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Who Would You Dance For?


Someone with The Martyrs Project contacted me to ask if I would post about them.  Their icon looks like the one for the Blair Witch Project, crafted to convey: IMPORTANT, ANCIENT, and SCARY.  “WHAT WOULD YOU DIE FOR,” the opening screen from the Martyr Project states.  (There is no question mark, so it doesn’t actually ask.)

My gut response is: “Blech.”



My more intellectually acceptable response is that, as someone who has written on Julian of Norwich and Kierkegaard, two church masters not exactly known for their joie de vivre, I need to keep sorting out why I disagree with theologies of productive suffering.

I think that “WHAT WOULD YOU DIE FOR” may be the macho flip-logic of “What would you kill for” – a self-punishing, masochistic underside of a sadistic culture of domination.  Both masochism and sadism mistake suffering for meaning.

The promise of meaningful suffering seems to be a provocative recruitment tool for some church movements and for armies during times when people feel as if their lives are less than meaningful.  This is a matter of economic class perspective, in part.  Less economically advantaged young men and women who sign up for military service because it is the only economically feasible way to get an education are not hoping for a way to suffer toward truth.  But some young people, and their parents, have heard an appeal to submit to military obedience in order to find purpose for their lives.  The Martyrs Project, perhaps like “New Monasticism,” seems aimed at a particular class of young people looking for meaning by embracing austerity.  I wager that many of the actual people shown suffering in the website’s video about Bishop Oscar Romero would have preferred to be singing in the pretty church with the contemporary guitarist than suffering under the U.S. sponsored torture-regime in El Salvador.  As one friend puts it, she has never heard someone who has to ride the city bus daily and/or works at Wal-Mart talk about righteous poverty.  But it has been fashionable, over the ages, to present suffering as a path toward self-renewal.

Christians have been called to suffer courageously in the pursuit of liberation, justice, love, and joy.  And, as we are so aware during Lent, Christians worship a God who loved us to the point of dying a tortured death in the pursuit of our liberation.  Maybe this is why Christians are so apt to mistake suffering itself as a vehicle for liberation.

I can read this trend today psychoanalytically.  A relatively well-off, mainstream Catholic and evangelical white population of young (20-40) adults has been told, through a stream of generation-niche irony, that our lives have no core meaning.  Thoroughgoing irony is a sliver away from saying life is worthless, so we tear our psyches in two, like the main character in Fight Club, and beat the shit out of ourselves.  The allure of suffering as a route toward maturity is strong, and it is based on a premise of fundamental agonism – on the idea that the world is about competition.  The question embedded within such a premise of agonism is whether I will own and master my suffering – finding meaning through masochism, or choose to dominate and subdue someone else.

Consider, for example, the Blair Witch Project as a kind of existential, gut-reaction to South Park.  We watch in “real time” as three everyday-looking friends bond, through the decidedly un-ironic earnestness of a hand-held camera, and then get caught up in something vaguely deep, real, historic, and bloody, dying and/or killing one another in pursuit of the mystery on the edge.  (Theirs is a more complicated, lingering sort of horror story than a previous generation’s, where the message was, basically: enjoy sex and you will be impaled.)  Perhaps The Martyrs Project is a gut reaction to the apparent meaninglessness of what we might call Tom’s Shoes Christianity.  To follow a radical savior must mean something more than buying a cool pair of righteous, sparkly shoes for me and my girls.  But the answer to vapid, Facebook “like” Christianity – the kind of Christianity that the self-righteous ironists who write for South Park lampoon regularly – cannot be that I mistake myself for my own personal Jesus, able to bring about even my own little part of the kingdom through my own suffering.

We promise we didn't make this ourselves.  It was one of the few vaguely amusing Calvinist memes on the Internet.

Is it coincidence that the creator of this Calvinist meme (not me, I promise) misspelled “choose” at the top? Of course not, because SOVEREIGNTY.

I do intend to keep sorting through SUFFERING as a person and as a Christian scholar, but, as I tried to respond to the Martyr website, I kept coming back to something John Swinton taught me in Raging with Compassion.  SUFFERING is not a question to be sorted.  It is an ecclesial call to attend – to be with one another silently washing feet and wiping tears.  Calvinist writer Kathy Keller put this simply at her National Prayer Breakfast women’s session on suffering:  being friends during times of suffering means “showing up with your mouth closed.”  Swinton (also a Calvinist) even goes so far as to call the removed, meaning-work of theodicy a temptation and distraction.  During her Q and A time, Kathy Keller, with her intensely analytic, biblically-crackling mind seemed led into such temptation when asked to “make sense” out of suffering that someone inflicts on another person.  Isn’t our most godly response to such suffering to refuse it?  My mouth fell indecorously open when Keller explained that God provides an “invisible protective shield” that turns a weapon into a “scalpel.”  So, she explained, if someone is wielding a knife against me, God’s shield “turns that knife into God’s scalpel.”  I was simultaneously impressed with the thoroughness of her doctrine of divine sovereignty and really, really grateful that she isn’t my pastor.



