To be able to see our world and life through the experiences of someone of a different culture and background is rare. It is a gift—but it can also be a jolt to our sensibilities and assumptions. The world we thought we knew can look very different through someone else’s eyes. This is one reason storytelling can be such a powerful form of communication.
Being drawn into someone else’s experience can show us the world from a new angle, changing how we see the world in our own lives.
And so it is that the opening paragraph of Alexis Wright’s Carpenteria—winner of the Miles Franklin Award for Australian literature in 2006—quickly grabs a reader’s attention: “A nation chants, But we know your story already. The bells peal everywhere. Church bells calling the faithful to the tabernacle where the gates of heaven will open, but not for the wicked. Calling innocent little black girls from a distant community where the white dove bearing an olive branch never lands. Little girls who come back home after church on Sunday, who look around themselves at the human fallout and announce matter-offactly, Armageddon begins here.”
It seems a simple—if tragic—picture, punctuated by a perhaps innocent statement. But it’s a story we so often don’t already know, and also a profound philosophical and theological re-reading of a world in which many of us live so blithely comfortably. It’s the voice of the poor, the downtrodden and the forgotten—too often ignored or simply unnoticed amid the noise and history of our world.
It has been said many times that history is written by the winners.
In the violent history of our world’s many wars and other conflicts, the victors are the survivors, thus those given the opportunity to tell the story of the battle or contest in which they—obviously—were gloriously and justly victorious. Contemporary historians have increasingly recognised the other sides of these stories—that there are other voices to be heard and other perspectives to be gained.
But there is, perhaps, still more to hearing these other voices than that: “Too often, the winners get to write not only the histories but also the theologies” (Scott Bayder-Saye, Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear). Like the stories themselves, the winners dominate the philosophies and theologies assumed in the stories and histories we tell—and use to explain the way the world is.
Nowhere is this more obvious than in the popular concepts of judgement at the end of world history or in some form of afterlife. From Dante’s Inferno, Michelangelo’s ”The Last Judgement” on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and Jonathan Edwards’s famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” the Christian tradition has focused on the gates of heaven being shut to the wicked, who instead meet some much nastier fate. It seems to fit with a “winner’s theology,” urging those who might consider stepping out of line to consider the eternal implications of their actions.
But while some such elements of judgement can be found described in the Bible, significantly more emphasis is placed on the goodness and the hope of God’s judgement. In Reflections on the Psalms, C S Lewis observes that the biblical writings of the Psalms and the Prophets “are full of the longing for judgement, and regard the announcement that ‘judgement’ is coming as good news.”
This is the voice—and theology—of the oppressed and forgotten, crying out for the wrongs to be set right and their complaints to be heard. This requires a different way of seeing, a perspective of life from places where the white dove never lands and it seems Armageddon has already begun.
It is also a plea that someone should be taking note of the wrongs done in our world—and a reminder that Someone is. While suffering, oppression and tragedy are hard enough to bear in their own right, the injury or insult is harder still if it seems likely they are meaningless or unnoticed. The possible weightlessness of sorrow is heavier than its initial burden. A world without record or consequences is the ultimate in cruel absurdity.
This is the essential argument of the Bible’s Book of Ecclesiastes, a book that hardly fits with many attempts at neat formulations of faith. The philosopher’s cry of “Meaningless! Meaningless!” echoes through the pages of this ancient wisdom literature as, item by item, the various aspects of life as we know it are discounted as not worth the effort. Work, wealth, wisdom and pleasure are all dismissed as meaningless.
Even the difference between good and evil is observed as often counting for little: “In this life, good people are often treated as though they were wicked, and wicked people are often treated as though they were good. This is so meaningless!” (Ecclesiastes 8:14, NLT).
But at the end of his diatribe, the philosopher takes a sudden turn. In the midst of his myriad of meaninglessness, he says, “Hold on a minute, God is going to judge so everything is not meaningless; in fact, now everything and everyone matters. Therefore, “fear God and keep His commandments”— meaning love and honour God, and learn to do right and seek goodness (see Ecclesiastes 12:13, 14).
The hope of judgement comes down to what one believes about the core nature of God, life and the world in which we live: “I believe that you can protest against the evil in the world only if you believe in a good God,” writes Yale University theology professor Miroslav Volf. “Otherwise the protest doesn’t make sense. I protest with God against God” (Free of Charge).
The Bible urges that we live in a world created and loved by God which has gone wrong and in which God is working toward His plan for re-creation, pre-eminently through the life and death of Jesus. God’s judgement is a key part of His setting our world right.
For those on the receiving end of so many of the world’s wrongs, this must be good news. And we only fail to appreciate this hope as we fail to hear the voices and see with the eyes of those who are marginalised, brutalised and exploited.
But not only does this different perspective give us a new appreciation of the hope of judgement, it then changes our view of others.
“People who believe that God will turn the world upside down—people like Mary with her Magnificat, pulling down the mighty from their thrones and exalting the humble and meek [see Luke 1:46-55]—are not going to be backward in getting on with some world-changing in the present” (N T Wright, Surprised By Hope).
To begin to see the world from God’s viewpoint is the biggest perspective shift. And as we look forward to God’s promise to judge the world and join in with His mission to set our world right, the hope of judgement begins to change the world today.
Nathan Brown is book editor at Signs Publishing Company in Warburton, Victoria. A version of this article first appeared on the Signs of the Times Australia website and is republished with permission.