The Epiphany of Astronomers

What do we do when our theology is not adequate for the realities of life’s violence and pain? From an address Rev. Parker delivered on campus, Feb. 23

By Rebecca Ann Parker ’75

Images of ashes linger for many of us, even when our eyes are closed. After September 11 the smoke rose for weeks from the smoldering heap of collapsed concrete and steel at ground zero, where nearly 3,000 human lives were turned to ashes in one horrible hour. Since then, similar images of rubble, dust, and smoke have greeted us in photographs from Afghan cities and towns, bombed in retaliation. The anguished faces of refugees in this country so weary of war, huddled in tattered tents against the winter cold, jostle in our mind’s eye alongside the faces of jubilant Afghanis rejoicing at the defeat of the repressive and cruel Taliban.

Our own anguish intermixed with their suffering and hope is almost more than the heart can hold. But this is hardly the first time the human family has been confronted with horrendous violence. Before this most recent trauma, we had already seen ashes. We’d seen ashes smoldering in the jungles of Vietnam. Napalm firestorms destroyed rice paddies and villages—women and children ran screaming from the flames.

We had seen the ashes of Rwanda, Bosnia, Guatemala, Cambodia, and Argentina. We had seen the ashes of Soweto, Watts, and Selma. Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Auschwitz and Matthausen, and the Gulag.

And these are only the mass atrocities. There are also the individual and intimate experiences of violence that mark a lifetime: rape, the sexual abuse of children, domestic violence, the cruel exclusions of heterosexism, ableism, and racism, and “the hidden life of war” (Susan Griffin’s phrase) held in family silences around how combat wounds the souls of men—suffering borne also by spouses and children of those who have had to participate in killing—even in just wars.

The list is mind numbing. How can we face it? How can we understand human choices for such evil? How can we repair life in its aftermath and prevent the recurrence of such horror in the future?

The Western Christian liturgical calendar has a season of ashes: Lent. The traditional Ash Wednesday ritual involves receiving the mark of ashes on one’s forehead. The ashes remind us that “we are dust and to dust we shall return.” They call us to a season of repentance and mourning, to turn away from evil and do good. We are to contemplate our complicity in sin—face our inhumanity to one another—and mourn the damage we have caused. We are to travel in the company of Jesus and his disciples as Jesus confronts the violence of an oppressive regime that wants him dead. We are to contemplate the meaning of his violent execution and consider our obligation to continue in our own time to accompany all who mourn because of injustice and oppression.

There is wisdom in this ancient Christian practice. To remember that we are dust is to remember our lives are fragile. We do not survive apart from our interdependence with each other and with all life. Earth, air, water, food, ecosystems, community—our life is sustained through a process of living relationships, an interweaving of networks of love, care, trust, exchange. We depend on one another. The tender bonds that make life possible, however, can be severed by violence. Cut off, broken, isolated—we become cold ashes, our lives bereft of the warmth of love.

Lent invites us to contemplate our vulnerability and lament the painful consequences of the violence we have experienced, witnessed, or complied with.

Theological reflection needs to begin in just this way, I believe. It needs to begin with the way our bodies are marked with ashes. The way that in our living we are confronted by the twin realities of our dependence on one another and our capacity for violence. We need our theology to speak to and from the experiences of the ashes. We need theology to accompany us and guide us when violence breaks our hearts, and severs the bonds that life depends on. We need theology to help when we have to discern how, in the aftermath of violence, life might be repaired, the perpetrators of violence stopped and held to account, and the escalating cycles of retaliation and revenge ended.

But what do we do when we discover that theological ideas we have depended on are not adequate for the life issues, especially the issues of violence and its aftermath, that confront us? What if we discover that our theology hinders rather than helps? This is what happened to Job.

