Spirituality While Facing Tragedy: How Then Shall We Live?

by Henry Gustafson

Henry A. Gustafson is Professor Emeritus of New Testament Theology, United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities, New Brighton, Minn. He now lives in Santa Fe, N.M. This article appeared in No Other Foundation , Summer, l998, pp. 5-10.

The text is used by permission of the author, and was prepared for Religion Online by John C. Purdy.


Gustafson suggests how those who practice Reformed Spirituality might respond to the tragedy of September 11, 2002–as well as to other acts of terrorism.

A preliminary observation: There is no single perspective on spirituality among Reformed Protestant Christians. Some of them are very nervous about spirituality. They think the term is an oxymoron. One can be "Reformed" or one can be "spiritual," not both. These persons sometimes describe themselves as God’s "frozen Chosen."

There is a story, perhaps apocryphal, of a man at a Sunday worship service in a Reformed Protestant church, who was giving expression to his feelings by shouting "Amen" in response to various comments being made as the minister preached. A deacon soon approached him saving "We don’t do that here." When the man replied that he had been moved by the "spirit" the deacon responded. "Well, you didn’t get the "spirit" here."

The story reflects the suspicion some "Reformed" persons have of a spirituality that concentrates on human experience. They fear lest one’s persona! piety becomes selfish, oriented around one’s own personal well-being. and that like an opiate it numbs one’s concern for the rest of the world and all of its heartbreak.

So instead of valuing human experience their emphasis has been on the exercise of the intellect, on putting the doctrine straight--God is understood to be transcendent, wholly other, unchangeable, hardly one who inspires a desire for a personal relationship. Further, it is important that things be done "decently and in order," that one gets involved in programs of social welfare: finding food for the poor, finding shelter for the homeless, addressing unmet needs of children and senior citizens, and that one seeks to promote responsible social action in the affairs of state and nation.

In a recent book, entitled Reformed Spirituality, Dr. Howard Rice of San Francisco Theological Seminary demonstrates how important this socio-political aspect of spirituality was to John Calvin, a founder of the Reformed tradition, and how that aspect has survived through the centuries since Calvin.

However, Rice also notes that there was, and always has been, another side both to Calvin and the Reformed tradition--a side that was less confident in the intellect’s ability to answer all questions--a side that could acknowledge ambiguity and be open to mystery at the heart of the faith--and that understood God to be immanent as well as transcendent, and one whose "dependability came not from being unchanging, but from being loving." To know, i.e., to experience this God we humans are helped by prayer, Bible study, the fellowship of public worship, as well as the works of love.

Accordingly, in response to the question for this evening--Spirituality While Facing Tragedy: How Shall We Live? This more inclusive Reformed Protestant Perspective calls for both a personal and social response -- both an inward journey and an outward journey. Journeys that encourage both the cultivation of a sense of the living presence of God as a source of comfort and strength; and then call also for the development of a sense of responsibility to all in God’s creation whom we are able to help.

How is this "spirituality" relevant for us Christians when we face tragedy?

When the committee planning this Lenten series settled on this theme I suspect the events of 9/11 were at the forefront of their thinking. The trauma of those who lost family and friends at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and in Pennsylvania impressed itself upon us all. For then we discovered that we too are vulnerable, along with everyone else.

Wendell Berry, in a small book entitled In The Presence of Fear, has probed our vulnerability. He writes: "The time will soon come when we will not be able to remember the horrors of September 11 without remembering also" that our "optimism (economic and technological) ended on that day." He goes on to say that we now see, if we haven’t before, that our global economic system, which governs or determines the ways in which we get our food, our water, our clothing, our electricity, the fuel by which we heat our homes and empower our machines, etc., etc.--this system is highly vulnerable. It is held together by long complex lines of communication. If these are to be maintained they will have to be protected by a huge, expensive, world-wide police force, and to make that force effective, our rights of freedom and privacy will be invaded. Indeed, even now to some people, those rights are being denied. The tragedy widens.

