Richard Rohr, who is a wonderful teacher of the Way of Jesus, he’s said that for religion to be real it has to teach us about how to love and about how to suffer. Too often religion isn’t real in this way, isn’t really worth its salt. How to love and how to suffer. The message this morning I pray works on that a bit, helping us to love a little more and approach suffering with love, as we deepen in relationship with God.
In particular I’ll be talking about freedom from victim blaming. This message is that part of what the Good News means is that God’s Mercy frees us from the vicious game of victim blaming and brings more love in the midst of suffering. This messages is one of these things we have to just keep returning to because, I don’t know, there’s just some glitch in human psychology or something where people are really eager to blame people for their misfortunes, and to blame ourselves for our misfortunates. If someone’s suffering it doesn’t matter what the cause of that suffering is, one way or another they’re getting what they deserve. We deserve whatever we get and we get whatever we deserve.
Now I call this a glitch in human psychology thinking because it goes against the evidence. You can’t live very long in this world before discovering that bad things happen to good people – all the time and good things happen to bad people – all the time and good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people, and sometimes it’s hard to tell if something is good or bad or if someone is good enough or bad enough to deserve whatever it is that they’re getting dished out to them.
A blame-the-victim mindset doesn’t fit the facts. And yet, this mentality is very common, in one form or another, conscious or unconscious. There’s something about suffering that makes us want to have some control over it. Especially when it’s someone else suffering something that we’re not. If we blame them then and think that this proves we’re better than them, and that we’re in God’s favor – you know – “There but for the Grace of God go I” – then that helps us bypass the anxiety that the same thing could well happen to us. A whole not of “unreal” religion gets deployed in these strategies of spiritual bypass. So, this morning let’s make sure the record is clear.
To do that we’ll look at one of the masterpieces in the Bible, the Book of Job, which is an epic take-down of the belief that misfortune, loss, suffering is always God’s punishment of guilt or the sign that there’s something wrong with us.
Now the Book of Job is a masterpiece of poetry and composition and philosophical provocation, so I’m not going to do justice to it this morning. We’ll just look at one of Job’s speeches and go from there.
First Reading: Job 29:1-20 The Message Translation Job now resumed his response: “Oh, how I long for the good old days, when God took such very good care of me. God always held a lamp before me and I walked through the dark by its light. Oh, how I miss those golden years when God’s friendship graced my home, When the Mighty One was still by my side and my children were all around me, When everything was going my way, and nothing seemed too difficult. “When I walked downtown and sat with my friends in the public square, Young and old greeted me with respect, I was honored by everyone in town. When I spoke, everyone listened; they hung on my every word. People who knew me spoke well of me; my reputation went ahead of me. I was known for helping people in trouble and standing up for those who were down on their luck. The dying blessed me, and the bereaved were cheered by my visits. All my dealings with people were good. I was known for being fair to everyone I met. I was eyes to the blind and feet to the lame, Father to the needy, and champion of abused foreigners. I grabbed street thieves by the scruff of the neck and made them give back what they’d stolen. I thought, ‘I’ll die peacefully in my own bed, grateful for a long and full life, A life deep-rooted and well-watered, a life limber and dew-fresh, My soul suffused with glory and my body robust until the day I die.’
Reflection The Book of Job is about a man who seems to be a perfect kind of guy leading a perfect kind of life. He’s a great guy, a real mensch. He always helps people out, always does the morally right thing. He’s faithful to his family and his community. He’s deeply faithful to God. He lives by the holy scriptures. He worships in the proper ways. He behaves according to God’s commandments. And, lo an behold, Job has become very successful business – he’s prosperous, rich in fact. Everyone sees this as a sign of God’s favor of Job, according to his righteousness. And everyone respects him and honors him…
Second Reading Job 30:9-31 “But now I’m the one they’re after, mistreating me, taunting and mocking. They abhor me, they abuse me. How dare those scoundrels—they spit in my face! Now that God has undone me and left me in a heap, they hold nothing back. Anything goes. They come at me from my blind side, trip me up, then jump on me while I’m down. They throw every kind of obstacle in my path, determined to ruin me— and no one lifts a finger to help me! They violate my broken body, trample through the rubble of my ruined life. Terrors assault me— my dignity in shreds, salvation up in smoke. “And now my life drains out, as suffering seizes and grips me hard. Night gnaws at my bones; the pain never lets up. I am tied hand and foot, my neck in a noose. I twist and turn. Thrown facedown in the muck, I’m a muddy mess, inside and out. “I shout for help, God, and get nothing, no answer! I stand to face you in protest, and you give me a blank stare! You’ve turned into my tormenter— you slap me around, knock me about. You raised me up so I was riding high and then dropped me, and I crashed. I know you’re determined to kill me, to put me six feet under. “What did I do to deserve this? Did I ever hit anyone who was calling for help? Haven’t I wept for those who live a hard life, been heartsick over the lot of the poor? But where did it get me? I expected good but evil showed up. I looked for light but darkness fell. My stomach’s in a constant churning, never settles down. Each day confronts me with more suffering. I walk under a black cloud. The sun is gone. I stand in the congregation and protest. I howl with the jackals, I hoot with the owls. I’m black-and-blue all over, burning up with fever. My fiddle plays nothing but the blues; my mouth harp wails laments.”
