Archives For Wounded World

Where are the Stories?

Nathan Aaberg —  September 30, 2016 — Leave a comment

I just had a powerful literary experience.

I listened to James Lee Burke’s The Tin Roof Blowdown read by Will Patton.

This crime/mystery novel is set in New Orleans before, during, and after Hurricane Katrina and features Iberia Parish Sheriff’s Detective Dave Robicheaux and a cast of many other unique characters.

james-lee-burke-the-tin-roof-blowdown

It is harsh, brutal, and shattering. There were days when I could only listen to about 30 seconds and then had to wait until the next day to listen to a bit more because some of the scenes were so life-like in their rawness and so full of potential for tragic violence.

Yet, the story, especially with Will Patton’s skillful reading, is simultaneously eloquent, poetic, and richly layered. It is filled with wonderful evocations of the beauty of New Orleans’ bayous and live oaks. And there is a deft Christian sensibility to it as well.

Through the book, the tragedy of the impact of Hurrican Katrina on New Orleans, particularly on the most vulnerable, went from being abstractions that I had carefully inventoried away in back shelves of my mind to tangible, heartfelt wounds painfully etched in my imagination through details and characters and subplots of the story.

Where are the stories like this of our destruction of God’s world and the communities that depend on it?

Where are the stories of Christians perpetrating this?

Where are the stories of Christians trying to heal and shepherd God’s living world?

I want to read those kinds of stories. I realize I want to write them.

Would they make a difference?

Having and living out a whole faith ultimately depend on our willingness to open our hearts. Are we ready to have our convictions reshaped by God, even those convictions that have grown out of our culture and are deeply rooted in our emotions?

We tend to pick and choose where God’s message applies and where it doesn’t. When it applies to something we intuitively care deeply about, we see things in intense blacks and whites. When it applies to something we don’t care deeply about because of our culture or self-interest, we ignore it or rationalize how we and our community are acting toward it.

Case in point – abortion.

The controversy over the Planned Parenthood videos has again brought abortion into the forefront. It has also again revealed how selective people can be in applying core ethical concerns. Pro-choice supporters, many of whom would rail against the mistreatment of minorities and the polluting of rivers, don’t want to squarely face the horror of the violence done against a baby in a womb. The ability of Planned Parenthood officials and their supporters to use abstract, technical language to talk around this reality is deeply disturbing.

But far too many Christians who are outraged by the Planned Parenthood videos and by abortion in general, ignore and even acquiesce to daily violence against poor, vulnerable communities and against God’s earth. In fact, many of the same people who are speaking against abortion in shrill voices are just as likely to be comfortable with and even to advance ways of using God’s earth that systematically cause suffering to people and vulnerable living beings.

Did you know that a child’s lungs begin to develop in the womb but are not fully developed until they turn eight years old? In what way is it right to desire to protect that child’s life and lungs in the womb but not when they are out of the womb and vulnerable to pollution?

Selectivity in where we advocate for love and compassion and where we don’t is like a tree that bears beautiful fruit on some branches but rotten, worm-filled, poisonous fruit on others.

To make this point, I want to share a list of ten ways in which abortion shares common ground with the violence done against Creation. I am not suggesting they are exactly morally equivalent and I recognize that I am ignoring many nuances. Nevertheless, I believe the extensive common ground should give us pause and compel us to desire to live out whole lives of whole faith.

The actual acts are violent and cruel: The references to the “crunchiness” of abortion and the awful images shown on signs at protests around abortion clinics jerk us out of an anesthetized calm and into the reality of the violence of abortion. What chance do soft skin and tissue have against cold, hard steel? A number of years ago, the culture critic and avowed atheist, Camille Paglia faced that reality directly when she wrote: “Hence I have always frankly admitted that abortion is murder, the extermination of the powerless by the powerful. Liberals for the most part have shrunk from facing the ethical consequences of their embrace of abortion, which results in the annihilation of concrete individuals and not just clumps of insensate tissue.”

For their part, confined animal feed operations sounds reasonable and antiseptic until you think about the experience of the animals and the lagoons of waste outside. And what about slaughterhouses where the speed of the killing line is debilitating to the workers and cruel to the animals? Or the testing of cosmetics and pharmaceuticals on animals or the ripping up of prairies with their rich plant and animal life to be farmed for ethanol and animal feed? Or mountains being leveled and forests cleared in the Appalachians with dire impacts on surrounding communities, forests, and streams?

