Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Last year, the British Humanist Association (which lately has become, among other things, a cheer squad for Richard Dawkins) began an ad campaign on city buses in UK with signs declaring, “There probably is no God, so relax and enjoy your life.” This led, as the BHA no doubt intended, to a torrent of unhelpful comments from an array of sources – pro, con, and otherwise – claiming to have special insight on the matter. One observation, however, stuck with me: namely that signs about relaxing and enjoying one’s life were somewhat more persuasive on a bus in London, the wealthy capital of a military-industrial nation state, than they might be on a bus in the slums of Calcutta or Port au Prince.
Vic Chesnutt, the late singer-songwriter from Athens, Georgia, made a much more interesting atheist than Dawkins or his BHA public relations team ever will. Chesnutt declared God’s nonexistence when he was 13, and maintained his conviction after a 1983 car accident (at age 18) left him paralyzed in a wheelchair, with limited use of his hands that reduced his guitar playing to simple chords and rhythms. In a 1990 composition “Speed Racer,” he sings,
I’m not a victim, I’m not a victim
Oh, I…I…I…I am an atheist, I am an atheist
the idea of divine order is essentially crazy
the laws of action and reaction
are the closest thing to truth in the universe
Not long before his death from an overdose of muscle relaxants in 2009, Chesnutt was discussing his song, “Flirted With You All My Life,” NPR’s Terry Gross and almost offhandedly revealed, “”You know, I’ve attempted suicide three or four times. It didn’t take.”
“Flirted…” is Chesnutt’s love ballad to death: its cruelty, pain, and release. It goes, in part:
I flirted with you all my life
Even kissed you once or twice
And to this day I swear it was nice
But clearly I was not ready…
…Oh, Death you hector me
Decimate those dear to me
Tease me with your sweet relief
You are cruel and you are constant
When my mom was cancer sick
She fought but then succumbed to it
But you made her beg for it
“Lord Jesus, please I’m ready.”
Really, I’m not ready
(For an insightful cover, listen to the Cowboy Junkies’ all Chesnutt CD, Nomad Series: Demons. If you want the full power of Chesnutt’s pain and anger, however, listen to him on the CD released just before his death, At the Cut.)
I write all this in a lectionary reflection with Stanley Hauerwas in mind. Stanley claims – and I happen to agree with him – that the greatest enemy of Christianity today isn’t atheism, but sentimentality, and persuasive evidence of how sentimental Christianity has become, in the developed world at least, is our inability to produce interesting atheists.
To my mind, if you want to read some interesting atheism, skip Dawkins and his gang of Enlightenment retreads, and read some Nietzsche, Foucault, Zizek, or Chesnutt. Keep them in mind the next time someone points to today’s gospel and tries to reassure you that Jesus is the cosmic fix for those who suffer, the most effective solution to circumstances that discomfort, trouble, or annoy. Such sickly pseudo-Christian sentimentality turns an encounter with the living God into an individualized therapeutic event.
Yes, Jairus’ daughter is returned to life and the woman with the hemorrhage is, through the power of Jesus, returned to health (and – given Jewish law regarding women, bleeding, and ritual impurity – to a place within the community), but that is to mistake the transient, visible effects of an encounter with the encounter itself. If Jesus is nothing more in this gospel than a walking first aid dispensary, consider the following:
1) The woman with the hemorrhage is poor (having handed all her money over to the medical profession) and as far as we know, without a family, else there would be someone to help and support her, even at a social distance. While her encounter with Jesus leaves her healed and restored to cleanliness, the effects of a dozen years of social isolation don’t vanish so quickly, and she must still face the harsh realities of life as an apparently abandoned peasant woman in first century Palestine.
2) Jairus’ daughter will live the rest of her life a poor woman in a land under Roman occupation. If she lives another forty years, she will watch the first Jewish revolt crushed by two future emperors, Vespasian and his son, Titus, who will then sack Jerusalem and destroy the temple.
3) The woman has bled for twelve years, precisely as long as Jairus’ daughter has been alive. Whatever else we may draw from this curious coincidence, what connection might we infer between life and suffering in Mark’s account, which is in many ways the least consoling of the gospels? And if life and suffering are so tethered, how do they – how do we – resist a one-sided flirtation with death?
Jesus does not tell anyone in today’s gospel, “You’re healed now, so relax and enjoy your life.” To do so would ignore the realities of life in crushing poverty as much as the BHA’s bus campaign. What Jesus does, however, is directly address the woman and the girl, offering one the gift of peace and the other a much-needed meal. The encounter is far more important than the cure, or perhaps it is better to say that the cure is the outward sign of an inward transformation.
Scripture, even more than Vic Chesnutt, has little room for sentiment. Death is lamentably real, today’s Old Testament readings insist. We cry to God from the depths of real suffering, today’s psalms remind us. God became poor for our sake, Paul tells us, so that we might learn to share what we have with everyone, even those who’ve never had a transformative encounter.
The response to someone in pain may include efficiently addressing her disease or discomfort, but such transient fixes hardly constitute the sum of a Christian response. Nor is a Christian response to become one of Job’s counselors and fix the sufferers theology so she can busy herself with “enjoying” this life or even the one to come.
The Christian response, I submit, is to unflinchingly encounter her suffering and quietly remain there, doing your always inadequate best to be as present to her as Christ is to you. You will fail, fall short of the standard, but you will nonetheless be present to one another. And in that quiet encounter, Christ does whatever work is necessary, as much to and for you as for the one whom you believe to be suffering. And what Christ does there, like so much in this life, is blessedly beyond our control.