During the Cold War my boyfriend and I traveled through Eastern Europe in a Volkswagen van. We bounced along one-lane dirt roads through occupied Transylvania, where people were too frightened to talk to us. Camped along back roads bordering the Black Sea, locals who had never seen Americans brought us homemade cheese and jam. We shared chicken-head soup and hot, sugary slivovitz cooked on a corncob stove at a village wedding. A weekend jaunt to Budapest became two winter months. There was something about the soul of the people: their intense intellect and dark humor. Plaintive Gypsy violin and cimbalom in every restaurant, the common knowledge of literature and history, the long lines to buy coarse toilet paper and fatty sausage, statues of poets with names like Radnoty and Petofi, brooding paintings reminiscent of German expressionism and surrealism, and the contrast between the epic architecture and the gritty realities of daily life held me spellbound. I never forgot my first shocked look at bullet holes in buildings and wreaths splattered with red paint commemorating the deaths of 2,500 Hungarians when the Russian tanks rolled in. I returned home less naïve.
I live in Budapest now. When I moved here in 2010, Hungary was just losing the blush from her marriage with the EU. The Ukraine looked like the next European frontier for entrepreneurs. No one then would have expected Russian troops to show up next door less than four years later. Once again we see armored vehicles encroaching on democracy, sovereignty, and self-determination. Once again we see the West too economically and geopolitically enmeshed in money and energy interests to do much about it. It looks a lot like what we saw in Budapest in 1956, and in Prague in 1968. Déjà vu.
I don't pretend to understand the many political forces at play in the Ukraine, from the oil economy to the ethnic makeup of Crimea, Ukrainians torn between Eastern and Western alliances to Putin's megalomania and the U.S.'s influence (or lack thereof). There are many commentators more qualified to comment politically on the situation. But I would like to comment on the gnarly questions it raises about oppression, liberation, power, and God.
When oppression is on the march, good people ask, "Where is God? If there is a God, how can God allow such things?" The question was most poignant in the wake of the Holocaust: "Why didn't God intervene?" We imagine a God more powerful than armies vindicating the good and vanquishing the oppressors, as in the story of David and Goliath. Instead we see a God sitting by and doing nothing. To do nothing when people are suffering is itself evil. Is God evil, then, or is God powerless? Is there no God, or is there some other explanation? "Where is God?!" we rail. "Why does God not crush the forces of oppression?"
The usual unsatisfactory explanations are offered:
- "God is good and is teaching someone a lesson or punishing someone." This explanation has been trotted out as recently as Hurricane Sandy. It makes God out to be a petty tyrant. It justifies the idea that anyone who is doing well (like Donald Trump) must be doing good, while anyone suffering (like an AIDS patient) must be doing wrong. What, then, are we to make of Jesus?
- "God has some reason for planning suffering." It's a slippery slope to say that God causes evil and suffering in order to bring good from it like a rabbit from a hat. Can you say "diabolical"?
- "God is unconcerned with our welfare and does not share our concerns." This explanation posits an amoral or disinterested God on whose radar screen we are less than a dot. We are all alone, and God is not good but merely powerful.
All three options are sufficiently distasteful as to make it preferable to dispense with God altogether. Is there some other view that could leave us empowered by God's embrace?
Recently I've gotten hooked on the Netflix series House of Cards. I watch with the kind of fascinated, helpless horror that one might feel while watching a car crash or the nefariously plotted events of a Shakespearean tragedy unfold as they must. The drama is all about power; no one has any other motivation. If they do, they end up dead. More than money or sex, even, power is the interest of the human ego. Humans are socially and genetically programmed to want it, wield it, and vie for it. Power assures survival and reproductive success. It works both ways: Money and sex buy power, and power gives access to money and sex. It's a mechanism endlessly chasing its tail. Driven by greed and fear, power offers false hope of control. If we have enough control, the ego argues, we can make things go our way. There is no end to it. As in any addiction, no matter how much power you have, it is never enough. In the end you die, like everyone else. Even Jesus.
But Jesus was really different from you and me. He refused to play for power, even though everyone from the zealots to the Pharisees to Pontius Pilate tried to push him into it. He was not about control. It's our human projection to think that if we had God's power, then we would make things go our way. God has no truck with power, no interest in it and no dealings in it, as far as I can tell. God will not forcibly stop Frank Underwood, Vladimir Putin, or even Adolf Eichmann. God does not exercise force against powers and principalities. God didn't stop the crucifixion. Doesn't that tell us something? Armies and political posturing are about force, and God is about something else. God does not use the power of force but the power of love. Not the power to make things happen but the power to call things forth from our hands to whisper courage and liberation into our hearts. We have the freedom to choose to listen or to shut our hearts and minds. We can follow God or power.
Where is God when oppression happens? I am reminded of a story attributed to William Sloane Coffin. A man dies and goes to heaven, where he gets an audience with God. He has waited his entire life to ask, "God, why didn't you stop the Holocaust?" God answers, "Funny, I was going to ask you the same thing."
People are facing fear and oppression all over the world, but they are not alone. Wherever people struggle for liberation, God is standing with them. In the words of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.:
When our days become dreary with low-hovering clouds of despair, and when our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, let us remember that there is a creative force in this universe working to pull down the gigantic mountains of evil, a power that is able to make a way out of no way and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows. Let us realize that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.