Locality and Tragedy

Author Barbara Kingsolver says that seeing death on the television in the news – a plane down here, a bomb there, a war over there – bombards our senses, alternatively numbing us or overwhelming us, but almost always with the sense that we can’t do anything about it. Because news is primarily visual outside of print and radio media, the images the news feeds us has to be driven visually. Presented as a random sampling of ‘what’s going on in the world today’, these images add to the sense of powerlessness in the face of enormous amounts of death. But they are not a random sampling of what is happening in the world. They are the worst of the worst – they are the images that get people to watch the news. It becomes, she asserts, a peculiarly unbalanced diet for the human psyche – one that does not reflect the day to day real world that most people live in, if they will actually live in it, rather than stare at the screen.

And so here’s what she does. In the summer, they move into a farm house whose ancient wiring is incapable of sustaining a TV. And the only media she partakes is the local newspaper, County News, comprised largely of farm forecasts and obituaries. And she bakes casseroles. Instead of being pommeled by visual accounts of catastrophic death she can do little about, or a politician’s or celebrity’s tragedies far away from her, she responds to each death in that local community. “On the matter of individual tragic deaths, I believe that those in my own neighborhood are the ones I need to attend to first, by means of casseroles or whatever else I can offer. I believe… it’s possible to be so overtaken and stupefied by the tragedies of the world,” she writes, “that we don’t have any time or energy left for those closer to home, the hurts we should take as our own.” Paying attention to the local deaths, she says, “is a healthy exercise. It helps me remember what death really is, and helps me feel less useless in the face of it.”

Kingsolver is not saying to hide in small communities and ignore the large-scale tragedies or injustices going on in the world. In fact, she writes quite a lot about those things. What she is saying is that a broadcast-news-only diet warps our view of the world, giving bad news and death a larger slice of the pie than they are in the actual realities of the world around us. In reality, when we step away from that screen, there are birds singing, sun shining, wind moving the leaves, birds migrating, gardens growing, birthdays being celebrated for first graders. There are mountains, quilts being sewn, marriages, cats purring, friends at the post office, suppers being cooked and enjoyed, “and a trillion other things outside the notice of CNN.” If we take our view of the world overmuch from the news feed, we get a narrower slice than reality, and it can have negative, dysfunctional, depressive results in our view of things. Saint Paul, no stranger to the darker side of pain and evil in our world, advised, in regards to seeking to live a life of joy, “fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and noble, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise.”

Again, not a call to hide away and ignore the pain and suffering in our world, but a call to get a realistic slice of it within the larger picture of the creation all around us, rather than the narrowly disasterous, and psychologically destructive, view that comes from too much time on the newsfeed. Without a larger view of the good in creation and life all around us, we may be so worn down by the newsfeed that we find ourselves drained of energy to help in local situations where we actually can.

(Kingsolver, Small Wonder: Essays; Perenniel, 2002)

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There are no unholy things, only unholy actions

I don’t believe anything in the cosmos is unholy. It’s all sacred, by virtue of being created by God. (Which might lead us to why hell can’t be what modern evangelicals imagine it is, but that’s a talk for another time). {And Ken Ham’s assertion that any extraterrestrial beings from other planets would have been contaminated by Adam’s fall, yet outside the chance for redemption since Jesus was a man, is so utterly ignorant and idiotic I don’t even want to talk about it.} So: there are no unholy things, only unholy actions.

I believe the entire separation of ‘holy’ and ‘unholy’ or profane things in the Temple/Tabernacle/Levitical codes are one big object lesson. One bowl is not more holy than another. We cannot treat that as literal, intrinsic composition. Set apart or not, it’s not the point. In fact, “set apart” theology ultimately leads to screwed up, hideaway behavior by the community of faith when we pull back from the world in order to imagine we are holy and they are not. Contamination. Yes, it’s often been the story of 20th century Christianity, and we can see where that’s gotten us.

I don’t know too many evangelicals who think mixing meat and milk or wool and flax are inherently evil. Or that one shouldn’t trim the edges of their beard. These are object lessons. The rule had a telos, not a rule for the sake of a rule. It was a lesson, not an ontology.

Matter is not evil.  Irenaeus settled that well. By definition, anything made by God must be holy. God cannot make evil. There are unholy actions. Things we can do that are evil. There are not evil objects. When we apply ‘unholy’ to objects, we end up calling people evil or unholy: children conceived out of wedlock, people who haven’t heard certain things about Jesus, neighbors we know who are loving and kind but don’t know the Messiah consciously. To call them evil or unholy is a category mistake, an insult on the doctrines of creation and imago dei, a variety of Gnosticism, and very poor, unworthy theology.  People have used that kind of theology to justify killing others, including non-combatants,  for a long, long time.

Can “lack” exist in the World to Come? Un-doing Platonic assumptions…

Ever since I was a young buck in my earliest days of theological education, I figured any theology which winded up necessitating evil in order for good to exist (by comparison) was a flawed system. Likewise, any construct where the only way we could grow spiritually was for us to have to go through pain and suffering was also flawed, as it necessitated evil in order for good to develop. I haven’t changed my mind on that, but I have started to wonder about how we equate “lack” and “evil.” A Jewish friend of mine, who is a part of our church family and a follower of Jesus, got me thinking about this by some things he said this fall while we walked the Rails-to-Trails conversion between Ship and Newville. (Walking with Richard is a delight for numerous reasons, including that he looks just like pictures of Jesus, so you look really holy being seen with him).

Many, if not most, of us equate a lack of something in Creation with evil. It’s easy to see why we do this, as a lack of food in places of famine equals people starving to death, and we’ve seen many skeletal photographs of them suffering. We also tend to equate danger with evil present  in Creation,  like a Great White Shark biting you in half. We jump from this to assuming even the laws of physics – like gravity – are somehow affected, as if jumping off a five story building and breaking your leg as a result, is somehow  a manifestation of sin which wouldn’t occur in pre-sin Eden.  But my rabbinically-trained friend Richard said to me ‘there was lack in the Garden, before sin entered the world; Adam says in Hebrew “At last – this one!” when he sees Eve – the rabbis point out that this means even the ‘perfect’ world of Eden included lack. Struggle – such as to overcome lack or deficiency or scarcity – is not evil – none of those things are.’

Richard’s words set off a chain reaction in my mind which caused all sorts of things that had been swirling around to start to coalesce into some thoughts that dovetailed with his comment. If, in the Age to Come, “the leaves of the trees are for the healing of the nations” (Rev 22:2) and “those who have been faithful with a few things will be entrusted with being in charge of many things” (Mt 25:21), it seems there is still work to do in the World to Come, and work typically entails effort, struggle, overcoming a lack or deficiency – all things we tend to associate with sin or ripple effects of evil. Do limits still exist in the Age to Come? Are there still consequences for ignoring danger implicit in the way the Universe is created?  Are our ideas about the future world so colored by Greek and Platonic ideas about perfection that we have confused categories like effort, deficiency, and lack, with evil? I wonder if process theology can help us think through some things in this area?