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Where is God?

Where is God?: Earthquake, Terrorism, Barbarity, and Hope
By Jon Sobrino
Maryknoll, NY; Orbis Books, 2004.
156 pages
Reviewed by Vie Thorgren

In the prologue to the English edition, written in 2004, Jon Sobrino identifies the purpose of this book. “Its purpose is to contribute—as much as one can—to slowing down the dehumanization that is overtaking our world, and to encourage a humanizing hope and praxis” (p. vii). In the introduction to the original Spanish edition, written in 2001, he indicated his intent “to help people think, especially those who live in the affluent world, and to encourage everyone to show compassion and solidarity” (p. xxvii). Sobrino definitely achieves this latter purpose. Completing this short, but intensive, volume, requires the reader to think hard. The call to see and to act in unity with the larger part of humanity who are poor and suffering is unmistakable. Whether it makes a contribution to a “humanizing hope and praxis” will depend upon the willingness of readers to embrace the conversion it invites.

This book is required reading for all students in the spiritual formation program I direct. Our U.S. students describe the book as painful and challenging. Students from countries outside the U.S. describe it as exciting, on the mark, and challenging. The reason for this different response surfaces in the first few pages of the prologue, as Sobrino, a Jesuit theologian at the University of Central America in El Salvador, lays out the challenge. We have to try, in solidarity with the poor and oppressed, to reverse history and move it in the opposite direction.

Sobrino began to write this book in response to the earthquakes of January and February 2001 in El Salvador. The suffering, especially for the poor, was devastating. As the book was readied for publication, however, the September 11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center in New York, and the October 7 bombing of Afghanistan erased all awareness of the agony of the poor in El Salvador. Sobrino expanded the scope of the search for God in our world to include natural disasters, terrorism, and barbarity. He presents reality from the perspective of the victims and invites the reader into this experience.

Sobrino immediately lays out the challenge between two competing perspectives: the Empire and God. The Empire, which today is the U.S., imposes its will on others with immense power. The Empire sees itself as having the right to define for everyone the best expression of being human (individual success) and the most important values (the good life enjoyed by those who are successful.) It assumes for itself the right to identify what in time is important. For example, 9/11 is now an important benchmark in U.S. history, and it is expected that the rest of the world will understand that 9/11 is the day everything changed. Unnoted is the day in 1981 when a thousand people were murdered in El Mozote, El Salvador, by the U.S. trained Atlacatl Battalian (12/11), the days of the slaughter in Rwanda, the months two million people were murdered in Congo, the time of the 2001 floods in Mozambique, the bombing of Afghanistan (10/7), and the bombing of Iraq (3/30).

The Empire uses God to justify its actions, seeing itself as God-appointed to rule, God- blessed for the supreme role in human history, and also as the source of salvation for others. Within this context, the Empire rules as beneficiary and dispenser of the resources accepting Dives and Lazarus as the normal way of life.

The Reign of God, however, is not an empire. It is, and always has been, in the Hebrew and in the Christian Scriptures, aligned with the poor and the oppressed. God lifts up the dignity of persons, and the values of love, mercy, and compassion are the best reflection of what it means to be human. Salvation arises from the little and the weak, from barren women, marginal people, and a suffering servant. Quoting an Asian theologian, A. Pieris, Sobrino offers the liberation for our day in “the poor—not because they are poor, but because they are powerless, rejected—chosen for a mission: ‘they are to be mediators of salvation to the rich; the weak are called to liberate the strong’” (p. xix).

Sobrino is uncompromising in his condemnation of the evil done at the World Trade Tower on September 11, 2001. He does not ignore the immense suffering of the victims and their families. He does remind the reader, however, that it was not the most massive, or even the cruelest, event of our age. It did, however, endanger for the Empire that which is ours. Is the U.S. response one of compassion to all the innocent victims of terrorism and brutality? Do citizens seek justice that ensures a more humane world for all people, but especially the most vulnerable? He notes in contrast that other countries were forced to take an anti-terrorist oath, although they were never invited to take an oath against poverty or injustice, or contempt for the poor.

Sobrino’s description of the Empire and the Reign of God reminded me of the challenge confronting a person making the Ignatian spiritual exercises. There are “Two Kingdoms” and “Two Standards.” Which will the person choose? For the person unfamiliar with the Ignatian retreat, the clear choice that Sobrino offers the reader is consistent with the clear reality that Jesus presents. A person cannot serve two masters—God and mammon.

Sobrino’s writing style is prophetic, integrative, and stimulating. He offers challenging re-interpretations for historians, theologians, scripture scholars, spiritual directors, and anyone wanting to live with spiritual integrity. Counting prologue and introduction (which are a feast in themselves), the entire volume is fewer than two hundred pages. It cannot be digested in large doses but must be read over many days with time for rumination. I found that I could not sit still with the book; I needed to get up and walk with what I had just read, considering it carefully and letting it penetrate deeply.

Sobrino draws extensively on theological perspectives from Latin America, Africa, and Asia. For those in the U. S. who have never made the effort to discover the news beyond CNN, Sobrino opens a reality that may be previously unknown. I have had students tell me, “I do not know anything about many of the circumstances he mentions,” and, “I do not know any of these authors that he quotes.” There is a seductive quality to Sobrino’s style, however. He draws the reader into the search for reality, especially as it concerns the experience of the poor.

As a spiritual director I regularly accompany individuals who struggle with their relationship to the poor, with the problem of time, and the complexity of their lives. They struggle with their responsibilities in relationship to governmental policies, with the suffering in the world, and with consumerism. They question if God is in the midst of their uncertainty, suffering, and turmoil. Sobrino encourages the questioner not to let God off of the hook. He admits that there is no rational answer, but offers the conviction that God is crucified in all the crucified ones.

The deeper, unexpected challenge that he offers the reader is, where are we? What does it mean to be a human being in this world of inequality and suffering? What is the human response to suffering? And how do we measure the quality of being human. Is it the most powerful, the best, the toughest? Is it found in “the good life?” Or is it measured by compassion and mercy and ensuring that all live well.

I look forward to the reflection papers and the book discussion groups from our spiritual direction interns. As long as this book remains in print, it will continue to be required reading in our program.

Vie Thorgren, DMin, is founder and director of the Center for Spirituality at Work in Denver, Colorado, USA. She developed the Formation Program for Spiritual Directors, which has been committed to ensuring spiritual direction and retreat services for those who are poor and marginalized for the past twenty years. She is personally involved in spiritual direction with homeless people and with incarcerated women. She is married, a mother and grandmother.

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