A variety of abstract, intellectual arguments are often given by elite proponents to justify the violence being done: Here’s what Camille Paglia used for her justification for defending abortion: “The state in my view has no authority whatever to intervene in the biological processes of any woman’s body, which nature has implanted there before birth and hence before that woman’s entrance into society and citizenship.” In other words, nature unfairly failed to give women a say in the fact that they must be ones to bear babies so a woman is justified in having a child killed in her womb. Likewise, the promoters of commodity farming cry out that we must feed the world. This zealous, seemingly selfless mission is used to justify the worst features of commodity farming that result in dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico, nitrates in drinking water, the killing of soil life, and factory farms.

The inherent value of that life is denied either explicitly or implicitly: Isn’t it interesting that people justify abortion and destruction and violence to God’s world because the unborn child and the cedar waxwing and the rare plant do not have the same capabilities as an adult human? Yes, we must make distinctions, but the full value and worth of a living thing do not ultimately come from a living thing’s capabilities. They come from the fact that they are in some mysterious way God’s.

We don’t want to be confronted with the inherent violence and destruction of those acts, and the people carrying out the acts don’t want the world to see the full reality of them: Let’s face it. We avert our gaze from images of aborted babies and don’t want to look at videos of farm animals being abused. And people carrying out the acts typically want to make exposure to those realities and to the truth behind what is being done difficult. A great example has been the passing of “ag gag” laws which prohibit undercover investigations of farming operations (livestock operations, in particular) because undercover operations resulted in disturbing information and videos about how animals were actually being treated. These remind me of Herod imprisoning John because he called Herod to task for divorcing his wife and then marrying his brother’s wife.

Freedom and personal rights trump all other values: The right to do what one wants with what is one’s own (whether it be one’s body or one’s property) is asserted as the ultimate value by abortion rights advocates and by many people on the right side of the political spectrum. They both resent any restriction on what they do with their body, their land, their animals, and even their employees. Assertions of freedom and personal rights are, however, not really a justification of what is done. Instead they are a force field that negates the right of anyone else to make ethical judgments about what is done with those rights or to intervene on behalf of society’s common values.

It’s all too easy to move on as if the violence never happened: We so easily avoid the ghosts. Following violence there is a peace of sorts, and unless you use a moral imagination, the life that was or could have been fades quickly away as if it never was. And making the effort to hold onto the memory of a place that had been full of life or what the unborn child could have become takes moral energy and willingness to go into raw emotions that few of us want to deal with. One of the ways that the cross is so unusual as a symbol of faith is that it forces us to pay attention to the moment of violence and sacrifice in the story of Jesus and God. Perhaps it should even cultivate in us a heart that will not turn away from suffering and violence?

The acceptance of violence by the powerful against powerless life in particular cases contributes to a desensitization to other forms of violence in our world: I have heard the argument that routine abortion desensitizes us to a devaluing of life in general. That rings true. And how animals are raised, transported, and slaughtered in many cases around the country does, in my opinion, the same thing. It is an interesting and disturbing fact that many psychopaths first revealed their dangerous tendencies by torturing and killing animals. A cruel spirit that cannot empathize with the weak and vulnerable will show that cruelty to people and animals alike over time.

Science continues to give us an expanded view of the complexity of life even as applied science grows in its ability to carry out violence against life ever more surgically and effectively: We now know so much more about the life of the unborn child and its rapid development than we used to. Twins in the womb, for example, play with each other. Babies in the womb know when they are being sung to and when there is just background music. We know ever more about the intelligence and emotional life of many animals and other life as well. Did you know that octopi have 130 billion neurons and humans about 100 billion (and the majority of neurons of an octopus are in its arms)? We are also learning more about the complex life of soils and the dynamic interaction between soil life and plant life.