Jared Diamond conveniently excuses the colonizers and blames the colonized in Guns, Germs, and Steel and Collapse. (Click for more on why he’s wrong.)

I still need more time to think through all the reasons why I disagree with Sarah Coakley’s recent work on productive suffering.  (I have an extensive footnote — 47 — in this piece Kara and I wrote.)  It is a pastoral and even a theological mistake to try to situate suffering on a map or on a timeline.  If I find myself thinking: “Aha!  Now I can understand why X,Y, or Z truly shitty thing happened (either to ME, to MY PEOPLE, or to THOSE PEOPLE) because here on the map or storyline is the GOOD that will come out of it,” then I am probably driven more by a desire for cognitive control than healing and/or solidarity.  Coakley suggests that suffering is a fundamental part of how humans progress, biologically and eschatologically.   Nature is red, in tooth and claw, and history moves forward not only by way of those who run fast and gobble up the slow, but also by way of the individuals in a group who sacrifice themselves for others – who give themselves self-sacrificially to be gobbled up.  (Ok, yes, this is a silly paraphrase, but you get the idea.)  This seems a bad way for any individual to think about her suffering – as promoting God’s realm or God’s storyline.

And I definitely, resoundingly, want to say Coakley’s is a bad way for people to think right now, during the Second Great Depression.  The Big Guys whose economic shenanigans ($%#&*) have set things up for radical inequality would LOVEY LOVE LOVE it if a bunch of the Christian 99% started seeing “Austerity,” whether in Europe or in the U.S., as part of our self-emptying mission for the good of human history.   Brothers Koch and Templeton, even you guys cannot buy all theology to fit your purposes.

So, Martyrdom, anyone?  No, thank you.

Karen Kilby gets it right on suffering. Go watch her video.

A lesser known theologian in the U.K. has a quiet video about suffering that I recommend.  Karen Kilby was a Teaching Assistant for my first class with George Lindbeck at Yale (21 years ago) and she was a gift to me then.  She thoughtfully suggests that, although I am called to practice courage when my pursuit of what is true and good may result in my suffering or even death, it is the courageous pursuit, not the suffering or death in itself, that is holy.  “What speaks of Christ” in the life of someone like Archbishop Romero is not such a person’s suffering or death in itself, but “the steadfastness of the commitment to love, or justice, or doing the will of the father.”  (I recommend the full 31 minutes, especially for those preparing Holy Week sermons, but, if you absolutely have to, skip to around minute 20.)


We won’t tell anyone if you print this out and color it.

So, there is my response, for now, to the website’s summons: WHAT WOULD YOU DIE FOR.  I ask a different question to those reading my own little screen:  Who would you look the fool for?  What would you dance in public for?  What has God placed in your life that is so compelling that you cannot but risk the charge of insanity to pursue?  As I have taught many times over the years, Ruth is a very different answer to the violent chaos that closes the book of Judges than the ensuing call for a Royal King in 1 and 2 Samuel.  Ruth courageously and ridiculously refuses to depart from her widowed, childless, grouchy mother-in-law, but she walks with Bitter Naomi, in hope, toward sweet Bet-lehem – toward House of Food.  The story is one that travels around, or maybe underneath, the repetitive agonism of Judges.  (Not incidentally, Ruth’s grandson, David, is at his best when he loses his royal composure, dancing, nakedly in love with God.)  As a friend and former student chided me during a potentially masochistic period of my life, “You seem to have forgotten that God’s covenant with us is meant primarily for our joy!”  I pray for myself, and for my daughters, the unladylike abandon to seek truth and justice and beauty, even when we will suffer shame or worse for it.  After all, realistic about how tough things were and are, I resolutely sang this lullaby to each of them until they were too old to want lullabies.  But I did so always in the hope that all shall be well, and even joyful.

  • Jo Elizabeth

    Yesterday when the 70 year old, formerly homeless, Steve was giving our 1.5 year old son Samuel potato chips, so that Sam could feed them to the dog… and all three were ridiculously happy and laughing (well, the dog wasn’t laughing) this is what I think the whole new monasticism is about, not austerity.  

