Lent ends today, and it's my 63rd birthday, and I find myself in much the same place in which I was as my 60th birthday approached--and as I remembered my mother's death last year. Throughout Lent this year, I have been haunted by thoughts of the children mercilessly gunned down last Christmas. To be specific: I am haunted by the question of how one prays in the face of such tragedy. I'm haunted by the question of where God is as such tragedy occurs.
I know the traditional answers to these questions. I've studied them. But studying them doesn't help me at an existential level to discover what words to say--whether there are any words to say--to what kind of listening God, as I prepare for Easter without forgetting the children who died in December. And the children who die needlessly every day around the world, most of whose faces aren't splashed across television screens because they aren't white, don't live in the right parts of the U.S. or of the globe, have parents who are nobodies who have no access at all to power or fame.
These are acute existential questions because Lent's all about praying, isn't it? And it's about preparing to celebrate a resurrectional event on which Christians claim that history turns; it's about the claim that in the death and resurrection of Jesus, death itself has been vanquished.
And how to make that claim, to pray in light of that claim, when those children were gunned down in December? So much of what people of faith seem able to say about their God seems wildly amiss to me, as I struggle to remember the victims of history. Who remain decisively dead, no matter what we say about the resurrection.
That's really the rub for me, I think--the lack of any discernible resurrection for so many people over the course of history, generation after generation, who won't ever be alive again, who can't rise from the graves of their misery and suffering, on whose backs what we value and enjoy today has been built. Whose suffering and pain we needed to make our luxuries available today.
Where to place the victims of history in the scheme of things?
How to understand their intolerable unmerited suffering?
This is really why I have kept pressing the question of what the new pope knew and did during the dirty war and the attack on liberation theology in Latin America: I feel an obligation to be, if nothing else, an irritant of anyone who tries to foreclose history, to shut the book on historical events, in a way that appears to make the intolerable unmerited suffering of the victims of history meaningless.
What happened to the desaparecidos has to count. It has to be remembered. It cannot be eclipsed by either cheap media spectacles celebrating a new pope, or by wonderful actions done by that pope which suggest that a new springtime is dawning in the Catholic church.
The desaparecidos remain dead. They ought not to have died. People still living grieve their loss with unimaginable pain.
For a number of years, I taught Shusaku Endo's A Life of Jesus to students taking an introductory course in religious studies. I chose Endo's book as a text for this introductory course because it does such a brilliant job of illuminating major themes of both Christianity and Buddhism, and of showing how these themes of each of these world religions in turn cast light on--and interrogate--the other religious tradition.
I like Endo's work very much, and like teaching it to students steeped in Christian symbols and thought, who know next to nothing about Buddhism, because it provides them some basic information about a major world religion about which they need to know, while it also sharply unsettles much that they take for granted about Christianity.
It undercuts easy answers about Jesus's victory--over death, over sin, over unbelief. Its Buddhist concern with emptiness and failure, with the suffering that constantly defines human life, points its readers to themes fundamental to early Christian thought, of which we've lost sight over the course of Western Christian history, but which someone with Buddhist eyes is quick to see.
These include the glaringly obvious recognition that Jesus died a victim of history, that he failed, that his death on the cross was a humiliating and ignominious end to a brief peripatetic ministry that accomplished nothing much at all, when set up against the major events of the period in the empire in which this ministry took place.
Jesus was a failure. He was a victim of history. He died in anguish on the cross, asking why God had forsaken him. His friends abandoned him at the end of his life. He was mocked and humiliated as he died, a spectacle on which his enemies feasted as he died painfully a death reserved for the lowest sort of criminals of his time and place.
And yet built into the bedrock Christian convictions is the belief that the failure and ignominy, the anguish and suffering, the mockery and abandonment, are the precondition for resurrection. We believe in the resurrection of the dead.
We believe that this has already occurred with Jesus. And because we believe that Jesus is the hinge on which history turns, we also believe that, through Jesus, it also occurs with other victims of history.
And it is at this point that I've been stuck all during this long Lent, and remain stuck as Easter arrives this year: how is it possible to make those resurrectional affirmations without obliterating the unmerited suffering of the desaparecidos, of the children of Sandy Hook, of the children around the world who die atrocious deaths on an everyday basis, deaths that in so many cases might easily be avoided if the rest of us cared?
It's too easy to bring God into these discussions, in a glib way that does obliterate the suffering of the victims of history. It's too easy to talk about victory and resurrection. It's too easy to sing the alleluia songs while ignoring the pain and suffering out of whose depths the song of alleluia arises.
We need a Christianity, it seems to me, that finds it possible both to believe in the resurrection of the death and to remain in deeply troubled solidarity with the victims of history. With the victims of history who, for us who follow him, are summed up by Jesus himself . . . .
This is the Good Friday meditation I had hoped to share with readers yesterday, which is perhaps just as appropriate to this day in which, in many Christian traditions, followers of Jesus remember his being shut in the darkness of the tomb as his followers scattered. Except for the faithful women who followed him to the cross, picking up the pieces as women have a wont to do when violence occurs, and who are so often left behind to keep picking up the pieces after violence has occurred. . . .
The graphic is from the El Diario site, in commemoration of the day of the desaparecidos, 2011. If you visit this page, the faces of the disappeared become visible, one by one.