Mourning: Hope in Resistance in Advent

Renee Cox, It Shall Be Named
Renee Cox, It Shall Be Named

Is there possibly too much singing and not enough crying out in our Christian spirituality?
– Johann Baptist Metz [1]

It is fitting that during this Advent season streets across the country have filled with protestors. “Black lives matter!” The cry is a positive statement – a statement of hope – cast against a backdrop of negativity. To believe and proclaim in this country that black lives matter is to be a person of Advent, for, like the Reign of God which irrupted into history in partiality with the birth of Jesus, the statement is already true and yet denied at every turn.

Reflecting on the importance of the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag, Sam Sawyer of the Jesuit Post wrote:

The reason #BlackLivesMatter matters as a hashtag is because in reality, all too often, black lives haven’t. #AllLivesMatter calls our attention to the principle, with which we already agree, rather than to the problem. But #BlackLivesMatter challenges us to conversion. It confronts us with our failures rather than congratulating us on having good motives. Yes, of course, everyone matters. But in practice, some lives have mattered less. Real conversion makes us leave the comfort zone of platitudes that make everyone feel nice – it calls us to the fringes, where we’re least comfortable.

This Advent, the reality of suffering in the world around us calls us to locate ourselves conscientiously on “the fringes, where we’re least comfortable.” Event after current event – police brutality, brutality against police, disappeared Mexican students, massively-broadcast beheadings – present us with a seeming dichotomy of choices. To go on being human in this world today, it seems, we must either close our eyes to the suffering in the world or despair of it. But Advent points toward another way.

Advent is a time of waiting for the irruption of the Ultimate into the world. Because of the nature of the world in which we wait, our waiting is not without anguish. In fact, it takes place within what Johann Baptist Metz calls “a landscape of cries” – rooted in the reality of suffering, we are called to resist consolation “by myths or ideas that are remote from history.”[2] That is, we must not close our eyes to history or give into despair.

Rather, like Jesus, we cry out against all of the negativity of history, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” [3] This, the cry of theodicy: “the lived question addressed to God about the suffering of the world, not a tidy answer to it.” [4] For to attempt to explain away the suffering in the world, even so as to “let God off the hook for it,” as it were, is to drain suffering of its sting that “badgers the present and calls it into question.” [5]

In her essay, “Violence, Trauma, Resistance,” Johann Vento describes the interrelation of hope and theodicy. She writes, “[I]t is precisely this hope, for the well-being, healing, and redemption of all that leads us to live the theodicy question, in fact to suffer it. For if our hope is concrete and radical, it is necessarily frustrated, since attention to our concrete histories of suffering reveals that this hope is not yet fulfilled.” [6]

The story of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, like Jesus’ cry of abandonment from the cross, is the quintessential theodicy story. Their brother dying, Mary and Martha send word to their trusted friend, Jesus: “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” [7]  Jesus, however, did not arrive until after Lazarus had already died. On top of the anguish at their brother’s death, Mary and Martha must have felt confusion that Jesus had not come sooner. Perhaps they even felt abandoned by their friend. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” [8] Of course, Jesus, “greatly disturbed” [9] by the anguish of his friends, is moved with compassion to raise Lazarus from the dead. The story contains the partial fulfillment of the promise whose fullness for us is yet outstanding: in the end, God will make right with even those who have already died.

What does it mean to be a person of faith in times where the statement, “Black lives matter,” is contested territory? How do we go on being human in times of suffering, where humanity and the inherent dignity of life is denied at every turn? Like Mary and Martha, we must continually protest the existence of suffering, both to our fellow human beings and to God. For to do any less is to abandon our hope. “Mourning is hope in resistance.” [10]

[1] Johann Baptist Metz, A Passion for God: The Mystical-Political Dimension of Christianity, trans. J. Matthew Ashley (New York: Paulist Press, 1998), 159.
[2] Ibid., 154.
[3] Matthew 27:46.
[4] Johann M. Vento, “Violence, Trauma, and Resistance: A Feminist Appraisal of Metz’s Mysticism of Suffering Unto God,” Horizons 29 (2002), 45.
[5] Johann Baptist Metz, Faith in History and Society: Toward a Practical Fundamental Theology, trans. J. Matthew Ashley (New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 2007), 89.
[6] Vento, “Violence, Trauma, and Resistance,” 9.
[7] John 11:3 NRSV.
[8] John 11:21, 32 NRSV.
[9] John 11:38 NRSV.
[10] Metz, A Passion for God, 160.

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