    • Amy Laura Hall

      First of all, I love you. And your family is one of the most visible signs of blessing I know,
      even though I only get to lay eyes on you all about once a decade : ( I think I get your point.  Living outside of the usual (for wasp, American families) nuclear, suburban cloister is actually FUN!  But for many families, this is just family, or neighborhood, not something under the umbrella-brand of “New Monasticism.”  For a family with an uncle who had been homeless for a spell, they wouldn’t have specified that Uncle Steve was “formerly homeless.”  He would just be Uncle Steve.  He wouldn’t be a visible
      marker of living differently than one was brought up to live.  This is not a post about “New Monasticism,” but I will go ahead and risk a few comments.  First, the time I brought in friends involved
      in this (then very nascent) movement to speak to my large, intro class at Duke, every single one of the African-American students was offended.  I know, because they told me afterward, individually and as a group.  Their complaint was this: white, young adults were getting kudos and credit and air-time  for doing what African-America neighborhoods, churches, and families were already doing.   

      I will admit that it has worn on me over the years at Duke that more students arrive wanting to know “about” Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove than Rebecca Byrd or Patrick O’Neil, or Rev. Dr. William Barber, or Saul Alinsky, or even Dorothy Day.  I am not into “Big Famous Name Theology” generally, and the trendiness of this movement locally has been more disheartening than encouraging.  I have also found that many students interested in the movement actively avoid political activism that digs into the root causes of poverty.  (I know that is not the case for you all, and I am still grateful for your hooliganism in Canada.)  Here, choosing the “local” has meant community gardening, but not taking on fair labor practices at big-agribusiness, when students are placed in NC churches where agribusiness is the local industry, for example.  There are exceptions, thank God, but the trend has been away from either radical activism or community organizing.  Of course, the largest employer in this particular city is Duke, so engaging in justice-work would require some leaders in the movement to snarl at (or maybe throw tacky, florescent glitter all over) the hand that feeds us.  Now, I expect I will receive about as many notes about this as I did when I posted Shane Claiborne = Taylor Swift . . .  But hopefully I have at least started to answer the question you implied, Jo Elizabeth : )

  • Amy Laura Hall

    Some people wrote to ask for more on the Templeton Foundation.  Please do see the links in
    that paragraph, and do feel free to post more research.  In the second link, this paragraph is particularly on-point:  “There was one more thing I was curious about concerning Templeton and how it manages to get the attention of prominent scientists and other academic outlets, so I asked the editor at the press that will produce the new book series: why exactly do you guys need
    the JTF, particularly as you have an excellent reputation and the JTF people will have no editorial input into the series? Answer: because Templeton has money, and money buys publicity, and publicity sells books. There is capitalism at work, my friends.” 

    And, for the Gifford/Templeton link, it is all here: 

    The idea that large, corporately connected funders would actually try to shape an entire discourse seems to have offended some people as well.  I am not sure how to correct that myopia.  In the case of the Templeton Foundation, I will say this. This very, very (now dead) rich man gained scholarly traction for his idiosyncratic heresy, and this ought to matter to orthodox Christians, as well as to rational scientists like the blogger I quote.  But Christians working in the field know the rules of the game, and the money comes inasmuch as we keep to the basic questions and impulses driving their various initiatives.  I do give Sarah Coakley a big, sisterly high-five for startling everyone in that stuffy Scottish room with the naked backside of a woman giving birth. I count that as one of the most miraculously mischievous academic moves ever.  (I do still disagree with the use she makes of the image – but it was fabulous, and powerful, after she had shown image upon image of bearded men of rational or irrational thinking.)

  • Marissa

    Such an interesting post!  At my church we almost never talk about sin or suffering, we much prefer words like grace, community, or love.  So when I run across a question like ‘What would you die for?’, I have no idea where to start! I really appreciate your take on it, thanks for sharing!

  • Sarah Morice Brubaker

    Thank you so much for this.  I don’t know that I’ve ever unloaded upon you about the reasons for my theological drift since leaving Duke, partly because… oh, I don’t know, I suspected that giving voice it would reveal that we were on different sides of something important.  And it never seemed like the right moment.  And, too, honesty would have required talking about my resentment that Natural Family Planning for Jesus surprised Phil and me with a pregnancy at a very difficult time; and how that pregnancy coincided almost precisely with the point wherein many in the supposedly vulnerable-life-welcoming Yoder-reading Christian nonviolence crowd ceased to treat me as a person with a brain and started addressing somber questions of doctrine to my spouse.  (Sorry, evidently those feelings are a bit raw still. )  But anyway: now I wonder now if we actually are on opposite sides of something important? 

    Here’s the part that I wanted to applaud especially.  You wrote:

    ” If I find myself thinking: “Aha!  Now I can understand why X,Y, or Z
    truly shitty thing happened (either to ME, to MY PEOPLE, or to THOSE
    PEOPLE) because here on the map or storyline is the GOOD that will come
    out of it,” then I am probably driven more by a desire for cognitive
    control than healing and/or solidarity.”