When this expanding world of scientific knowledge collides with our interests and desires, however, we tune it out. And when we learn in the Planned Parenthood video that there are ways to extract the body of a pre-birth baby intact after it has been killed so that its organs can be removed for donation, we are witnessing one of the fruits of applied science in an ever more sophisticated form. Similarly, applied science is offering us ever more sophisticated ways to get what we want out of natural life at tremendous cost. Sixty to 80 percent of pigs (as well as many cattle and turkeys) raised in the U.S. today are given ractopamine, a growth-enhancing drug, that many countries ban. It’s a beautiful thing if all you value is enhancing your profits by getting more poundage of pig for your dollar. But what about the pigs? This article notes that an FDA report has found that the drug can result in “respiratory disorders, hoof disorders, bloat, abnormal lameness and leg disorders, hyperactivity, stiffness, aggression, stress, recumbency (inability to get up) and death.” Human ingenuity combined with deadened hearts magnifies horror in this world.

The law tends to favor the powerful over the powerless. The baby in its womb.  A pig in a factory farm. An endangered species being poached or its habitat gradually cut up. A stream being filled with waste and toxic chemicals. None of them can vote or make political contributions. They cannot file briefs in court. They cannot speak. The law and politics do not serve them as well as they serve the larger forces in society that do vote, do make political contributions, can speak, and directly benefit from the way the system works today. The forces of the powerful have the perpetual advantage in the world of law.

A purely economic way of looking at life decisions and how our world works readily justifies abortion and many abuses of nature. It’s hard to make an economic case for having a child. And it’s even harder to make if you’re just barely getting by and if your family’s life is already hard and even dysfunctional. There’s a parallel there with how we tend to look at a field or a population of fish.  From a purely economic view, it’s hard to justify not transfroming them into things of use to people. Ironically, abortion clinics contribute to our GNP as do industrial agriculture and factory farms and extractive industriesy that deplete places and leave behind toxic legacies. Economic practicality has an inherently tension-filled relationship with Christian values. In other words, faith in the invisible hand inevitably will conflict with faith in our invisible God.

 

I’ve long been trying to understand what holds all of these commonalities together. A recent sermon I heard helped me do that. Amanda Rosengren, the associate pastor at the Church of the Redeemer we’ve recently begun attending, preached on the story of David and Bathsheba that you can find in 2 Samuel 11-12.

Amanda pointed out that the story of David and Bathsheba that prompts Nathan to confront David and the parable-like story that Nathan tells David to awaken his heart are both ultimately about the powerful abusing the powerless. The victims of the powerful – Bathsheba, Uriah, the poor man’s family in the story Nathan tells, and the lamb in that story – are profoundly vulnerable to the powerful. They are especially vulnerable to the powerful who feel entitled to use that power for their own benefit.

“Power, like money, is not inherently good or bad, it all depends on how it is used,” said Amanda. “In order to use rather than abuse the power we have, we first need to recognize it we need to “know our own strength.” Do we use the power we have to listen to those who lack it, or do we pay attention only to the powerful or those like us? After we listen, do we, like the prophet Nathan, use our power to speak on behalf of those who lack it, and to exert influence for the cause of justice for those who have been trampled upon? Do we have compassion for those who are victims, who are powerless, or do we blame them for their lack of power, or simply ignore them because we can? Do we use what we have been given to build up the community, or only for ourselves and what we want? Do you know your own strength?”

One of the tragedies of living in this broken world is that the complicated contexts people find themselves in can make the use of our power in a bad way seemingly the best option of many bad options. Can we live completely in loving ways without ever causing harm to others and other vulnerable living things? That is very hard. Even as we advocate for compassion and love, we must also have compassion and love for those who feel forced by reality to harm vulnerable life. And, yes, there are nuances.

Yet, we should be strong voices for the compassionate and thoughtful use of our individual and collective power. In all contexts. This means we must accept limits to ourselves and our desires for power and glory and wealth.

It is time for coherent, whole thinking and ethics across all political leanings in how we deal with all life. And whole thinking and whole ethics do not start from intellect and argument. They start from the heart. If we open our hearts to God through Jesus, our hearts will be transformed, every corner of them. Out of those transformed hearts will come a desire to use our strength and creativity for good and to avoid using it in ways that harm the vulnerable.

How can we help but be pro-life for all of life?

My wife and I recently attended an eye-opening, two-day workshop for parents of adopted and foster children.