Job, as you know, was beset with heart-wrenching sufferings and loss. Invading armies killed his people and his animals. Fire destroyed his fields. A storm killed his children. And his own body was wasting away, covered with painful sores. His three friends came to comfort him, and did so by offering him a theological interpretation of the meaning of the pain that filled his life. The friends said these sufferings were a punishment from God, because Job was a sinner. But if Job would repent of his sins, God would relieve him of this anguish and restore him to health and prosperity. Job objected. He knew himself—he knew that he had not committed any sin that merited this level of punishment, and he believed that God was just. He would not accept a theology that said his suffering was God’s doing. He also knew the world. He saw that among the prosperous people in his community were those who had gained their wealth through exploiting the poor, and who had no reverence for God or the Torah. These blatant sinners were not punished by God. The pious certitude of Job’s friends that God punishes the wicked and rewards the good was unacceptable to Job. Their theology was not adequate for the realities of life, nor did it address the violence and pain Job himself experienced. It intensified it, by labeling him an outcast, making him an object of scorn. So Job argued with the theology of his day. And he argued fiercely. He said to his friends, “You whitewash with lies. You speak deceptively about God. Your maxims are proverbs of ashes.”

Rosemary Chinnici, my colleague on the faculty of Starr King School for the Ministry in Berkeley, has a name for this Job-like experience of discovering that your inherited theology isn’t adequate. She calls it religious impasse and says it happens to most of us. We come to a time when we realize that the faith we have held to, or that has been preached to us by the religious community we are part of, won’t work for what life is confronting us with. At such moments, we have three choices. 1) We can hold to our faith and deny our experience. 2) We can hold to our experience, and walk away from the church. Or 3) We can become a theologian.

Rosemary recommends the third option, and so do I. Her point is that theology is born precisely in those times when human beings find themselves at the intersection between what they have inherited from tradition and what they have confronted in life. Those are the moments when each one of us has the opportunity to become a theologian—to take on the task, as Job did, of searching more deeply for God, for truth, for an answer to our questions.

Like Job, when we come to the limits of the theology that is preached to us, we must listen in openness for God’s voice from the whirlwind and attend to what new epiphany of God might come. We must open ourselves to a new revelation through attention, reflection, study, and prayer. We must come to life as a beginner and ask the fundamental questions: How do human beings survive the violence and suffering that happens in life? Where is God, what hope of redemption is there? Can we be saved from the devastating effects of violence in this world? When despair and anguish threaten to overwhelm us, can we be restored to confidence in life, in God, in ourselves? How?

During the years I served as the minister of Wallingford United Methodist Church in Seattle, I discovered that the theology I believed was not adequate for the realities of violence and pain in the lives of the people I was called to serve. This discovery created a religious impasse for me. I had to begin to rethink my theology.

A story will illustrate.

One afternoon, a quiet knock on the church office door interrupted my reading. When I opened the door, a short, brown-faced woman stood on the threshold, bundled up against the chilly Seattle weather.

“Hello, pastor. I’m Lucia. I live down the block and walk by the church on my way to the bus.” She gestured to indicate the direction. “I saw your name on the church sign. You are a woman priest. Maybe because you are a woman, you can understand my problem and help me.”

“Of course, come in.” I said. She sat down and smiled, an expression both warm and sad.

“I haven’t talked to anyone about this for a while,” she began, the smile fading, and sadness deepening in her eyes. “But I’m worried for my kids now. The problem is my husband. He beats me sometimes. Mostly he is a good man. But sometimes he becomes very angry and he hits me. He knocks me down. One time he broke my arm and I had to go to the hospital. But I didn’t tell them how my arm got broken.”

I nodded. She took a deep breath and went on.

“I went to my priest 20 years ago. I’ve been trying to follow his advice. The priest said I should rejoice in my sufferings because they bring me closer Jesus. He said, Jesus suffered because he loved us. He said, ‘If you love Jesus, accept the beatings and bear them gladly, as Jesus bore the cross.’ I’ve tried, but I’m not sure anymore. My husband is turning on the kids now. Tell me, is what the priest told me true?”

Lucia’s deep black eyes searched my hazel ones. I wanted to look away but couldn’t. I wanted to speak, but my mouth wouldn’t work. It felt stuffed with cotton. I couldn’t get the words to form.

