Most days I feel like I have the emotional strength to deal with life. Today isn’t one of those days. And that is not a request for advice, or consolation. I don’t admit to this because I am desperate for help; I write it because I process by reflecting, and I reflect by writing.
I think it is fair to say that for pretty much everyone on the planet it has been a trying year. I won’t pretend that I have suffered nearly as much as the vast majority of the world’s population, but I cannot deny that – to quote Bilbo Baggins – “I fell thin ,sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread”. There are numerous benefits to a globally connected world, but they come at a cost. And one of the costs for me is that I feel fatigued by the scale of human suffering I am presented with daily, whether in the news or in the course of my work. I am angry at the blatant disregard shown by the world’s leaders (not least – perhaps especially – my own country’s), whether they be political, cultural or corporate leaders, for those suffering and for the ways they exploit those they should be protecting in order to further their own interests. I am sick of living in a universe where this is the normal course of events. I am tired of feeling helpless in the face of it all, and worse, I don’t know how to find the hope I have lost. I no longer believe that anything I can do will make an iota of difference and that is a hard reality to accept.
But accept it I must. And somehow I need to find a way to be a light to the world despite feeling like everything is in darkness . That is, after all, what I suspect it means to follow Jesus – being a light in the darkness. I just wish that my own darkness were not so profound.
In each of the gospels, we find the story of the feeding of the five thousand. In our typical Evangelical way, we have coloured the story with a Pollyanna-esque sense of optimism, but it is, in fact, one of the darkest points of Jesus’s ministry and a decisive turning point towards the cross.
The way most of us were taught the story, you could be forgiven for thinking of the occasion as a family picnic by the lake. Except, of course, that everybody forgot to bring food, which threatened to turn the church outing into an epic fail, and so Jesus had to requisition the lunch of the one responsible person there (ironically, a child) and share it with everyone, thereby saving the day and ensuring that today, thousands of years later, we have a picture of God as a social justice warrior who takes care of our needs.
Only that is not what went down at all. If you read the gospel accounts of the event with any sense of the context (which modern Christians tend not to do, because we feel vaguely threatened by any form of scholarship when it comes to the Bible, and so more or less completely refuse to engage with it), you would understand that it is precisely this event that starts the journey towards Jesus’ death. It is patently clear in all the gospels. It is why, for example, the account in the fourth gospel is suffused with Eucharistic imagery – the writer ties this occasion intimately with the cross.
Perhaps we need to start by dismissing the notion of the gathering as some sort of social affair. There is only one reason why thousands of men (the gospels make that distinction clearly) follow a spiritual leader into the wilderness: to form an army. We are dealing with a group of people who believed that they were exiles in their own land – God had promised them this territory, yet they were under the heel of the Roman oppressors. They had prophecies about a Saviour who would drive out the foreign invaders and restore the land to them. And many of the people (at least 5000, it would seem) were happy to accept that the leader of the army that would vanquish the foe was to be Jesus. He had done so many miracles, after all. In fact, Mark (6:39-40) describes how they sat down “by companies…in groups, by hundreds and by fifties”. It is a military form of organisation (a centurion, for example, is the officer in charge of a company of a hundred men). And immediately after the miracle of the loaves and fishes, they tried to force Jesus to be their king (John 6:15). Despite his completely unambiguous sermons about enemy-love and peace and forgiveness and reconciliation, they wanted him to lead the army. They could not envisage a God who does not bring justice at the end of a sword. The light shone in the darkness but the darkness did not understand it.
And Jesus rejected their picture of God, and resisted their attempt to coerce him into their preconceived role. He ran away from it. Just like I feel like running now.
We are not that different from the 5000. We know enough to see that the world is not as it should be, that a good God could not possibly have envisaged a world as steeped in injustice as this one is. And we long for somebody to lead us out of it. We are searching for a shepherd, someone to destroy this nightmarish world and take us to a better one. And we have a pretty good idea about what needs to happen first.
But we cannot see that “the good Shepherd” (John 10) is not like the saviours who came before, the ones whose ways could only bring death and destruction. We don’t see that there can be no better world, no abundant life, so long as we require a warrior king, so long as we cannot conceive of a solution to our problems that does not involve the victims of the violent machinations that undergird our cultures either being hidden or rising in retaliation. Sometimes the only way to demonstrate to people the absurdity and futility of the systems they are trapped in is expose what happens when those systems play themselves out. Sometimes innocent blood must be spilt before we are willing to reflect on how we really ought to do things differently.
I am heartily sick of it all, of this world that thinks it can only find peace through bloodshed: of men who calm their inner demons by abusing women or children; of nations who can only unify their people through war with other nations; of political parties who can only find solidarity when they demonise and denounce members of other political parties; of right-wing extremists whose sense of self is only validated when they expunge those who look or believe differently– whether by physical violence or tyrannical applications of legal frameworks; of left-wing extremists whose sense of self is only validated when they expunge those who look or believe differently– whether by physical violence or tyrannical applications of legal frameworks. I have had enough of oily televangelists and self-proclaimed prophets who exploit people by selling them hope; of vitriol-spewing conservatives who find their peace by crusading against abortion or homosexuality or women not knowing their place, just as I am tired by those who would crucify these bigots and demand that an example be set. I am tired of the natural injustices of life too, the ones that are built into its very fabric. I am tired of the tyranny of the various diseases and disorders that rob so many of the members of my family, so many of my friends, of the quality of life they deserve. I am tired of the fact that death drives life – that a mouse must die so that my snake can live. I am tired of my depression.
I am tired. And hopeless. Hopeless because I cannot see how it can be otherwise. Life is what it is – sickness and death cannot be avoided. And people are who people are. They don’t want a good shepherd. They want the familiar ones in different clothes – clothes that resemble their own. And we already know how that ends – in blood.
When I feel like this I find some consolation in the feeding of the five thousand. I find it comforting that we have a God who understands how cruel the game is, but who still loves us enough to join our game so that, through Hen’s losing, we can come to see just how hollow victory is. In Jesus we have, personified, a God who will not let our victims remain hidden. We also have exemplified, in Jesus, a victim (and we are all victims in some way) who shows us that the only way to reconciliation and lasting peace (and therefore abundance of life) is to be the one who breaks the cycle of violence. I know that at the end of it all, once this world has played itself out, there will be Jesus – with the scars in his hands to remind us, lest we forget – speaking the only word that makes any sort of sense at all: Shalom.
Most days I feel like I have the emotional strength to deal with life. Today isn’t one of those days. But maybe I need days like this – days where I feel defeated by the world – because that means the light of Christ is shining in the darkness. After all, it is only when I can recognize what a truly crappy place the world can be, that I can envision a world that might work differently. And maybe I don’t have to actually be the light; maybe all I need to do is to let the light shine on me. And pour myself a stiff drink, of course.