Many of the parents who attended the workshop are struggling as they try to deal with challenging, difficult behaviors from their children whose brains have been wired differently becuase of the trauma they experienced in utero and in the first years of thier lives. Many of the parents have been wounded emotionally. Some have even been physically harmed by their children. At the very same time, they face criticism of their parenting from their own families and from the community around them who simply don’t understand.

With therapeutic parenting, some of these children’s brains can be rewired so they have a chance for a more normal life. Not every child, however, can be healed completely from their trauma no matter what the parents do.  Some will always be off kilter in their emotional and cognitive development. The trauma of the broken world persists. And that, in turn, can bring its own trauma to the families who, out of compassion and love, take those children in.

At a breakfast we had with two other couples at the workshop, I asked a question about church, God, and their adoption experiences. The floodgates opened. The other couples poured out their struggles with their faith and with their churches since they had adopted. Neither couple now attends a church. Yet they miss it dearly.

While each couple had particular reasons why they had retreated from their church community, there was one common factor – their adoption journey had led them to have doubts about God.

One of the parents said something to the effect of, “Adoption has dropped me into the sewer of the world. I can’t believe a god in control of the world would allow things to happen that happened to my children.”

By “sewer of the world”, I believe that the parent meant the broken places of the world where there is violence, in utero exposure to drugs and alcohol, sexual abuse, profound neglect, and soul-crushing poverty in one big sordid stew.

Many of us want to avoid even catching a whiff of that stew. Many Christians have an instinctive urge to jump in and rescue God from the somber, raw direction of this conversation.

It’s the same instinct that leads us to say to a friend who is mourning the loss of a loved one, “God took him/her to a better place.” That tone-deaf assertion that God is in control of everything and that all can be seen with rose-colored glasses represents an unwillingness to be vulnerably open to the grief and despair of this world.

If I could have that breakfast conversation over again, I would encourage them to read the whole Bible carefully. In the Bible, you see a more nuanced pattern of God’s sovereignty over the world than is typically assumed. People in the Bible regularly make awful choices. There is no sense that God caused them to do so, and in the Bible we see God angered and frustrated by what they do. In Jesus, we see God profoundly sympathetic to the poor and suffering and sick. There is never any suggestion that God had anything to do with their original condition or willed it to be so.

Nor is there any sustained assertion in the Bible that all suffering leads to good in this world. Sometimes it is just suffering.

In Jesus, we also see God experiencing the sewer of the world. Jesus suffers in almost every conceivable way as he fulfills his mission. If Christians are called to be disciples of Jesus, then part of that discipleship clearly is to work to bring light to where it is most dark. That was the mission of Jesus. And Jesus was no Pollyana. He called things the way they were. There was an edge about him. He frequently expressed anger and sorrow. Jesus wept.

In short, a profound awareness of the brokenness of humanity and the world is completely in tune with the Bible and is as essential a component of a whole faith as is the conviction that God will eventually make all things right.

A recent blog post by Peter Harris, author of Under the Bright Wings and co-founder of the international Christian organization A Rocha, reminds us that the sewer of the world is not limited to human suffering.

In his post, he shares an experience of visiting the island of St. Helena in the South Atlantic. He is delighted to see his new grandson there, but he is also painfully aware of the wounded nature of the landscape he sees because he is aware of what the island used to hold.

… St Helena is a sobering place to ecological eyes, because it serves as a metaphor for much that is now happening so fast to habitats and species around the world. In the early 17th century the Portuguese landed goats and in just a hundred years they had reduced huge areas of its lush landscape to bare rock. For millennia St Helena had been home to hundreds of unique species, but most are now gone.

There are a million St. Helenas around the world. They are tangible evidence of what has been lost, of the profound misuse of the gift of freedom given to humanity.

People who care about God’s earth, whether they be believers or not, lament what has been lost and work to defend what is left. But our culture has often recoiled from them. This is in part because we are too often unwilling to be present and open to the impact of our brokenness. It’s too painful.

Aldo Leopold captured this when he wrote: “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds”

I believe a whole Christian faith must include sensitivity to all the forms of brokenness in the world.

That sensitivity to brokenness needs to be part of our consciousness, part of how we communicate the faith, part of where we are willing to go emotionally even as we have hope for what will come. This is because we know how much goodness was put into the world, how good things could and should be.

That sensitivity is not about being passively morose.