This phenomena of tragedy and terror, of course, is not new. According to the State Department there were over 2000 international terrorist attacks in the 1990’s. And this does not include what many peoples have experienced through "state terrorism." Even innocent peoples in Iraq and Afghanistan have been subjected to constant bombings and lack of adequate medical supplies. In the Middle East people are losing their lives, their homes, their vineyards, places of business. And as organizations like Doctors without Borders, the Carter Center for Peace, UNICEF, religious charity organizations, and numerous others, remind us, the list of tragedies resulting from programs of war and genocide, from deprivation and poverty, and from natural catastrophes, goes on and on.

Add to these, the tragic events in our daily personal lives--stories of accidents, disease, abuse, abandonment, homelessness, and the various causes of loss. The awareness of these diverse tragic phenomena has led Jon Kabat-Zinn to conclude that we humans live in an "ocean of fear."

So the questions confronts us: "How Shall We Live?" How respond to ever present tragedy in our lives, in our world?

Our Reformed Spirituality looks to the Christian Scriptures for guidance here, and finds many exemplars in these writings: in the Psalms, the Prophets, the Gospels, and the Epistles. And in this respect, of course, it shares a practice with the wider Christian church.

To our question: "How shall we live? These exemplars suggest first of all, that we remember the basic biblical affirmation that God is present with us as we face tragedy and terror. Listen to these texts: In the words of one psalmist: "Even though I walk through the darkest valley (‘ the valley of the shadow of death’), I fear no evil; for you are with me." Another psalmist expands on the reality of this presence: "Where can I go from you spirit? Or where can I flee from you presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in the places of the dead (Sheol) you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast." Another Psalmist facing the destructive power of an alien army (the Assryian Army under Tiglath Pilezer or Sargon II), is reminded of the chaos before creation when the waters above the heavens and below the earth and its mountains were roaring and foaming, and then he says that even if the chaos we confront should be like that, "we will not fear" because our "God is...a very present help in trouble." The prophet, Second Isaiah, also found this faith in God’s presence a source of hope and comfort. His God declared to a people in exile: ‘When you pass through the waters, I will be with you.... Do not fear, for I am with you."

This same accent on the divine presence is also found in the Gospels and Epistles. To the Christians at Rome the Apostle Paul writes: "The Spirit of God dwells in you," and leads you. "You did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption," and you know yourselves as children of God...children of a God who is at work in all things for your good. And nothing can separate you (us) from God’s love.

We must acknowledge that not always were these biblical exemplars confident of God’s presence and help. Sometimes they were overwhelmed by feelings of depression and abandonment. The familiar text in Psalm 22 is an example. "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me. . .? I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest." In Luke’s Gospel these words are found on the lips of our Lord. Betrayed, denied, abandoned and rejected, these words describe what he must have felt. Yet as someone has said "Never was feeling farther from fact." Despite the darkness he knew God was there, and he was prepared and able to commit to God his spirit. He knew as a Psalmist had written: "If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,’ even the darkness is not dark to you (0 God); the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you."

These references make it clear that when we as persons or groups are threatened by terror or tragedy we need to factor in the divine Presence. That is what these exemplars have done. Their relationships have been described as triadic. Three factors are always involved: there is the self; there is the other person, or thing, or threat, and there is God. Accordingly, when we ask the question: How shall we live when facing tragedy?, our response must not be only to the tragedy, but to the tragedy during and in which we believe God to be present and at work. Our relationships are not best described as horizontal to some person or thing and vertical to God. But as triadic for God is always involved and at work in our relationships. Illustrative of this insight is the response of the patriarch Joseph to his brothers. Having discovered Joseph’s identity, knowing his present power, and remembering that they had sold him into slavery, they were trembling with fear. But Joseph said to them: "Do not be afraid. . . .Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good."

This approach is explicit in the writings of Paul. As noted, he told his readers that "in all things God works for good," and his life shows that he believed that. Afflicted by an illness he prayed for healing. When the prayer was not granted, he understood God to be saying to him that "My grace is sufficient for you for my power is made perfect in weakness." Accepting this as true Paul declares that he is content with insults, persecutions, calamities, limitations--tragedies. He had come to believe that even when he was weak he was strong. For God’s power was at work in his weakness.

