by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
First Central Congregational Church
15 July 2018
The Northern Kingdom of Israel was destroyed by the armies of the Assyrian Empire. The prophet Hosea claimed this was a result of Israel's unfaithfulness to the covenant with God. In response the Southern Kingdom of Judah entered into a period of reform, renewing the covenant, in the belief that this would protect them from outside empires.
Alas, though the Assyrian Empire declined and fell, a new empire, the Chaldeans, the Neo-Babylonians ruled by Nebuchadnezzar, arose in the east and spread across the Levant and soon Judah was threatened again.
So, the prophet Habakkuk spoke to God:
The oracle that the prophet Habakkuk saw.
O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen?
Or cry to you "Violence!" and you will not save?
Why do you make me see wrong-doing and look at trouble?
Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise.
So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails.
The wicked surround the righteous—
therefore judgment comes forth perverted.
For the Word of God in scripture,
For the Word of God among us,
For the Word of God within us,
Thanks be to God.
"To be traumatized is to be slashed or struck down by a hostile external force that threatens to destroy you." So writes theologian Serene Jones in her marvelous book Trauma and Grace.
Trauma is a "threat of annihilation" that "overwhelms [the] capacity to cope." She writes,
Traumatic events are "overwhelming" insofar as they are experienced as inescapable and unmanageable. . . . Like the wave of a tsunami, they drown you and disable your normal strategies for dealing with difficulties. You lose a sense of yourself as someone who can take effective action against an attacking agent, because at a literal level, either you cannot fight back, or if you do, you fail.
But it is not only agency which is robbed, so is imagination. Jones writes, "These events also overwhelm your capacity to make intelligible sense of them because they are stronger and more intense than the best meaning-making strategy you have. In this regard, they override your powers of both action and imagination."
And so faced with impending annihilation, Habakkuk cries out, "O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you 'Violence!' and you will not save?"
The promises embodied in the stories and the rituals that were supposed to make sense of Habakkuk's world are threatened. His world doesn't make sense anymore. The wicked are triumphant. The good people are suffering. Violence is everywhere. Injustice reigns. How could you let this happen, God?
This summer we are building Holy Resilience, using these ancient stories of trauma to reflect upon the attributes and skills that heal us, give us strength, and increase our perseverance. We've already explored the importance of safety and security—the trusting, compassionate relationships necessary for us to heal. The importance of our vulnerability and opening ourselves, rather than closing ourselves off. The power of telling our story, of having it heard by a caring person, who then helps us to write a new story.
Now, what do we learn from Habakkuk? With catastrophe on the way, he cries out to God. He is not passive, he asks questions. He demands justice. He questions the providence of God.
So, we too must learn to question and criticize and demand, if we are to develop strength and build our holy resilience.
Preparing for this series, I read a handful of books. The intersection of trauma studies and religion is a hot trend in recent years.
The most difficult book I read was Embracing Hopelessness by Miguel De La Torre. De La Torre is an ethicist at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver, where he was one of the professors of Clyde McNeal, who was our pastoral intern five years ago.
The book was difficult because hope is one of the key elements of my theological worldview. Heck, the church I pastored before coming here was even named "Hope."
But De La Torre is critical of theologies of hope. He thinks they are the theologies of the privileged. Primarily the theologies of middle class white people. Only the privileged can be optimistic that everything will improve, that progress is inevitable, that good and right will triumph in the end. Because, plenty of examples from history point otherwise. So theologies of hope end up maintaining current oppressive social structures.
Hope [he writes], as a middle-class privilege, soothes the conscience of those complicit with oppressive structures, lulling them to do nothing except look forward to a salvific future where every wrong will be righted and every tear wiped away, while numbing themselves to the pain of those oppressed, lest that pain motivate them to take radical action.
Instead, he is concerned about those oppressed by the traumas of history, those with no hope that their situation will ever improve because they lack the political or economic power to save themselves or their children. He writes from the perspectives of victims of genocide, the extremely poor, the refugees.
For example, "Hope becomes a distraction from the reality of the massacre about to unfold, an illusion obscuring what persecution demands of us. To hope is to bury one's head in the sands of peace, making us useless to meet the inevitable struggle that is coming."
But what does he offer instead? For surely to abandon hope is to despair. De La Torre does not think so. He declares, "So do not offer me your words of hope; offer me your praxis for justice."
He offers a "theology of desperation" for those who have no choice but to act. Though they act with no illusion of hopefulness that everything will turn out okay. They act for justice because they have to in order to survive.
"Hopelnessness engenders desperation and doubt," he writes. And these two emotions he says "serve as the basis for faith."
And so one of the acts of desperation that De La Torre offers is to challenge God.
To challenge God, to yell out in protest, to place God on trial is not the ultimate act of arrogance; rather, it is to take God seriously by crucifying our Christian-based idols for an honest appraisal . . . . And maybe this is the ultimate beauty of faith—to doubt, to wrestle, to curse, to question, to disbelieve, to oppose, . . . and to hold accountable God in defense of God's creation.
Habakkuk cries, "O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you 'Violence!' and you will not save?"
I find De La Torre's book difficult because it challenges some of my deepest theological beliefs. But I respect it as a critique I must listen to and take account of, so that my theology of hope is not a theology of privilege, of the status quo, of white supremacy.
For it must be a hope that demands, questions, criticizes, and acts for justice. Like Habakkuk did, in the face of impending annihilation.
As I prepared my sermon this week I read an article in The Christian Century about the new National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama—the new monument commemorating the African American victims of lynching. Every known lynching victim is commemorated with their name cut in metal slabs, with each slab representing a county, so that we might see the institutional and structural aspects of this horrible part of American history. I suspect Douglas County has its slab, because of the infamous lynching of Will Brown here in 1919.
The Christian Century article described the new museum as an act of nonviolent protest but "in this case the protest is not for rights but for memory." The article's author, Pete Candler, describes a visit to the memorial as a "confrontation"—"a slow initiation into a subject that everyone and no one knows about, that is rarely explored in depth and at best tacitly taken for granted." Candler adds, "Confrontation with truth—like the lifted burden of a secret, no matter how disorientingly painful—is always a gift."
Reading this description of the memorial, I felt that it must serve as an example of how to build resilience in the wake of trauma. How to question, criticize, demand, and act, like Habakkuk.
But the perspective is different from De La Torre's, for Pete Candler interprets the lynching memorial as hopeful. He writes,
This is not a feel-good story. But the aim of the memorial is ultimately hope: a clear-eyed and unromantic hope, grounded in honesty about the harsh reality of white supremacy and its relentless stranglehold on African American lives. The overall effect of the memorial is immense sorrow but oriented toward the regeneration that comes only from genuine confrontation with horrific injustice, from the recognition that there is no reconciliation without truth.