Instead, that vulnerability should arouse in us an implacable will to heal hurts, restore what can be restored of the abundant good God originally endowed people and creation with, and do all we can to prevent further pain and suffering.

That’s why quickly passing over the sewer of the world on the bridge of assertions that God is in control is such a problem. That simplistic, one-note approach to the Christian faith allows us to rationalize our retreat back to the comfortable Shire of our lives.

Our faith in life beyond death and our hope that all things work together for good for those who love God is actually, I believe, the rope we are equipped with to descend into the sewer with light. No one should be alone in a world of wounds. Christians should be there with them.

Above all, I believe that God ultimately desires us not to wait for all things to be put right but to be God’s hands and feet in doing our best to put them right now. No matter what the odds.

The two couples we spoke with are doing exactly that. They are doing their very best to restore a broken world in a way that will always test them and that will likely always mean a less than ideal world for them. It is profoundly sad that they feel abandoned by their faith communities and unsure of what to make of God even as they act the way Christians should.

And we could all learn something from them about what can happen when we do what we can to heal the wounds of the world.

Later in the workshop one of the fathers from that breakfast said something surprising and profound about his family’s adoption experience. He said, and I paraphrase, “Looking back, I wouldn’t do anything different even if I had the chance. I see the world differently. My wife and I have been changed in ways that couldn’t have happened any other way.”

I am reading from Psalms these days. The passionate expressiveness of this poetry moves my heart.   Anger, despair, joy, faith – they pervade the Psalms. I felt compelled to try my hand at writing one myself, and so here is my first attempt. It is inspired by the plight of tigers, especially the Siberian Tiger. Tigers in their own way and in their natural habitats are kings as David was a king. I’ve rooted the psalm in the themes and even some of the words and phrases of the psalms in the Bible. See if you can identify them. Am I being anthropomorphic? Of course. But I believe that one of our roles in the world is to be the voice and celebrator of the whole world. In the Bible, many creatures and even hills and cedars have voices. In Revelation we read of all of life praising the Lamb. So why not in psalms?

Hear my plea, O LORD, and deliver me,
   for I am near death and my people will perish with me.

You are my Creator and Sustainer,
   from your hand I have received my prey.
You watch over the world;
   you care for the land and water it;
   you know every bird in the mountains.
The hills and every living thing sing to you;
   you are worthy of praise without end.
You have known our people from generation to generation;
   you have known that even in our might we worshipped you.
In mysterious ways you gave us stealth and power,
   we have ruled this land of snow and forest at your leave.
   When have we betrayed you?

My enemies seek to take my life and take this kingdom from me.
   Across cold rivers I am driven to my last stronghold.
Men, even men who call upon your name, hunt me day and night;
   I have no rest, no place to rest my head.
You have given men creative power beyond all imagining,
   but they forget you and rule as tyrants,
They are cruel and perverse shepherds;
   They say, “We are gods! The world is here for our pleasure.”
Beasts of steel devour the pines and oaks of the forest;
   the deer and wild boar find their sustenance no more,
Their stomachs empty, they groan and despair;
   I search in vain for them, and in hunger I groan.
I, the hunter, am now hunted;
   on the land and through the air the chariots of men pursue me.
Their hearts overflow with greed and cunning.
   Gold, not your love, is their master.
As men worship you as the Creator and celebrate their salvation,
   I face the end of my days and the fading away of my people.
Alone I find no trace of my kind in all the snowy vastness.
   I have no sons nor daughters to rule after I am gone.
Is this fear? Is this dread that fills me?
   My spirit, like snow in the wind, knows no peace.
 
But I trust in you, my Creator,
   I turn to you for help.
You will not turn your face away forever;
   will you turn your face away forever?
Save me so that we will persist in this land,
   deliver this land and its many creatures.
You have showed men your light and righteousness;
   you can fill them with love and righteousness.
When they follow you and give their lives and hearts to you,
   they bear abundant fruit that brings light and joy.
Change their hearts, LORD, change their hearts;
   help them bear the good fruit of a living earth.

You will not forget me, LORD.
   You will not forget.
You will again sustain me.
   You will deliver me.
The hills and woods will again praise you and I with them.
   We will sing.