Paul had come to this conviction reflecting on the crucifixion of Christ. To him that event was an apocalypse, an unveiling, a revelation. God had not willed his rejection, his betrayal, his abandonment, but God had used those actions, and through Christ’s response to them revealed God’s own love. If God could use the perfidious actions of a Judas, or a Pilate, then God could use the tragedies or losses that Paul sustained. Out of this confidence the Apostle declared that he is "convinced that there is nothing, not life, not death, not things present or to come, not tragedy--nothing that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

It was this faith that enabled Paul, along with the rest of the NT writers, to enjoin their readers to meet their trials and tragedies with endurance and thanksgiving and joy in their Lord.

This same confident faith can be seen in a story involving Daniel Berrigan. Enrolled in his class at Union Theological Seminary, New York, was Mel Holmgren, a social worker in SE Asia. He had returned home to NY to die. Given six months to live, he thought Berrigan’s course on the book of Revelation, might help him handle his remaining time. Not knowing that Berrigan opened each class with a period of silent meditation, Mel on the first day of class, was disturbed, irritated by the fact that nothing seemed to be happening. He was about to leave, when Berrigan, looking right at him, said: "What’s the matter?" Mel said that he then felt like telling the nosey priest to mind his own business, yet instead he said: "I’m dying. I’m dying of cancer." And Berrigan replied: "That must be very exciting."

What would I have said? What would you have said? At least "I’m sorry." But Berrigan, himself often the victim of threats and violence had often encountered this prospect of death. He knew about this triadic character of our life. And shared with Paul the conviction that nothing, not cancer, not death, not even life can separate us from the love of God.

So what should we do? Are Paul’s words helpful? To the church at Phillipi he wrote "Rejoice in the Lord always...The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God."

We noted at the outset that reformed spirituality is concerned to emphasize not only the cultivation of this personal triadic relationship with God and others, but also to cultivate a sense of responsibility to the larger social dimension of our lives, including the affairs of state and nation. Now, our question is: how does this faith that God is both with us and at work in all that happens, help us as we confront the tragedies of our society, of our world?

Our response to such a question will be shaped to some extent by the source or cause of the tragedy, and by its character. If the cause is a natural disaster or an aids epidemic and if its resulting character is a starving community or a diseased people, we will need to find multiple and diverse ways of caring along with God who cares. If the tragedy in mind is that which occurred on Sept. 11, 2001 then how shall we respond? Facing this tragedy, how shall we live?

Since I suspect, as I said earlier, that it was this tragedy that helped define the theme of this series, let us think first about some of the problems confronted in making a response, and then seek to identify some considerations that ought to be front and center for persons of a Reformed Christian perspective, who are also concerned with spirituality.

Last year, a short time before 9/11, I listened to Charlie Rose interview the historian Arthur Schlesinger. With respect to the century that had recently begun, Schlesinger was quite pessimistic. He observed that the last century had been the bloodiest in history, and when he considered how negatively many peoples of the world regarded our activity of protecting our interests in their countries he feared the future offered little hope. Many in these other countries want to retaliate, he said, and if they succeed what will we do?

Well now some have succeeded, and we are beginning to find out what our responses will be.

A popular assumption is that justice involves retaliation and revenge. This is not new. With a sixth grader whom I tutor, I learned a few weeks ago that this is what the Code of Hammurabi prescribed, almost 4000 years ago: "If a freeman has put out the eye of another freeman, they shall put out his eye." One text in the book of Exodus advocates the same. "You shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, etc." This is the lex talionis, the law of retaliation. The Greeks were also familiar with it. And experienced it on a social as well as a personal level. One of their dramatists, Aeschylus, saw it at work in Athens and worried about its consequences. Perhaps like Ghandi long after him, he envisioned a world of eyeless and toothless people. He confronted the question as to whether there is any other way to deal with crime than by committing another. In his drama about "Orestes and The Furies", King Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter Iphegenia to the goddess Diana to secure favorable winds for their conquest of Troy. His wife, Clytemnestra, Iphegenia’s mother, is outraged and retaliating kills her husband, Agamemnon. Their son, Orestes, is left in an impossible position. To kill his father’s murderer is thought to be right. But to kill his mother is wrong, which he, non-the-less, does.. Now, should Orestes be killed? Aeschylus seeks a way to put a stop to this retributive, retaliatory justice. As the drama develops the jury, with Athena decisive vote, decides to reject vengeance, and thus avoids a civil war, and corrects what is evil in their society.