I was a liberal Christian. I didn’t believe God demanded obedience or that Jesus’ death on the cross brought about our salvation. But just that past Sunday I had preached a sermon on the willingness of love to suffer. I preached that Jesus’ life revealed the nature of love and that love would save us. I’d said that love bears all things. Never breaks relationship, keeps ties of connection to others even when they hurt you. Places the needs of the other before concern for the self.

In the stillness of that moment, I could see in Lucia’s eyes that she knew the answer to her question, just as I did. If I answered Lucia’s question truthfully I would have to rethink my theology. More than that, I would have to face choices I was making in my own life. After a long pause, I found my voice.

“It isn’t true.” I said to her. “God does not want you to accept being beaten by your husband. God wants you to have your life, not to give it up. God wants you to protect your life, and your children’s lives.”

Lucia’s eyes danced. “I knew I was right!” she said. “But it helps to hear you say it. Now I know that I should do what I have been thinking about doing.” She planned to take courses at the community college until she had a marketable skill. Then she would get a job and move herself and her children to a new home.

We stayed in touch as she took each step. Eventually, her husband sought help for himself. Lucia agreed to let him spend weekends with their children. “They got their father back,” she said, “and I got my life back.”*

Almost anyone hearing this story is appalled at the theological counsel Lucia received from her priest. We instinctively recoil from the thought that a human being would be directly told by a religious authority that she should gladly submit to being battered. It strikes us as wrong, immediately. But the priest’s counsel, sadly, was not unusual. It was nearly a direct quote from Scripture.

Fortunately, because of the work of people like Marie Fortune and the Center for the Prevention of Sexual Abuse and Domestic Violence, most ministers and priests are better trained now to offer appropriate pastoral care to victims of family violence. Still, all the excellent pastoral care in the world cannot always overcome the impact of a theological tradition that teaches the highest form of love is the willingness to bear violence for the sake of a greater good.

From this moment of religious impasse, my pastoral experience led me—along with my sister feminist theologians Joanne Brown and Rita Nakashima Brock—to conclude that our traditional ways of speaking about the violence that happened to Jesus make it difficult for human beings to recognize their right to say no to violence; they make it difficult for us to understand love as something more than denying yourself for the sake of someone else. They also make it difficult for us to recognize violence for what it is, to see it operating in our world in systems that sacrifice human beings. If we cannot see violence clearly, we will not contribute to ending it.

And sometimes we have not paid attention to the extent to which we have internalized these ideas in our own lives in ways that have tragic outcomes for ourselves and for others. When Lucia came to me for counsel, I had thought that my theology was different from hers.

To be a disciple of Jesus, I believed, was to love in the same way: to never break relationship, to choose pain for oneself rather than cause pain to another. But putting this theology into practice disrupted my life in troubling ways and led to a spiritual and theological impasse that was only beginning when I met Lucia.

The full story of that religious impasse is told in the book Rita Nakashima Brock and I wrote, Proverbs of Ashes, but here is a part of the story from my life that shows why it became imperative to rethink liberal theology.

When I was in my late 20s, my husband and I decided we’d like to start a family. My husband was the one who proposed that the time was right.

I knew I was pregnant the day after Easter. The double-blossom cherry was blooming. I felt the life beginning inside of me as if it were an enormous gift.

But when I told my husband the news, the blood drained from his face. We were sitting across from one another at a favorite restaurant. I had taken his hands in mine to tell him. The Formica tabletop expanded between us as he pulled back and let go of my hands. “I’m not ready to be a father,” he said. “I can’t do this. I’m not sure I want to stay with you. The only way I can imagine our marriage having a chance is for you to have an abortion.” I felt his words as if there were a physical blow—swift, precise, unexpected.

“This is my decision to make,” I said, claiming the only ground I could find to stand on. I spent the next few weeks considering my choices.

In late May, when the lilacs were heavy with purple blossoms, I had an abortion. In safe, legal, medical conditions, I gave up the pregnancy—relinquished the life beginning in me, the life that would have become my only child.

I chose abortion to save myself from shame, loss, and fears of suicide; to save a child from coming into the world without a father; to save a marriage; and to save the father from something he feared, something he said I could protect him from.

