How to Respond During Times of Tragedy

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How can we respond during times of deep tragedy, such as the recent news of Robin Williams’ death? Aaron Perry suggests that the portrait we have of Jeremiah the prophet—capturing the complexity of injury and morality, joy and despair—offers a corrective to the common way of handling difficult events..

The suicide of Robin Williams has captured the eyes and imaginations of our culture—for a while, at least. Tragedy seems to find a way to wake many from slumber to attention for just a season. With a nod to Ecclesiastes, some consider it a season not just for reflection or comfort, but for war and combat. The combative words from Matt Walsh’s blog, “Robin Williams Didn’t Die from a Disease, He Died from His Choice” are the most easily cited: “I’m not normally one to write a blog post about a dead celebrity, but then I suppose there is no such thing.” Walsh’s rhetoric is the sharp—and yet very dull—wedge used to divide what he thinks are incompatible realities:

“Whether you call depression a disease or not, please don’t make the mistake of saying that someone who commits suicide ‘died from depression.’ No, he died from his choice.”

“No depressed person in the history of the world has ever been in the depths of despair and at the heights of joy at the same time. The two cannot coexist.”

But must a wedge be driven between morality and illness as to the nature and/or source of choices? Is the complete dismissal of a therapeutic examination of sin necessary to maintain a moral one? Further, must joy and despair always live in complete separation? Is life, which Walsh is so quick to point to, not that complex? The prophet Jeremiah still bears witness to these questions.

First, the prophet bears witness through his words. Jeremiah 30:12-17 weaves inseparably the combination of morality and illness in sin. The wound that Judah suffers is connected with the sin that Judah commits—but not simply as the result. There is no need to draw too thick a line between illness and morally significant choice. Wounds are not simply the result of choice; wounds are also the cause of choice. This is a concept that Wesleyans—and all Christians—may wrestle with in a therapeutically obsessed culture. How can we affirm that wounds both cause and result from choice? If wounds are the cause, can there be moral culpability? To reject that a choice is morally significant and the actor morally responsible when connected with illness is the flipside of the coin that denies that illness may factor into a choice. For Jeremiah, moral responsibility and forms of injury (or illness) are not mutually exclusive in the consideration of the sinful human condition that procures God’s wrath and healing.

Second, the prophet witnesses through his life. While some argue that we know more about Jeremiah than any other prophet such that we have access to the historical person, others affirm that the historical person Jeremiah is better said to have given rise to the reflections on the paradigmatic prophet through the work of a literary artist. Like the choices above, these need not be separated neatly. No doubt the complexity of the historical Jeremiah’s historical life spill over onto the pages of the book that bears his name. And it is precisely into this complexity that the author of Jeremiah wants us to keep together holding faith in God, calling for vengeance against enemies, singing praises to God, and cursing the day one was born (20:11-15). A mere 18 English words in the New International Version separate the exhortation to sing to the LORD and curse the day of one’s birth. Can joy and depression coexist? Jeremiah’s life seems to bear witness to something quite complex that may just answer yes.

The two points are not, in the end, meant to deal with the totality of Walsh’s content. For example, Walsh, elsewhere in his article, wants to keep the possibility that depression is rooted in body and soul—at least nodding toward some of the complexity of the situation. What Walsh admits as the focus of his work is concensus around two points. The second, that joy and depair cannot coexist, has already been addressed above. The first, however, reveals exactly the problem with Walsh’s post: “[S]uicide does not claim anyone against their will. No matter how depressed you are, you never have to make that choice.” The statement declares the nature of a situation without context. It does not consider whether the will is complex; whether there were previous suicidal moments where the person chose against suicide. To borrow another biblical example, Walsh has not considered how a person may not do the good they intend, but instead do the wrong they do not want to do (Rom. 7:19).

Walsh’s frank, simplistic statement reminds me of a photograph. Our culture—awakened from slumber and only seeing with blurry vision—longs for clarity and crispness of the photograph. Clear edges, precise lines, high definition wrinkles and warts. Walsh has seen enough photographs lionizing and romanticizing a tragedy and so has offered another snapshot. But photographs, though clear, can be produced hastily, capturing only part of the scene.

Perhaps, then, it is Brueggemann’s metaphor of portrait that gives the most clarity. The portrait of Jeremiah—capturing the complexity of injury and morality, joy and despair—offers a corrective to the photograph. While Walsh, correctly, wants to challenge the overplay of therapeutic slogans that lob words like freedom, happiness, and peace at the choice of suicide, the correction of the overuse of therapeutic photograph is not to offer another photograph. The problem is not a therapeutic perspective, but an oversimplification. Replacing an oversimplification with an oversimplification is not the remedy. Or perhaps we could say, in a culture given only photographs, the correction is not another photograph but a portrait.

How does this shape ministry? The practice and discipline of listening. Tragedy and chaos well up within us a desire to say something . . . even anything. Both the torrent of Tweets and Walsh’s own blog reveal the pressure to say something. This may even seem like a faithful activity, one even shaped by the practice of Jeremiah. He was, after all, a preacher. However, the introduction to Jeremiah does not indicate it is a collection of only Jeremiah’s words. Jeremiah’s prophetic ministry is not simply his own words, but also the word of the LORD, which came to him. The whole practice of Jeremiah’s prophetic utterance is founded on Jeremiah’s ability to hear. Likewise, Jeremiah’s laments only make sense if Jeremiah believes God is listening to his own words—if God is heeding the imploring of Jeremiah for the LORD to listen to him (Jeremiah 18:19).

Listening is what allows the complexity of the human condition and the prophet’s visceral laments to emerge with their power. We have the portrait of the prophet because the prophet and his God listened. With a second nod to Ecclesiastes, perhaps if we are to grasp the complexity of these situations and receive words for the ongoing care and ministry to those facing similar decisions to the late Robin Willians, then this is a season not (first) for speaking, but for silence and listening.

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Assistant Professor of Christian Ministry and Pastoral Care at Wesley Seminary at Indiana Wesleyan University. He and his wife, Heather, have three children. Aaron is the author of Putting the Plot Back in Preaching (Seedbed), co-author with Tim Perry of He Ascended into Heaven (Paraclete Press) and editor of Developing Ears to Hear (Emeth Press). Aaron completed his PhD in Organizational Leadership (Regent University). Follow him on Twitter @aaronhmperry

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