The question confronting us is how do societies get over the evils in their past and how do they change for the better? In his book A Politics for Enemies, Donald Shriver addressing this question, refers to the work of Hannah Arendt, a Jewish political philosopher. She identifies two faculties which societies have that offer a suggestion and some reason for hope. One is the faculty of forgiving. The other is that of making and keeping promises. Both of these she believes that nations can do. It is to Jesus that she attributes the discovery of this role of forgiveness in human affairs. Certainly, it is true that forgiveness achieved prominence both in his teachings and actions. He found it relevant to social, economic and political life, as well as to personal relations.

Expanding on Arendt’s observations Shriver notes how Jesus began his ministry proclaiming the Rule of God, calling Twelve to be with him and sending them forth to be like the light of the world, the salt of the earth, and to join him in calling whole towns to repentance. By his acts of healing the sick, ministering to the poor and the marginalized, and proclaiming forgiveness to sinners, they began breaking through the sharp social boundaries of the day. He taught his followers to pray: "Forgive us...as we forgive." And he taught them to extend their forgiveness beyond their neighbors, even to their enemies. He invited tax collectors, traitors to their culture, and sinners to share the blessings of his table and to experience the acceptance which that sharing signified. His actions were consistent with his teaching. On the cross he prayed for those who had hung him there: "Father forgive them for they know not what they do." This was a prayer in which both human and divine forgiveness are linked. He envisions a world in which the barriers--religious, social, economic, and political--are overcome by a forgiving spirit. And for this he prays to the God who was both present and at work in all that was going on.

In this faculty of forgiveness Hannah Arendt sees some hope for the future. The contrast between the political behavior of the victors in WWI and in WWII gives some support to her optimism. The vindictive spirit experienced by the German Weimar Republic after WWI, contributed greatly to the rise of Hitler, and it differs markedly from the spirit expressed in the Marshall plan and other restorative measures following WWII. The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission can be seen as another exemplar, where Desmond Tutu and others have stressed that they would have "No Future without Forgiveness." They had to find a way for the healing of the soul of their nation that took them beyond the cycle of violence and revenge.

Such positive approaches, however, are not easy. Nothing seems to contradict more the popular idea of justice than this teaching of Jesus on forgiveness. We Americans live in a powerful, triumphant country. We have enormous and unrivaled military and economic power. Though our foreign relations generally are governed, as we like to say, by our national self-interest, we still see ourselves as a generous people. We develop programs like the Peace Corp and can be moved to forgive the debt of some third world nations. We tend to believe that we are a law-abiding nation, doing good wherever we get involved.

Then suddenly through acts of terrorism we have a revelation. Not everyone sees us as we see ourselves. To some we are viewed as a chauvinistic international bully, promoting a global economy which brings prosperity to the rich and deprivation and suffering to the masses of the poor. They see us as controlling their lives. They say we support tyrannical governments and rulers who in turn protect our oil interests, and thus deny to their people the freedom and democracy which we treasure for ourselves.. Our temptation is to dismiss their complaints. We argue that they don’t like the freedom of our democratic way of life, and then we retaliate -- life for life. The people who are responsible, the perpetrators of the tragedy we have suffered, and those who protect them, must be eliminated.

But is this retaliatory justice the way to get beyond violence? Many fear that the approach simply generates more terrorism. This seems to be the experience of those involved in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict--as increasing numbers on both sides acknowledge. They see that what is needed is not retributive or retaliatory justice, but what has been called restorative, creative, transformative justice. A justice that transcends the conflicts of the past, that contains the seeds of reconciliation. A justice that promotes the freedom for a people to realize their full humanity.

