When tragedies strike, or even multiply as they have this week in Boston and down in Texas, we have a myriad of reactions as humans and as people of faith. We hurt… we feel empathy and a real human connection to the victims. We pray… because we feel like our hurt needs to take action and bring about a response in us. We have been praying all week for our friends and neighbors in Boston and Texas. And we begin to question… we want answers. We hope that the answers, and more often the blame for these tragedies, can help assuage the hurt, confusion and fear.
Too many times we turn to angry accusations and blaming games that endanger people and multiply harm. We “want someone to pay” and our prejudices always supply a handy suspect. And when those desires also serve a political grudge? Well, all the better it seems. Yet this is not thoughtfulness or healing. This is not service to the hurting or help to the injured. But blaming feels good to us sometimes. Blaming feels “right” and justified to us. By the way, the Saudi national that many jumped to blame, along with the President, was not to blame. And of course today we know that it seems to have been the work of two brothers who are not from Saudi Arabia. I thank God that whatever steps were actually taken to keep more tragedy from happening with this Saudi man were taken! If he was whisked away to prevent unnecessary violence, then “Well done!”
The Problem of Blame
Here is a bit of what I see as the problem with our need to blame and rush to blame:
- Blame can avoid actually dealing with the hurt and delay healing.
- Blame can attack and injure innocent people, compounding the harm.
- Blaming exposes and strengthens our deepest prejudices.
Let’s look at a text in John 9 about a man born blind. It may be familiar to you or it may not. Really, we’ll just be working with the first 12 verses, but the whole chapter is a very interesting story of Jesus healing a man and the dramatic aftermath of the healing within his family and community.
What is happening in the this passage? Jesus is walking along and comes upon a man born blind and about whom his disciples make an inquiry, “Whose sin caused this suffering?” There must be a little more action happening that we aren’t in on, like how does John know he’s born blind at that point, what kind of attention did Jesus show to the man to inspire the disciples to ask for details? Things like that… but the case seems to be a bit of a random event happening as Jesus moves through his day.
The Question: “Who sinned? Who is to blame?”
I first encountered this kind of thinking on blame when I lived in East Africa. It may seem strange to us in the West to automatically ask for spiritual causes for physiological problems, but it’s common place in other cultures and parts of the world. In East Africa a person rarely asked “why” someone was sick, they asked “who made them sick.” The change in question stemmed from the acceptance of the idea that bad things happening in life were caused by the bad thinking of a person that translated into spiritual energy such as an intentional or accidental curse upon another person. So why did my crop fail? Because my neighbor was envious of it. Why did no rain come this season? Because the spirits of our dead family are unhappy that we don’t pound dry corn the way they did.
For the materialist magicians that we are in the West this can sound very alien to us, and yet when we have bad things happen to us or in our nation we always hear the cry of “Why did this happen, God?” And there’s never a lack of unthoughtful preachers making news by blaming the people around them they love the least. And if they don’t love someone God must not either, right?
This happened after the attacks on 9-11 and after Sandy Hook. It happened when a tsunami hit Japan and it happens when an earthquake strikes the Middle East. It happens when bombs go off in Boston and it has probably happened when the building unexpectedly exploded in Texas, though thankfully I haven’t seen or heard the blame given to anyone yet.
In tough times, tragic times, we turn to blame someone. We crave to lay blame on someone. We rush to judge, to blame and to find someone upon whom to lay our pain and suffering. It brings out the worst in us socially, politically and often religiously.
Walking down the road the disciples had a chance to clarify their need for blame. Here’s a man born blind. He was blind before he had a chance to sin or do something to deserve the affliction, so who might have sinned to have caused this? Did his parents not attend synagogue enough? Were they bad Jews? Did they neglect to tithe?
It’s not as weird a question as we might immediately think. Did God not take King David’s child from him, the child born from the sexual sin and murder in which David took Bathsheba from her husband? Have we not at times seen in the scriptural narrative that God levies punishment on people in specific ways for specific sins? Have we not heard New Testament writers assure the people of faith to whom they wrote that trials and afflictions are God’s way of proving our patience and chastising us?
I don’t intend to remove any power or meaning from any of those passages, but I do intend to question the idea that such passages and pieces of our scriptural narrative give us license to lay blame at people’s feet when we feel the need to have a scape-goat for our hurts. I question our ability to know more than that group of speculating disciples walking down the road with Jesus. We often have the same question, and it’s not a bad questions. The real kicker here is where we get our answer. I hope it’s from Jesus.
The Answer to the Question: “Look for healing.”
The answer Jesus gives is both clear and a little ambiguous. Don’t you love that? He says clearly that neither the man nor his parents sinned to cause the blindness. Instead he says that the blindness of the man is intended to be an expression of God’s power, presumably in healing. So he clearly releases the man and his parents of the blame, but seems to sorta say it’s God’s fault. I immediately thought of poor Job. Remember him? He was the guy just living and loving life until God asks Satan, “Hey, what do you think of my man, Job?”