It was a willing sacrifice, I thought. An enactment of love for my husband and hope for our future.

But our future did not unfold as I’d hoped. My husband and I didn’t speak of the abortion. We tried to repair the rift in our marriage, but within a few months, he took an apartment across town.

It was a sad time. I felt keenly the loss of the child whose beginning I had welcomed with joy. During the day I did my job, but at night I wrestled with anguish. I wanted to die. I was troubled that the choice to sacrifice came so easily. The gesture of sacrifice was familiar. I knew the rubrics of the ritual by heart: you cut away some part of yourself, then peace and security are restored, relationship is preserved, and shame is avoided.

But what if my choice for an abortion was the performance of a ritual that I was trained to enact, not the exercise of genuine moral discernment? I began trying to understand why the gesture of sacrifice was so easy, so familiar to my body, so related to my sexuality, and so futile. Why did I know so well how to do it? Why did the women I knew as friends, counseled as parishioners, preached to in my congregation, know so well how to sacrifice?

Christianity, I recognized, had taught me that sacrifice is the way of life. When theology presents Jesus’ death as God’s sacrifice of his beloved child for the sake of the world, it teaches that the highest love is sacrifice. To make sacrifice or to be sacrificed is virtuous and redemptive.

But what if this is not true? What if nothing, or very little, is saved? What if the consequence of sacrifice is simply pain, the diminishment of life, fragmentation of the soul? What if the severing of life is merely destructive of life and is not the path of love, courage, trust, and faith? What if the performance of sacrifice is a ritual in which some human beings bear loss and others are protected from accountability or moral expectations?

My decision for an abortion was the best I could do in the circumstances. I do not regret that I had this choice, and I continue to believe that abortion should remain safe and legal. What I regret is that I lacked moral imagination and therefore moral freedom because I had so deeply internalized the spirituality of self-sacrifice. I didn’t exercise much choice. I obeyed a ritual.

The consequence of the ritual was sorrow. Nothing was redeemed or saved. I was bereft. I grieved the lost pregnancy and my husband’s absence. I was missing an internal space in my own body that was free from the imperative of self-sacrifice. I had no inner sanctuary.*

This painful experience was a long time ago now in my life—almost 20 years. Family and friends have offered me generous love and support, and I have healed from that sad time. I tell this story because it illustrates the depth to which theological ideas about how life can be saved are internalized in us. I sincerely believed my sacrifice was an act of love that would make my husband love me more for my Christ-like willingness to bear pain.

In times of crisis, we enact the rituals that we have come to believe will redeem the situation. But the rituals we enact are not always adequate to the realities we are confronted with, and instead of redeeming the situation they can lead to further anguish and loss.

In the days since September 11, 2001, I’ve wondered about this. I wonder if we as a nation aren’t resorting to a ritual that we believe will save us, a ritual that has its roots in a theology of redemptive violence. The situation we are in as a nation—the victim of an anguishing terrorist attack that has cost lives, disrupted our economy, and traumatized all of us at some level—is very difficult. The paths by which we can repair the damage, heal the nation’s wounds, call the perpetrators to account, and contribute to the prospects of peace and safety for the world community are not easy to discern. But as we find our way forward, I believe it is imperative that we engage in significant reflection. It will not suffice to enact old scripts uncritically. Religious impasse happens not just to individuals. It can happen to a whole culture. I believe we are in a moment of religious impasse now, as a society.

The old script we need to examine is the one that says violence can save us. This is the theological idea deeply embedded in our culture. In its internalized form, this theology says that self-sacrifice is redemptive: We are to bear pain in silence, absorb suffering and humiliation, or cut away part of ourselves, and trauma will be transformed. We will be good, like Jesus, who suffered in this way, and life can go on.

In its externalized form, this theology says that God redeems the world through the use of violence. He sacrificed his only Son, as a substitute for destroying all of us. The sacrifice is necessary because transgressors must be punished. Through such punishment, divine justice is accomplished and life can go on.

Don’t we, to some extent, re-enact this theology when we believe that through inflicting humiliation, pain, and death on those who have harmed us, trauma will be transformed and life will go on.

