Chapter 4: Society and Revelation
History is usually written by the conquerors. It is hardly surprising then that written history often suppresses the memory of the suffering inflicted upon the millions of individuals abandoned in history’s wake. And yet such suffering is a major part of the objective content of history. Viewed from a certain perspective history seems to be, as Hegel puts it, a “butcher’s bench.” It is apparently anything but a divine gift made possible by the promise of fulfillment. The experimentation with social, political and economic structures necessitated by the move into historical existence has produced prolonged sufferings in spite of the best intentions. And often the most entrancing visions of social idealism have been accompanied, especially in modern times, by the annihilation of millions of individuals who do not seem to have fit into the plans of the new societies. We need to look only at the massive murderings prompted by Nazism, the Stalinist regime and more recently by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia for some obvious examples. No account of God’s revelation in history can leave out the largely unrecorded chronicle of neglect, mutilation and slaughter that have taken place behind the scene of publicly accessible events. No conception of meaning in history can have validity unless it takes into account the “dangerous” memory of the forgotten sufferings that constitute so much of the substance of history. Yet how many philosophies or theologies of history have actually accomplished such a redemption of forgotten suffering? We have a few Sensitive film-makers, journalists and novelists to thank for not allowing us to forget completely some of the atrocities hidden from the front pages. But our theologies have too often forgotten this suffering. So now, especially in a theology of revelation, we must make a special place for the memory of suffering.
This hidden suffering has resulted partly from natural disasters that lie beyond human control. But for the most part it has been the consequence of the ways in which humans have organized or attempted to organize their social existence. Political, social and economic patterns have determined a large part of the lives of all peoples. The social context of our existence is therefore a major aspect of the situation out of which we look for some revelatory “answer” to our quest for the optimal “order” by which to enhance the quality of human existence.
The impulse to establish social order is itself motivated by assumptions as to what constitutes good order or the “good life.” Value judgments and ethical preoccupations motivate societal planning, and it is under the guise of the search for order and “the good” that societies with their political and economic components are established. Well-meaning and self-sacrificing devotees of great visions, together with fanatics and opportunists, collaborate to produce our societies and to preserve them in the face of the chaos that continues to threaten them. In order to prevent the possibility of subversion they deem it essential at times to torture and even eliminate those individuals who do not fit into the social plans or who raise critical questions about the planned or established regimes. Often the exceptionally imaginative and creative people are the ones most vulnerable to persecution, since through them even newer and more disturbing dreams of a still better world enter the arena of our social consciousness, stirring up criticism of the present order and making obsolete our plans for a new society.
When we look honestly at history and reflect on the poignant human struggles for an acceptable social order we might be easily tempted to cynicism. (And today, on the brink of potential nuclear annihilation, such cynicism may even seem to be the most realistic attitude to take toward our social and political existence). For we are caught on the horns of an apparently irresolvable dilemma. It seems that if people settle for the social, political and economic status quo, they are usually ignoring the needs of those who are put at a disadvantage by the present order. For example, societies based on slavery have at times been relatively stable and prosperous, but at what price to the slaves? Or a society in which a certain percentage of people will be “inevitably” unemployed may seem to be the only plausible economic order; but what about the needs of the unemployed? On the other hand, if people envisage social reforms to take care of the needy and marginalized, history shows us that the actual implementation of these enticing social visions has also led to massive sufferings for other innocent people. Every major revolution has had this consequence. Is there any way to avoid this dilemma? Or is there any resolution of it? Is it even possible to have a social order that is not only an order, but also a just social order? And is it possible to bring about reforms, or to plan a better economy, without causing even more suffering?
Reflection on the “impossible” situation of creating the right social and economic configurations has led us to the point where we may be open to a “solution” that lies, in part at least, beyond our own powers of planning. The fact of revelation (in all six of our contexts) becomes evident to faith especially in those situations which, according to human reckoning, are characterized by what we may call “impossibility.” Its proximity to situations of what we usually take to be impossibility has characterized the biblical promise from the very beginning of the story of Yahweh’s involvement with people of the covenant. So when we think of the notion of revelation today, it is important that we continue to understand it in terms of the divine promise of a way out of dilemmas that seem resistant to any possible solution we can imagine. An attitude of trust in God’s fidelity must accompany our understanding of the seemingly irredeemable socio-economic quandaries we find ourselves in today. (And we might emphasize here also the ‘impossible” task of bringing about any resolution of the nuclear arms race and what seems to many reasonable people the “inevitable” extinction of human life if the momentum continues according to the “logic” inherent in present international politics).
