St. Andrew's Episcopal Church

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J’accuse! Yr B Proper 23 by Amma Susan

“J’accuse …!” was an open letter published on 13 January 1898 in the newspaper L’Aurore by the influential writer Émile Zola. Zola accused the government of anti-Semitism and the unlawful jailing of Alfred Dreyfus, a French Army General Staff officer who was sentenced to lifelong penal servitude for espionage. Zola pointed out judicial errors and lack of serious evidence. The letter was printed on the front page of the newspaper and caused a stir in France and abroad. He fled to England after being found guilty for libel and returned home in June 1899. As a result of the popularity of the letter, even in the English-speaking world, J’accuse! has become a common generic expression of outrage and accusation against someone powerful.

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? (Ps. 22:1) It is not just the Psalmist who prays these words of lament. It is not only Job who professes his feelings of divine betrayal, in contest with the depth of his faith. For even as Jesus hung on the cross, those words hung in the air, uttered by the very human Son of Man, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mt. 27:46) No one among us remains unscathed by those words. Not even God, who stands accused.

Job said, “Today also my complaint is bitter; His hand is heavy despite my groaning. [everywhere I turn] He is not there; I cannot perceive him…behold him… see him. God has made my heart faint; the Almighty has terrified me; If I only could vanish… (Job 23:1, 8-9, 16-17) Surely, many of us have felt that weight. God stands accused.

The Word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; judg[ing] the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before Him, no creature is hidden, but all are laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account. (Heb. 4:12-13) We stand accused. Do we not pray so, in the Collect for Purity at the beginning of our worship? BCP p.355 The disciples who abandoned everything to follow Jesus, cried out, “Then who can be saved??” (Mk. 10:26)

Jesus’s comforting words leave one still unsettled, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age – houses, brothers, sisters, mothers, and children, and fields…. with persecutions – and in the age to come, eternal life. (v. 27-31) “…For God, all things are possible.” (v. 27)

I don’t know about you, but I was doing pretty well with what Jesus was saying, about receiving a hundredfold, until he added “with persecutions.” So what exactly what is ‘the promise’? It isn’t that there will be no suffering, at least not now in our lifetimes, but there is indeed a Holy promise. God promises to save us.

But God’s salvation goes beyond the usual narrow understanding of ‘pardon for our sins’. The promise of salvation in New Testament usage actually meant “to be made whole, to become fully human, to become a complete person.” (Edwards, p.112) Maybe it is not J’accuse after all.

In God of Our Silent Tears (2013), Bishop Dan Edwards of Nevada pulls apart faulty argument and dismantles dangerous doctrine that assigns blame to God for suffering and evil in the world. Although humanity has grappled with suffering throughout eternity the ‘problem of evil’ is a relatively modern dilemma.

Critique of an all-powerful, all-knowing God that would sadistically perpetrate violence upon his creatures stems from this logic: “If God is omnipotent and God is good, then why is there evil in the world? Logically, it would seem that one of the following must be true: God is not all powerful God is not all good There is not really any evil in the world. (Edwards, p.2-3)

But is faith based upon logic? If so, then faith ‘logic’ suggests that: God is the ‘un-dominator’ God is Love God is everywhere present- resisting evil (absence of love) God, numinous and ineffable, mystery, is beyond our understanding, defies our logic, although… we certainly do try to box God into our man-made constructions.

Do we think we know more than God? Do we think we can ‘do a better job’ than God? This is the struggle of Job. This is the struggle of us.

Job is interesting because although it’s in the Hebrew canon, Job isn’t an Israelite tale. It features “dwellers of the East”. And even though it’s monotheistic, it’s also universal; transportable across borders and time. It speaks relevance to us today.

A push back against traditional theology of the time, Job is of the Wisdom tradition. Job emphatically rails against suffering and injustice that can be explained away or diminished by a carrot and stick argument. Its author “expresses outrage at the spectacular injustice of a world governed by a purportedly ‘just’ God.” (Robert Alter, The Wisdom Books, 2010, p. xvi)

Job’s initial resolve is admirable. He will not fall to questioning God despite his dire circumstances. And let’s face it, his so-called friends don’t help. Explanations, blaming, and platitudes don’t relieve the sufferer. In hardship, one needs understanding, empathy and compassion. Suspend judgment. Leave analysis alone.

