Suffering

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Lawless
For Cartel Land, filmmaker Matthew Heineman embedded himself with two vigilante groups battling Mexico’s drug cartels on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. The vigilantes believe that they are stepping in for their countries’ failed institutions, but must try not to “become the criminals [they’re] fighting against.” The Documentary Group

She Who Believes
The new Women in Religions series from New York University Press offers accessible primers on ways women have shaped and been influenced by various religious traditions. The first three volumes published include Women in New Religions, by Laura Vance, and Women in Christian Traditions, by Rebecca Moore. NYU Press

No Easy Way
In Pre-Post-Racial America: Spiritual Stories from the Front Lines, Sandhya Rani Jha, a pastor, activist, and anti-racism trainer explores our complicated racial landscape through several people’s stories, illuminating the difficult but vital path to the hope of the Beloved Community. Chalice Press

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'Did God Kill Jesus?' Author Talks Suffering, Reconciliation, and the Cross

It was the means of agonizing humiliation and execution and has adorned the banners of armies through which some of the most brutal violence was perpetrated in history. It is a symbol worn by the faithful and sometimes the fashionable. It has famously been described as a stumbling block and foolishness. The cross is central to the Christian faith — but what does it mean? And how could this symbol of weakness also be a source of strength for followers of Christ?

As Christians ponder the mystery and meaning of the cross and Christ’s resurrection in this Easter season, I read Tony Jones’ new book, Did God Kill Jesus? which explores and analyzes various atonement theories through history and culture and considers whether the most famous — penal substitutionary atonement — is really the most accurate. Although Tony and I do not necessarily share the same views, I realized that our perspectives are not as far off as I had thought. I recently had the opportunity to interview him about the book and how his study and meditation of the cross has shaped his understanding of the crucifixion and what that can mean for the faithful.

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

JV: You touch a bit on this in the book (but for those who might not read it), what do you believe are the theological and social implications of holding to a belief in penal substitutionary atonement? Could you elaborate on what you think those implications are? And do you think there can be anything redemptive or beautiful in Christians holding to a substitutionary atonement theory of the crucifixion?

A Newsfeed of Fear

I GREW UP terrified, my childhood catechized by the violence in Northern Ireland, each week a litany of murder. I grew used to the idea that killing was the story of our lives. This, of course, was not true—there was also beauty and friendship all around us, all the time, not to mention eventually a peace process that has delivered extraordinary cooperation between former sworn enemies.

But the way we learned to tell the story—from political and cultural leaders, religion, and the media—emphasized the darkness. It’s been a long and still ongoing journey for me to discern how to honor real suffering while overcoming the lie that things are getting worse.

Today, many of us are living with a fear that seems hard to shake. Horrifying, brutal videos, edited for maximum sinister impact, showing up in our newsfeeds are only the most recent example of how terror seems to blend into our everyday lives.

But things are not as bad as we think. What social scientists call the “availability heuristic” helps explain why we humans find it difficult to accurately predict probability. In short, we guess the likelihood of something happening based on how easily we can recall examples of something similar having happened before. Because of this, folk who get a lot of “information” from mainstream media may tend to overestimate the murder rate: Most of us have seen vastly more killing on TV than would ever compute to an accurate estimate of real-world rates of killing.

Globalization and cyberspace bring more images and stories than our brains can handle, blending them with our lives to the extent that we consciously have to work to create boundaries between our screens and our psyches. One consequence is that people are skeptical when told that violence has been declining over time, and we are living in what is probably the most peaceful era human beings have ever known. But it’s true.

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Is God the Biggest Serial Killer of All Time? A Response to the Friendly Atheist

Kucher Serhii / Shutterstock.com

Kucher Serhii / Shutterstock.com

The Friendly Atheist is one of the most influential atheist blogs on the Internet. The website’s 10 bloggers have contributed to CNN, Fox and Friends, NPR, the Washington Post, and the USA Today.

You may be surprised to read this, but I owe the Friendly Atheist a personal debt. My atheist brother invited me to officiate at his wedding ceremony with this condition, “As long as you don’t say anything about God.” I’m very close with my brother, so of course I agreed. I wrote the majority of the wedding ceremony with no problem. I easily secularized everything else, but was stymied by how to secularize the final blessing.

Since Google has all the answers, I typed the words “secular wedding ceremony blessing” into my search engine. The first link that appeared was the Friendly Atheist’s article “ A Secular Wedding Ceremony from Start to Finish.” The entire transcript for the secular wedding is beautiful. As I spoke the words of the Friendly Atheist’s final blessing, I experienced a profound sense of awe:

May the glory which rests upon all who love you, bless you and keep you, fill you with happiness and a gracious spirit. Despite all changes of fortune and time, may that which is noble and lovely and true remain abundantly in your hearts, giving you strength for all that lies ahead.

