“God,” people say, “never gives you more than you can handle.” The comic strip character Ziggy replies wryly, “I wish God didn’t think I was so strong.”
I have blogged before about the problems in this pseudo-biblical declaration. First, it’s usually spoken to someone else (the sufferer) and so tends toward the judgmental and dismissive: “Don’t bother me with your problems, just buck up.” Second, it implies that our troubles come from God, which is a bum rap. Third but derived from the first, it minimizes the need for compassion since, well, your problem is your problem not mine. Fourth and most pertinent to this series of blogs, it calls for patience and endurance on the part of the sufferer rather than either personal deliverance or societal justice. In a similar vein, we are told frequently that real harm is not done to us by outside circumstances or forces but by our own responses to them and handling of them, which is a half-lie told to blame the cheated and injured for their own pain. Sure, part of the problem and, sometimes, all of the problem can lie within me, and we all know people who blame everyone and everything for problems they are causing or exacerbating themselves. Certainly, I can be my own worst enemy, but suggesting any complaint I might make about terrible circumstances or forces of human evil doing me harm is mere griping that reveals weakness in me does no more than add insult to injury. The message is, “You’re on your own. Make it or break, but don’t trouble me and don’t rock the boat by challenging family, community, or society to change.”
It is popular these days to reduce faith to a matter of what people call spirituality, a vague term that frequently implies the matter is my own and all about me, an internal strengthening or pacifying with no necessary external implications. Faith becomes a retreat into myself where God, the universe, or something deep and wonderful supposedly resides. So, it seems, my true home is within myself.
The falsehood is, as often, a corruption of a half-truth. Yes, faith should strengthen us internally, but so we can face the challenges and troubles of the world around us and so we can strengthen others within the community of faith and beyond it, not so we can turn self into a fortress. Any spirituality that does not send me back into the messiness of the world to represent the justice, mercy, and compassion of God is not biblical.
Objection! Are there not times when a person can do no better than turn self into a fortress, retreat “under the wings” of God, and receive peace in the midst of suffering from trouble that defies change externally. Yes, there are such times and circumstances. Aging brings us reminders of the truth that sometimes inner strengthening and trust’s peace of mind are all we may have left, and faith must strive to make them enough for us. At any age, we may find ourselves unable to do more unless something beyond our control changes. But generalizing such sometimes-truth becomes very convenient for the powerful and privileged seeking to use religion to pacify people who might otherwise demand change and work for it.
Pensions are stolen. Children are caged. Women are raped and then blamed for it. Whistle blowers are threatened and silenced. Public education is sold off for profit and data collection from computerized education then sold for more profit. Earth itself is ravaged and poisoned. People are fired for being who they are rather than for anything they have done or failed to do. The cheated are cheated again and again as their lands are stolen from them. Every day we are lied to so we can be manipulated and turned against each other by fear, resentment, and hatred. Institutionalized prejudices assail people’s dignity every day. God is not doing such things to us; people are doing them, and the systems people devise for their own benefit are legalizing and maintaining the evils people are doing. So, telling us that external circumstances are nothing, that only our own attitudes and inner strengths matter, is very, very convenient for those who benefit from our silence.