“We Wail, Whether or Not Anyone is Listening”
Here’s a joke for you from the Tanakh. It starts, like most jokes do, with God just walking around and thinking about things, and as God reflects God decides, “There’s this city on Earth that has really got me POed. They’ve insulted me by refusing to show mercy and hospitality, the few things I’ve told people to do, and I’ve just got to set an example. I’m gonna blow this city, smack it down into the soil, rub my hand around until there’s no trace of anything or anyone left. That’ll show the rest of them: Don’t screw with me.”
Naturally, God being God, God can’t just do this but has to tell someone first. There’s this guy nearby God’s been having occasional conversations with and tells him, “Hey, there’s this city over there and the populace have gotten on my nerves. I’m going to rub them out, literally. Just wanted you to know.”
Now this guy, he’s been paying attention to what God’s told him and how God’s behaved in the past and, ignoring the question whether the city actually is wicked or not, says, “Listen, I don’t want to tell you your business, but what kind of god punishes the righteous with the wicked? What if there are fifty good people in that city? Would you ignore the city’s slights for fifty good people?” God allows as he would. Guy says, “Oh, but it could be some of them woke up in a bad mood this morning, didn’t have their coffee. How about forty-five?” God agrees and guy says, “I wouldn’t presume to tell you what righteousness is but what if some of those good people are having a hard time and I can only locate forty. Will you accept forty?” God says, “Okay, forty works for me.”
This guy, he’s on a roll, he says, “Hey, forty people that’s a lot of people, and it’s not like you’re gonna give me forever to find them. And maybe they aren’t feeling so righteous when I find them, y’know, kid’s got failing grades, wife burned the manna. How’s thirty?” God, who by this time is thinking actually destroying a whole city, that’s a big, time-consuming, difficult process, we’re talking environmental impact statements, hazardous waste material, agrees. “Sure, thirty’s fine. I like thirty.” But this guy, God may have made people, but this guy knows people, he says, “Oh, hey, now I think about it, it’s nearly harvest, most of the good people, they aren’t gonna be in city limits, they’re gonna be out in the fields harvesting, reaping, bringing in the sheaves, the whole lot. So maybe twenty is a better number.” By now, God’s not really paying attention, playing a couple hands of solitaire. “Yeah, no problem, twenty.”
But this guy, he says, “I got it! Listen, what you want is a minyon. Ten righteous people. I find ten righteous, good-hearted people, you’ll ignore what this city’s done?” God’s got the guy on hold by this point, talking with other cultures, God puts him back on, says finally, “Look, you get me ten righteous, just people in that city, I’ll be such a sweet God, hosannas left and right, you won’t even know me. Their grandchildren will be drinking milk and honey straight from the bottle. Ten is my final offer.”
Of course, if you’ve recognized that the guy I’m talking about is Abraham and the city is Gomorrah of “Sodom and” fame, then you know the punchline is a killer. Abraham can’t even find ten just people and God obliterates Gomorrah and in the process we get Lot and his daughters repopulating the plateau, a pillar of salt, and a whole bunch of stuff we’d rather not get into.
Now keep in mind, a lot of writing at this time, it’s got to do double, triple duty, so jokes are going to have a cautionary air to them too as well as parting some kind of metaphysical truth. Here’s another knee-slapper from the Older Testament with which you may also be familiar. There were these two, well, for want of a better term, let’s call them “beings,” God and the Adversary, arguing about a guy who is very devout, name of Job. God’s boasting of Job’s fealty and the Adversary calls God on it, saying, “Of course he worships you. You give him everything. He’s got land, family, prosperity, a secure future. Without that he’d drop a dime on you before you could blink.” God says, “You wanna bet?” So the Adversary removes all those benefits: he kills Job’s family, his crops fail, his livestock develops brucellosis, his slaves run away, creditors take away all his savings, and Job himself gets boils, pustules all over his body.
There’s a lot more to the story, of course, and it’s a good story. But I want to focus on what happens next. Three of Job’s friends, hearing of his misfortunes, his misery, go to visit him. In the story you may remember, after Job himself breaks his silence, they presume to lecture him on what he may or may not have done to anger God.
But an incredible and often overlooked event happens first. These three friends, when they see Job, can barely recognize him, he’s so changed. The Job writer relates that, on recognizing him, “they raised their voices and wept aloud; they tore their robes and threw dust in the air upon their heads. 13 They sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.”
They wail. They tear their clothes. They comingle the dust of the earth with their flesh and hair, perhaps reminding themselves of the state they will eventually return to. And they sit on the ground with their friend for as long as he does. Quietly. Respectfully. Silently. They treat his punishment, which the Job writer tells us is what they think it to be, as their own. They take on the worst their friend has suffered as if they had suffered it. Not in an intellectual way. They shred their own clothing and get into the dust with him to suffer with him.
Job and his friends cry out after those seven days and God, miracle of miracles, responds. But our experience, when everything we have worked for, bled for, some of us have died for, crashes around us and we call out for God, our experience is likelier to be similar to the Psalmist’s, who begins the famous lament of Psalm 22, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” We wail at the injustice of it all and there is no answer. No response. There is, at best, silence from the heavens or the depths of our souls or wherever we may be seeking an answer. We wail, and we receive a suggestion that no one is listening.
Where is God? Where is justice?
We fetishize justice in this country, even dressing it up as a woman holding scales and a sword and wearing a blindfold, the suggestion being that she makes no distinction between the people who come to her for judgement. And that’s a wonderful ideal. We know it’s not what happens. We know that too often the blindfold faces one way for one person and another for another person. We know that in this country there are certain crimes for which you won’t be stopped or arrested if you’re white. We know that in this country if you’re wealthy you can afford a lawyer who will help you avoid punishment for whatever crime you have committed. We know that in this country if you’re rich enough, your crime isn’t even called a crime, but a downturn in the market.
