Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Psalm 22: On Haiti, Despair, and Schizophrenia


The latest reports out of Haiti set the death toll from last week's earthquake anywhere between 50,000 and 200,000. So great is the tragedy that, as the Times reports, neither we nor the Haitians will have an accurate count for some time.

Such numbers do not merely astound; they numb. Our minds may cease to function when forced to comprehend one death; how may we digest one-fifth of a million lost lives? Whether that inability is a flaw or a coping mechanism I cannot say.

But if we are unable to get our minds around cataclysm, we nonetheless want to know why it occurs--especially if we believe in a god who loves us, cares for us, and attends to us. World-rending devastation seems tantamount to the absence of God, for why would He ever allow such terrors?

Thus, in times of trial, believers often turn to theodicy--the effort to defend divine goodness in the face of great ills. Or more simply, the attempt to see God's presence in a world with soul-destroying natural disasters.

Nonetheless, theodicy is a daunting--perhaps impossible--task, one that too often takes the form of mindless theological acrobatics. As just one example, take Pat Robertson's heartless claim that Haitians deserved their suffering as a result of a "deal with the devil." This sick rationalization is itself a theodicy. For if Haiti somehow earned last week's catastrophe, then God's justice--and presence--is spared, and we know "why" the earthquake happened. According to Robertson's logic (since retracted), the horrific tremor was no deadly cosmic error but dramatic expiation for past sins.

But doesn't Robertson's theodicy itself seem like a deal with the devil--a deadly bargain that preserves the greatness of God while mortgaging His goodness? Nonetheless, for some it keeps its suasive pull ... for what is the believer's alternative? To throw up his or her hands and chalk another fatal tally for the sublime mystery of heaven? Either option is maddening.

One psalm in particular--Psalm 22--uses poetry to illustrate this madness. For the believer coping with great tragedy is forced into a double bind where he or she must either accept both God and tragedy ... or reject both. Either seems impossible, so the mind careens schizophrenically between extremes and has no time for rest.

The psalm opens, famously, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (22:1) Christians may recognize these words in another context: Jesus speaks them from the cross in Matthew 27.

The speaker continues, nearing despair, "Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? / O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; / and by night, but find no rest" (22:1-2).

These opening verses evoke God's distance; they dramatize points in each person's life during which the divine is far away or even absent. However, the devastating verb "forsaken" in verse one suggests that God is not gone by chance or misfortune, but by intention--on purpose. And how easy is it to put these words in the mouths of those dying under concrete in Port-au-Prince, perhaps at this moment.

However, the following verse turns to hope: "Yet you are holy, / enthroned on the praises of Israel. / In you our ancestors trusted; they trusted, and you delivered them. / To you they cried, and were saved" (3-4). Even in the darkest hour, believers may hold on to the promise that God is never wholly absent--that though He may punish, He also relents; that while He may chastise, He also restores or "saves."

But on a dime, the psalmist veers back toward desolation in 6: "But I am a worm, and not human; scorned by others, and despised by people." Hope is a thing with feathers, as Emily Dickinson reminds us, but the desolate fear that it is only feathers--that it may blow to pieces in a stiff wind.

The wave, though, crests again in verse 9, as the author recalls, "Yet it was you [God] who took me from the womb; you kept me safe on my mother's breast [...] Do not be far from me." But it ebbs once more in 12: "Many bulls encircle me [...] I am poured out like water, / and all my bones are out of joint" (12, 14).

Clearly, this is a man of two minds. Confronting unspeakable loss--for indeed, the poet never fully describes his affliction--his mind swings like a pendulum from hope to despair and back again. And tragedy, it seems, drives him only further into madness.

To face tragedy in this world while believing in a God who should desire to expunge it from this world is to be schizophrenic, to be mad. With its verse-by-verse turns, Psalm 22 perfectly illustrates this addled, addling state of mind. The speaker suffers so greatly--yet trusts so fervently--that he can say with Job, "I do not know myself" (Job 9:21).

Of course, this blog is not for the believer or the skeptic, the schizophrenic or the sound of mind. It is for those who want to ask tough questions and use the Bible to help. But whatever your belief system, keep those suffering in Haiti close to your mind and your heart this week, this month, this year. Pray. Or meditate. Or give. Or give. Or give.

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