I am a coordinator for a group studying Live Justly, a ten-session curriculum designed to help followers of Christ to pursue justice in every aspect of their lives. There would be no need for such a pursuit if our world was already a mostly fair and equitable place, so the study has pointed out various ways in which injustice pervades the world in which we live.

The most recent session was titled “Justice and Prayer.” It included a short essay describing how believers in Africa and North America responded to the plight of 160 women and children who had been displaced by the outbreak of civil war in South Sudan. The author, Kristen deRoo VanderBerg, described an outpouring of prayer for those who had fled the violence and ended up in an abandoned UN camp. VanderBerg reports, “God not only heard their prayers, and our prayers, but worked in us to make clear what we could offer to bring his kingdom in that place.” That meant mobilizing aid–food, plastic sheets, blankets, mosquito nets, laundry soap, cooking pots, and more. As a result, “The semblance of normal life returned to those families in need.”

The essay was written sometime in 2014, less than a year after the outbreak of violence. I recalled later reports of continuing armed conflict, so I did an online search to find out what’s happened over the last four years. There’s an extensive Wikipedia page describing the war and its effects on the population. After the initial fighting, there were a number of cease fires, with each typically violated within days by whoever thought they could gain an advantage by doing so. The rebels split into competing factions, as did the majority Dinka tribe, and no peace deal (including the one that some parties are now following) was comprehensive enough to end all violent conflict. There has been ethnic cleansing, sexual violence, famine, and attacks on civilians and aid workers. Over four million people have been displaced either internally or to surrounding countries. A study in early 2018 estimated that at least 383,000 people have died as a result of the war. I looked specifically for news about Yei, the city to which VandenBerg’s initial 160 women and children fled, and found that the population of refugees there has grown substantially. In July of this year the UN refugee agency was planning to distribute “plastic sheets, blankets, kitchen sets, buckets, jerry cans, mosquito nets, sleeping mats and soap” there. The need for such items seems to be never-ending!

South Sudanese refugees arriving in Uganda, 2017. Image from

It was disheartening to find out how much worse things got after VandenBerg’s optimistic report of a successful relief effort. As she notes, by praying for peace we become more aware of how we may be peacemakers, and that’s a good thing. But subsequent events in South Sudan also show us that it is tremendously difficult (sometimes impossible) to make peace no matter how much we pray and work. Why is that so? Why doesn’t God intervene? What’s the point of either prayer or relief efforts in a situation like that?

The persistence of evil and suffering has caused many to lose their faith. We often don’t notice that not only faith but the other two theological virtues are impacted as well. Many lose hope–not necessarily for the blessings of an afterlife, but for “the goodness of the Lord/ in the land of the living,” as the psalmist (Ps. 27) put it. Others lose charity, not only in that they no longer try to alleviate human misery but also that they uncharitably accuse sufferers of being responsible for their hardships. So as not to blame God, they blame the victims instead.

I don’t blame God for what’s happened: He gave humans free will, never intending that they use it to slaughter their enemies or innocent bystanders. Neither do I blame those who have lost their livelihoods, their communities, their innocence, or their lives. For a few days after reading about the war, I was preoccupied with and saddened by the enormity of the suffering that it brought. I was sensitized to news reports of other conflicts, especially the war and humanitarian crisis in Yemen. Unlike South Sudan, my country is implicated in perpetuating that conflict.

My morose state of mind was mild, though, and I knew that it would pass. To some extent it already has. While in the midst of my preoccupation, I happened upon a TIME magazine cover story on parents who have had a child die in a school shooting. They never recover fully from their sorrow, not even after decades. One couple, the Phillips, whose daughter was killed in the Aurora, Colorado theater shooting, sold almost everything they owned, moved into a mobile home, and devoted themselves full-time to helping survivors of gun violence. What would it be like if all of us were similarly touched by the world’s pain, giving our lives to help those who are suffering?

