Conflicting Moral Imaginations: Job, His Friends, and Suffering, Part 6

So then, what is our response in a world where suffering is often met with a disinterested look and the idea that it is generally, “for your own good?” How can we challenge the common moral imagination which suggests an utterly teleological approach to suffering? It is my belief that it can only happen by truly listening and fully hearing the testimony of those who suffer for nothing. We can only be jolted out of our complacency by hearing the stories of those who have seen the brutality and injustice firsthand.

The book of Job has challenged me. It has made me question whether or not I’ve been complicit in the suffering of the world. It has forced me to ask whether or not my own “theodicy,” is a way of enforcing the status quo, and it has challenged my own moral imagination. Perhaps then, that is the “point” of the book. Perhaps, we are all called to move from an easy embrace of mystery to an uneasy embrace of social rectification as we encounter and experience the full witness of suffering in our world.

Conflicting Moral Imaginations: Job, His Friends, and Suffering, Part 5

In response to this understanding, then, we must think about how the book of Job might challenge and transform our cultural and social structures in response to suffering. Walter Brueggemann becomes a very helpful conversation partner exactly at this point. If Job’s experience of suffering and moral response is carried out in our world, we will need to be attentive to the cries and laments of those who suffer all around us.

As those who are oppressed under brutal dictatorships share their testimonies, we as Christians are called to listen. As those who have experienced traumatic attacks begin to bear witness to the brutality, we who have some measure of power are called to respond.

Brueggemann suggests, that we often use theodicy as a tool of those with a vested interest in the status quo.[1] However, when we truly hear the testimonies and cries of those who are suffering, we will also hear the not-so-subtle voice of God calling us to alleviate suffering.

If we take suffering to be something that confers wisdom, strength, or character on those who are suffering, we are tempted to see ourselves as free us from having to respond. However, if like Job we see come to understand suffering as meaningless, our moral imagination won’t be able to accept any amount of suffering as acceptable. This does not necessarily lead to the disregard for life caricatured in the popular figure of the “Joker.” Combined with an interest in hearing the witness and testimony of the sufferer, it leads to an appropriate response to act.

[1] Walter Brueggemann, “Theodicy in a Social Dimension,” JSOT 33 (1985): p. 7

Conflicting Moral Imaginations: Job, His Friends, and Suffering, Part 4

If you haven’t been reading this series of posts, then this one might still be interesting.  I try to interact with popular culture and the recent Batman movie’s portrayal of suffering.

Recently on the History Channel, there has been a television show entitled, Batman Unmasked: the Psychology of the Dark Knight. Various psychologists and experts debate the response to suffering and trauma in the fictional life of Bruce Wayne, the alter-ego of Batman. Bruce Wayne, as a child, experienced the death of his mother and father before his eyes. Somehow, as a result of that tragedy, he focused his life and became a vigilante of sorts with a desire to channel his fears and suffering into a positive good. He thus becomes Batman, and takes on the role of defending Gotham, the city where his parents were killed.

On the other hand, this special also portrays the Joker, Batman’s archenemy. The Joker too has experienced great suffering. In various versions of his origin in the Batman comics, the Joker is portrayed as someone who was unjustly horribly disfigured and driven insane. However the Joker’s response is quite different than Batman’s. Taking a seemingly opposite approach to Batman’s teleological view of suffering as something that builds character, the Joker reasons that if life is unpredictable and characterized by suffering, then life is utterly meaningless.

The modern moral imagination regarding suffering is the response of Batman. Many people tend to idealize suffering in such a way as to lift up the teleological “benefits,” at the expense of fully understanding the difficulty of those who suffer. For most of us, suffering is only tolerable if it makes us better people. Suffering is acceptable because it supposedly makes us stronger, holier, or wiser. Strangely enough, most of us seem to agree with Job’s friends!

In that version of understanding suffering, it is either caused by something or intended for something. The idea that suffering could be pointless or meaningless, which Job seems to embrace, is a moral imagination that is demonized and parodied in the character of the Joker. In the popular moral imagination of our day, and perhaps of Job’s day, if suffering is meaningless or pointless then life is meaningless as well. In that way of imagining reality, insanity and destruction are the only possible outcomes.

