Some time back, a good friend of mine shared a quote he had recently encountered in the writings of Rabbi Irving Greenberg. It read:
‘No statement, theological or otherwise, should be made that would not be credible in the presence of burning children’.
This made rather an impact on me. It gave voice to something that I had quietly felt for quite some time – that the day-to-day language found within the mainstream churches in Britain is littered with oft-repeated assertions that would be found seriously wanting when tested against anything anywhere near as powerful as Greenberg’s criteria. Occupying my mind as it did, I confess to shoe-horning the quote (overtly & covertly) into some of the conversations I had in the following months to see whether it had the same impact on others that it had had on me.
On the whole, and I am yet to decide whether this surprised me, the reaction ranged from cautious to dismissive. The sentiment was always approved of, no doubt, but what the sentence proposes was rejected. It was generally regarded as a measure belonging to another time, another place and another people. The Holocaust, it was suggested, was not something that we should/could utilise for guidance today as it was such a ‘unique event’. Indeed, so troubling were the implications of the statement, that texts were unsheathed and a variety of biblical statements were enlisted to disprove the point. I am happy to pass on the fact that many of the rebuttals were very well made and provided powerful responses – I suspect that some of you will have your own – but, as we started looking at these verses in a little more detail, Greenberg’s challenge pretty much wiped away all before it. The following provides a glimpse:
God, it was suggested, would not allow ‘his people’ (always ‘us’) to be pushed beyond that which they could withstand. He acts as a form of divine ‘trip-switch’ that ‘cuts things off’ at the point at which they become too great for us to handle and endure. We are also, supposedly, told that there will be a ‘way of escape’ – regardless of the depth of the hole we find ourselves in. God will come to our rescue; a deity digging us out from the hidden fissures that appear in our lives and swallow us whole. Some mentioned the way in which we are assured that God would not allow us to ‘break’. Like the ‘bruised reed’ we will be able to endure the strain or pressure in our lives enriched, as we supposedly are, with a divinely granted elasticity allowing us to bend during the ‘storms’ of our lives. Perhaps the most enlisted verse was Jeremiah 29:11. So often unveiled to encourage people that God has a plan for their lives – one that will see them prosper and come to no harm.
In many respects, Jer. 29:11 is the most helpful text for this post. It is a verse readily taken from out of its context and utilised in a way that it was not originally designed for. Not that I am saying it should never be employed and nor do I think that it will not, sometimes, encourage and perhaps accompany a change in someone’s situation. My point is that it cannot be selected at each and every turn. Repackaged to suit the moment. Applicable to all. The Bible is not some form of God-given lucky-dip whereby we may plunge our hand in and come out with something that applies to our situation and tell us all will be well.
Now, many people will quite rightly say, ‘I have never claimed any of these things to be the case’. But that is to miss my point. The common-or-garden language in our mainstream churches is infested by an epidemic of incautious language, vain encouragements, misdirected hopes and well-meaning sops, all purveyed with an over-arching sense that God is the ‘great insulator’ between the believer and the world. Rarely said explicitly, but nakedly there to see, we find it within the day-to-day Christian community life and its attendant hymns, choruses, sermons, talks, home groups, prayer groups, mission organisations, events and colleges.
If you listen very carefully, you will hear the scratching of multiple nibs busily writing cheques that the church has no way of knowing whether it, or indeed God for that matter, can, or will, honour.
Thus far, I have taken the easy path in exploring the power of Rabbi Greenberg’s challenge and stayed within the Twenty-First Century West. But what if I turn outwards? How does it fare there? Well, we cannot take our language proclaiming that God will support, relieve, protect and prosper and introduce it to the 50,000 or so people who will die today – as they did yesterday and will do tomorrow – simply through a lack of water, food or shelter. Indeed, if we did start to share these texts with them, many would expire before we had even finished our pitch. Furthermore, those people tucked uncomfortably away in prisons and torture chambers, those with terminal illness with no care or cure may, perhaps, find comfort from the words; but some action and alleviation would be more welcome still. The lingua-franca of the Western church would become an obscene mockery in the face of the Olympian level of suffering in the world from Big Bang to the present. (For those who shy away from the Holocaust as a subject by which we can help shape our theology – if we take the number of six million dead – we can say that we have a holocaust, on our watch, happening every 120 days.)
The problem is simple. We hoover up verses, passages and choruses that provide succour for our problem de jour; rather than facing the fact that what is said may well be utter nonsense. We do not ‘know’. We may hope, aspire or aim, but we do not ‘know’. Let us not confuse our, potentially misplaced, hope for a sure-fire certainty. We may very well come to harm, get pushed beyond what we can bear, remain trapped where we are, snap in half and never, despite much searching, discover a plan for our lives.
But maybe, positively, this is also the place where we can stand back and have the courage to admit that the language of the church can often be complete and utter nonsense and totally at odds with the reality we live within. If verses are conditional, contextual or contrary to experience then let’s say it as it is. Prefixes and explanations may well be unwieldy and dampen some of the rhetoric, but they will start to bring our language in line with reality and allow us to re-calibrate our expectations.
Stripped of this world of dubious promises, maybe we will then, somehow, despite the harm, the lostness, the darkness, the breaking and the utter disillusionment find ourselves in the place of the ‘real’; the place that Christ warned us about. And maybe, just maybe, some of his words may start to take on an even greater sense of meaning, depth and relevance.
In the words of Martin Luther King:
‘Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity’.