Where is God? Where is justice?
Scholar Mel Leaman reminds us that “lament doesn’t guarantee God’s benevolent response,” but what if there is nothing in response? No storm, no earthquake, no mighty wind or even soft whisper. There is nothing. We look on the works in the first month of this presidential administration and, noting the breaking up of families, the fear in the eyes of people who may be next, we ask, Where is justice? Where is God? In response, nothing.
How do we interpret the absence of God when we seek justice?
The first thing we must do is to determine for ourselves what it is that we want. When we march in the streets or letters we call out for change and justice, but what is it we want? If it’s true, as Martin Luther King, Jr, asserted that the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice, what is it we mean by justice? And by “we” I mean us, the people of here and now, this generation of American citizens and people who would be citizens and people who want justice to roll on like a river and righteousness like a never-ending stream. What do we want when we say we want justice? Do we want a return to something good, like the previous administration, which had flaws but we felt someone somewhere listened to us, we felt our leader understood that people demand justice, understood which way the blindfold faced, and what it took to secure our national character? Or do we want something better, a land of milk and honey, a place in the sun, a world where we are judged not by the color of our skin but the content of our character?
As Naim Stifan Ateek, a Palestinian Christian, reminds us, “Power is very closely linked with justice, so much so that the one may be easily confused with the other. This is illustrated daily by the frequent claims of the powerful…that their power is justly gained and used to support justice.” It’s true that the current presidential administration won enough electoral votes to put Donald Trump into office. But a month on we find that win is simply not enough. How often do we hear his boast that it was a record electoral victory, that the opposition may have had millions more popular votes, but that’s because those votes were cast by “illegals,” that the number of people at his Inauguration was exponentially higher than the number of spectators at Barak Obama’s Inauguration or the number of people who came out the day after to take part in the Women’s March? These specious claims are easily refuted and have been multiple times, but he continues to insist on them because power must not only be legitimate, power must somehow be more popular than the opposition. This is what lends it the pretense to justice.
Hannah Arendt, whose Eichmann in Jerusalem will be on bookshelves and nightstands for the next four years, reminds us that what she called the banality of evil lies in its actions are uniformly “a textbook case of bad faith, of lying self-deception combined with outrageous stupidity…[as well as] the case of the eternally unrepentant criminal…who cannot afford to face reality because his crime has become part and parcel of it…”
Justice, like the famous explanation of pornography by Justice Potter Stewart, is something that, even if we can’t define it, we know when we see it. It is something too, I think, we recognize best by its absence. Like oxygen, we might appreciate it best when we don’t have it.
So what is it we want when we say we want justice? I don’t know. Isn’t that lame, I give you the question, I tell you it’s important, it’s what we have to answer first, and I don’t have an answer. Do we want a return or something new? Maybe that’s something for the We generation I mentioned earlier to determine. But I do have a suggestion for what we do in the absence of an answer.
We wail. We wail, whether or not anyone is listening.
Professor Leaman reminds us, too, that “God’s people frequently forget how to live like God’s children.” Like any children, God’s children need occasional reminding that there is a better world that they’re growing up into and they had better get their business straight if they want a better world for everyone. The difference between a Noah and an Abraham, for instance, is that Noah, for all his strengths, accepted God’s determination to destroy humanity. Not once, in the story we have of him, is it suggested he maybe tried to get God to save another family besides his own. He was, in contemporary terms, the perfect right-leaning scold: The rest of you will drown but me and mine will get by.
Abraham, like Job, argued with God and he did so not for himself or his family. He has no kin we’re told of in Gomorrah. On behalf of a comparative handful of people he called for justice. He told God, You are punishing an entire community for the misdeeds of a few people and that is simply not right. It is not just.
Do we dare, like Abraham, to get angry at God? For God’s silence? For God’s inattention? You don’t get angry with someone you don’t care about. You ignore her, you avoid her, you cut her out of your life. But anger suggests you want something in that person to change. Dutch psychologist Nico Frijda reminds us, “Anger implies hope and that fighting is meaningful.”
Now I’m not talking just pissed-off, fly off the handle, how could you leave the water running for three hours kind of anger. That is just uncontrolled egotism, the kind that makes you sit up at three in the morning tweeting your fury at an otherwise resting world. I’m talking about righteous anger, the kind that hits you like a slap, that challenges you to think not only of yourself but of others. It is, like Abraham, to challenge God of behalf of creation, to remind power of its better self, and that if it can’t reconcile its actions with that better self, then it had better step down.
Too often, the one is mistaken for the other. How many times have you been told, Get over it. Your candidate lost, accept it. Give him a chance, will you. The way you feel now is the way we felt for eight years.
We aren’t lamenting the loss of our team in the playoffs, no matter how close the score, no matter how exciting the overtime. What we are lamenting is the codification of prejudice against our neighbors, a barring of our cousins, our lovers, even of ourselves, as if who we are, who we love, what we believe, where we come from, somehow lessens this society, this country we love.
We must get down in the ashes and dust with them, our cousins, our lovers, our neighbors. Maybe literally. We must join them and wail at the injustice they suffer. Our wail and our witness are our most powerful weapons. “Even in the absence of God, silence cannot be our last word.” As always, “We are the people we have been waiting for.” Abraham and Job stood before the Almighty and demanded an explanation. Can we do any less against this administration?