When There Is No Meaning
In many ways, clergy play the role of “meaning-makers” for their congregations. Their vocational role is to interpret this sometimes senseless world so that it has some kind of purpose. After all, we are not, to summarize Jerome Bruner, simply “information-processors,” because information alone is not enough.
What we see, hear, feel, and experience has to be arranged and interpreted in such a way that life doesn’t devolve into meaninglessness or hopelessness. Faith, thus, is not an emotional crutch – as some critics would argue – it functions as a meaning-making exercise.
Yet, all explanations fail when forced to interpret the horror of what happened at Emanuel AME Church just days ago. We the meaning-makers, we who are charged with producing tidy, digestible solutions to all of life’s problems, well, we just can’t do it . The tragedy simply doesn’t compute.
In an iconic photo taken outside of Emanuel last week, a group of church members were mourning, and one of them was holding a giant sign with one word on it: “Why?” That’s the word that says and asks it all.
We might be tempted to direct that question toward those who continue to rebuff common sense measures related to America’s “gun culture:” Why won’t you lead this country toward greater responsibility? We could ask it of the hateful racists who terrorize people of color a full century and a half after their Emancipation: Why do you perpetuate thuggish bigotry toward people simply because of their God-given epidermis?
We could put it to South Carolina: Why do you continue to fly a battle flag that represents an army that warred to enslave a whole race of people? We should direct the question to ourselves, our neighbors, friends, and families: Why will we not change this society that is violent to its deepest innards; violence that seems to be glorified on every screen, in every movie, game, sport, and “heroic” tale we tell?
And we place it at feet of God. Who among us have never pelted heaven with our questions and doubts: “Why does God sit idly by? Why doesn’t God intervene? Why would God allow such injustice? Why doesn’t God do something about the suffering in our lives and our world?”
Of course, there are no answers to these questions, not in this lifetime. We don’t know why God allows or tolerates the evil that invades our lives or why he offers so little explanation for suffering. But we do know that God goes with us through it all – we know this – because his Son, Jesus, when he was dying on the cross, aimed this exact question at God: “Why?”
As Christians, we believe this Jesus was the anointed one of God, and even with such a privileged position, he was found in the fashion of a man and subjected himself to injustice. He did not avoid it, but embraced it, and brought redemption from it. God may not always rescue us, may never explain things to us, but he always identifies with us and goes with us, for in Jesus he knows what it is like to be haunted by the question of “Why?”
On the first Sunday after the Mother Emanuel shooting I read the words of William Sloane Coffin to my own congregation. Back in 1983, Coffin delivered a sermon entitled “Eulogy for Alex” to his congregation at Riverside Church in New York just days after the death of his son. A single line from that sermon rings in my head over and over again. Coffin said: “My own broken heart is mending, and largely thanks to so many of you, my dear parishioners. You gave me what God gives all of us: Minimum protection, maximum support.”
Faith in God is not an insulator from tragedy or injustice. Following Christ or holding to faith does not guarantee a trouble-free life. Nor will having “more faith” lead to less difficulty in this unfair world or meaningful explanation for every sorrow. Faith is minimum protection from suffering, but thank God, it is maximum support.