It is doubtful that revelation in its essentially surprising and unpredictable newness could be experienced decisively except in such situations of apparent impossibility. And it is quite a simple matter to become aware of the “impossible” dead-ends to which our human attempts to establish the “right” social order on the basis of our own purely human ideals have always led us. When we realize the frustration to which our best intentioned social preoccupations bring us, we are perhaps once again in a position to hearken to a revelatory response to our situation.
If we are looking for a specific answer to our social quest, however, we will not find it in revelation. The revelatory “answer ” will inevitably be quite disappointing to us if we expect it to fall within the general class of “solutions” that have been proposed by social, political and economic experts. In our obsession with finding the definitive social solution we can easily end up trivializing the biblical response to our quest, that is, if we scour the texts for a specific social program. The biblical response cannot be so easily diluted. Without doing it great violence we cannot look into the Bible for the perfect answer to our own socio-economic problems. Such a fundamentalism is unworthy of any genuine faith in revelation. For the revelatory response lies on a different plane from the one shaped by our usual social expectations and planning. It is once again only in the sphere of hope and promise that we may authentically seek a response to the unfairness and suffering (including the forgotten suffering) inflicted by social structures. And it is only in the sphere of hope and promise that we may find the “answer” to the most significant threat ever experienced by humans, that of nuclear annihilation. In the biblical tradition such hope and promise are embodied especially in the symbolism of the “Kingdom of God.”
Revelation and the Kingdom of God
In the Bible, the theme of the “Kingdom of God” is the one that stands out most obviously as the goal of our social searching. From the perspective of the social dimension of our situation we may understand the quest for revelation in terms of the long human quest for the Kingdom of God. The precise meaning of the Kingdom is still being investigated by biblical scholars, but we can confidently say that its significance is at least partially grasped in terms of two other prominent biblical themes: justice and liberation. These themes become more and more transparent as we move through Israel’s history into the mind of Jesus and the early Christian Church. John Donahue has characterized the biblical ideal of justice (sedaqah) by calling it “fidelity to the demands of a relationship.”
The justice of Yahweh is . . . his saving power, his fidelity to his role of Lord of the covenant. It is also his indictment of sin and his call to return or conversion. Justice represents a victory over powers which threaten the destruction of the world. It is manifest both in the historical life of people and as an object of their eschatological hope . . . . concern for the defenseless in society is not a command designed simply to promote social harmony, but is rooted in the nature of Yahweh himself who is defender of the oppressed. . . . The doing of justice is not the application of religious faith, but Its substance; without it, God remains unknown.(John R. Donahue, S. J. “Biblical Perspectives on Justice,” In John C. Haughey, ed., The Faith that Does Justice(New York: Paulist Press, 1977), pp. 69-76, passim.
It is clear from this brief summary of the biblical vision that Justice is a revelatory aspect of our social relationships and that without it the God of revelation remains hidden from us. Our own practice of justice, which inevitably includes careful social programs and planning for the needs of the poor, is a necessary condition for God’s becoming manifest in our historical and social existence. For us to experience today the revelation of God we must also experience and practice justice in the social dimension of our existence. To the extent that justice does not yet reign, revelation is still obscured. It may be that the difficulty we have believing in divine revelation is the effect of our being so jaded by the injustice that often seems to prevail. At heart the apparent “implausibility” of the idea of revelation to modernity with its secularistic assumptions, is less the result of its “unscientific” appearance than the consequence of the untransformed status of our unjust social structures.
