I’ve been struggling to write again this week. Sunday’s conversation did not go as I expected and I’ve been trying to wrap my arms around why and how I can “fix” it, if that’s even a thing. Don’t get me wrong, it was a good conversation; it was honest and rich and personal. But there was a lot of anxiety.
In the first week of Advent, we strive to inspire hope. Of course, it begins in apocalypse, Judgment Day. My plan was to deconstruct popular notions of the End Times to get to the real hope found in Revelation, a hope found in our agency to choose between two alternative visions of the future: the calamity of the Seven Seals and the Four Horsemen; or the ever-flowing river of life where all tears are wiped away. For me, this is a hopeful stance, that nothing is set in stone, that, like the people of Ninevah, destruction does not have to be our fate, if we simply choose otherwise.
The counterpoint that was raised was that humans are historically bad at making these decisions. It’s a fair point. We have shown a disinclination to deal with the climate crisis. We accept racism and sexism and homophobia until those who are victimized by such things demand we pay attention. It’s rare to meet a war we don’t like, or at least won’t support. There are a host of problems ranging from education to gun violence that we know how to fix, but lack the public moral will to do so. It was suggested that God must come back to create the change that is needed.
There are a couple of tensions here. First, there is the question of whether people are capable of good. Second, there is the question of God’s presence and absence and the related issue of how precisely God might be present. These tensions are precisely the issues at stake in the stark visions of apocalypse, so I’m glad they were raised. I wish I had dealt with them better on Sunday.
Are people good or evil? I think one of the defining characteristics of progressive Christianity is skepticism about “the Fall.” The Fall is rooted in the experience of the clear presence of evil in the world and, more specifically, in the experience of people as bad actors. We do bad things, especially in large groups. Traditionally, it is understood to be because apple. Even those who are skeptical of the story, understanding that it is a folktale, still usually believe in the truth it is meant to explain: people are bad. I disagree with that.
I don’t think people are evil. I think people are stupid. I think we lack awareness. And even when we are as aware as we can reasonably be expected to be, the world is challenging. Oftentimes, we only have bad choices in front of us. And even if we make good choices, the best choices we can make, it is no guarantee that things will turn out as we had hoped. That’s part of the equation.
The other part is the power structures that are in place. Whether they were designed or simply happened, they make evil more possible, perhaps even inevitable. There are those who benefit from those systems, so they work hard to sustain them. There are also those who find comfort in those systems, even if their benefits are relatively meager. All of this is fear-based. Those who really benefit stoke fear in others, raising concerns about how much worse it would be if the system weren’t there. All that uncertainty of the outcomes of our choices is marshalled against us, so that we are made to feel powerless. We act in fear rather than hope.
This is where God’s presence becomes an issue. One of the claims of strong theology is that God is in control of everything. The conundrum is that, if God is in control, then how do we still have evil? So we send God away. God comes and goes. As we sense that evil is rising in the world – as we see the signs, as it were – we can only think that God is not here and, therefore, the solution is for God to return. I disagree.
I think the problem, as usual, is in strong theology. God is not in control, not in the sense that has dominated theology for a long, long time. But God is present. In spite of the evil that people do, we also know that people do some pretty amazing things. Given the uncertainty of life, the inducements to numbness and dumbness in the world, it’s miraculous that any good happens at all. That’s God. That’s a God who is present in the very moments of suffering where we need courage and comfort. God calls out to us, pleading for us to do the right thing. God holds us in a time of calamity so that we can be healed, so that we can come out whole, be reborn as a new creature on the other side. I’ll happily give up God’s control for God’s presence.
We rehearse God’s return and God’s birth each year, not because God was ever not here, but to remember what God’s presence means. In judgment, God’s presence presents a choice: calamity or justice. In the incarnation, God’s presence presents hope and the living of that hope. The open question is what God’s presence means in the Church, the people who claim to be bound together in the Spirit of God. What are we going to do in light of God’s enduring presence? How are we going to respond to God’s call? Are we keeping our promise to be animated by the breath of God, inspired by the Spirit?
If we keep that promise, there is hope. The powers and principalities of this world are shouting down the call of God for peace begotten of justice. The central claim of Revelation is that those powers are not eternal, they are not inevitable. They are empowered and they can be disempowered. That is God’s call. Our hope is in amplifying that call. We hear it at the margins and we transmit it to the center. With the purveyors of Rapture theology, I will agree with this: God will win in the end. Or as the preacher says in our communion song: “This is not my America/But I tell you today that the devil is a liar/Because it’s gon’ be my America before it’s all over.” Be not afraid.