Paula Cooey has published a thought-provoking article at Religion Dispatches about the push for theological questions following the Haitian earthquakes. As she notes, in the wake of massive tragedies like what has happened in Haiti, people begin to ask theological questions—theodicy questions. Questions about where God is as millions of people suffer.
And people of faith sometimes respond to those questions with answers—with answers that are altogether too glib. Answers that implicitly make God responsible for the massive suffering that causes us to question where God is, as people suffer . . . . Job’s-comforter answers, which explain it all to us, when silence and solidarity with those who are suffering would be a far more adequate theological response than cheap, falsely explanatory answers.
As Cooley says, the responses of people of faith to tragedies like the Haiti earthquake tend to run in certain well-worn grooves. Typical responses include the following:
- Farther along, we’ll understand why: God’s ways are not our ways, and we will see clearly only in the afterlife.
- God’s hand is at work in calamity to teach us to be more faithful disciples.
- Suffering is valuable: it unites us to Christ and makes us stronger in our faith.
Cooley notes that the attempt to justify God’s mysterious ways when disaster strikes is nothing new. Answers to tragedy such as the ones I’ve just enumerated crop up over and over in the course of Christian history, when an event of cataclysmic proportions like the Haiti earthquake occurs.
Cooley points to the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 as a case-study in how some people of faith respond to—or, better, use—tragedy to push theological answers to questions about God’s relationship to massive human suffering. As she notes, following the Lisbon quake, in which anywhere from 10,000 to 100,000 people are thought to have died, the founders of Methodism, John and Charles Wesley, preached repeated sermons drawing theological lessons from the Lisbon tragedy. For the Wesleys, the devastation of Lisbon was a warning to believers to remain prepared for the imminent return of Christ, to repent for sin and get right with God.
Cooley’s absolutely right, I think, to note that there’s a perduring strand of Christian thought that seeks to capitalize on tragedies such as the Haitian earthquake. She’s right to ask critical questions about the easy theological answers that some people of faith offer those suffering from such tragedies.
Following 9/11, there was a strong push among some people of faith in the United States—aided and abetted by the mainstream media—to predict an uptick in churchgoing as a result of 9/11. In the weeks after the horrific events of that day, churches did begin to fill again in an indication that Americans affected by secularism—so the dominant narrative went—were returning to their religious foundations. The tragedy had good effects, the narrative implied, in that it re-grounded our nation in its religious base.
But when that immediate spike in churchgoing failed to show permanent results, the narrative disappeared from the mainstream media and from many pulpits. And in the process, what never got examined—what most deserved attention in the narrative—was precisely why many people of faith seem to be sitting around waiting for disaster to strike, so that they can call people to repentance. As if Christians and Christian faith have about them a carrion-crow quality, a tendency to wait for the natural disasters that will inevitably occur someplace in the world over the course of time, a tendency to take Schadenfreude in such disasters in order because of their ability to point to the continued pertinence of Christian belief . . . .
And, in particular, to point to certain convenient targets—devil-worshiping people of color, poor (read: lazy and promiscuous) people, gay and lesbian people, and Christian churches that put up with lazy, promiscuous poor people and dirty, sinful gay people—as the real targets of God’s wrath, when natural disasters occur . . . .
In my view, this carrion-crow strand of thought is definitely part and parcel of some versions of Christianity throughout history. It is a manifestation of what I like to call the necrophiliac tendency of some readings of the gospel. That tendency is well-rooted in most versions of Christianity. It operates beneath the surface all the time in many faith communities. And it comes to the fore when people are faced with massive suffering.
This tendency struck root in Christianity as Greek philosophy became the preferred vehicle for articulating the core affirmations of Christian belief in a culture dominated by Greek philosophical ideas. Though this process of incorporating the vocabulary and concepts of Greek philosophy began even in the New Testament period, it became pronounced as the Christian movement grew beyond the confines of its original Jewish cultural mold and became the dominant religion of the Graeco-Roman empire.
The process of incorporating the vocabulary and concepts of culture to express the core affirmations of a religious movement is not in and of itself suspect. It’s, in fact, a necessary process, if that movement wishes to communicate its beliefs to a particular culture.
But when this process occurs uncritically—when some terms and concepts are adopted uncritically, and when they begin to overshadow or distort the core affirmations they’re intended to communicate—then problems can begin to develop. And this is precisely what happened in the Christian church, as it adopted the terms and worldview of Greek philosophy to proclaim the gospel during the patristic period.
In particular, through influential theological figures in the east, including Clement of Alexandria and Origen, and in the west, including Augustine, Christianity began, from this early point in its history, to assume a strongly dualistic worldview and language to talk about God, the soul, and salvation. Christianity began to develop, under the influence of Clement, Origen, and Augustine, a dualistic language about salvation, which sees the created world, the world of flesh and blood, as secondary to the spiritual world, to the afterlife.
As it uncritically incorporated Greek body-soul dualism into its understanding of the gospel, Christianity began to speak of salvation as release from the body—as the soul’s flight from enfleshment, from the pain, uncertainty, and errors of this world to the transcendence of suffering, light, and truth promised in the afterlife. This turn to body-soul dualism in the formative period of Christian history has had fateful consequences for Christian belief up to the present. It has produced a strong strand of necrophilia—of barely concealed Schadenfreude regarding human suffering which seeks to capitalize theologically on this suffering—in many sectors of the Christian church.
