for?

I have found myself asking this question a lot lately. What the hell are we waiting for? It rattled through my head as I watched video footage of water protectors at Standing Rock being attacked with water cannons, flash grenades, and pepper spray. Hundreds of people who have gathered peacefully to demand that the Dakota Access Pipeline not be allowed to run through sacred lands and to endanger the water supply, have routinely faced state sponsored brutality while the rest of the country goes about their daily lives. The reporting on Standing Rock is woefully inadequate, and if it were not for water protectors and alternative media posting videos and images on Facebook and Twitter we might never know the scope of violence that the water protectors have faced. And I think to myself; What the hell are we waiting for?

What more do we need to do or say for the demands at Standing Rock to be heard? How many more videos of violence against peaceful protectors do we need to see before we are compelled to act; to stand in solidarity with Native American voices, to demand that our political leaders and representatives stop the pipeline before it’s too late. What are we, the Church, waiting for? As followers of Christ are we not called to stand between victims of violence and those who intend them harm? Are we not called to demand the careful and sacred stewardship of Creation? How many scientific studies, case studies, and personal stories do we need to hear before we heed the warning about the immanent dangers of climate change? What the hell is going to become of the world while we as Christians are busy waiting?

This question pressed on me again as more news of the president-elect’s administration appointments became available. I have heard from news reporters, pundits, and Facebook friends “Let’s just give the President-Elect a chance”. Let’s wait and see. I’m sorry, but what the hell are we waiting to see? Are we waiting to see if Trump’s rhetoric about immigrants and Muslims will continue once he’s in office? Because the last week or so his transition team has been trying to justify the possibility of a Muslim registry in the United States. One of his surrogates even used Japanese internment camps as a precedent for such action! Try again. Are we waiting to see if the president-elect will begin to distance himself from alt-right extremism and neo-Nazis? Because yesterday a video of Richard Spencer, the president of the National Policy Institute, showed him speaking to a room full of men shouting “Hail Trump” while giving a Nazi salute. The response from Trump’s transition team stated that Trump “…has continued to denounce racism of any kind…” *. What is missing was the president-elect actually denouncing racism. And it’s not as if this is the first time Trump has failed to unequivocally denounce racism in his name. So again, what the hell are we waiting for?

My impatience rages as I look at the world I love and see it so broken. I don’t want to wait. I want salvation and judgment and peace and mercy and love, and I want them now. And every day that I fail to see these things, I just keep asking myself; What the hell are we waiting for? What the hell is God waiting for? Fix it already.

In an address to the German nation in 1942, Paul Tillich writes “…the Advent season surely announces the coming light and not the growing darkness, the coming salvation and not the coming destruction! What does such an announcement have to say to the German nation today? Can you feel today what you once felt in the weeks of Advent? Do you have anything to which you can look? People cannot live if they have nothing for which to hope” **. Hope. It seems like such a faraway concept in a world that is so very broken. But hope is built into the very foundation of the Christian faith. The yearning of the people for God’s salvation in the desert, Mary’s pondering and expectation, the moments before Lazarus emerges from the rock, and the empty tomb on Easter morning. Hope is simply the waters that Christians are called to swim in. Hope has always been a difficult concept for me to engage with. It is hard for us to see hope in the midst of violence and hatred. And yet, I have a post-it note on the wall in front of my desk that reads “Hope is anticipated joy” (Moltmann I believe). I look at those words each day and I try to remind myself that I am allowed hope. More than that, I deserve hope. I am expected to hope. It is my duty as a follower of Christ to be about the business of hope. As Christians, we preach resurrection; that death does not have the final word. We participate in the story of the people of Israel who cry out “…from where shall come my help? My help shall come from the Lord” ***. The Christian faith is always anticipating, always about the practice of hope. And it is a practice. Hope is not idleness. It is not comfortably waiting for some omniscience to distribute to us joy and peace and love. It is the active waiting of service and gratitude and joy. So perhaps I need to re-frame my original question. Maybe rather than ask “What the hell are we waiting for?” I need to ask “How the hell are we waiting?” When pressed, we can all articulate what it is we are waiting on. We know, for the most part, what we want the world to look like. But we often need help understanding how it is we go about hoping such a world into existence.

This means that while we hope in Advent for the coming of Christ, we must also be about the hope that Christ is already present. This means that we need to see the here-but-not-yet-here Christ in the gathering of water protectors to defend sacred lands and in their demand for the protection of holy Creation. We need to see the hope of the present Christ in the congregations and church bodies across the nation who are denouncing hatred, becoming sanctuary spaces, and standing with and for those whose lives are threatened. We need to see the present Christ in intimate and vulnerable relationships of friends and family. We need to see the present Christ in those spiritual practices that replenish us and ground us. This seeing does not mean that we take some position of naïve optimism, or rest on the often-dangerous claim that “God is in control” and leave it at that. It simply means that we must have the presence of mind to reject the dominion of despair and see with eyes trained to perceive the experience of hope around us.

I believe that this is the work of spiritual community. Hope is not a solitary act. It cannot be if it is ever to be truly realized. This is a practice that we must engage together. The liturgy of the Advent season will call us into an engaged and focused expectancy. We will say together “Stir up your power, Lord Christ, and come”. For some of us fasting is an important practice during Advent. Refraining from certain foods or activities as a sign of repentance and purification, preparing ourselves for the coming world of hope and its salvation. We will gather with our spiritual communities, families, and congregations to pray for wisdom, guidance, and the strength to be hope in the world as followers of Christ. These practices engage the spirit and strengthen us to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly. They refuel us to do the work of hope in service of the other, solidarity with the poor and the oppressed, and acts of mercy. They empower us, so that when we are asked “What the hell are you waiting for?” we can respond with “Let us show you”. Thanks be to God.

**Tillich, Paul, Ronald H. Stone, and Matthew Lon. Weaver. Against the Third Reich: Paul Tillich’s Wartime Addresses to Nazi Germany. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1998.

***Psalm 121