I’ve been wrestling with the words of “O Holy Night” since Christmas. I know that after the holidays these songs are supposed to be neatly packed away in our subconscious, just as our decorations are packed away into boxes and bins, but this song has stubbornly refused to stay locked away.
These two stanzas have been the most stubborn:
O holy night, the stars are brightly shining;
It is the night of the dear Savior’s birth!
Long lay the world in sin and error pining,
Till He appeared and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope, the weary soul rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.
Truly He taught us to love one another;
His law is love and His Gospel is peace.
Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother
And in His Name all oppression shall cease.
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we,
Let all within us praise His holy Name!
They’ve been resurfacing in my mind since the song was sung during the middle of my parents’ pastor’s Christmas Eve service. While their pastor went on to deliver a rather pithy Christmas message, I was stuck dwelling on the words: “And in His name all oppression shall cease.”
I could not help but think, “We are still waiting for that day.” Instead of all oppression ceasing in His name, we live in a world in which oppression is now often propitiated by people using His name: genocide, hate crimes, slander, abuse, murder… While I was supposed to be rejoicing, I felt more like grieving.
I’ve been wrestling with the dissonance between those lyrics and our reality since that evening. I’ve been wondering why we’re still waiting for oppression to cease.
As usually happens when something is on your mind, relevant things start popping up everywhere. One of them was a conversation with Christa about why so many people seem to be obsessed with the Holocaust. She has a friend who recently blew a date because he told her that he hates all Holocaust films since they’re so damn depressing and he feels they have no philosophical value. Looking horrified his date said, “I’m Jewish.” That was the end of that for them and the start of our conversation.
Christa said, “I think he’s right about some Holocaust films like ‘The Pianist’ but not about the good ones like ‘Schindler’s List’ and ‘Life is Beautiful.’ Those movies showcase why we can be obsessed with moments of profound suffering: like the Holocaust and 9/11. Along with all of the pain and suffering, there was also a lot of heroism and hope. These awful events brought people together and in the process brought out some of the best aspects of humanity.”
What she said reminded me of the director of my master’s program, Dr. Benavides, observation about art. He said that the power of art is that it often strips us naked. Whether it is a song, or a painting we relate to, when we see it, when we sing it, it strips us naked in our own suffering or joy. In that moment we connect. “That connection, that’s love right?”
It struck me then and now that oppression and suffering have a similar effect of stripping us naked and allowing us to genuinely connect. In this nation, we can become so obsessed with big historical moments of suffering and oppression because in these stories we glimpse and experience what we crave: a connection that is love.
Though I can’t get into the mind of God, and I don’t want to make an excuse for oppression and suffering, I can’t deny that evil can be turned into good. That redemption is often more powerful than perfection.
The God we meet in the Bible, but so rarely in our hymns and carols, is a God who redeems suffering and oppression instead of erasing it. “He is sever in love and brutal in goodness” as Pastor Rick McKinley says. “His mercy is so severe that He is willing to wound us to bring us into his love. But his touch that wounds us simultaneously heals us. Beneath our scars is a new thing that God has birthed within us, that God will grow into faith and a new person.”
I find it ironic that we are often obsessed with tragedy because of the good that we can see in its midst, and yet we still find it hard to forgive God for the same tragedy. Or how we can be angry at God for the suffering people, who are “less fortunate” than ourselves, experience and yet we are often grateful for our own experiences of suffering (in retrospect, of course) for how those experiences positively shaped us and taught us our strength. So we pridefully think only we can handle suffering and grow from it, everyone else has to be rescued. We assume that we are more loving than God because we would spare our neighbor, though we wouldn’t spare ourselves. Or we assume that we are responsible for all the good, and God is responsible for all the bad.
As I wrestle with God and await the day when all oppression shall cease I’m humbled. I see that Bradley Smith in ‘Feast of Love’ is right, “God doesn’t hate us. If he did, he wouldn’t have made our hearts so brave.”
If we still feel that God has to be punished, that He has to be held accountable for all the pain and suffering in the world, then we can take comfort in the cross. For if God stands outside of time, outside of linearity, than the suffering of God, in Christ, on the cross is eternal. He eternally suffers with us and for us.