With regard to Christian responses to tragedies like the Haitian earthquake, the dualistic scheme of salvation deeply embedded in much Christian thought invites many Christians to offer those undergoing massive suffering the carrion comfort of scripture verses about how everything will be clear in the afterlife, or about how God loves suffering and uses suffering to refine our faith. These cheap answers to human tragedy reinforce the notion that living in the flesh, in this embodied world, is simply a trial run for the afterlife, which is what really counts. Where the real is real and not insubstantial, not a mere shadow of light and truth.
At its worst, the body-soul dualism of much Christian thought about God, the soul, and salvation results in sheer callousness towards those who are suffering. Towards those who are embodied. To real people living in real places in the real world, which real charity can radically affect, if we believe that charity is a more significant religious obligation than sending bibles to those who are seeking to find and bury loved ones in the rubble following an earthquake. Or to obtain desperately needed food, water, shelter, and medicine.
In key respects, the liberationist movement in Christian theology in the final decades of the 20th century was an attempt to correct the necrophiliac tendency of much Christian piety and practice, with its suggestion that salvation is about an afterlife more significant and real than the embodied life of this world. Gustavo Gutiérrez, one of the foundational figures of Latin American liberation theology, grounds his entire theology in the rediscovery of the centrality of love for the Christian life—in the centrality of love of the real, enfleshed Other in the real, embodied world.
Gutiérrez’s foundation statement about liberation theology, the 1971 work Theology of Liberation, opens with a profound meditation about the significance and centrality of love (“charity,” for the English translators of the work) in the Christian life. As Gutiérrez notes,
In the first place, charity has been fruitfully rediscovered as the center of the Christian life. This has led to a more biblical view of faith as an act of trust, a going out of one’s self, a commitment to God and neighbor, a relationship with others. It is in this sense that St. Paul tells us that faith works through charity: love is the nourishment and fullness of faith, the gift of one’s self to the Other, and invariably to others. This is the foundation of the praxis of the Christian, of his [sic] active presence in history. According to the Bible, faith is the active response of man [sic] to God, who saves through love. In this light, the understanding of the faith appears not as the simple affirmation—almost memorization—of truths, but of a commitment, an overall attitude, a particular posture towards life (A Theology of Liberation, trans. Caridad Inda and John Eagleson [Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1973], p. 6).
As Gutiérrez goes on to note, the traditional Christian insistence (derived from the theology of Augustine) that one can love sinners while hating their sin presupposes that we can divide human beings into body and soul, and can love some incorporeal part of a person while despising aspects of the embodied life of this person. Gutiérrez insists on the unitary nature of love: love is love is love. Love that seeks to bypass the real embodied life of a real embodied human being isn’t love at all. It is something else masquerading as love.
Note what Gutiérrez’s theology is doing, as a corrective to the necrophiliac strand of Christian thought which imagines that we can save people’s souls while ignoring their bodies: it re-grounds all Christian belief in what ought never to have been lost sight of in the first place, in the centrality of love. And it reminds us of the intrinsic and never-to-be-broken link between the theological virtues of love and faith. It reminds us that, for the scriptures, love is how faith works, how it expresses itself. How it embodies itself.
Those who claim to have faith without embodying that faith in love don’t have faith at all, in the biblical sense of the term. Biblically, faith is all about relinquishing our own tight control of our lives and giving ourselves over to an Other whom we encounter in all the others we meet in the flesh: in our neighbor. Faith is first and foremost about losing ourselves in the Other who is love enfleshed, and only secondarily about accepting and repeating doctrinal formulas about the nature of God, the church, and salvation.
In its retrieval of love as the center of the Christian life, liberation theology is deeply traditional—as well as deeply threatening to those who prefer the body-soul dualism of necrophiliac versions of the gospel to liberation theology’s politically oriented retrieval of the obligation to embody faith in love. Because liberation theology insists (with the scriptures and Christian tradition) that Christian discipleship is all about enfleshing our faith through self-giving love of the other, it has political implications—and these are not lost on those who have done everything possible to suppress liberationist movements in the Christian churches of the developing nations.
To frame what it means to be Christian in terms of active, self-giving love of real, enfleshed others living in real places in the real world implicates us—all of us who claim to live according to gospel values—in what happens to real, enfleshed people in real places in the real world. In places like Haiti. And Guatemala. And Darfur and Cambodia. Or in New Orleans or the pueblos of New Mexico or East St. Louis.
It’s easier to believe that God has a hidden plan for everything, which will be revealed when we attain heaven, than to believe that we’re implicated. It’s easier to imagine that saving people’s souls is more important than helping them have food, water, education, medicine, shelter, and so on, when we benefit from the poverty of those who lack the necessities of life.
And so it remains easier in the United States today—it remains more respectable—to permit outrageously cruel distortions of the gospel like Pat Robertson’s claim that Haitians are suffering because they have made a pact with the devil, than it does to entertain liberation theology’s analysis of love. Which is to say, it remains easier in the United States today for many of us to cling to aberrations of the gospel message that disguise what Christian discipleship is all about, in its most fundamental sense, than it is to recognize that having faith implicates us. Because having faith demands that we do faith through the praxis of love.
Which is a never-ending process, because the call to love is a call to love totally, without limits, whenever and wherever there is human need to be met. Need that we can meet. Need that implicates us, because , as the gospel parable of the rich man and Lazarus reminds us, the unmet needs of our neighbor are either our means of salvation (if we see and respond to them) or our means of damnation (if we ignore and refuse to respond to them).
Pat Robertson’s version of the gospel is, all things considered, simply easier. Even if it does have periliously little to do with the message of Jesus and with what the gospels actually say.