My brother and his wife expressed their appreciation for those words. My dad, a devout Christian, said it was the perfect capstone to the wedding. And all I could think were words of gratitude. “Thank God for the Friendly Atheist,” I said to myself.

Kayla Mueller's Words on Faith from Captivity

Kayla Mueller

On Tuesday, the U.S. government confirmed that 26-year-old Kayla Mueller, a captive of ISIS since August 2013, has died.

While circumstances of her death remain unclear, details of the young woman's life and work — most recently helping refugees in Aleppo, Syria — have emerged in the last 24 hours, as family, friends, and members of her community share memories and anecdotes of her compassion and big heart for those in need.

The Washington Post reports

The Rev. Kathleen Day, who headed a campus ministry that Mueller joined at Northern Arizona University, recalled that she wrote in a letter from captivity that she tried to teach crafts to her guards, including how to make origami peace cranes.

“We just delight in that,” Day said, “that Kayla remained Kayla. She said she found freedom even in captivity.”

The Post also shared a letter written by Mueller to her family while in captivity. In it Mueller expresses her experience of faith: 

"I remember mom always telling me that all in all in the end the only one you really have is God. ...I have been shown in darkness,light + have learned that even in prison, one can be free."

Mueller's family on Tuesday referenced another letter in which Mueller had written of her faith, this time to her father in 2011. According to the family, Mueller wrote: 

"I find God in the suffering eyes reflected in mine. ...I will always seek God. Some people find God in church. Some people find God in nature. Some people find God in love; I find God in suffering. I've known for some time what my life's work is, using my hands as tools to relieve suffering."

In their statement, Mueller's family said,

"We remain heartbroken, also, for the families of the other captives who did not make it home safely and who remain in our thoughts and prayers. We pray for a peaceful resolution of the conflict in Syria."

The family has reportedly requested that expressions of sympathy be made to causes that Kayla would have supported. KPHO reports that additional information will be made available in the coming week.

Read more from The Washington Post.

Why God Is Sending Christians Straight to Hell

Mindok / Shutterstock.com

Mindok / Shutterstock.com

So much of Christianity has become about avoiding hell. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned as a hospital chaplain, it’s that God is sending Christians straight to hell.

Christians need to stop thinking of heaven and hell as primarily places we go after we die. Heaven and hell are primarily realities that we experience here on earth.

Jesus said, “the kingdom of God is among you.” For Jesus, the kingdom of God, also known in the Gospels as the kingdom of Heaven, is a present reality. You don’t have to wait until after death. In fact, you shouldn’t wait because it’s here. It’s now. It’s among you.

Now, if the kingdom of God is a present reality, we can safely assume that hell is also a present reality. In fact, the word Jesus frequently used for “hell” was the term Gehenna. Gehenna was well known in the ancient city of Jerusalem as “the valley of the son of Hinnom.” Within the valley was a place called Topheth, where people would sacrifice their children, thinking that God demanded this sacrificial violence. As the prophet Jeremiah explains, this hell on earth is a purely human creation and God had nothing to do with this hell. Jeremiah said about those who sacrifice their children, “And they go on building the high place of Topheth, which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire—which I did not command, nor did it come to my mind.”

God doesn’t command the fires of hell; it doesn’t even come to God’s mind! Who, then, does command those fires? We do! René Girard said it succinctly in his book The Scapegoat, “[We] create [our] own hell and help one another descend into it.”

Hell is a place of suffering caused by spiritual, emotional, and physical violence. What does the kingdom of Heaven do when confronted with the violence of hell? The kingdom of Heaven goes straight into it.

Who Do You Say I Am?

AS A NATIVE KOREAN who has studied and taught in the U.S. for more than 13 years, I feel like I’m always swinging between two lands—neither giving me a sense of home. Nostalgia might be too gentle a word to describe this in-between space. Rather, it’s a bitter and unpleasant reality constantly reminding me that to some I appear “strange,” “irregular,” “awkward,” “unskillful,” or “suspicious.” In this situation, I remain “unnatural.”

I often feel the same way in the church. My ethnicity and gender are considered marks of “otherness”—even in my own denomination. Every waking moment I wrestle with this question: How can I incorporate my body, my culture, my language as a Korean woman theologian fully into the body of Christ? This wrestling, while uncomfortable, also prevents me from settling with easy or convenient answers. Perpetual dislocation leads me to pay attention to the unseen and unheard corners of the world. It demands I examine old convictions and construct a creative space for new ways of thinking about God, life, and the nature of justice and hope.

