A faithful response to pulse and its aftermath (When there’s nothing to believe in)

There’s not much to say after something so sad and horrific, except that it is sad and horrific. So I haven’t. But then I was assigned to write a sermon (or my version of a sermon: an essay) on Galatians. And well, it would have been disingenuous to write about anything else. And then the sit-in happened! And there was hope. And then the sit-in ended. And there was frustration.

So for the ups and downs in the wake of Pulse and our ongoing grief, even as we continue on the long road to full inclusion of LGBTQ people and the end of crimes of hate and banning assault weapons, here’s a biblical response to Pulse and this incredible political shit show. 

The biggest shooting in U.S. history. One hundred forty-five mass shootings in the first 170 days of 2016. 6,321 people killed by guns so far this year. Gun sales are on the rise. Guns and death seem to inundate media headlines these days in the United States. Every person lost leaves behind gaping holes in the lives of their loved ones, whose worlds will never be the same.

In the wake of last week’s Pulse shooting, we’re overwhelmed by new waves of personal and national devastation. In moments of crisis, ordinary saints never fail to emerge to care for the wounded and the families. And so we live in this nonsensical world of good and bad, extreme violence and tireless kindness, all framed by inconsolable grief.

There’s too much to process and too much to do and not enough faith to do it with. It’s too overwhelming and the grief too weighty. But I’m a good Christian and so I should just have faith. Right? The Bible says “the one who is righteous will live by faith.” But my faith is drowned out by my fear and my doubt. Will my family and friends be safe at Pride events this weekend? And beyond just this week, will we ever fix whatever Godforsaken thing is wrong in our country that this keeps happening?

The Christians in Galatia, the recipients of Paul’s words above, knew what it was like to try to eke out a functional existence in a living hell. In an empire built to serve the top three percent of the population at the cost of the other 97 percent, theirs was a world of poverty, sickness, and oppression. If their economic reality wasn’t a clear enough message of their status in society, the streets of their city were decorated with statues of women intended to represent various conquered nations—Galatia, Britannia, Gaul, and dozens more—being raped by imperial soldiers. Evil was alive and well in their midst and took the forms of physical, sexual, economic, and political violence with the goal of convincing the populace that this was normal—and it would never change.

Even though the Galatians knew despair firsthand, they had also heard the message of Christ and had declared themselves to be his followers. But real life didn’t—and doesn’t—reflect the hope of Christ when we live in that—and this—kind of perpetual trauma. Hope and despair were at odds in their hearts and in their community and the Galatian Christians didn’t know what to believe in anymore. Floundering, they grasped at whatever was offered to them. Should they turn to the empire that had branded itself their benefactor? The emperor who declared himself savior? Should they focus on fulfilling God’s law? At least then they would be doing something. Maybe it would take their minds off the pain.

In the midst of this confusion and hurt, their pastor wrote them a letter. He begins with a blessing: “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.” The present evil age. This morally bankrupt era. The current time of immorality. This world we live in that is rife with the violence humans inexplicably perpetrate against one another. According to Paul, these things are of primary concern to God. They’re the reason not only for Christ’s life but for his sacrifice.

Paul denounces the imperial lies his people have been told: God is our father, not the emperor. The empire has not ushered in an age of peace (the pax romana, their claim to fame) but an age of evil (the reality of how that “peace” was achieved through the silencing and erasure of difference). Paul turns empire on its head as he paints a picture for them of a new, different way of life—one characterized by peace and harmony rather than subordination and oppression. While Paul’s indication that the present age is transient and that a more perfect age is to come, the reality is that it has not yet arrived. And he still expects that “the one who is righteous will live by faith.” A tall order. Or is it?

What if the faith we live by is not our own? Paul is quoting—or rather, misquoting—Habakkuk 2:4 here, which reads, “the righteous live by their faith” (emphasis mine). Why does Paul omit the pronoun? Scholar Richard B. Hays follows a breadcrumb trail around Galatians and through other letters by Paul where the Greek is ambiguous in referring to what many translations render “faith in Christ,” for example in 2:20b, “And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God.” Hays argues this and other verses can just as accurately be translated the faith of the Son of God.

In Galatians 4:9, Paul even corrects himself mid sentence, writing, “Now, however, that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God….” It would seem Paul is intent on moving the onus of faith from the person (or community) onto God. While this is an unfamiliar and oddly unsettling idea, it’s not unappealing. Frankly if God is so all-powerful, maybe God should be the one to shoulder this unbearable load. Perhaps this is what Paul is encouraging the Galatians to do: to try to find rest in God’s faithfulness toward us instead of rallying faith in ourselves when there is none to be had.

We cannot know for sure what Paul intended, but the gift of our limited understanding is the space it leaves for creative interpretation. If Hays is right, either interpretation (the faith of Christ versus faith in Christ) is equally correct. While we grieve and strive for a new way of being beyond the present evil age, we know from experience that there will inevitably be times when we’re stretched beyond what our hearts can bear. In those times, we pray that God’s faithfulness will be enough.

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