And yet, the revelation of God’s justice has, at least to faith, made an irreversible entrance into our world. It is present in the mode of promise, and it is deeply entrenched wherever there is hope. This hope, however, it not content with passive or quietistic complacency anymore than it is impatient with the absence of immediate achievement of social utopias. It is an active hope, energized by the conviction of an irretractable promise. And that means it is a transformative hope, intent to alter those social structures that impede the pouring out of God’s justice here and now. Such a hope has to be involved with social planning, though with the constant provision that our human plans are likely to be short-sighted, onesided and in need of the judgment by a wider vision of justice. Social planning is not to be repudiated as such. The biblical ideal of justice requires only that we avoid a planning that does not provide for the poor and that forgets about the sufferings of the past. The social planning of the present century has been vitiated especially by its neglect of the poor, the disenfranchised, the helpless, the stranger and of forgotten sufferings of the past, of all those elements that do not “fit.” But any social vision that leaves these out is destined to be only a fragment. The Kingdom of God is an image of social fulfillment that challenges us to widen our own social understanding so as to include all of these, even when it does not seem economically feasible. Its very comprehensiveness, of course, makes it seem unbelievable from the perspective of our customary styles of social planning. Yet the biblical promise demands nothing less than the widening of our social visions and our sense of justice so as to include all those elements that we normally suppress.
Another aspect of the Kingdom of God is the theme of liberation. Intimately associated with “justice,” the theme of liberation is central to the biblical vision of God and of society. The Exodus event, the liberation of an oppressed people from the threats of slavery and annihilation, is the central event through which Israel came to understand the nature of God. It is not possible, therefore, in the biblical context at least, to think of God without simultaneously thinking of liberation. Loving and liberating justice is God’s essence, and it is out of this essence that the revelatory promise is given to society and its history. In the biblical context this liberating justice does not refer only to a salvation beyond history, but also to a salvation of history as well as a deliverance within history. As I mentioned earlier, the promise of deliverance is felt first and becomes most intensely alive in the situations of those whom our social institutions have marginalized and made to feel as though they do not belong. It is to such as these that Jesus’ proclamation of the Good News of freedom and justice was delivered first and foremost. Social outcasts, trodden and rejected people have been the constant mediators of revelation. For it is through their hope in and acceptance of a promise of liberation that a space was opened up for our own history and future to make its appearance. The debt we owe to the poor for allowing the promise of liberation to enter into the sphere of history is inestimable.
For centuries Christian theology has been able to hide from the themes of promise, justice and liberation that permeate the biblical texts. An over-emphasis on the metaphysical aspects of God as understood especially in terms of Greek philosophy has sometimes concealed and domesticated the liberating themes in the Bible and their transformative implications for our social, political and economic life here and now. But it is no longer possible to suppress these themes, and particularly in any attempt to get to the heart of what is meant by revelation. In the context of our social situation, revelation means the promise of justice for and liberation of the oppressed and the poor, of all whose basic needs have not been met and whose human dignity has not been recognized. And encounter with the God of revelation takes place primarily in those situations through which the sense of a promise of liberating justice breaks through into our history. Do we have to look far to find such situations today?
The Kingdom of God is an image pointing to a fulfillment of our social existence in a justice and freedom that can never be fully implemented by human planning alone, though of course human planning is not excluded. Just as God’s creation of the universe is not opposed to, but requires, our own creativity, so also the establishment of the Kingdom of God requires our own active complicity. Our own involvement takes the form especially of our “practicing” justice and liberation in a spirit of hope that the promised reign of justice and freedom is not a vain dream but a realistic possibility. More concretely this involvement begins with our own concern for bringing justice to those who need it most, the poor. But the “Kingdom of God” is essentially God’s creation of justice and freedom in a way that goes far beyond anything we could dream of for ourselves.
