Stuff happens

By Deirdre Good

Stuff happens. Accidents. Mental illness. Death. Throughout human history, people have asked “Why?” To ask “why” is to presume that stuff happens for a reason, that behind events lie causes we can discover. It’s a question from a privileged perspective. It suggests human omniscience.

After the shock of being diagnosed with colon cancer at 43, I spent considerable energy trying to find out why. Perhaps there were genetic reasons? Perhaps there were environmental causes? Then I asked whether diet or nutrition could have been a factor. Were there emotional or psychological factors resulting in my debilitated immune system? All these factors, genetic make-up, environment, and nutrition may have played a role but in the end I could not find a reason. Perhaps there isn’t one. It doesn’t mean that research on the causes of cancer or even my particular case is unimportant. It just happened that at age 43 I was diagnosed with stage three colon cancer. Now its part of my identity.

Jesus’ disciples, seeing a person blind from birth and wanting an explanation for his condition, asked, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus’ reply shatters the snare of looking at illness as cause and effect: “It’s not that this one sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be manifest in him.” Stuff happens, Jesus says. There’s not necessarily a reason for it. Put the emphasis elsewhere. It’s not what happens but what you do with what happens that matters.

Now it also happens that I am lesbian. Many people in the Anglican communion think of us as diseased sinners, equating sexual identity with illness and being gay with sin. Several weeks ago a woman interrogated me after a talk I gave in a nearby church. She asked how, in light of Paul’s condemnation of homosexuality in Romans 1, I continued to live out a sinful life style. To this woman it did not matter that Paul sees same-sex relations as a consequence of pagan idolatry and an exchange of what is natural for what is “beyond nature,” or that, in chapter 2, both pagan and Jew are condemned for exercising judgment on others, or that Jesus said nothing about same-sex relations. Such discussions, I have learned from having many of them, aren’t really about the biblical text. They are about something or someone else. However, it’s difficult to get at what really is going on. To break out of such discussions, I sometimes agree that Paul does condemn same-sex relations. I might assent that I am a sinner just as we all are, albeit for different reasons, and that I’m in good company. But then I ask my interrogator whether the Christian gospel can be reduced to condemnation? (I did this better on Swedish Public Radio last Friday than in conversation.) I think not. To preach the good news without emphasizing Jesus’ proclamation of God’s love for every single one of us is to reduce the gospel to the point of distortion.

Jesus’ opponents in the account of the man born blind in John’s gospel continue to regard events through the prism of cause and effect. They regard the blind man as a sinner and, despite clear evidence to the contrary, Jesus as a sinner also who cannot have given sight to the blind. In the end they simply cast out the now-sighted man. Jesus finds him and explains the roles of judgment and division in his mission: “For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and that those who may see become blind.” Stuff happens but the mission has moved on. I hope that all our interrogators can move on with Jesus and us too.

Deirdre Good, professor of New Testament at The General Theological Seminary, specializes in the Synoptic Gospels, Christian Origins, Noncanonical writings and biblical languages. She grew up in Kenya and loves marmite which may explain certain features of her blog, On Not Being a Sausage.

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