One who asks, “Why?” is looking for meaning, something to cling to in the face of suffering, or violence, or evil. One called Job needs hope.

Hope can be found in recognizing the God we believe in, not believing in perpetuated lies and mythical constructions. God of our Silent Tears is not dimensionally, divinely flat! God as the ground of all being and all goodness as the source eternal of all love, moves and is moved by creation. And God steadfastly remains God. As children of the living God, we are moved to respond to suffering. We search out the face of God in others, each made in the image of God, imago dei.

Unfortunately, the pall of evil casts a dim light upon many who cannot see goodness (God) within themselves or others. This isn’t to discount other faith traditions or even those of no faith tradition, but as Bishop Dan relates of his Christian tradition, “I am just speaking my own language.” (Edwards, p.10)

As Christians, we follow the way of Christ. The Son of Man, Son of God did not escape suffering. He did not avoid the word, “Why?”

The Iona Community in Scotland professes in their Affirmation of Faith, “We believe in God beside us, Jesus Christ, the word made flesh, born of a woman, servant of the poor, tortured and nailed to a tree. A man of sorrows, he died forsaken. He descended into the earth to the place of death. On the third day he rose from the tomb. He ascended into heaven to be everywhere present, and his kingdom will come on earth.”

The same God that creates us out of love, is moved to give of God’s very self to walk with us in our earthly pilrimage of joy and sorrow.

The Iona Affirmation of Faith continues, “We believe in God within us, The Holy Spirit of Pentecostal fire, Life-giving breath of the church, Spirit of healing and forgiveness, Source of resurrection and eternal life. Amen”

The Trinitarian understanding of God, saved and wrested out of hands that would constrain God in a narrow box of hellish punishment and judgment frees God to inspire and empower. A Trinitarian understanding of living breaks through isolating boundaries, bringing wholeness of life. God works outside the lines of the coloring book! God is connected in a web of relationship, loving creation into being; not condemning us before we’ve even stepped over the starting line! Suffering is not dismissed or denied, but seen for what it is, as part of this life – but not the final word.

Hope sustains God’s created order through times of trial and temptation, enabling us to boldly pray in the New Zealand tradition: “In the hurts we absorb from one another, forgive us.  In times of temptation and test, strengthen us.  From trials too great to endure, spare us. From the grip of all that is evil, free us.”

For some who have endured tragedy too great to endure, God has become moot, ineffective, insignificant. For others who share in Job’s experience of loss and pain, God is a cruel tease, ruthless examiner, tormentor, no better than even evil itself. Railing rightfully so against a God portrayed as hostile to his own, the tormented cry aloud, “J’accuse!”

But to remove God from the equation doesn’t provide the solution to the problem of evil in the world. It still lurks, existing, lying in wait, with fangs barred, ready to strike. No amount of explanation will remove it from our reality.

Who among us has never asked, “Why?” Is it a demented, twisted, sinister God who plans for this? I think not. For me it is somewhere in the realm of unfathomable. But do I want to live in despair or denial? No! Do I hold a fatalistic view of life? No! If that were so, then I might as well walk away from God’s Table.

Because at Eucharist, I accept God’s good gift of Christ, who did not run away from the world to save himself, but gave his life of his own volition to save us from ourselves. To clarify, his death wasn’t as ransom or payment exacted for sin. His body broken for the world, is life. Not death.

Knowing how far away we have fallen from God, in a world self-condemned by violence and sin, Jesus does not look at the hands that betray and shout, “J’accuse.” No. He prays, “Father forgive them. They know not what they do.” (Lk 23:34)

We alone cannot overcome violence and evil in the world. We alone cannot avoid suffering and sadness. But then, neither could Jesus. What or who can then save us? God is our hope.

Amma Susan

St. Andrew's Episcopal Church - Winthrop, Maine | A member of The Episcopal Diocese of Maine, The Episcopal Church, and the Worldwide Anglican Communion