Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Cruel theology and What planet are you from?

When misfortune strikes, why is our first impulse to blame (or arrest?) the victim? It's there in Job (perhaps the oldest book in the Bible) and it's in Acts chapter 28:
Once safely on shore, we found out that the island was called Malta. The islanders showed us unusual kindness. They built a fire and welcomed us all because it was raining and cold. Paul gathered a pile of brushwood and, as he put it on the fire, a viper, driven out by the heat, fastened itself on his hand. When the islanders saw the snake hanging from his hand, they said to each other, "This man must be a murderer; for though he escaped from the sea, Justice has not allowed him to live." But Paul shook the snake off into the fire and suffered no ill effects.
Acts 28.1-5
So what's that about? Here's my take. When I see someone in a tough situation, one of the things I feel is fear. Not fear as in "contagious" but fear as in "that could have been me." If I've been listening well to God, I will also feel compassion and act upon it. But there's a part of me (would "reptilian brain" be apt here?) that wants to believe that this or that disaster can't happen to me.

Like when I hear about someone getting mugged at 4am while walking down a dark alley, there's a part of me that (perhaps rationally) says, "I'm glad I stay out of dark alleys at 4am". Or when I hear about New Orleans and the disastrous flooding there, a part of me says, "It's dumb to live in a place subject to natural disasters." (Do I mean like earthquakes? D'oh!)

Yeah, it's good to be prudent but it's just dumb to think I can avoid every unpleasant thing. Sometimes an illness strikes suddenly - I know two couples where a partner was suddenly lost to a brain tumor. I knew another young woman who collapsed suddenly one day and was gone just like that. These things happened with no warning signs.

And it's... well, it's cruel to explain all misfortune in terms of the victim's character. It's also just plain wrong (think Job and Paul).

I'd love to give you a 3-point plan to avoid this -- in fact I think I'll make one up right now.
  1. Admit that life is really not under my control -- that I'm ultimately helpless
  2. Confess that I have a tendency to blame the victim, like these Maltese islanders did.
  3. Trust my future to God in two ways:
    • Believe he will take care of me until it's my time
    • Believe he can help me to think correctly, and to cause my compassion to overcome my fear.
Oh, and here is another angle to this whole "blame the victim" mentality. When something good happens, people sometimes appear to be taking credit for it. I told a friend about finding a job at NetApp and particularly about my sense that God blessed me, he thought I was saying "God blessed me because I'm so good or because I did X" whereas my feeling was more "Lots of good people are struggling to find something, God blessed me inexplicably, and that confuses me." Eventually I succeeded in conveying this, and he felt better about being my friend.

But apparently I experienced only a mild case of "when cultures collide". Look at what the Maltese islanders do next:
The people expected him to swell up or suddenly fall dead, but after waiting a long time and seeing nothing unusual happen to him, they changed their minds and said he was a god.
Acts 28.6
Now there's a misunderstanding! I guess the message here is that people sometimes think so differently that you'd think they came from different planets. Or different universes!

Is that why we have to be wise as serpents and harmless as doves?

No comments: