by John Ellis
Lord willing, this will be the final article in this rambling series. At least for now. I think. And I think so because my thoughts on despair have begun to collate and shift in the specific conceptual directions of political theology and ecclesiology (separately yet connected). I also chose the descriptor “rambling” as an intentional signal of my desire to divorce my thoughts on despair from Western metaphysics as much as possible. It’s undeniable that my words and concepts are products of my Western context and so it is virtually impossible to not colonize with my words. In the previous instillations of this series (although part 3 intentionally violates this to a greater degree than parts 1 and 2), I’ve attempted to avoid making arguments that stand up to the scrutiny of the Western metaphysic of the thesis/antithesis critique. Likewise, I’ve tried to limit the citationality of the concepts. I’ve failed, of course, on both counts, and, as footnote 2 has already pointed out, my felt need to explain is evidence of my internal (and external) failing. So be it. I find joy in muddling forward even if no one else knows what I’m saying, which, frankly, is part of my pedagogical point. That being said …
With this installment, my desire is to speak less to myself and more to you (whomever you may be). To that end, I’m going to write with less poststructuralist “riddles” and more with the belief (mistaken though it may be) that you (whomever you may be) see and understand the signified behind my signifiers. And, so, let’s talk about death.
During the winter of 2016, my son’s kindergarten teacher died unexpectedly in his sleep. It made me angry. And I wrote about my anger (you can read that article by clicking here). In the article, after relating how I found my young son weeping in his bed, I wrote, “And that made me angry. Angry at Sin and Death. Angry that the Serpent has brought his lies and his unholy war on Life and his rebellion against God into my son’s life.”
The article, titled “Death’s Unnatural Intrusion Into Childhood,” was originally published on my previous blog (I republished it on this blog because it’s one of my articles that I’m most proud of). A blog that, at the time, had an audience of thousands. The article ended up being one of the more read posts on the blog. And with that large of an audience comes comments and emails. The overwhelming majority of the feedback I received was positive, although the article angered some.
One evening, a woman, a member of our church, very loudly and aggressively voiced her displeasure with me and my article. I don’t remember her exact words, because sitting in my living room, I was quite taken aback by her response. She was visibly shaken and near tears while yelling at me.
She was angry that I described death as unnatural and an enemy. She let me know that she had gone through much counseling to be able to accept and be okay with the death of a loved one, and how dare I attempt to undo that?
Realizing that by winning the argument I would lose, I let her have her say. The conversation eventually shifted uncomfortably to something else.
Her response of course, is an example of the extreme, but it gets to what I’ve been thinking and writing about: the privilege we in America have in rounding off all edges in attempts to avoid despair. And our belief that we’re owed (that we deserve) protection from even thinking about suffering. Part of the problem is that we’ve elevated happiness above joy. Another part of the problem is that we (most of us) have the means to temporarily close our eyes to suffering and despair. The larger problem is that we want to rule our lives and reject God’s rule. Submitting to God, through faith in Jesus, demands despair, though. But you wouldn’t know that if you attend church services in most American white evangelical churches.
Mary, the mother of Jesus, is exalted above all women. But why? Because of her despair. And her despair is where our salvation is found. My word, Jesus despaired. Thankfully! Mercifully!
In his commentary on Job, Francis Anderson explains how in the long-form poetry of Job two contrary truths are affirmed: “Suffering is the common burden of all men and the lonely burden of each man.” He goes on to write about how suffering leads to glory. The suffering of Job isn’t an anomaly in God’s Story; it’s central to it. Suffering and despair coat the pages of the Bible. But, except with great conscious effort not to, we in the West read the Bible through the lens of our therapeutic age. In our interpretive hands, God’s Story is mangled into a self-help book of how to flourish in the hear and now. We believe we are owed comfort, and despair is the enemy of comfort. But that belief means that our companions are not whom we think. Anderson concludes the introduction to his commentary by pointing out, “As an innocent sufferer, Job is the companion of God.”
How do those statements from Anderson hit you?
We often pay lip-service to suffering, but the reality is that most of us in America do everything in our power to dull and deny suffering, even compromising our ethics to do so. In the voting booth, in the evening as we gorge on the distraction of entertainment, with meds, both prescribed and un-prescribed, through counseling, through good works, whatever it takes, because we have the resources to pay whatever price is asked, we avoid despair. Even in the moments in which we should experience some of our greatest moments of despair, we paper over it with “Celebration of Life” services. We separate our humanness from suffering because we believe that we are owed our Rest in the here and now. And this doesn’t even begin to touch on how our privilege has reshaped theological suffering and despair into aspects of one-off consumer acts.
The question shouldn’t be how do I alleviate my suffering, but does my suffering and despair draw me closer to Jesus or does it pull me further away? But we don’t ask that question. At our best, we seek answers to why we’re suffering in order to find ways to cope, allowing us, in turn, to reclaim a life of comfort as much as possible. The weeping of despair is not allowed in the American Dream. But this world is not our home; we should be uncomfortable here. The drug of common grace is quite addictive.
We in America who claim to follow Jesus need to wake up before it’s too late. We’re not on the narrow path. We’re on the wide, smooth path of comfort and affirmation that leads to destruction.
This is what I’ve been wrestling with in this series: like the heroes of faith recorded in Hebrews, am I allowing my suffering and despair to grow my faith? Or am I finding my home at the end of the gilded paths of Babylon? It’s true that Babylon’s paths not only promise but deliver ease and comfort, but it’s true only for a season. Like Esau, what am I trading my eschatological inheritance for? What are you?
Faith is not easy. If it is, you may be on the wrong path.
Soli Deo Gloria
 Although, Mikhail Bakhtin’s Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics has been immensely helpful in my attempts to think and write with outsideness.
 It doesn’t escape me that this (the opening paragraph) is evidence of how connected I remain to the Western metaphysic of critique.
 Francis I. Anderson, Job TOTC, ed. Donald J. Wiseman (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2008), 73.
 Anderson, Job, 75.