Yesterday evening I attended a poster show hosted by Iraq Veterans Against the War. I went with a friend who is a veteran and who has worked with this group for a long time. The posters were well done but this particular one caught my eye.
A portion at the bottom of the poster read:
Joshua was trained as an Aribic translator and worked as an interrogator at Abu Grahib prison from June 2004 to January 2005. During an interrogation in Abu Grahib, a 22-year old self proclaimed jihadist suggested that Casteel was not following his own Christian faith. “He said I wasn’t fulfilling the call to turn the other cheek, to love one’s enemies. When posed with that kind of challenge, I had nothing I could say to him. I absolutely agreed with him. My position as a U.S. Army interrogator contradicted my calling simply as a Christian.”
Joshua Casteel died from lung cancer a few years ago, likely from his exposure to chemicals at burn sites during the war. I am grateful for his costly witness to Jesus.
The bonus of being white in Ferguson meant nigh-immunity from plunder. The bane of being black in Ferguson meant nigh-inevitable subjugation under plunder. Plunder is neither abstract nor theoretical. Plunder injures, maims, and destroys. Indeed the very same people who were calling on protestors to remain nonviolent were, every hour, partner to brutality committed under the color of law.
I may be speaking of something that escapes exact definition here, but it seems to me that the special delight experienced in the encounter with beauty is an immediate sense of the utterly unnecessary thereness, so to speak, of a thing, the simple gratuity with which it shows itself, or (better) gives itself. Apart from this, even the most perfectly executed work of art would be only a display of artisanal proficiency or of pure technique, exciting our admiration but not that strange rapture that marks the most intense of aesthetic experiences. What transforms the merely accomplished into the revelatory is the invisible nimbus of utter gratuity. Rather than commanding our attention with the force of necessity, or oppressing us with with the triteness of something inevitable, or recommending itself to us by its utility or its purposiveness, the beautiful presents itself to us as an entirely unwarranted, unnecessary, and yet marvelously fitting gift.
I feel it would be presumptuous of me to describe the ways of God. Those that are all we know of Him, when there is so much we don’t know. Though we are told to call him Father. And I know it would be presumptuous to speak as if the suffering that people feel as they passed through the world were not great enough to make your question much more powerful than any answer I could offer. My faith tells me that God shared poverty, suffering, and death with human beings, which can only mean that such things are full of dignity and meaning, even though to believe this makes a great demand of ones faith, and to act as if this were true in any way we understand is to be ridiculous. It is ridiculous also to act as if it were not absolutely and essentially true all the same. Even though we are to do everything we can to put an end to poverty and suffering.
I have struggled with this my whole life.
This is Rev John Ames in a letter to Lila, the title character in Marilynne Robinson’s new novel. Early in the book Lila says to Ames, “I just been wondering lately why thing happen the way they do.” She’s looking for some kind of help and the pastor struggles to answer. But here, when he finally does, is one of the better replies I’ve heard to this unanswerable question.
Q: Some Christians talk about experiencing God. Do you experience God in some way?
A: I assume that experience is the experience of God. If you think of experience as what is given to you—I mean day to day, the weather of your existence—that, I take it, is intelligible, and has purpose of a certain kind. One of the things I like about John Calvin is that he always talks about people as being presented to us, or even given to us. What he means is that any encounter with another human being is like God posing a question. The answer is what God wants, assuming that God loves and is loyal to the person he has presented to you, which is a very profound ethical question. This might seem over-intellectualized, but to me it’s much more meaningful than Zen or something like that. It opens the world. It’s not a place of refuge, it’s a place where the exhilarations of reality are presented to you, almost at the level of demand.
I picked up Robinson’s new book, Lila, at our local bookstore the other day without knowing when I’ll have time to get to it. Now it’s sitting on my desk tempting me away from other reading assignments.
The language of prayer occurs primarily at one level, the personal, and for one purpose, salvation. The human condition teeters on the edge of disaster. Human beings are in trouble most of the time. Those who don’t know they are in trouble are in the worst trouble. Prayer is the language of the people who are in trouble and know it, and who believe or hope that God can get them out. As prayer is practiced, it moves into other levels and develops other forms, but trouble – being in the wrong, being in danger, realizing that the foes are too many for us to handle – is the basic provocation for prayer. Isaac Bashevis Singer once said, “I only pray when I am in trouble. But I am in trouble all the time, and so I pray all the time.” The recipe for obeying St. Paul’s “Pray without ceasing” is not a strict ascetical regimen but a watchful recognition of the trouble we are in.
-Eugene Peterson, Answering God: The Psalms as Tools for Prayer (1989).
The “protest ” novel, so far from being disturbing, is an accepted and comforting aspect of the American scene, ramifying that framework we believe to be so necessary. Whatever unsettling questions are raised are evanescent, titillating; remote, for this has nothing to do with us, it is safely ensconced in the social arena, where, indeed, it has nothing to do with anyone, so that finally we receive a very definite thrill of virtue from the fact that we are reading such a book at all. This report from the pit reassures us of its reality and its darkness and of our own salvation; and “As long as such books are being published,” and American liberal once said to me, “everything will be all right.”
– James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son (1949).
Baldwin is my teacher this summer. In this essay he has in mind books like Uncle Tom’s Cabin- what they are meant to do and what they actually do for their readers. The section above reminded me of the recent collective reaction to Donald Sterling. For Baldwin it was a certain kind of book that provided the progressive citizen with the “thrill of virtue.” We are more likely to derive such assurance from the public figure’s racist comment or outdated assumptions about the world. I doubt Baldwin would be any more impressed with our tame outrage than he was by those taking solace in their enlightened literature.