The majority of our biblical stories come from people who were also living outside their own land. They too were in some way dislocated. The biblical texts this month call particular attention to their emotions, tensions, and challenges. They invite all of us to feel lost with them, to tremble with them, and to be courageous with them.

Min-Ah Cho is assistant professor of theology and spirituality at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minn.

[ AUGUST 3 ]
Attention and Generosity
Isaiah 55:1-5; Psalm 145:8-9, 14-21; Romans 9:1-5; Matthew 14:13-21

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What's So Good About Suffering?

via CreationSwap.com

via CreationSwap.com

A few weeks ago, my father was hospitalized for heart attack symptoms that might have been stroke symptoms that then turned out to be symptoms of something utterly inexplicable. My father, who suffered a massive heart attack in January 2009, and, against all odds and by the grace of God (he flat-lined twice), went on to survive subsequent surgeries and procedures and scares — always against all odds and by God’s grace. Though my father continues to survive and in many ways thrive, every hospitalization is a reminder that life is precious and short and tomorrow is not guaranteed to us.

This development has left me crying out to God, “Why? I know you don’t have to answer that, but … why?” This question reveals my heart: despite having known real and intense suffering in my life, I still live under the illusion that it is not normal. It’s been commonly reported, discussed, and parodied that those of us in the west, particularly in America, have no concept of how to deal with suffering. For many of us, even minor inconveniences — those “first world problems” like slow Internet access or traffic — feel like suffering in a relatively peaceful and easy world.

But as a Christian, I’m confronted by Scripture that reminds me that suffering will be part of our lives. And I’m confronted by the tendency — which I am sure that I share with many of my sisters and brothers — to shun it, preferring Gospels without suffering instead.

The Bible is Not A Myth: God’s Patience with a Tone Deaf People

Bible, Sabphoto/ Shutterstock.com

Bible, Sabphoto/ Shutterstock.com

I don’t know where God gets the patience. We are absolutely the most difficult people to communicate with! As the Letter to the Hebrews begins, “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets.” Many and various ways – thank you, God, for trying everything you could think of to get through to us. And then, as Hebrews continues, “in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son.” And not just any, run-of-the-mill offspring. No! This Son was “appointed heir of all things,” by God, “through whom he also created the worlds.” Sending such a magnificent messenger means nothing less than a passionate desire to be heard: I AM SENDING YOU MY SON, THE ONE THROUGH WHOM I DO MY GREATEST WORK TO SHOW YOU WHO I AM! IS ANYONE LISTENING??

That was two thousand years ago and still God has not abandoned hope. At least I think God hasn’t! Which is so like God. But what is so not like us is that finally, tentatively, it appears that we are beginning to get the message. At least a part of the message that has not gotten through to us before. A Spirit of renewal has been moving through Christianity. New meanings are being discovered in Scripture, meanings that are so strange and unnatural to us that they could only have come from God. Or should I say, that they could only have been coming from God for a long, long time until we finally developed ears to hear.

To the Women of Syria

I wish I could sit beside you on a cushion on the floor and have a cup of tea with you. I would like to snuggle your baby in my arms. I would like to hear your story. I know you have a sad story, and if I heard it, I would weep.

I know you are good and loving women. I’m sorry you have lost so much. I’m sorry you had to come to a country, a city, and a house that is not yours.

I can imagine you in your own country, strong women serving others. I can imagine you making beautiful food and sharing it with your family and friends. I can imagine you caring for your mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, sisters and brothers and friends. Just the way I do.

Because that’s what women do. We are compassionate. We give. We serve. We protect. We work hard to make the world better for the people we love.

Wherever I go in the world, I discover that we women are very much alike. We may have different clothes. Different languages. Different cultures. Maybe our skin is a different color. But in our hearts, we are the same.

That’s why we can look into each other’s eyes and feel connected. We can talk without using words. We can smile. We can hug. We can laugh.

And sometimes, we can feel each other’s pain. I have prayed that God would help me feel your pain. I wish I could remove your pain. I wish I could help you carry it.

Last night while I prayed for you, I remembered a story about Jesus Christ. In the story a woman who had been suffering for many years came to Jesus. She was sick, and nobody could heal her body or comfort her mind. People had given up on her. But she believed that Christ could heal her, if she could just touch his robe. So she pushed her way silently through the crowd that followed Jesus. And finally, she touched his robe.

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