That thought brought me back to God. He is not a distant deity who watches us from on high, tossing down an occasional thunderbolt when things get out of hand. He’s not like me, saddened by what he sees but not doing much in response. He’s like the Phillips’, who changed their lives totally in response to human need. That’s what we celebrate at Christmas, after all. God gave up the glories of heaven to be born as one of us, surrendering everything for the sake of the suffering world. “Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering”  wrote Isaiah (53:4). I take that to mean that he suffers with the victims of every war that has ever been fought. And one day, when God’s kingdom comes fully, war will be no more. For now, when I struggle to hold on to my faith–and also my hope and charity–I look to his example to get the strength to go on.



A Milwaukee Eviction. Image from Sally Ryan/ZUMA

I recently posted some thoughts about Matthew Desmond’s book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City (Broadway Books, 2016). Desmond writes about a dozen or so individuals or families in Milwaukee who are struggling to keep roofs over their heads (or in some cases to find another roof after losing the one they had). Many of them spend 70 or 80 percent of their income on rent, so coming up with the monthly payment is often quite a challenge. Even small unexpected expenses can put them behind on rent and push them to the edge of eviction. One question that kept coming to mind as I read the book was “Who is there to help poor renters?” Some benefit from government programs, but these programs meet only a small fraction of the need. Who else is there to help?

Often the first person who provides help–limited and self-serving though it often is–is the landlord. One of the two landlords featured in the book, Sherrena, doesn’t immediately address the delinquency of one of her tenants, Lamar, because Lamar is legless and has young sons in his care. Her reluctance doesn’t last long, though. Desmond quotes her as saying “I guess I got to stop feeling sorry for these people because no one is feeling sorry for me.” Lamar tries to work off the amount in arrears, but Sherrena won’t give him credit for what he has done. The other landlord in the book, Tobin, quickly evicted some tenants who fell behind, but let others remain for months. Desmond notes one factor that affected whether a landlord would proceed with an eviction:

“How a tenant responded to an eviction notice could make a difference. Women tended not to negotiate their eviction like men did, and they were more likely to avoid landlords when they fell behind. These responses did not serve them well.”

Jerry, a biker who lived in Tobin’s park, responded to his eviction notice by angrily threatening to hit Lenny, the property manager. Surprisingly, that didn’t make the situation worse. Desmond attributes tolerance for such aggressiveness to landlords’ “gruff masculine way of doing business. That put men like Jerry at an advantage.” Jerry subsequently offered to work off the debt and was allowed to do so.

Renters facing eviction sometimes turned to family for help. Desmond describes the efforts that Larraine, one of Tobin’s tenants, made to get family help when faced with eviction. Two of her siblings had less income than her and couldn’t provide assistance. Relationships with impoverished family members may provide some benefits, but financial assistance isn’t one of them. Her sister Susan was a little better off but wouldn’t help because Larraine had mismanaged money in the past. Larraine hesitated to ask Rubin, her youngest brother, because they weren’t close and she didn’t want to imperil his future willingness to help by making frequent requests. The fear that a relative in position to help will decide that the person in trouble doesn’t deserve additional help is apparently a major reason why some relatives aren’t contacted.

Larraine can’t ask her oldest daughter Megan for help, since she hadn’t paid back an earlier loan, and Megan held that against her. She asks her daughter Jayne, who has a fast food job; Jayne promises to help but has no money until payday. Larraine goes next to her church, from whom she has gotten help previously, though she was only partly truthful when making that request, a deception that her sister Susan, who attends the same church, brought to the pastor’s attention. Pastor Daryl is torn. He believes that the church should help the poor, In Larraine’s case, though, he thinks that much of her hardship is because of her bad choices. Eventually he tells Larraine that the church won’t be helping this time. Finally, Larraine goes to Ruben, who agrees to help. In the end, though, Tobin refuses the money, having by this time decided he wants Larraine out of his park. Having family to ask, even family willing to help, by no means makes it certain that eviction can be prevented.