Is this belief true? Is the performance of this ritual adequate? It may be. Many people in the United States are counting on it.

According to the polls, around 90 percent of Americans feel it is right for us to have bombed Afghanistan. Most of us took pride in seeing the Afghan people freed from the repressive Taliban and could feel good about our role. Still, as good as all this feels for some, it is also appropriate to be disquieted, to have mixed feelings. We need to think deeper. Doesn’t the ritual of retaliation involve too simple a picture of who is good and who is bad? Doesn’t it let us off the hook from considering the history of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and central Asia? Doesn’t it protect us from examining ourselves and allow us to remain comfortable in an image of ourselves as innocent victims? Will the pain and humiliation of our enemy in fact free us from the harm our enemy has caused us? Does the performance of vengeance fully answer the question, “How can life be restored in the aftermath of violence? How do we heal the nation’s wounds and create a better future?”

The theology that remains unexamined if we don’t ask these questions is the theology that says “Violence Saves,” and depicts God as saving the world through violence.

The religious terrorists who flew the planes into the World Trade Center operated with this kind of theology. Mark Juergensmeyer, in his Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence, reports on the common themes found among religious terrorists active in the world today. Their theology evolves in a context of injury, assault, or threat. The holy warriors experience themselves as victims of an enemy’s unjustified aggression and violence, or feel threatened by an encroaching culture. Having been humiliated, they are fighting back in order to restore honor for their people and pay back injustices. They believe their own deaths will bring glory to their families, will be honored among their people, and will be pleasing to God.

Our nation has been traumatized, families are grieving because of people who believed that God seeks the humiliation and destruction of enemies, and that those who obey God’s will in this bring honor and merit to their people.

Christians in the United States have been eager to make clear that we are very different from the religious fanatics who have harmed us. We rightly say that their religious terrorism is not representative of true Islam, which is a religion of peace, not violence. But how different are we? Can we say religiously sanctioned violence does not represent true Christianity?

We, too, have a tradition of holy war, and it is closely connected to the history of the doctrine of the atonement.

The medieval theologian, Anselm of Canterbury, writing in 1098, formulated the substitutionary theory of the atonement to defend Christianity from the imagined threat of increasing Jewish and Muslim presence in Europe, and to demonstrate Christianity’s superiority over Islam. Anselm spelled out the idea that God became human in Jesus in order to die on the cross to pay the debt humanity owed God for its sinful disobedience. Using metaphors drawn from feudal society, Anselm said God’s honor had been shamed by sin. Jesus’ death restored God’s honor and merited rewards for all believers.

This is precisely the theology that justified violent Christian aggression against Muslims and Jews. Just three years earlier, Pope Urban the II, Anselm’s good friend, called for the first crusade on November 27, 1095. He promised the Christian knights he was recruiting that if they died their debts would be forgiven and their deaths would merit rewards for their families, just as Jesus’ death on the cross merited the reward to all Christians of God’s mercy and forgiveness.

We need to grapple more deeply with how Christianity has sanctioned violence; and struggle to answer for ourselves the question, “In the aftermath of violence, how can life be restored?” From this struggle, we might be better prepared to minister to those who experience the anguishing intimate violence of physical and sexual abuse; and we might be able to bring a voice of wisdom, compassion, and insight to our society during this anguishing time of national suffering—when we are at risk of repeating rituals unexamined, rituals that may do nothing more than intensify human suffering.

Alfred North Whitehead observed that there are times when violence is a last resort in personal or national defense. But, he says, the most violence can do is stop something. It can stop a violent aggressor. But violence can never create. It can never bring peace into being. It can never repair what has been lost.

Love is the active, creative force that repairs life’s injuries and brings new possibilities into being. Love generates life—from the first moment of conception of a child, to the last moment when love creates a way for those who have died to be remembered with gratitude and tenderness.

And in the deepest night, when our hearts are breaking, it is the discovery of a love that embraces us even when we cannot embrace ourselves that saves us and redirects us to a life of generosity.