Awareness of the coming Kingdom of God seems to have been most intense among the poor and oppressed who have been helpless to do anything about their suffering themselves except to call upon God out of the desperateness of their situation. A sense of the promissory revelation of God has entered our history by way of the poor, the weak, the wandering homeless and the suffering. We cannot overlook this simple aspect of biblical religion when we try to understand the meaning of God’s revelation in terms of our own socio-economic situation today. The idea of revelation in biblical religion is tied inextricably to the historical situation of human impoverishment. This point needs to be emphasized because it gives us an idea of the kind of God who is being presented to us by revelation. This God is one who is preferentially disposed toward the poor. The biblical view of society demands that the poor and the needy must be taken care of first. Hence we may conclude that the God of biblical revelation is one whose essence is concern and compassion for those who are in need. This God is one who wants to rescue humans from the condition of poverty and suffering. This is a God who seeks justice and liberation from any situation of oppression or pain. The Exodus story of Yahweh’s redemption of an oppressed people, the prophetic protest against neglect of the poor, Jesus’ proclaiming the good news to social outcasts — this theme of divine concern for those who lack power and possessions is too dominant for us to ignore when we ask what God is like. We must enshrine the impressions of redemption from suffering and concern for the needy at the heart of our thinking about God and God’s dealings with human beings. The book of Revelation in the Bible, aptly titled, discloses to us a God whose intention it is to “wipe away every tear” and to declare that “death shall be no more.” (Rev 21:4)
The fact that the poor and suffering are the ones to whom God is most palpably revealed in biblical religion is evidence that God’s concern is that oppression, suffering and poverty be abolished as quickly as possible. The needy and all those treated unjustly must be taken care of before the human adventure into the cosmic and historical future can be fully launched. Before we can move in good conscience toward whatever God’s promise holds in store for us and for the universe, those whose basic needs are not yet satisfied must be cared for. There is an urgency in the tone of the biblical accounts of God’s acting in history that requires our attending now, and not later, to those who are in need and whose human dignity remains unrecognized. Today this would include the homeless, the hungry, the imprisoned, the ignorant, the illiterate, any who are economically, environmentally and politically disadvantaged, the elderly, the sick, people in developing nations whose lives may be negatively affected by our own nations’ economic policies, and those whose lives are threatened by sexism, racism and abusive ideologies. To grasp the meaning of revelation in our own context does not require that we transport ourselves beyond our present historical situation. We need not look far at all to find instances of poverty and suffering similar to those through which the divine promise has been revealed in the past. The world is as ripe for the announcement of the good news of the Kingdom of God as It has ever been. The conditions for experiencing anew the power of a revelatory promise are just as much with us today as during the biblical period of human history.
And yet the promised arrival of justice and liberation also seems as remote from realization as ever. We may find ourselves being tempted to repeat the murmuring in the desert by the Hebrew people who became so disappointed that fulfillment of the promise offered to them was still so remote. Why do we have to wait? When will the promise be realized? After all these centuries would not God’s Kingdom have come into history more obviously than it has, if it is indeed a reality worth trusting?
We are free to follow this pattern of mistrust which the Bible has laid before us as one possibility. When we hear the prophetic exhortation to make justice and compassion a part of our political and social praxis, we may join voice with the cynical protest that universal justice to the poor is an “impractical” approach to social existence that promotes laziness and undermines the free enterprise system. Or we may follow the other path, the path of life and hope in the promise. This path will persist in the face of all adversity with a concern to make justice incarnate in our social existence now, by whatever means possible. It will not be defeated and discouraged by failure but will continue to trust that in some surprising and unanticipated way freedom and justice still constitute the destiny of all. It may trust in the promise for redemption of human history even in the face of the threat of nuclear disaster. It may be confident that even suffering and death cannot defeat the revelatory promise.
The End of Suffering and Death
The content of the revelation of God’s Kingdom includes the conviction that suffering and death do not have a legitimate place in the divine plan for human social existence. In the past a certain strain of Christian theology seemed to be much more tolerant of suffering than biblical religion itself permits. And so an attitude of passive tolerance of social situations where millions of poor live in utter squalor has been implicitly supported as acceptable by a theology or theodicy that has “justified” suffering in its understanding of humanity and God. At times an even masochistic exaltation of suffering has been espoused as the most authentic form of spirituality. Today a passive tolerance of the threat of nuclear war by many Christians seems to be condoned by such a warped theology. Part of the reason for this perverse development in Christian thinking is the dominance of a naive theology of redemptive suffering.
But in what sense can suffering be called “redemptive?” On the surface it seems that biblical religion supports the idea that suffering effects or “causes” redemption. The suffering servant of Second Isaiah is pictured in such a way that his sufferings “heal” the people who had mocked him. And of course the sufferings and death of Jesus are presented as “bringing” us our salvation. Add to this the fact that Christians have at times deliberately brought suffering on themselves, thinking that such self-inflicted suffering would make them more loved and accepted by God. The theme of redemptive suffering has been pervasive in theology and spirituality.
