We sometimes don't leave a lot of room for the emotion of lament in Christian circles, what with always wanting to glorify the Lord. It creeps a little too close to despair for our comfort. We know that despair is the antithesis of hope, which we are supposed to have in Christ, so we stay away from anything resembling lament with a ten-foot pole also. We want to present an image of a God who does what we want and brings us happiness so that people will like Him and be drawn to Him.
But that is not the gospel and we are not salespeople promoting a God who always makes us prosperous, healthy, and happy in order to build our own pyramid of converts. We take the power out of the gospel when we refuse to acknowledge suffering and the role it plays in our lives, and what God can do with it. And lament is a part of that first step of acknowledging suffering. Sometimes we need to just say, "This is terrible! Why oh why does it have to be like this?" And non-Christians watching WANT to see our honest pain and questions, and a thorough response to suffering, not just our automatic platitudes.
This summer we have been slapped in the face by injustice and evil crashing into the lives of those that we love and serve. Jasmin is a unique participant in our mother's program. She actually has adolescent/young adult-aged children, but is participating in the young moms group because she is raising her 2 grand-children under age 4 as well. She brings them for early childhood stimulation activities and talks to me frequently about their psychological challenges and progress. Genesis, Jasmin's daughter, was in a mighty struggle with drug addiction and, as a result, was unable to care for her own children.
Last month, Genesis was brutally murdered by her boyfriend. Horrifically mutilated, in fact. As I tried to be a comfort to Jasmin, I was filled with compassion for a mother who first lost her child to drug addiction, then lost her to death, and now loses her again to the hurtful gossip and judgment of others. To make themselves feel protected from such misfortune, they blame Jasmin and/or Genesis for what happened, as if Jasmin could control her daughter's poor choices, or Genesis was asking for such a fate by what she did and who she hung out with.
Listening to her story as we looked through pictures of Genesis as a young girl, read reflections in her journals from time in rehab and notes from her mother encouraging her in her fight to stay clean, I was appalled at how broken the systems that should protect and deliver justice to this community are. I would say that a terrible string of errors made the experience of losing her daughter much worse, but to call them "errors" implies that proper norms exist and exceptions occurred, which is not the case. This is apparently the norm offered to the marginalized people of this community:
First, the man who killed her daughter should have been in jail already for a string of crimes, violent and otherwise, but he was put on house arrest by a justice system too overwhelmed to have space in jail for him, and because of lies and enabling by his mother on his behalf. He also should have been arrested for another crime 5 days before the murder, but when the authorities came for him, he ran away. The authorities left without any attempt to pursue or post a sentry to wait for his return home.
The night that this man murdered Genesis, neighbors said that her screams were heard as far as two blocks away. This is a community of tiny shacks with thin corrugated-tin walls packed full of people right up against one another with no green space between. That means hundreds of people heard the screams. The murderer's family (mother, siblings, cousins, etc.) was even in the house when he killed her. No one called the police until after she was dead. It is a community of people who mind their own business and live in fear of retribution if they condemn the behavior of others. They are right to be afraid, experience has taught them that, but they are wrong to let that fear make them so selfish that they lose the most basic of instincts to help the vulnerable.
When the police came to tell Jasmin that her daughter was dead, they were far more concerned with paperwork and data than bedside manner. The news of her daughter's murder was delivered cruelly and casually. She was taken to the crime scene to identify the body without concern for her emotional welfare. Thank God the police changed their minds and wouldn't let her in after an official left the house so badly shaken and "undone" that he said he had never seen anything like it. However, she COULD see the tremendous pool of blood and the murderer's mother trying to clean it up even before the crime scene was properly analyzed. The police also saw this and did nothing to stop the woman.
She learned later that day that police had taken pictures of Genesis's body and were showing them casually to others in the community, not for any investigative purpose, but to revel in the shocking gore with the gossipers. The next day, these pictures were published in a local newspaper, shocking gore and all (there are no rules about printing that here apparently). Obviously a police officer or family member of the murderer had sold them for personal gain to the newspaper. The horror of Jasmin and her family in seeing those pictures, not to mention knowing that her daughter's eviscerated body was on display for all the world to see, cannot be captured in words.
Another paper published a completely factually incorrect article about Genesis, without having spoken with anyone who knew her, depicting her as a long-gone crazy crackhead, when she was actually a girl who struggled with the ups and downs of addiction. She tried to get clean; she fell back into drugs; she cycled through again and again. She couldn't figure out how to leave this life of darkness she had gotten into. She apologized to her family for all the harm she had done them. She stayed clean during her 2 pregnancies and apologized routinely to her young children for not being the mother they deserved. She was not a villain who deserved what she got, she was a profoundly broken human who for many reasons simply could not figure out how to make good decisions for herself, but still managed to try to protect her children from herself in leaving them with family who could care for them.
The police gave Jasmin no aid or instructions on how to file a complaint against the man who murdered her daughter. (Here the police do not handle the paperwork, another government agency does). She had to navigate the bureaucratic system and figure out for herself where to go and what to do to try to begin the process of appealing for justice for her daughter.
The murderer's mother came to ask Jasmin if she had any of the cell phones her son had stolen, thinking maybe he had given them to Genesis to hide in her mom's house. No apology given, like "sorry my son murdered your daughter" or "sorry I was in the house at the time and did nothing to stop him." Community gossip is that this woman is a witch and probably needed body parts for her spells, making her an accomplice to the murder. Sounds fantastical, right? But no more than the rest of the story, which is all truth, so I guess it wouldn't be so absurd after all.