Job’s position then, offers a totally different way of looking at the world than common wisdom, both in his day and in ours. In Job’s moral imagination, the meaninglessness and pointlessness of suffering refuses to suggest that life itself is meaningless. Instead, it suggests that something is utterly wrong. In the face of that “wrong-ness,” those who suffer unjustly are called to bear witness and give testimony to the reality of their experience.

Conflicting Moral Imaginations: Job, His Friends, and Suffering, Part 3

Job responds out of a moral imagination shaped by the bitter and difficult experience of crushing suffering. The sheer terror of these events shakes Job’s moral imagination to its core. We might even ask whether Job’s moral imagination was the reason he was chosen or if it was shaped by the sheer force of his suffering. In other words, which came first, the suffering or the moral imagination that enabled and shaped his response?

Instead of being able to easily embrace the friends version of what is happening, Job begins in Chapter 3 with a profound lament, cursing the day of his birth (3:1), longing for non-existence (3:13-15), praying for the grave (3:21-22), and utterly lamenting the omnipresent nature of his groans and sighs (3:24). He responds first to Eliphaz as he reminds him of the realities of his suffering: worm-eaten flesh (7:5), swift days that end without hope (7:6), and even utter hopelessness in the face of his suffering (7:21). He then replies to Bildad desperation over being unable to even communicate or perhaps even contend with God (9:3-5). He despairs the invisibility of God’s movements (9:11), and he is filled with bitter loss when he looks at himself in comparison to this inaccessible and overpowering God (9:15-21).

However, in Chapter 10, Job begins to shift from lament over God’s inaccessibility to give free utterance to his complaint (10:1). Somehow, he begins to form a complaint and argument against the unfair treatment he has experienced. He asks God if he oppresses (10:3), he asks if God can see (10:4), and he begs God to leave him alone and allow him to depart to the land of gloom and deep darkness (10:18-22).

Finally, in response to Zophar’s accusation, Job comes back with sarcasm, in effect saying, “You guys are so brilliant. When you die, wisdom will die with you (12:2).” Job then restates his innocence (12:4) and describes God’s power once again (12:13-25). Finally, we see him resorting to the only recourse he can imagine. As Carol Newsom so helpfully points out, Job can only imagine justice and accountability through a divine court of law. Job’s only recourse that doesn’t effectively diminish the suffering he faces is by telling his broken testimony in front of witnesses.

The friends, unlike Job, simply can’t imagine a suffering that is not for the good of the righteous sufferer. They seem to have no difficulty imagining suffering that wears down the unrighteous and grinds the unjust into dust, but they are struggling with the picture of the righteous sufferer. One can easily see that this is a common theme in exilic literature. If we did something wrong, then exile is punishment for that wrong. However, if we have been righteous and we’re still in exile, then what is the response.

I think there is a definite tension between the moral imaginations of the friends and Job that can be extrapolated to the national level of exilic suffering. I would suggest that the friends are saying the suffering necessarily suggests there has been a serious breach of relationship with God, whereas Job seems to hold fast to the idea that he is suffering unjustly. In the face of utter injustice, the only response his imagination will allow is the recitation of his suffering in such a way that God hears as if through a court of appeals. Somehow, the only response he can imagine is the spoken testimony of what is taking place.

Conflicting Moral Imaginations: Job, His Friends, and Suffering, Part 2

Job’s friends, in Newsom’s argument, aren’t simply the “bad guys” who come in from the outside to blast Job with accusations of wickedness. They are, like us, holistically formed by the stories and narratives of the culture in which they reside. Newsom shows how they seek to resist turmoil by imposing very particular narrative structures on reality as they experience it: 1.) These friends introduce narrative structures that seek to find teleological resolution in the turmoil that Job is facing. In fact, they hope the “good” that comes from Job’s suffering can somehow transcend the utter suffering he experiences in the beginning. 2.) They urge Job to seek God through particular religious practices and traditions, in the hopes that Job can resist and be transformed by the turmoil that he is facing. 3.) Finally, they offer poetic “iconic narratives” that will give a narrative structure to the moral order of the world in such a way that turmoil and suffering are weakened.[1]

Job’s friends use the skills of persuasive speech, embracing and offering powerful metaphors to help Job “wade through” his suffering. In chapter 5, Eliphaz seems to assures Job that in spite of his suffering, he will see redemption from death (5:20), rescue from war (5:20), hidden from the scourge of the tongue (5:21), and eventual restoration including safety, many descendents, and old age (5:23-27).