We have to ask, though, in what sense suffering itself can be redemptive and healing. Suffering is, after all, a form of evil, something negative rather than positive. If we tend to look upon it as positive, will we not in a subtle way give it a legitimacy or justification that will make us too tolerant of it? And is not this exactly what has happened, at least at times in some episodes of our religious history? Contemporary theologians such as Jürgen Moltmann and Edward Schillebeeckx, however, have emphasized that such an approach to suffering is biblically and theologically untenable. One major aspect of divine revelation, as it is being interpreted today, is simply that God does not want people to suffer. God is one who aims for the reign of justice, freedom, life, joy, and intensity of experience and beauty. Such a divine reality is intolerant of evil, including suffering. The Biblical narratives are clear testimony to this divine compassion.
What then are we to make of so-called “redemptive suffering,” including that of the Christ? I think we would be most faithful to theological tradition if we do not take the expression too literally. After all, the idea of “redemptive suffering” has never been completely clear and has always needed interpretation. Different ages have provided such interpretation in radically different ways. Today, though, theology has reached the point where it seems to be saying more clearly than in the past that God redeems us not because of suffering but rather from it and in spite of it. Suffering is not itself redemptive strictly speaking. Rather it is the occasion through which the divine power to save and liberate becomes most clearly manifest. Situations of utter desperation or “impossibility” are the ones most intimately associated in the biblical narrative with the themes of redemption and revelation. But this association need not be construed as a simplistic causal connection in which suffering is seen as “causing” salvation. Desperate situations are the ones in which the divine power, justice and faithfulness (which are actually operative always, including in situations of normality, health and prosperity) often become most dramatically transparent. In situations of suffering and even death the dominant biblical stories hold up to us a promise that the “God of the living” can never be defeated even by the most hopeless extremes into which our experience leads us. But these situations are not themselves redemptive, and it would be unbiblical to assume an attitude of passive tolerance of them. Instead revelation invites us to assume an attitude of hope that there is a way out of such impossible situations.
An example of the biblical hope in redemption from absurd suffering is given in John’s Gospel when people ask Jesus whether the infirmities of a certain man are the result of the man’s or his parents’ sin. The question assumed that suffering is always the necessary result of guilt. Jesus’ response is in effect to declare the question irrelevant, to disassociate the man’s suffering from any attempt to “explain” it, and instead to see the suffering simply as the occasion for the manifestation of the divine power to heal. This brief episode needs to be made central to our understanding of God’s attitude toward suffering. Were we to appropriate this attitude ourselves we would be less tolerant of the injustice and suffering that we see around us in our world today.
Once again therefore, as in the previous two chapters, we have been led back to our central theme that the content of revelation is essentially promise. The God whose very essence is a future filled with the eternal pledge of fidelity is promised anew to us in the social impossibilities that seem so hopeless to us today. We can either face these situations with the attitude that no redemption is possible, or we can situate ourselves in solidarity with the poor and with the forgotten sufferings of the past, keeping their memory alive, and set our faces toward a future in which they and we will experience a redemption from suffering and injustice that goes far beyond our own imaginings. As difficult to accept as the latter may seem in terms of our sense of “realism,” it is clearly the one enjoined upon us by the revelatory promise of biblical faith. At the same time, it is likewise hardly possible to call “realistic” any social vision that leaves out the poor, the oppressed and the memory of the sufferings of the past. At least the image of the Kingdom of God can claim a comprehensiveness and breadth that political, social and economic planning ordinarily do not possess. Because it does not repress the memory or awareness of the most desperate it seems to be more aware of the realities of social existence than other social ideals that have been proposed. However, the only way we shall ever find out whether it is indeed a workable image is to place our trust in it and “try it out” for ourselves. As long as we have not ourselves surrendered to its promise and demands we are really not in a position to estimate its power or plausibility.
Our social situation is redeemed only in promise, and our own active praxis of justice in fidelity to this promise is the social “policy” enjoined on us by revelation. A “promissory” fulfillment may not seem to be an adequate solution, especially if we are concerned that our own plans for the good society be actualized in full, here and now. And yet an unflagging trust in the divine promise of social fulfillment is, even from the point of view of “practicality,” the only attitude that can adequately respond to our “impossible” dilemma of utopian naivete on the one hand or cynicism on the other. Fidelity to the revelatory promise prevents our concluding that the present social order has already met all the demands of justice, and at the same time our hope in the promise delivers us from the temptation to despair of history’s and society’s possibilities. Faith views God’s promise as itself the adequate solution to both injustice and despair, the two central impediments to authentic social existence.