But is Jesus just playing the blame game that was set up by the question, only adding a third option for the blame, or is he doing something else? Is he simply saying, “No, it’s not him or his parents, but you’re on the right trail… it was God to blame!” Or is he trying to get the disciples thinking on a higher level, or deeper level we might say.
Jesus ramps the conversation up by rejecting the sin causality, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned” and introduces a shared activity of revelation, “…but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him. As long as it is day, we must do the works of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work. While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” Interesting use of the light and dark themes so beautifully illustrated in the man’s blindness and restored sight! I love it when Jesus does stuff like that.
Jesus says the man’s blindness is an arena for seeing God work. He’s not really blaming God as much as tying the man’s blindness into a greater level of meaning. The man’s suffering in life is not simply a blame game, but a chance for good to move into action. Jesus says he is stepping past the blaming to grab hold of the healing, and I think we are invited to do the same.
In rejecting the sin argument of blame Jesus opens the door for healing and change. What would the story have been like if Jesus had simply said, “His parents cheated a household laborer out of her wages, and God hates injustice, so their child is blind,” and then just kept walking? That story would have sucked eggs. And in fact, that kind of story would have been too painfully similar to the times when we and/or our neighbors experience tragedy or suffering and some nearby person of faith starts in with, “Well, we have legalized abortion… It’s the homosexual agenda… It’s the atheists… We don’t pray over the loud speakers at our football games any more… It’s the Republicans… It’s the Democrats… It’s blah blah blah.”
I’m glad that we are being called into account for our words more and more. Soon after the bombs on Monday, when some voices started the blame game against their favorite prejudice (the atheists), a response from a thoughtful atheist hit CNN’s front page. Good. The blame game causes us to de-humanize our neighbor and build walls of “us-them” thinking that need to be torn down!
I have been personally saddened by the speculative blaming that has meme’d across Facebook and other social outlets this week like “Obama Protects Saudi Suspect!” We are so bent to name and demonize the usual suspects that we turn immediately to the worst kind of unsupported reporting and blame game tactics to attack the people we least love. And do we beat people in parking lots now for looking Arabic? It seems that maybe we do. Truly, truly sick. Blame game crap never brings healing… it exponentially expands the suffering. Blame brings out our worst.
What to do?
People of faith should be some of the first to recognize that we have many questions, some that get pretty satisfactory answers and some that never do. We travel a road of faith, a balancing act of certainty and speculation. There is plenty in the scriptural narrative to point out that, though our dumb actions are often the cause of our suffering, there are also times when “rain falls on the wicked” and the world caves in on the righteous. Our task is not to assign blame, and then I guess go on with administering some punishment. Our task is to move into healing action. Our task to look at the ways that the goodness and glory of God can move to lift humanity from affliction and into wholeness, and how we participate in that. Our task is to gracefully love, pray, and hope and thereby act out of gracious love, prayer and hope.
Is it unjust when the sinful hatred of two young men sets off bombs on a crowed street and kill innocent people including an eight year old boy? Yes, it is. Is it unjust then the actions of those two young men maim and injure hundreds more? Yes, it is. Is it truly saddening when an unexpected explosion devastates a small town killing workers and first responders? Yes, truly saddening. Is it gut wrenching to watch the town scramble to rescue and serve their neighbors in the choking, blighted aftermath of that explosion? Yes, it twists our guts inside out.
The question that matters most on the Friday of such a hard week are not “Who do we blame? Who will pay for this? Who will be punished for this?” The questions that matter most on Friday of this week are “How do we serve? How do we help heal? How do we better love? How do we better raise our friends and neighbors from their suffering?”
Already one Boston bombing suspect has died in a confrontation with the police. His brother and suspect #2 is still running. I keep looking over at the news outlets to see if there’s any resolution to the chase yet, not because I’m jazzed to see news of his death, but because the sooner we can divert all this energy from hunting to healing the better served many of our hurting neighbors in Boston will be. I hope he is caught soon, and I am sure he will face justice for his actions.
But for us though, watching from afar, let’s multiply the healing and not harm with our words and actions! This is our task. I am so encouraged by the people running to the bomb sites Monday instead of away from them… they accepted the task of moving for goodness. As tragic as it is, I am so honored to be a human being when I read of first responders giving their lives in Texas as they rush to defend and serve life in the midst of a volatile situation. They are the heroes who make a lump in my throat. It’s a very human responsibility to serve and love, to raise a neighbor from the depth of pain in any way they can, and humans of faith should not be the first to forget it.
Our words in these days matter. Love. Hope. Healing. Let’s speak the greatest things and live them and never trade them for the burning drive to blame, isolate and divide. It may not be the answer our questions might seem to ask for, but it’s the answer that will speed healing for us and all who need it most.