A story from Proverbs of Ashes to conclude:

I told you about the religious impasse in my life—when I obeyed the ritual of self sacrifice believing, erroneously, that self sacrifice expressed love. Following my decision to abort a wanted pregnancy, I found myself in a period of deep trouble. I’d lost my marriage. I’d had an abortion as an act of sacrifice that led to nothing but sorrow. I isolated myself, and didn’t call on friends or family to help me with the confusion and grief I felt. I could not break the spiral of anguish and self-directed anger. I turned and turned on myself. For nearly two years, night after night I had been pacing the parsonage halls, caught in a relentless rage and grief.

One night, I came to the end of my will to live. I just wanted the anguish to stop. It was spring. A cold, clear night. I lived at the top of the hill above Lake Union, and sometime after midnight I left my house and started walking down the hill. The water would be cold enough. I could walk into it, then swim, then let go, sink down into the darkness and go home to God. The thought was comforting. I had no second thoughts. I was set on my course.

At the bottom of the hill, I had only the small grassy rise at the edge of Kite Hill to cross before I came to the water’s edge. I crested the familiar rise and began the descent to the welcoming water when I was caught short by a barrier that hadn’t been there before. It looked like a long line of oddly shaped saw horses, laid out to the left and to the right, the width of the grassy field. In the dark I couldn’t see a way to get around either end, but it looked like I could climb over the middle. I quickened my pace, impelled by the grief that wouldn’t let go of me. As I got closer, the dark forms before my eyes seemed to be moving. I squinted to understand what I was seeing.

The odd bunchy shapes were a line of human beings bundled up in parkas and hats. The stick shapes weren’t sawhorses. They were telescopes. It was the Seattle Astronomy Club.

Before I could make my way through the line, one of them looked up from his eyeglass, and presuming me to be an astronomer, said with enthusiasm, “I’ve got it focused perfectly on Jupiter. Come, take a look.” I didn’t want to be rude or give away my reason for being there, so I bent down and looked through the telescope. There was Jupiter, banded red and glowing! “Isn’t it great?” he said.

It was great. Jupiter was beautiful through the telescope. The amateur astronomer focusing the lens didn’t know me. He didn’t know why I was there. He assumed I was there because the night sky was a wonder to behold. Across the sheen of dark water, the lights of the city shimmered. Over head, the sky was wild with pinpoints of fire.

I couldn’t kill myself in the presence of these people who had gotten up in the middle of a cold spring night, with their home-built Radio Shack telescopes, to look at the planets and the stars.

“Sure on this shining night, I weep for wonder, kindness must watch for me, this side the ground.”

We had sung those words in church choir and I knew them by heart.

In a moment of terrible despair, human kindness reached me. Human beings, present to life’s mysterious beauty stopped me and helped me turn again toward the goodness of our world and toward myself as part of that world. It isn’t always so. Sometimes despair overwhelms a human being and the touch that would recall them to life is missed or not received. The survivors of those who do kill themselves grieve doubly—for the loss of life, and for the anguish that their love was not enough.

I was lucky. For me, the habit of self-sacrifice had created a fragmented and isolated interior life. An impulse for self-directed violence had displaced ordinary, commonplace matters. But when I experienced the unexpected continuities of ordinary life, my presence of mind was restored. The ordinary inclination of human beings to share what pleases them, the delight of being awake to the beauty of the night sky, the cool air, the grass beneath my feet—these returned life to my senses. The commonplace translated itself into a deeper knowing. There is a web of connection we live in that is greater than sense can tell.

Restored breadth of feeling and renewed awareness of love enabled me to make a decision to affirm rather than do violence to life—even when the violence I contemplated was turned onto myself.

I was not saved that night by an act of sacrifice. I was saved by a restoration of presence, a presence that I had lost and that was returned to me, by life. I pray it will be so for all who face such moments.*

Theology born from the body of life is theology that speaks from the depths of our life experience. It speaks a word of anguish and a word of hope. The anguish is this: Violence can break our hearts and efface the goodness of God’s world. The hope is this: Love, in its myriad forms, can recall us to life.