Since my church is currently discussing ways to help with the affordable housing crisis, I was particularly interested in what role churches played in the lives of those facing eviction. Though Larraine didn’t get financial help from Pastor Daryl on this occasion, her church is an important part of her life. She attends every Sunday and has loved going to church ever since she was a child. Regardless of whether the church provides emergency funds to poor congregants like Larraine, I couldn’t help but wonder if there was anything else that churches can do to better equip them for the hardships they faced, perhaps helping with budgeting or decision-making so that a housing crisis was less likely to occur in the first place.

Crystal was another struggling renter who was heavily involved in church. She was evicted by Sherrena and wound up in a homeless shelter. Even while homeless, she put a substantial portion of her monthly check in the offering plate. Her reasoning is as follows:

“I need something from God. So I sow a seed…. I need a house. I need financial breakthrough. I need healing from stuff. I need to be made whole.

She got some assistance from the church–an occasional bag of groceries, a place to stay once in a while. But she kept from everyone but the pastor that she was homeless. Desmond described her motives as follows:

“Crystal didn’t want members of her church to reduce her, to see her as an object of pity, a member of ‘the poor and the orphaned.’ She wanted to be seen as Sister Crystal, part of the Body, the Beloved.”

So Crystal got what she most wanted from her church–affirmation of her identity. I wonder whether the church has encouraged her transactional view of giving, though. If so, it seems her church is letting her down.

Lamar, Sherrena’s legless tenant, doesn’t attend church. One day, though, as he is sitting around with his sons and some neighborhood boys smoking a joint, Colin, a young pastor from a nearby church, comes to the door with his Bible and some cookies. Ignoring the smell of marijuana and sounds of a sexual encounter taking place in the bedroom, Colin opens his Bible and goes over some scripture passages. Lamar knows many of the passages by heart. When one the topic of the devil comes up, Lamar adds “And earth is hell.” Colin corrects him: Well, not quite hell.” Colin leads them in prayer and hands out a list of items Lamar can pick up at the church. Colin tried his best, and he’s certainly doing more than most churches do. Nevertheless, it seems that he misses what’s being said about how Lamar’s life is truly hellish. No matte what tangible help we offer, it’s important for those who seek to minister in Christ’s name to listen to those in need as carefully as he did.

So once one falls through the frayed safety net the government provides, it’s very much hit and miss as to whether those about to be evicted can find anyone else willing and able to help. I pray that God will help our church reach out to the Lamars in our city–and the Larraines and Crystals as well. May we be able to understand their struggles–including the hell on earth that some experience–and have wisdom regarding how we can help.


How well does life work if you are narrowly and brainlessly self-serving?  The Coen brothers asked that question in Burn after Reading last fall.  The answer: not so well.  This fall’s follow-up question seems to be, “Does it work any better to strive after righteousness, to seek God, to try to be A Serious Man?”  Their answer seems to be that, no, that doesn’t work out very well either. 

A Serious Man is said to be the movie in the Coen’s canon that most explores their Midwestern Jewish origins.  The movie was released in early October, but only made it to Fayetteville a few weeks ago.  I saw it this Wednesday.  The movie begins with a brief prologue: a Jewish couple in a 19th Century Eastern European shtetl have an encounter with an old acquaintance who may or may not be a dybbuk, the soul of a dead person, and in consequence they may or may not be subject to a curse.  The uncertainty about what happened is certainly intentional.  Larry Gopnik, a Jewish physics professor at a Midwestern college in 1967 (and who may be a descendent of the couple and thus saddled with their curse) is first seen lecturing about Schrodinger’s cat.  Is the cat alive or dead?  Who knows?  In a later dream sequence, Larry proves Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle to the class, concluding that we can’t ever know what’s really going on, “So it shouldn’t bother you.  Although you’ll be responsible for this on the midterm.” 