In his work Love, Power and Justice Paul Tillich identifies three functions of this creative justice. They are listening, giving and forgiving. What shall we do facing tragedy? First, if we are interested in creative justice, we need to listen. We need to hear their complaints. We need to do this, certainly before we rush in with efforts to justify the system and the actions about which they are complaining. We need to hear what it is that seems so offensive to those suicide bombers and their supporters. And if we believe that God is present and at work in all that happens, we need to ask what God is saying to us through our opponents. Secondly, we need to give. In the words of Tillich "It belongs to the right of all whom we encounter to demand something from us." We must at least acknowledge the others as persons, created by, loved by, valued by our Creator God. This recognition must, of course, include our responsibility on occasion to "give" respect to these other persons by resisting them, by preventing their unjust actions, or depriving them of the freedom for inhuman behaviour. We cannot tolerate terroristic action against either ourselves or others. And thirdly, almost paradoxically, we need to forgive. Creative justice involves this function of forgiving.

Is such a response to injustice even conceivable? People, who have visions of those missiles crashing into our public buildings, whose friends, fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, children, relatives were killed, whose firemen, policemen, service personnel lost their lives, whose businesses have collapsed, whose futures are in jeopardy, whose grief is overwhelming--can they respond to a call for creative justice? It seems utterly unjust to treat the unjust as just. Yet this is the only way for God to create a just world, the only way to reconcile those who have become estranged. It is the way of grace, amazing grace. To forgive is to help create justice, it is to put the wrong ones in the right. It is what God does. God justifies the ungodly, as Paul and the reformers after him stressed. The unacceptable ones are accepted. God calls us to join him in this reconciling action. Only then is the cycle of violence broken. This forgiving, reconciling initiative enables us to meet the intrinsic claim that others--the good and the wicked--have upon us--the claim as God’s creatures, to be re-accepted into the human community. Without such forgiveness there will be no reunion, no community.

This forgiving, accepting response does not mean that acts of injustice are overlooked. Sin has its consequences. And these consequences are a part of the loving wrath of God. When Paul was writing to the church at Rome about God’s saving justice or righteousness, he began by commenting on its disclosure in God’s wrath. This wrath he found being revealed against all ungodliness and human wickedness. When humans worship and serve the creature (themselves) rather than the Creator, God gives them up to the consequences of their actions. In the words of Soren Kierkegaard " Sin posits its own punishment." It tracks us down, finds us out. No one, not Osama Bin Laden, not George Bush, not Henry Gustafson can get away undamaged with an unforgiving spirit.

There is a story that is told of an encounter of John Wesley with General Oglethorpe in the colony of Georgia. Oglethorpe in response to some suggestion declared: "I never forgive!" To which Wesley replied: "Then, Sir, I hope you never sin." Wesley took the prayer of our Lord seriously. "Forgive us...as we forgive."

In the early pages of the book of Genesis is the well-known story of Cain and Abel. Cain murders his brother. And God banishes Cain. The divine response did not conform to the law which said "an eye for an eye...a life for a life."(Ex. 21:23). God did not impose the death penalty. Instead he gave Cain up to his own sin. He had refused community, he wouldn’t be a brother, he wouldn’t love his neighbor. So God said in effect: "Alright, be a fugitive." And when Cain expressed a fear of human retaliation, God mercifully put a protective mark upon him and made it known that vengeance belonged to God atone. So the wicked deed had its consequence. He was made a fugitive, but he was not totally abandoned. God’s mercy is everlasting and his will is for our peace.

Now to return to our question: How shall we live when facing tragedy? Our reformed spirituality would direct us to call upon the resources of our biblical faith. These resources commend to us a deep awareness of the presence and the activity of God in both our personal and social lives. In response we ought to be proponents of a vision for our world that links justice with mercy, and we ought support leaders who recognize in this linkage the possibility of peace and reconciliation. In sum: we ought to listen to the prophet Micah:

"He has told you, 0 Mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?






















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