Sin: Bearing Witness (Spirituality of My Favorite Murder, Theme 2)

It’s a broken world, and the hosts of My Favorite Murder are here to talk about it. What could be more Judeo-Christian than telling stories, violent stories, about the selfishness of humankind one to another? Murder, deception, rape and vengeance are part and parcel of the Hebrew Scriptures, just as they are in the true crime genre. People, a whole lot of them anyway, do really bad things to each other. This is a world East of Eden. It’s senseless, mysterious, and often without any thread of silver lining than the mere act of truth telling and being willing to look at the evidence.

Dismembered Concubine Judges 19

The dismembered concubine from Judges 19 (Anonymous)

As Hardstark said of looking at crime scene photos on a recent episode, “I feel a little obligated. If I’m gonna talk about these women who went through this horrible shit, I feel like I should fucking witness it” – in spite of the fact that it leads to difficulty sleeping. Kilgariff, who does not make a habit of looking at the most gruesome pictures advised her, “Just keep your eye on the impact.” To look and listen – which each host does in the ways they feel they must – is to validate the suffering of another even if it comes at a cost.

The impact writ large, it turns out, is fairly counter-cultural. Repeatedly considering the breadth and depth of human violence leaves no room for blithe platitudes like, “everyone is basically good.” If and when such a thought dares to pass the lips of one of the hosts, the correction comes immediately: “well, except for (fill in the blank with this week’s criminal).” I don’t believe I have ever heard either host repeat one of the most seductive lies of our current time: “Everything happens for a reason.” There is no sense in losing a loved one to violence. There no way to really account for the obsessive and callous acts perpetrated on people who could have been us or our beloved. The unsolved crimes leave one mystified and deflated.

But here too we find a stillness that provides the antidote for both anxiety and apathy.

dinah-after-the-rape-esther-newman-cohen

Dinah After the Rape by Esther Newman Cohen

Sitting with the deep disillusion that violent crime engenders validates all the betrayal and hurt that is common to the human condition and puts it in perspective. There will be a time to move on, a time to laugh, a time to get on with life, but taking a moment to just be where there is nothing to do but shake your head and say, “That’s really… horrible” challenges a society that shames the “half empty” outlook.

In such moments, we share the biblical Job’s bewilderment at the injustice of losing everything. There is no good reason for this violence. Job’s so-called friends pressure him to admit what he did to deserve his fate. Blaming the victim, however, does not help. Job stands up against victim-blaming, and so does this podcast. “I can see that the wisdom of the world rests on your shoulders,” Job sarcastically responds to his friends. And his cries to God are met with similar rhetoric: “Where were you when I plotted the corners of the earth?” Confronted with that which is beyond our understanding words fail. We are humbled.

In these moments, where there are no tidy answers, there is a “being with” that occurs. This too, is perhaps an overlooked part of Christianity. Christians, in a focus on substitutionary atonement theory, often shortchange the complexity of Jesus as “Emmanuel” (God with us) and the culmination of the incarnation in the cross. Matthew’s gospel presents the baby Jesus as being saved from a mass murderer (Herod) when his parents fled to Egypt. Jesus’ journeys with his disciples, his ministry of healing, and his death on the cross, which was a political act, all demonstrate that God, in Jesus, walks with humanity through a violent world and suffers violence with humanity. Most would rather think about the sweet baby in a manger on a silent night. But to take a view out of time, is to realize that the silent and holy moments come when we dare to be honest about the worst of humanity.

Such is the journey to which Jesus Christ calls the believer: a journey of bearing witness to evil, of being with the suffering, of rejecting the temptation to blame the victim. Participating with MFM can be this kind of journey in some measure.

MFM offers an opportunity to bear witness to unbelievable acts, unfathomable pain –  things that are not easily explained or understood, and in so doing to honor the victims’ pain, and be with each other while bearing that witness. There’s an honesty about evil and a willingness to journey with one another through it that one hopes to find in religion. Sometimes there is a silver lining. We will get to that. But let’s not get there too fast. There is a value in sharing the journey though the valley of the shadow of death.

The stories of Job and of so many victims of violence in the Bible, including Jesus, don’t really have easy answers or explanations. (I say even Jesus because if it were easy the history of Christianity would not be so rife with conflict and competing denominations.) But these stories allow for engagement with our fears, and they teach us that when we engage with these realities we need each other.

Bearing witness and engaging with the realities of a violent world in community are biblical imperatives. Doing this intentionally is a spiritual practice.

 

(For further reading on how the liturgies of Holy Week and Easter help Christians engage in this practice, I highly recommend This is the Night: Suffering, Salvation and the Liturgies of Holy Week by James Farwell.)

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