Despite dispensing such advice, Larry has trouble accepting the uncertainties of his own imploding life.  His wife Judith tells him she has grown close to Sy Ableman, an unctuous widower, and wants a divorce so she and Sy can marry.  His overweight, inept brother Albert is camped out on his couch.  His son Danny, preparing for his bar mitzvah between puffs of marijuana, badgers Larry about their poor TV reception.   His daughter steals from his wallet.  The neighbor on one side of his suburban ranch encroaches on his property line; the neighbor on the other side is a Bathsheba-like temptress who sunbathes in the nude.  A student tries to bribe him for a passing grade.  The student’s father threatens a lawsuit.  Someone writes letters to the tenure committee accusing Larry of moral turpitude.  And a record club is dunning him to pay for records he never ordered.   What diminishes Larry even more than the initial blows are the indignities that follow.  Larry may want to be a serious man, but no one takes him seriously.  Having your wife taken is bad enough; you shouldn’t have to endure her lover bringing you bottle of wine to compensate and hugging you in feigned sympathy.  And why should you be  exiled first from your bedroom and then from the house so that the marital tension won’t be awkward for the children?  How do you handle it when your unfaithful wife hires a rapacious law firm to demand the lion’s share of your meager assets? (In discussing his case with his lawyer, Larry says that he’s sure that Sy and Judith aren’t sexually involved, so their relationship can’t be used in the legal proceedings.  As in many Coen films, the boundary between innocence and stupidity is not well marked.)    

Larry wants to discover why “Heshem” (God) is treating him so harshly.  Rabbi Scott, the junior rabbi at the synagogue, admits that it’s difficult to understand divine intentions, but insists “with the right perspective you can see Heshem.”  He illustrates by showing Larry the parking lot, which, he says, is extraordinary or ordinary, depending on your perspective.  Or something like that.  Not surprisingly, Larry isn’t consoled by the sight of parked cars.

Rabbi Nachter responds to Larry’s questions by telling a rambling story about a Jewish dentist who found “Help me” written in Hebrew on the inner surfaces of a goy’s teeth.  Puzzled, the dentist consulted the rabbi, who had few answers: “The teeth, don’t know. A sign from Hashem, don’t know.  Helping others: couldn’t hurt.”  The dentist eventually goes on with life, and that’s what the rabbi advises Larry to do:  “These questions that are bothering you, Larry — maybe they’re like a toothache. We feel them for a while, then they go away.”  

Exasperated, Larry tries to see Marshak, the reputably wise senior rabbi.  Marshak’s secretary refuses to let Larry in, saying, “He’s busy.”  Larry, having caught a glimpse of Marshak sitting quietly at his desk, complains, “He doesn’t look busy.”  The imperious response is, “He’s thinking.”

So Larry is left without answers.  The movie lurches towards darkness and despair, but we are offered two bits of advice that may or may not be intended as lifelines.  First, an aphorism is shown before the opening scene: “Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you.”  Second, near the end of the movie, a character (I won’t give away who) quotes the Jefferson Airplane: “When the truth is found to be lies and all hope within you dies….”    Anyone who lived through the sixties knows what follows: “Don’t you want somebody to love/ Don’t you need somebody to love/ Wouldn’t you love somebody to love/ You better find somebody to love.”  The Coen’s message seems to be that, when faced with tragedy and absurdity, the best you can do is to accept and love.  Maybe that’s what makes one a serious man.  Larry hasn’t found acceptance.  As for love, when Arthur, immersed in problems of his own making, tearfully proclaims that Larry’s life is better than his then runs out the door, Larry, clad in his underwear, chases his distraught brother through the grounds of the run-down motel where they are staying and embraces him, giving words of comfort, while they sit together on the steps of the empty swimming pool.   Love is found in strange places, but it seems to be all that either of them have.

