Through my role with VOMC, I have learned a lot about how God can work many things, even tragedies, to His good purpose. Chief among them are powerful acts of grace and forgiveness that emerge, and seem as if they only could have emerged, following great oppression and injustice.
I think, for example, of a woman I met with in Ethiopia who told me how she was raising her children to forgive the very men they watched machete their father to death. Did I come away with a new understanding of forgiveness that day? Yes. Did I marvel at the way God was equipping this woman to demonstrate the attitude of Christ in her season of affliction? Certainly. God’s goodness was alive in this woman’s life, persisting through the pain of her husband’s death.
But I would be lying if I said that everyday encounters with such stories of affliction and loss leave me feeling “good.”
In recent weeks, while having to go through several graphic reports and photos of the mob violence in Plateau State, Nigeria, I grew weary with shock, revulsion and helplessness. Even from a distance, this chaotic whirlwind of violence, which claimed even infants as victims, had the ability to shake my composure, right down to my ability to write; I spent a lot of time staring blankly at my computer screen, searching for words to justly describe this event.
Similar revulsion washed over me again this week as I read of two horrific and fatal attacks on Christians in Pakistan. In one incident a man was killed with an axe. The the other, a man was burned alive, and his wife raped. To add to the horror, the couple’s children were forced to witness the violence against their parents.
How can you read such a story and not feel wretched? To be honest, while trying to sum the story up in our weekly prayer digest, I very much wished my task was to write a catalog description of a bathtub drain or some other similarly technical topic rather than an article on this gruesome story.
Assurance of God’s goodness does not automatically safeguard you from such struggles. I know this, and I’m sure few would protest it. And yet, articulating these struggles can be difficult. I either feel as if I sound too defeated—like I can’t see the ultimate victory through the daily battle—or I feel false for trying to knot up my disturbed state into a tidy little conclusion. This is why it was a great comfort to me to read a blog entry written recently by Kelly Foster, a talented writer with whom I attended grad school.
Kelly’s piece, entitled “Suffering and Voyeurism,” is a meditation on the toll that events of tremendous suffering can take on those who encounter them, even if at a distance via written accounts, photographs or televised reports. She tells of a time she spent studying the Holocaust in college, when she became so engrossed in the subject that she went beyond classroom research and, on her own time, vigorously immersed herself in videos on the subject. The experience so haunted her that she eventually went into a state of retreat, literally, and locked herself in her room for days.
Later, she candidly describes the ironic crush of apathy that can bear down on us when we engage with horrific realities, both past and present. "Ostensibly, witnessing human suffering should make me, should make us all, more willing to act to prevent it,” she says. “[But] in reality, the opposite effect is often achieved.”
While discussing the difficultly of taking action against such atrocities when you feel both engulfed by them and yet so separate from their reality, she says:
Privilege for me has not always bred deeper engagement in the world, but apathy, a contented numbness that underscores any brief encounter with the horrific—a sense that the problems are so many and so varied that I could never do enough to help anyway. When it comes to car bombs, emaciation, guerilla warfare, I am only a visitor. I am not a resident. When I turn the television off, the genocides end. Outside all I hear is the wind in the trees, not the hail of bullets.
I may never become more than a visitor to the kind of practical fear in which over half the world makes its home. But of course, I can care. And of course, I can act. Kathleen Norris reminds us that to care at all is to cry out. I’m just not sure that a constant bombardment of the images of suffering, so easily turned on and off, is the optimal way to summon the kind of care that leads to action.
I can most certainly relate to these feelings—not only as I attempt to cultivate this kind of active compassion in my own life and heart, but also as I attempt to effectively help summon and sustain it in others through my communications role with VOMC. It is hard enough to absorb stories of suffering as an individual, let alone have the strength to share the message in such a manner that it incites others to help.
Summoning this kind of care seems impossible without entering a posture of humility and prayer—both of which require a willingness to admit when you feel despondency encroaching and threatening to overwhelm. Whether it is an reflection rendered artfully in writing, like Kelly’s, a few words said to a friend, or even a prayer whispered brokenly to God, I’ve learned that it is far more harmful to stay silent when feeling troubled than to share it with others—even if you fear that some may misread your distresses as doubt, or weakness of faith, or pessimism.
I believe that to act with this kind of honesty in the face of affliction is to act with mercy. It is why I admit that some days I come to work dreading the stories of grisly violence, death and injustice that I will discover, even if I know that when considered from an eternal perspective these happenings unfold as part of God's plan and purpose.
I firmly believe, also, that the mercy of this honesty is by no means solitary; it extends to those whose sufferings God has laid at your feet. After all, if we do not practice truthfulness to others about how suffering affects us at a distance, how can we expect to act rightly to those in the midst it? How can we be ready for God to usher us beyond the blank, bewildered stares and into the kind of care that leads to action?