By Rupen Das
The IMES blog is meant to be a prophetic voice from within the Arab world. It highlights issues of injustice, as well as challenging non-Arab perceptions of events in the region. Being a prophetic voice, there is often anger at the injustices that we see, and this is undergirded by a sense of sadness in understanding that this is not the way God intended the world to be. However, there is value at times in stepping back from the harsh realities of life and the sense of righteous anger and ask whether there is a theology which explains the realities of the refugee and the poor, and allows the people of God to minister to them.
Over the past several years as I have talked with Syrian refugees, I am struck by the fact that most do not wonder why God is allowing the unbearable suffering that they are enduring. All have lost their homes; many, if not most have seen members of their families killed or disappear, and now they are living in poverty and near destitution. They are terrified by their experiences. They seem to clearly understand that their suffering is caused by the war. Yet in the midst of all of that, whether they are Christian or Muslim, many are seeking a God who will comfort and deliver them. I have seen similar reactions as I have interacted with the desperately poor in other parts of the world.
I find this intriguing, as many in the western world (particularly Christians), when they go through times of trial and suffering, invariably ask the question, why is God doing this to me; why is God allowing this to happen to me?
I have wondered how much of this difference in understanding suffering and who God is has to do with one’s worldview, and for the Christians, their theology. The Creeds, which have defined our faith and set the parameters for the Church’s doctrines seem to have a blank spot when they review the key milestones of salvation. Cyril of Jerusalem writing around 350 A.D. about the role of the creeds states, “This synthesis of faith was…to present the one teaching of the faith in its totality, in which what is of greatest importance is gathered together from the Scriptures…[which] brings together in a few words the entire knowledge of the true religion which is contained in the Old and New [Testaments].”
So the “faith in its totality” that the creeds focus on is the incarnation, the Cross, the resurrection, and the ascension. They seem to imply that this is all that a Christian needs to know. They articulate the victory of Christ over evil and of a triumphant God, but are silent on what that triumph means and how we are to live and understand spiritual reality in the “in-between times” that we live in, when the Kingdom of God has come but not yet manifested in all its fullness. They don’t teach us what to believe about this present world and the reality of evil, which is only too real. They have missed the importance of the darkness and disillusionment of the Saturday between Good Friday and Easter Sunday.
Does this exclusive focus on the victory of Christ set up expectations that His victory protects me from all evil and suffering now in the present? Maybe this is the reason for my challenges to God as to why He allows suffering in my life when supposedly He has conquered sin, suffering and death? Our scientific and technological worldview expects instant solutions to every problem we face. So if Christ has won the battle over evil and suffering and I still suffer, then maybe His victory was not real, or maybe God and the spiritual world are irrelevant to my daily life.
This focus on victory and the sense of triumphalism has little relevance to the Syrian refugee who has lost everything, or the migrant worker who is abused and treated like a slave, or the desperately poor Lebanese whose government ignores him. The Good News that Christ has conquered sin and death and offers forgiveness, and that they need to repent, has little meaning for them when they in fact feel that they have been sinned against and experience the full brunt of evil in society.
I have lately been reading Canadian theologian Douglas John Hall (The Cross in our Context: Jesus and the Suffering World) and American theologian Alan E. Lewis (Between Cross and Resurrection: A Theology of Holy Saturday). Alan Lewis brings a certain poignancy to his writing as he lost his battle with cancer while writing about living in Holy Saturday and not experiencing the reality of Easter Sunday and the healing and new life promised in the Kingdom of God. He died believing in the promise of a future healing and resurrection.
On that first Good Friday the disciples had no knowledge that there was going to be an Easter Sunday, as their teacher, whom they had come to know as the Lord, died on the cross. With His death, their dreams and hopes of a better world and the coming of the Kingdom shattered. It is only later that they understood the meaning of the Cross as being the means of redemption and forgiveness of sins. That first Saturday after Good Friday was a time of desolation and mourning. It is only in this context that the unexpected, stunning, astounding, and unbelievable experience of the resurrection for the disciples on Sunday morning can be understood.
So a starting place for a theology for the global south and even parts of the Arab world is the realization that most of life is lived in the Saturdays of the salvation narrative, when dream, hopes and much of life have died. Unlike the disciples on that first Saturday who felt abandoned, God identifies Himself in Christ as being with us (Immanuel) and says that He will never leave us or forsake us. This is what the refugees, the migrant workers, and the poor understand the Good News to be, that there is a God who cares. It is only as they experience this, do they begin to dream and hope again. Unlike the disciples who did not know that there would be an Easter Sunday, we know that there is a future because of the resurrection. It is only at this point that the promises of Easter Sunday for new life and a new beginning come into focus, that one day in the social, economic and political order of society there will be justice and peace – the promise of the Kingdom of God. They look forward to the day when, “the kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign for ever and ever.” (Rev. 11:15)
This is not a theology of triumphalism but one of brokenness and deep humility, where out of the smoldering ashes of life God brings a new beginning.