    Amen.  And not that this is what you were saying, but just as a gloss:  One of the postures I just cannot cannot cannot adopt anymore, theologically, is the one wherein a person with significant amounts of privilege says something which amounts to this: “I will care about your suffering in just a moment, I promise.  But first I have to make sure that I’m doing so on the right grounds.  I have to connect it to the resurrection/the eucharist/Chalcedon/the Trinity/etc., you see.  And I have to be very careful not to care about your suffering out of some knee-jerk post-Enlightenment liberal individualist empathy that the Fathers wouldn’t recognize.  I know that sounds callous, but really this is all in your best interest, you see.  Because if I care about you for the wrong reasons I may end up doing bad things to advance your ends, and we wouldn’t want that. Anyway, I’ll get it all theologically sorted.  This will just take a moment and then I will commence caring, I promise.”

    I say that as someone who would actually really like to be able to responsibly conduct my  life’s activities within coherent moral coordinates determined solely by resurrection/eucharist/Chalcedon/Trinity.  But I just can’t any longer bring myself to say “Hold off, I’ll care in a moment, but my first order of business is to get my theological ducks in a row because OMG WHAT IF BAD DISCOURSE TURNS ME EVIL HALP HALP?!!!1111!!!”  It sure seems as though powerful Christians whose first love is curating the coherence of their moral discourse are capable of acting violently to defend it, as surely as the benighted liberal who accidentally cares about people because of vague liberal empathy and doesn’t realize that the private inner self would have been as foreign to Jesus as the concept of email.  

    Ah, but I should take the cue from your post and end on a joyful note.  (Sorry, I realized I’m sounding more like Bitter Naomi.)  What would I risk the charge of insanity to pursue?  Hmmm.  For me, I guess, it’s: cooking dishes for church events that are fancier or more involved than necessary.  Putting amazing people in touch with one another in the hopes that they’ll become friends and that I’ll hear about it later.  Continuing to dream about the hippie weirdo tuition-free school for lonely kids that we’ll start someday.  Sticking my nose in when other people are getting unfairly maligned.  Writing dorky songs about theological topics that only a few people care about. 

    • Amy Laura Hall

      You don’t sound bitter to me.  I heard about a “study” recently on a “Stuff Mom Never Told You” podcast (Rachel loves those) on how you can meaningfully predict things about people (usually a bad idea) by asking them one question: “Do you prefer the people around you to be simple, or complicated?”  (Yes, I get the irony of such a study question.)  I think that part of what happened at Duke is that the population started to tip toward people who crave simplicity.  It may be our large, potentially overwhelming, introductory classes, or the # of wholesome, earnest young people from the Midwest (God love y’all), but, whatever the reason, we have sometimes rewarded simple teaching and simple questions and simple answers.  As you said, get your theology/liturgy/grammar CORRECT and then everything will fall into place.  That doesn’t suit my disposition, or yours (I think) and I think it may cultivate a homiletically, pastorally inattentive posture in some of our students.  

  • Kelly0048

    Is this the same Kathy Keller? Tim Keller’s wife? I find her work illuminating but just trying to make sure I have the right one.

    • Amy Laura Hall

      Yep.  Tim Keller’s wife.

  • Amy Laura Hall

    A friend pointed out to me that I don’t really make my points about NM very clearly below.  Let me try again.  NM, inasmuch as it is, in part, a book-selling, marketing plan, appeals to a righteous desire in some young, relatively privileged Christians to make individual choices to live in community with people who their parents might have hoped they and their grandchildren would never be near.   One part of this messaging that I find problematic is the idea that the best, most morally uncompromised Christian challenge to radical injustice in the U.S. is for people like me to opt-in to certain neighborhoods and schools.  That may be part of the answer (I am not sure, because it has swiftly and conveniently gentrified a whole neighborhood near Duke), but, once here/there, it seems a tendency for SOME in NM to tell individual, micro-stories of friendship, rather than wage more radical (too-the-root) actions or tell more radical (too-the-root) narratives of structural injustice.  The marketing of individual choice INTO economically disenfranchised neighborhoods seems potentially to reinforce the idea that poverty is about individual choice.  And THAT idea — that people struggle in poverty due to a lack of individual will/neighborhood caring/incarnate community is very convenient for the Godzilla Rich.  It does not question the evil way that capitalism is currently set up to benefit the elite and to use and dispose of human workers.  And, the implied answer of young people with back-up wealth voluntarily opting into certain neighborhoods is formally akin to the arguments for “a 1000 points of light,” Charitable Choice (or, in the UK, the “Big Society”).   The last paragraph of this piece puts the point helpfully, I think:  Hope that makes my concerns more clear.  And, there are beautiful, counter examples of how the Holy Spirit’s rage for justice works in the midst of communities labeled under the NM brand.  

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