What happened to Job was a series of terrible misfortunes. Terrible. A whole series of events that leave Job’s entire family dead. His home and his livelihood are destroyed. He becomes physically very ill and has all these terrible sores on his skin. He loses everything. And then, everyone treats him like an outcast. Because there must be something wrong with him, right?
And let’s be honest, here. This isn’t just because of the superstitions of some backward society. If someone in our community just got hammered out of the blue like this, not just one bad thing, but another and another and another … yes, some people would take pity, there would be a gofundme and all that. But times like this you find out who your real friends are. And wouldn’t there also be plenty of people, even among those feeling pity, who would be wondering to themselves what he must have done to have brought all this onto himself. There would be plenty of murmuring and speculation? Because, you “manifest your own reality,” right? That’s the bestselling Secret, right? So Job must have let some negative thoughts come in or he got haughty and ungrateful or fearful of losing it all or something – he had to have done or thought something to have manifest this reality out of the clear blue sky like this. One way or another there would be a sense of uncleanness, people would be weird around him if they bothered to get around him at all. Job does have some faithful friends. A small group of friends come and sit with him and just grieve with him, in silence, for days. For days, they’re all just silent and sad – together. Those are good friends. But then … one of them has to open his big mouth. He basically says. “Okay, Job, all of this is terrible. You’re a great guy, we love you. But dude, let’s be real, what did you do to piss off God like this?” And Job says, “Whoa, whoa, whoa. Don’t put this on me! I didn’t anything to deserve this kind of treatment.” (Sorry, that’s the freshman year cliff notes version. It’s much more poetic in the Bible, of course.)
What follows is this terrific debate. Job’s friends are actually very eloquent and well versed in scripture. And they argue that the world that God has created is just and fair, you reap what you sow. God rewards the righteous and God punishes the wicked. Pride goeth before the fall, right? That’s in the Book of Proverbs. This whole line of thinking is indeed in the Bible if you want to find it. But Job insists he did not do anything or believe anything to justify this kind of pain. Throughout all of this he never loses faith in God. He hangs on to his love and devotion for his creator, even as he cries out in anguish to God, “Why, God why?” It can be tremendously faithful to cry out to God like that in the midst of terrible pain. It’s not blasphemy at all, as some people think. Jesus himself from the cross cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Those words are the opening of Psalm 22. We usually skip right to Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd I shall not want.” But Psalm 22 is “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Now, I’m not going to give you a tidy answer to that. It’s important thing to really wrestle with the question, “If God is good why do such bad things happen to good people?” But the danger is that the discussion and how we answer that question gets too abstract. If we get too caught up in philosophical or theological theories, there’s the danger that we lose what’s really at stake here. What’s at stake here is the reality of someone crying out in pain, and the real need to meet suffering with love. A tidy philosophy doesn’t do that. This is the problem with victim blaming. Victim blaming is a case of our abstract beliefs a tidy answer about why bad things happen, getting in the way of basic humanity. We are less compassionate to someone who is suffering if we blame them for somehow manifesting every agonizing moment of their reality right now. “She was asking for it,” right? Now, Job didn’t treat people like that. And it turns out Job doesn’t believe that God makes it so that everyone deserves what they get and gets what they deserve.
Remember what Job says: I was known for helping people in trouble and standing up for those who were down on their luck. The dying blessed me, and the bereaved were cheered by my visits. All my dealings with people were good. I was known for being fair to everyone I met. I was eyes to the blind and feet to the lame, Father to the needy, and champion of abused foreigners. I grabbed street thieves by the scruff of the neck and made them give back what they’d stolen.
Job has a relationship with a God that allows for unfair suffering as well as a God who bestows on us gifts that our outrageously abundant that are in no way related to what we deserve. The very fact that any of us exist at all – an outrageous gift. This relationship leads Job to a life that is about mercy and compassion. And it leads him, as it turns out, deeper into a humbling revelation of a fuller scope of the mystery and creative freedom of our God. Jesus is a model of this too.
Remember Jesus’ teaching in the sermon on the mount (Matthew 5:43-45):
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for God makes the sun rise on the evil as well an on the good, and sends rain on the righteous as well as on the unrighteous.”
Jesus lived by that mercy, which he showed was part of a close relationship with God whose power is far beyond the scope of our comprehension. And at the same time, I need to be clear: Jesus lived by absolute moral accountability and a strong sense of justice, which he also showed is part of a close relationship with God. There are many ways that it is true that we do reap what we sow. The problems come when we think that’s all that’s going on. It isn’t, by a long shot. As our relationships with God grow and mature, and as our relationships with ourselves and with each other grow and mature, I pray this may free us from a mentality that is inclined to make ourselves and others guilty of things that we’re not guilty of, as well as help us to be free to be honest with ourselves before God of what we are accountable for. May this free us to extend mercy and compassion as well as moral accountability and justice, for others and for ourselves.
Thanks be to God.
(Delivered August 18, 2019, by Rev. Nathaniel Mahlberg, at First Congregational church of Walla Walla, UCC)