We hear quite a bit about survivors’ guilt these days. A neighbor’s house has a tree through the roof, while yours was spared. A soldier walks behind another; the one in the lead steps on a landmine, and the follower does not suffer loss of limbs. The hurricane skirts your hometown, and the adjoining county is hard hit. The rains come in due season to your land; not too far away drought is ravaging crops. Because you were born a Buddhist in Myanmar, you do not suffer the degradation of the Rohingya people.
Survivors may be grateful for the good fortune they experienced, but they are wise to consider at what cost to others. It is hard not to construct a “spared for a reason” narrative; however, it diminishes a sense of divine providence for those not spared. Even more horrific is the disregard for the value of lives of a different ethnicity. Survivors’ guilt is to be preferred over callous indifference, yet the sense of being specially “blessed” by God may lead to presumption.
On Sunday, the lesson from the Hebrew Bible was the story of Israel crossing the Red Sea with the army of Egypt in hot pursuit. Written obviously from the perspective of the liberated, the story is grisly in detailing how the Lord fought against Egypt on behalf of Israel. God instructs Moses, “Stretch out your hand over the sea, so that the water may come back upon the Egyptians, upon their chariots and chariot drivers” (Exodus 14:26). Moses follows this directive, and the entire army is drowned. Not one of them remained.
The rabbis have long struggled with this text. God’s preservation of the people of covenant seems to have blood cost. Their further travel through the wilderness brings them to the land of promise, which is already occupied, a major inconvenience for both Canaanites and Israelites. More violence will ensue.
Codifying this narrative of election in Scripture then extended to Christians, many of whom became supersessionist, i.e., arguing that now their election in Christ eclipsed the Jews. Even when the humbler Christian approach acknowledged that they have been grafted into God’s enduring covenant with Israel, this claim still argues for a preferential treatment that elevates this Judeo-Christian trajectory over against all the rest of the world’s people.
Doctrines of election are a delicate matter, and it is hard to understand God’s love of the whole world through the lens of particularity that the Exodus story reveals. Does divine favoritism not make it hard for outsiders to find their place in the story of liberation? Christians have always argued that the purpose of the Abrahamic tradition of covenant was to bless the nations, as well as the historic people of God.
Some rabbis have suggested that the covenant with Israel was an experiment in divine-human intimacy. Would a people trust the Holy One enough to follow instruction and live in faithful patterns of worship and justice? Could Israel’s experience of Exodus become paradigmatic of God’s salvific purpose for all?
As we struggled with this text in my Sunday school class, an older man posed this question: “So who are God’s people?” I responded, “Everyone.” The follow-up question in my mind was, “When life is so hard, how do they know God is for them, that they are God’s own?”
This is where survivors come in, it seems to me. Those who are spared must not simply rejoice in their seeming “chosenness,” but must use every resource to alleviate the suffering of others. Guilt may not be the best source of motivation, but if it spurs compassion, it is constructive.
Christians believe that we come to know God’s favor through Christ and that he is the key to what God is doing throughout the world. What if the means through which God favors the suffering comes through those who already know of the expanse of God’s election in him? As Kathryn Tanner writes, through Christ “God gives the world God’s very own life” and saves us by establishing “the closest possible relationship with us.” The divine favor resting upon Jesus is a gift for the whole world.
Just as blaming God for every cataclysmic event founders, so does expecting God to provide miraculously all the means of recovery. God always uses humanity in the redemptive project, and the only privilege Christians have is their responsibility for acting in the name of the one they have come to know in Jesus Christ.
This approach does not require triumphalistic swagger or a certitude that quashes other perceptions of truth. Rather, it requires the humility of those called to participate with God in bringing this world to its true end. There is so much healing work to be done, and it is urgent.