Insensitive tongues wagged in front of Jasmin about parents who did such a bad job of raising their children that they become drug addicts, despite the fact that Jasmin is a Christian and a good mother from what I have seen, who had a daughter who didn't listen to her and made some really bad choices. As if losing her daughter was not enough, Jasmin has had to endure the judgment and criticism of those who in the name of Christ have proclaimed a false gospel of only prosperity for those who follow God. Or of those whose fear that the same thing could happen to their family drives them to distance themselves from the tragedy, emotionally abandoning and verbally abusing those who need their support and comfort in a time of profound sorrow.
Jasmin had to handle and dress Genesis's post-autopsy body herself for the funeral. The pastor of the largest church in La Carpio, at Genesis's funeral service, chose to heap condemnation on those who live lives of sin and reap the consequence of death, rather than offering comfort to the family for their loss. The list goes on and on of ways that the nightmare for Jasmin has been compounded by broken and indifferent systems and people.
Jasmin knows that Genesis was not a perfect person. I heard frustration with her daughter mixed in with the loss and regret and sorrow and love of this grieving mother. But she was still her daughter. The one she could remember as an innocent 10-year-old before all this craziness began. The daughter that she knew was still in there, even though she knew the person before her wasn't her real daughter as she stole and hurled insults at her mother while under the influence. A person worthy of dignity and love, no matter how many mistakes she had made. A woman who did not deserve the horrible fate that befell her, no matter what her vices were. And her children, precious Darren and Tiago, do not deserve to be orphans with the infamous distinction of being "the boys of that crackhead that got herself killed."
I left asking God many questions:
The world shouldn't be like this, but it is. It sounds trite (maybe even cruel) to remind Jasmin right now that "all things work together for the good of those who love him" and we are to be "joyful in all circumstances" at a time like this. She's not ready to hear that yet - though she knows it is true. It would be like invalidating her sadness; telling her "let's look on the bright side" gives the impression that the sadness and grief are wrong.
Lamentations teaches us that it is okay to grieve and weep and mourn that the world is such a broken and hideous place. What are more appropriate words for Jasmin than, "Your wound is as deep as the sea. Who can heal you?" (Lam. 2:13) What better words to summarize this messy and complex world (and God's role in directing it) than "Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that both calamities and good things come?" (Lam. 3:38) What can Jasmin say but "My soul is downcast within me. Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope: Because of the Lord's great love we are not consumed, for HIS compassions never fail." (Lam. 3:20-22)
There is a time and place when we can do nothing but mourn what is. Instead of quickly looking for a way to excuse God for letting this happen, as though He needs us to defend Him, we need to acknowledge that His sovereignty does not preclude horrible misfortunes. Tim Keller explains this well in his book Walking with God through Pain and Suffering, saying that we are asking the wrong question (which already shows our bias) when we ask "How can a loving and sovereign God allow this suffering?" He explains that "the older Christian idea that we exist for God's glory receded and was replaced by the belief that God exists to nurture and sustain us." (page 54) Do you see how we've gotten it backwards if we are even asking this question? Deism infiltrated Christianity and somewhere along the line convinced us that God created the world for our benefit and He exists to make us happy. These are not promises in the Bible.
What IS promised in the Bible is that God will walk with us through our joys AND our miseries, never abandon us, make us more like Jesus (many times through that very suffering), and bring us ultimate victory and redemption in the end. Doubting God's sovereignty or goodness or power because suffering exists shows our own pride and self-centeredness in the assumption that He exists to make life pleasurable for us, and if He's not, then something must be wrong, rendering him not powerful enough or not nice enough to fix it for us.
Shame on prosperity gospel teachers (be good = get blessed; have trouble = must be in sin) who have invented a wishful thinking religion where we always get what we think we deserve. The gospel isn't that simple and formulaic, because the gospel is a PERSON to be known, not a formula for getting what we want. Job's friends are alive and well in those who criticize those who suffer for bringing it on themselves. As Job lay in a pit with boils and extreme physical pain, pondering the emotional loss of the deaths of all of his children and the financial loss of his entire estate, having had literally everything stripped away from him, they arrived to offer him comfort by asking "what did you do to deserve this?" I guess we could call THEM the first prosperity gospel teachers. What I don't understand is why we keep going back to that idea when God clearly condemns it at the end of the book of Job - I guess some people don't read that far.
Once we have taken the time to mourn properly and wail our hard questions to God, later we can look for the good with some perspective. Maybe we can find some good, and maybe we can't. That doesn't mean there isn't any, it just means we can't see it. That's okay, because we're not God and we don't see the whole tapestry that He is weaving in wisdom and power, redeeming the evil that some choose to commit and still bringing his plans to fruition. For now, I lament what happened to this girl and her family, and I cry out to God with my disappointment. He can handle it.
The answers to my earlier questions are simple, I guess, but it doesn't stop me from asking them and sometimes wishing they had different answers more in line with what I think is fair.
I tell this story here to honor Jasmin, who feels unheard and maligned by her community, the police, the press, her pastor, and fellow Christians. I admire her strength and faith tremendously, and I wonder if in her situation I could handle all of this with as little anger and desire for vengeance as she has. Far from needing me to affirm or encourage her to be strong, she encourages me in my faith, because she is tapped into Strength itself and challenges us all to do the same. She knows a suffering God whom she can trust with her daughter's and her own suffering. We mourn with her, celebrate God's sustaining power in her life, and wait for comfort and peace from the only One who can truly give it.
Quote of the month
""At the margins is the only place the Church will have credibility."