Anote from Jamie Howison: What follows here is the text of an article I wrote in 1995, while I was working as pastoral care coordinator at Marymound, a residential treatment centre for adolescent girls. It originally appeared in the July/August 1995 issue of Sojourners magazine, and was later reprinted in a newsletter for people dealing with the aftermath of child sexual abuse. Given the themes which arose in this past Sunday’s sermon on Job 23:1-9,16-17, I though it timely to now share the article.
I’m writing to tell you that I’m sorry for being an atheist, or being one in front of you, and for making smart ass remarks about “the old man.” But to tell you the truth on the matter it’s because where I was being hurt by my uncle, there was a picture of Christ on the wall and all I remember thinking “is this what this guy is all about?” And then people say that god is beside you all the time, but he won’t help you unless you help yourself. Well sorry but that’s bull—-, because what the hell is an 8-year-old girl supposed to do to help herself where that’s going on? So all I would have to ask the guy (since he was right beside me) is “Did you enjoy the —-ing show you phonie!!!!” (no offense).
But ever since then he’s never really hit me as anything else besides another character in a Mother Goose storybook. I really hope this doesn’t change our relationship, but now you can, or I hope you can understand why I feel the way I feel.
The anger is so intense, you can almost touch it.
In seminary we “wrestled” with the problem of evil. Human evil. Systemic evil. The apparent evil of natural disasters. Drawing lines between the horrors wrought by an earthquake and the tragedy of an air crash caused by a mechanical failure. Tracing human culpability for the famine in Ethiopia. I wrote one dandy paper on the failure of process theology to deal adequately with the problem of evil. All at arm’s length, in the relative comfort of a “starving student’s” life.
It’s funny, in a way, that even though I already had worked for years with abused and neglected kids, their experience of evil rarely entered my college musings, at least not in any significant or sustained way.
Maybe I’m being too hard on myself, and on academic theology generally. I never completely lost sight of what I knew to be the realities for so many people, and I wanted my theological studies to connect. I was so excited to discover Moltmann’s treatment of “the crucified God.” Liberation writers, too, and many of the feminist writers, have gone a considerable distance in reorienting the shape and direction of our reflections.
Still, whether it’s seminary conditioning, clergy conditioning, or just plain contemporary conditioning, I almost instinctively reach for a tidy package with which I can respond to the pain and problems that are placed in my lap.
Guess what? This girl doesn’t want my “problem of evil” package. Some do, you know. Some of the kids I’ve worked with will ask, “Where was God when I was being abused?” because they want desperately to hear that God was in the picture somewhere. Anywhere.
One girl took me to her room to show me her bulletin board, which was neatly set up with four items. In the center was a newspaper clipping, detailing the conviction of a man who had raped and murdered a 4-year-old girl. Right beside the clipping was a hand-written disclosure of her own abuse experiences at about the same age. In the left corner of the bulletin board was a copy of that corny meditation “Footprints” (where God says, in effect, “when you were suffering most deeply, then I carried you”), while in the right corner was her most recent school picture, at about age 15, all smiles and confidence.
I was stunned by the connections she was making, and I told her so. “When I was being abused,” she said, “God was with me, holding my hand.”
“Did you enjoy the —-ing show you phonie!!!!” That’s just miles away, isn’t it? If this girl were to hear that other girl’s comments about God holding her hand, she would just laugh. God as co-offender. God as sadistic voyeur. She’s just not interested in a God who is that impotent.
Why are these two so different? Partly because the girl with the bulletin board had a wonderful grandmother who stood by her through thick and thin, and had a Christian faith that she passed on to her granddaughter. But this would only make the other girl laugh again. “You know why you believe in God, Jamie?” she once asked me. “Because you were brought up to believe in God. If you’d been raised a Satanist, you’d be a Satanist. If you’d been raised an atheist, you’d be an atheist.” There’s so much truth in that.
She loves to argue with me. She loves it when I pull out my nice neat packages, so she can tug at their wrappers, shake their contents, and then hand them back with a scornful “no thanks.”
I hate to argue with her. I hate that feeling of hauling out those sad old packages, knowing full well what she’s going to do with them. I feel at those times as if my closest biblical parallel is one of Job’s wretched comforters, coming with a tidy little answer to Job’s horror and suffering. C.S. Lewis records a conversation he had with Charles Williams regarding these comforters:
[Williams] did not believe that God Himself wanted that frightened, indignant, and voluble creature to be annihilated; or even silenced. If it wanted to carry its hot complaints to the very throne, even that, he felt, would be a permitted absurdity. For was not that very much what Job had done? It was true, Williams added, that the Divine answer had taken the surprising form of inviting Job to study the hippopotamus and the crocodile. But Job’s impatience had been approved. His apparent blasphemies had been accepted. The weight of the divine displeasure had been reserved for the “comforters,” the self-appointed advocates on God’s side, the people who tried to show that all was well – “the sort of people,” he said, immeasurably dropping his lower jaw and fixing me with his eyes – “the sort of people who wrote books on the Problem of Pain.”
And as I cringe at the thought of being one such self-appointed advocate for God, I can also see my letter writer mirrored in the figure of Job. Like him, she lashes out in honest anger, holding no punches. Perhaps it could be objected that Job steadfastly maintained his belief in God, even through all of his anger, while this girl has discarded the very idea of God. But has she? For all of her words about God as just another Mother Goose character, she seems strangely compelled to keep raging at God.
One thing is sure: I can’t “comfort” her into a faith in God. I can’t hope to find some new and dynamic arrow in the theological quiver that will penetrate the armor of her anger and disillusionment. I can’t hope to find some new stuff to put into those old packages. In fact, I have to fight every urge to tamper with my packages, and instead learn to leave them up on the shelf, where, for the most part, they belong.
When Job first saw his comforters walking up the path to see him on the dung heap, he was probably thrilled at the prospect of having some company in his pain. The text even says that they sat with him for seven days and seven nights before reaching for their own packages. Oh, that they might have fought that temptation and let themselves simply and openly share Job’s burden, learning from his rage and from his suffering.
Muriel Spark has written a novel, The Only Problem, which confronts in contemporary terms the problem of Job. While some theologians may claim that the question of the suffering innocent is not so critical a theological issue as has been generally assumed, experientially it is the only problem for the person suffering. Realistically, it is the only problem that unsettles us this way.
I’m learning, my friend. I’m learning to shut up when you invite me to sit with you on your dung heap. I’m not about to pretend that I will ever entirely give up trying to speak a meaningful word to you, but when I do speak it will be out of the depths of the silence that I offer as my first gift. It will be a word humbly offered, born of a deep respect for your experience and your theology. It will be a word of companionship. You see, I can’t not speak. But first I’ll be still and listen.