 

 

Mourning Elephants

Nathan Aaberg —  September 20, 2014 — Leave a comment

I hope you have heard the story of the mourning elephants. In brief, two different herds of elephants traveled many hours across the Zululand brush in South Africa to stand vigil outside the home of Lawrence Anthony who had passed away on March 2, 2012.

Anthony had saved many of these elephants. He had accepted many of them as his charges at the Thula Thula game reserve he had created when other reserves no longer wanted them and were ready to shoot them because of their rogue behavior.  He had helped, through love and patience and the offering of a place of sanctuary, to restore their spirits to the point he had become known as the “elephant whisperer.” (There is a book of the same name by Anthony that is well worth reading. You can also read his obituary in the New York Times and a post at Belief.net.)

Reports say that both herds appeared at the family compound not long after Anthony passed away. Dylan, Anthony’s son, said of the elephants, “They had not visited the house for a year and a half and it must have taken them about 12 hours to make the journey. The first herd arrived on Sunday and the second herd, a day later. They hung around for about two days before making their way back into the bush.”

Elephant herd traveling to Anthony family’s compound after Lawrence Anthony died (photo credit: Anthony Family)

In a short post, I cannot do justice to the full story of Anthony’s life and his work with the elephants.   In addition to his work with the elephants, for example, he also helped rescue and protect animals in the Baghdad zoo in 2003 at great personal risk. There is one storyline from The Elephant Whisperer book, however, that stands out.

The first herd of elephants he accepted from another reserve was led by its matriarch Nana. She was enraged and determined to leave Thula Thula and take her herd with her as she had been repeatedly doing at the previous reserve. At one point, Nan and her herd actually did break out after destroying the generator that electrified the enclosure fence with 8,000 volts. Anthony was able to round the herd up and return the elephants to safety in Thula Thula just before locals and wildlife authorities arrived with rifles to kill them.

Anthony saw that, despite the experience, Nana was ready to escape again no matter what the consequences. This was when Anthony did another remarkable thing. As his book describes it:

“Then, in a flash, came the answer. I would live with the herd. To save their lives, I would stay with them, feed them, talk to them. But, most importantly, be with them day and night. We all had to get to know each other.”

It didn’t always go easily. There are frightening encounters. At one point, in the dark of an early morning when the herd seemed ready to break out, Anthony stood between Nana and the fence, placing himself in grave danger to appeal to Nana to not leave when it was entirely in her power to do so. He was ready to sacrifice his life to make the attempt to save her and the herd. He implored Nana not to go, saying: “You will all die if you go. Stay here. I will be here with you and it’s a good place.”

Anthony described what happened then:

“Then something happened between Nana and me, some tiny spark of recognition, flaring for the briefest of moments. Then it was gone. Nana turned and melted into the bush. The rest of the herd followed.”

Things got better. Other places began to send their rogue elephants to Anthony as well.

At the end of Anthony’s life, those elephants and their families returned to the compound without the benefit of reading an obituary or receiving an email. They somehow knew. They mourned him as they are known to mourn their own.

There is much to ponder about this story.

It reminds us of what Christians and people of many other faiths know – this world is not simply a world of material things interacting on a material level. There is a spiritual dimension to this world.

Even more fundamentally, this story reminds us that humans are not unique in our capacity to love, suffer, and share in some way the spiritual dimension of the world.

We spend far too much time looking for ways to distinguish ourselves from the rest of the life of God’s earth. We live in a universe that is somehow sustained by God and that sings to God and that has its own direct relationship with God. It is, in short, a universe that is loved by God. Let us glory in being part of that universe.

We should be grateful, too, for Lawrence Anthony’s example of the special role we are called to play in the world with our unique capacities.

For far too long, Christians have used the idea of “dominion” to justify a cruel and violent rule over God’s earth. What we have not realized is that the self-centered dominion seen in human history is not God’s idea of the role.  The dominion we should model ourselves after is the dominion God has over us. This is seen in its purest essence in Jesus.

Jesus said: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” (John 10:11 NIV).

Jesus exemplifies what God meant by dominion. Before humans disgraced what dominion meant, it meant a loving authority and concern for one’s charges to the point of self-sacrifice. Like that of a loving parent. Like that of a loving shepherd.

So remember the elephants. Remember that elephants mourn. Remember that the daunting yet rewarding work of caring for God’s earth is part of the abundant life that God offers us.