Praxic Theodicy: A process for responding to tragedy

East Atlantic Beach: The Morning of Hurricane Sandy

In my own experience of Hurricane Sandy I witnessed and experienced a moment that theologian Jon Sobrino  calls “countercultural goodness.” A moment where in the midst of tragic suffering people are driven to give of themselves in order to help the larger community. In looking back on how the community of Long Beach, NY experienced this moment I wondered what the source for this orientation was. What gives us the drive to struggle with one another in moving ahead from the state of suffering that we find ourselves in? The Christian tradition suggest that there is a divine motivation that moves us into this spirit of self-giving, a spirit of kenosis (self-emptying). Through kenosis we empty ourselves of our own will and allow ourselves to be receptive to God’s will. To adopt God’s will is to exist for the common good. What we do is not guided by our own self-interest but for the good of all. We can accept self-sacrifice because we see ourselves investing in the community and we recognize that our own welfare is directly related to the welfare of the community. As an example, after the hurricane our block continued to have access to uncontaminated water while our friends on the block directly east of us had their water source contaminated. The spirit of kenosis moved us to offer and produce a system that gave those people in need access to our water, at least until the National Guard provided these communities with a larger supply. The spirit of kenosis moved many of my out of town friends to reach out and see in what way they could support us during this time. We give of ourselves in order to transform difficult experiences and to heal the suffering community.

Salvatore Dali’s “Christ of St. John of the Cross”

For Christians Jesus is our reference point for this spirituality of self-emptying. St. Paul the Apostle teaches us that “though he was in the form of God, [Jesus] did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave.”(Phil 2:6-7) This is the example we are given and in this way Jesus demonstrates a perfect example of being human. By sacrificing his own will and self-interest he exalted himself in adopting God’s will and placing himself in the service of our humanity. Through this example St. Paul instructs us to “do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” (Phil 2: 3-4) This is the spirituality of kenosis which we are invited to share.

The hurricane gave us all an experience of powerlessness and weakness. Through the spirituality of kenosis we are able to place our own sense of weakness within the context and service of our neighbors shared suffering. In our moment of weakness we are empowered by the Spirit of God to become transforming agents of God’s love for one another. Reflecting on the Indonesian context of the transformative spirit of kenosis, Professor Johannes Banawiratma tells us:

Following the self-emptying spirituality, Jesus’ disciples are transformed to become more like Jesus. Such is a spirituality of powerlessness and continuous conversion, of renewal to be more open to others and to God. The self-transformation of Jesus’ disciples makes an impact on their social solidarity and stimulates wider transformation, namely, the transformation of societal life.[1]

“Countercultural goodness” shows us how we instinctively allow ourselves to experience a spirit of kenosis in the midst of our shared tragedy and suffering. The question is; how can we sustain this divine experience? Jon Sobrino proposes a process, in light of the experience of social suffering from either violence or natural disasters, that he calls “praxic theodicy.[2]” This three step process allows us to struggle with our shared sense of powerlessness in order to move us towards self and social transformation.

  1. Indignation: In the face of incomprehensible suffering it is very much appropriate to question the failure of God (theodicy) and humanity (anthropodicy) to allow this situation to take place. In doing this we are recognizing the incomprehensible suffering for what it is and allowing ourselves to be moved out of our complacency in order to declare that this situation is simply not fair or just. Expressing indignation is very much part of our Scriptural tradition; the Psalms, Lamentations and the Book of Job are replete with expressions of indignation towards unjust suffering.
  2. Hope: In the book of Job we find the tragic figure of Job expressing indignation to God over the painful experience he is undergoing and the social injustices that he witnesses. During this moment of despair however Job is able to make an astounding declaration of faith: “I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth.” (Job 19:25) As Sobrino says: “God-whether or not God has the power to overcome suffering- does have the power to nurture human hope.”[3] By declaring hope we are affirming the resurrection and the belief that God will not allow our suffering to have the last word. As a people and as a community we will grow from this tragic experience and become transformative agents for a better world.
  3. Honesty: What Sobrino calls honesty I would want to call agency. For Christians a declaration of hope does not allow us to passively offer well wishes to others. As St. James tells us, “If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?” (Jas 2: 15-16) Honesty forces us to take responsibility in helping our suffering neighbors and to allow God’s hope to work through us. It moves us to action (agency). Through direct charity and social justice we become transforming agents of God that respond to tragedy and share in a common belief that has become a mantra for globalization activists, “another world is possible.”

From a spirituality of individual self emptying we construct a community that embodies this “countercultural goodness.” This countercultural community is identified by St. Paul as koinonia or the fellowship of the Holy Spirit (2 Cor. 13: 13). It is a fellowship of mutual respect that shares all things in common. The early Christian community offers us this model (Acts 2:42) and St. Paul tells us that this divine fellowship of “countercultural goodness” is the ultimate aim of our existence (Rom. 8:22-24). Ethicist John Mahoney explores a spirituality of koinonia as a basis for the renewal of moral theology arguing that “koinonia is not simply a Christian addition to human destiny, but responds to the deepest aspirations of God’s human creatures, who are made in his image[4]” Mahoney then continues to develop this “deepest aspiration” for humanity.

Such a theology of the traditional Christian doctrine of man as made in God’s image puts before all men and women, then, not only a common destiny but also a shared moral programme of a fellowship of persons as the creational and Christian task to be worked for all at all levels of human society… It is to give witness in human society to that fellowship of individuals to which every man is called and to give evidence of the degree to which he is already enabled, by the Spirit of Christ, to live in communion with God and his fellow men.[5]

In the face of tragedy Sobrino offers us this process that allows us to intentionally develop the spirituality of kenosis and koinonia; a spirituality that allows us to be emptied of our own self-interest and to construct a community based on a fellowship that responds to Christ’s mandate to “Love one another as I have loved you.” (John 15:12)


[1] Johannes Banawiratma, “The Pastoral Circle as Spirituality: toward an Open and Contextual Church” in Frans Wijsen, Peter Henriot, Rodrigo Mejia (eds.), The Pastoral Circle Revisited: A Critical Quest for Truth and Transformation (Maryknoll, Orbis: 2005) pp. 82

[2] Jon Sobrino, “Where is God? Earthquake, Terrorism, Barbarity, and Hope” (Orbis Book, Maryknoll NY, 2004) pp. 143

[3] Ibid., pp.143

[4] John Mahoney, The Making of Moral Theology: A study of the Roman Catholic Tradition (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1987) pp.345

[5] Ibid., pp.346

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About jdgonzo73

I am a Catholic lay minister in the field of Christian ethics, Latino theology and Paulacrucian spirituality. I am currently a Doctor of Ministry student at Fordham, an ad-junct professor at Molloy College and St. John's University and the Project Coordinator with the Catholic Roundtable.
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