I recently read  Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy by Wake Forest University English professor Eric G. Wilson.  Why would anyone be against happiness?  Because, says Wilson, happy people—here he means a peculiarly American breed of happy people, those inhabiting our malls and gated communities, spending their days chatting on cell phones or wandering the Internet—are smug and superficial.  They seek total control over the uncertainties of life, and, in so doing, “don’t live their own lives at all.  They follow some prefabricated script, some ten-step plan for bliss or some stairway to heaven.  Doing so, they separate themselves from the present moment, immediate and unrepeatable and pressing.” (p. 28 ) 

Wilson spends much less time cataloging the faults of the happy masses than he does singing the praises of the melancholy few.  He believes that melancholy forces one to look within:

“At this moment, when I am stripped of the familiar, I get in touch with what is most intimate: I am this person and no one else.  I must find my unique potentialities, my own horizons.  I must live my own life and die my own death. . . .  Embracing my own death, I am shocked into living.  Feeling my finitude, I envision infinite horizons for being.”   (p. 43-44)

The melancholy soul embraces the particular rather than getting lost in abstractions and generalities.  He or she doesn’t oversimplify reality by choosing one side or the other of life’s complexities, but instead explores opposites and brings together antimonies.   Regarding the latter point, Wilson points out a similarity between the happy multitudes and those who are unrelentingly miserable:

“We realize that those committed to happiness at any cost and those bent on sadness no matter what are not very different from each other.  Both are afraid of the wispy middle, that fertile and often febrile ambiguity between the poles of the cosmos.”  (p. 82)

Too, melancholia is midwife to creativity.  Wilson lists dozens of writers and artists whose sadness inspired their creative works, describing a half-dozen in some depth, among them  William Blake, Beethoven, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and John Keats.  He also describes Jesus Christ as a melancholy figure, though to do so he emphasizes Christ’s humanity over his divinity, and even within that limitation gives a truncated portrayal.  Among the melancholy lot that Wilson describes, Keats is a particularly sympathetic figure.  Deathly ill with tuberculosis in his twenties, he made melancholy, death, and beauty central themes of his poetry.  For him, beauty is tied to death. 

Melancholy also heightenes our awareness of the world around us and of ourselves.  All that our senses encounter is transient, and this ephemeral nature of the world around us—the clouds and rainbows and roses—heightens our appreciation of its beauty.   As Wilson points out, we all yearn for what is lost and fear our own end, but, whereas the melancholic doesn’t avoid such inevitabilities, “happy types” paper them over with “”some clichéd affirmation about how they’re good people and deserve to be happy.” (p. 121)

There is much more to Wilson’s brief for melancholia than I’ve described: sections on the concepts of dynamic innocence and Romantic irony are particularly effective.  To him, the only “true path to ecstatic joy” is by way of melancholia, for one needs to have wandered through the dark night in order to appreciate the brilliant dawn.  Even those who grant the benefits of melancholia, though, can protest that Wilson gives insufficient attention to the harm that extreme sadness can wreck.  He tries to distinguish between melancholia and depression, stating that the latter produces apathy and paralysis, while the former generates deep feeling and “a perpetual longing to create new ways of being and seeing.” (p. 8 )  He agrees that those suffering severe depression should receive treatment, but asks, “what of those millions of people who possess mild to moderate depression?  Should these potential visionaries also be asked to eradicate their melancholia with the help of a pill?” (p. 149)   Many of these “potential visionaries” are involuntary recruits into the ranks of the troubled, and would be more than happy to desert the cause by taking medication or receiving therapy.    Even if something valuable can be learned from most bouts of depression, the experience clouds the mind, weighs down the body, and saps the soul.  Wilson recognizes some of the costs— he mentions suicide and substance abuse, for example—but in the end seems to accept these as a price to be paid for genius.   Isn’t the price paid by sufferers and their families too high, though?  We may be enriched by the suffering of the suicidal, but that’s a form of wealth we can do without.