In chapter 8, Bildad too offers a hopeful future, including hope for a great end (8:7), the acceptance of God (8:20), and triumph over enemies (8:22).

Zophar then responds with chiding. He suggests that Job deserves even more suffering than he recieves (11:6). He is confident that God knows iniquity when he sees it, and that our stupidity regarding our iniquity is no excuse for avoiding suffering (11:11-12). Altogether, Zophar’s moral imagination comes across as the culmination of the common wisdom of the friends.

Again and again the friends are unable to embrace the possibility of meaningless suffering. They are convinced of a causal relationship between sin and suffering, and they believe that suffering is purposeful. If, as David Clines suggests, Job is a book written by the privileged for the privileged, then the friends are the epitome of those who seek to legitimize suffering for others.[2]

Presumably, this moral imagination also serves as a defense mechanism with the friends thinking, “If we can diagnose Job’s problem, we can then avoid it in our own lives!” At this point, I want to propose a dual-level theodicy. Those in positions of power should not be able to force meaning on those who are suffering. Yet, those in power should also give a privileged place to the theodicy of those who are suffering, because meaning might just be the only thing they have left.

In this dual-level theodicy, the suffering are privileged to either make meaning or not, but it lies in their hands empowering them in the midst of their despair. The privileged are thus given a burden to alleviate suffering, not to ignore it by imposing meaning from the top-down.

It seems that if we follow the friend’s example with the sufferers of our world, we are tempted to act as people complicit with the suffering. In effect, we are tempted to say, “It’s a mystery why you’re suffering, but it’s for your own good. Trust God and stay strong, but keep suffering.”[3]

[1] Newsom, Carol A., “Job and His Friends: A Conflict of Moral Imaginations,” Interpretation. (1999), p. 240

[2]David Clines, “Why is There a Book of Job and What does it do to you if you Read it?” in W. A. M. Beuken, ed., The Book of Job; BETL114 (Leuven: LUP, 1994)

[3] This follows the thinking of Walter Brueggemann, “Theodicy in a Social Dimension,” JSOT 33 (1985): 3-25

Conflicting Moral Imaginations: Job, His Friends, and Suffering, Part 1

In the next few posts, I’m going to post a paper I wrote as the final for my Job Exegesis paper at Drew University this summer.  It will be broken into a series of posts over the next few days.  Hope you enjoy a subject that really challenged and stretched my own imagination and understanding.  I’d love to hear your thoughts.

We live in a world that experiences suffering on a global scale. Simply watching the news, reading the newspaper, and viewing online news content awakens one to the fact that there are terrible things happening around the world. Dictators seize power, ethnic and religious groups pose great threats of violence to one another, and unexpected tragedies fill our minds. It’s enough to wonder what to make of the world in which we live. The book of Job is an epic work for such a time as this.

Job’s story, his interaction with the divine council, his friends’ response, and even God’s final reply provide an incredibly vivid backdrop for exploring some of the most difficult questions we face.

One of the ways the book of Job interacts with the tough questions of life is by exploring a variety of traditions and cultural discourses. Carol Newsom does a terrific job describing the way that the difficult dialogue between Job and his friends is more than simple difference of opinion. Newsom describes it as a conflict between two spectacularly different moral imaginations. On one hand we have a presentation of the moral imagination of the friends,

“The imagination of the friends is anchored in integrative narrative patterns and practices of piety that allow one to experience not only a grounding sense of order and security but also the hope of transformation. A person who has suffered calamity even as great as Job’s can, without compromise to integrity, embrace the perspective of the friends for the work of rehabilitating a life.”

Then on the other hand, we find the moral imagination of Job

“At the heart of Job’s imagination lies the enigma of bodies broken for no reason. By insisting on speaking of and for such bodies, Job is drawn to the language of justice and accountability as it can be imagined in a court of law. From this perspective, the only narrative that does not falsely rehabilitate that brokenness is the narrative of testimony.”

These two approaches are diverse, and in Newsom’s words, incommensurable.[1] We not only have two different approaches to suffering, but two completely different ways of experiencing the world and thinking imaginatively about the moral consequences of suffering. The friends see the possibility in suffering of rehabilitating a life, while Job wrestles with the utter despair of bodies broken for no reason.

[1] Newsom, Carol A., “Job and His Friends: A Conflict of Moral Imaginations,” Interpretation. (1999) 239-253