You don’t become a theologian unless you are willing to wrestle with God. Or at least, you don’t become a very good one. Two years into seminary and I see the theologians who serve as my professors aren’t shutting down or containing my doubts; they’re blessing them.
Because theology is born in wandering.
Theology is born in the wilderness.
Often we discover what we believe about God in the middle of our tender, bleeding hope.
When I look at my professors, I see theology shaped by their anticipation of God showing up in a violent and broken, but still divinely inspired world.
I’m still learning how to anticipate the same.
A couple or weeks ago, I found myself sitting in a lecture where we were contemplating the human role in perpetuating or combatting evil in the world. My professor, Dr. Boogaart, had subtly taken the narrative a step further: What’s my role in perpetuating or combatting evil in this world?
Dr. Boogaart was describing the moment in his life when he felt the most tied to his Christian identity. He had been working as a PhD student in the Netherlands when a few Syrian families arrived on the doorstep of the church he attended, begging for asylum. The act was incredibly risky—the Dutch government at that time did not recognize the plight of Syrian Christians as a legitimate cause for asylum. In fact, the authorities were actively rounding refugees up and deporting them back to Syria, where they faced execution. For those families to throw themselves on the steps of Dr. Boogaart’s church and beg for shelter was a radical act of faith. “In the name of Christ, help us!” they pled.
“The church body felt torn,” recalled Dr. Boogaart. “This is civil disobedience!” some cried in protest. “This is our history all over again,” cried others, harkening back to the occupation of WWII and the ensuing persecution of Jews, Poles, gypsies and homosexuals by the Nazis—“We must help, or we are no different!”
Finally a woman raised her voice tearfully and said, “I wish we could help them, but—“
“BUT IS NO!” shouted an old man as he slammed his fists against the table in frustration, knowing what was right and feeling helpless to convince those around him it was so.
With tears in my eyes, the phrase rang through the shell of my body as Dr. Boogaart repeated the words from his memory again: But is the same as no.
That day, the small Dutch church declared it would not help the Syrian believers, but neither would it report church members who chose to aid them. And so Dr. Boogaart and his wife joined a handful of Dutch Christians who decided to protect their Syrian brothers and sisters anyway. They hid them away until the government owned the atrocities in Syria and allowed them to legally stay.
It was rebellion. It was isolating. And it was Jesus.
Today is not so different from Dr. Boogaart’s memory of the Netherlands. In fact, this past week we witnessed completion of the 7th year of Syria’s civil war . A war that’s killed nearly half a million people and turned half of the country’s population into refugees.
Did you mark March 15 this year? Did you light a candle of solidarity? Did you weep and ask God, “How can you be good when so many innocent people face death and scattering?”
I didn’t. Actually, I had a dinner party. There were margaritas and fajitas and stories of vacation. I played my favorite party mix—laden with some Taylor Swift and Aleissa Cara.
I had no knowledge that Syria groaned this passed Thursday; I had no presence of mind to groan with her. And I could not anticipate God’s goodness in this conflict because I, like so many Americans, have faltered in bearing witness to this specific evil. It seems my theology remains far too insular.
But the conflict is too complicated to understand.
But I respect my government.
But I give my tithes to the local church.
But I don’t know any Syrians.
But is the same as no.
There are many ways that God is prodding for my theology to wrestle with him, specifically on behalf of Syria.
I can care about God’s other children enough to read their stories.
I can listen when Syrian American friends grieve how disconnected they feel from their grandparents and how isolated they feel from the conflict. I can believe them.
I can give regularly to relief efforts.
I can continue expressing my convictions to my government, whose acceptance of Syrian, Haitian, and Nicaraguan refugees is tentative at very best .
I can visit one of the local Eastern Orthodox churches to connect with how this tradition reflects Christ and laments for pain in the world. I can remember that my faith connects me to these believers for all of eternity.
And I can sorrow and lament for the Syrian people’s suffering.
Because theology is born when we wrestle.
With our doubt.
With our ache.
With our cry that God make the world as it should be.
Katy Johnson lives, dreams, writes, and edits in a messy, watercolored world. She’s a 28 year old seminary student, discovering her hope, her longings, and the wild spaces in her own heart. Her favorite creative project right now is called Will I Break?, and someday, that manuscript may see the light of day. For now, she shares her thoughts here.
I love this. “But is the same as no.” A call for courage to do the right thing, and to remember that the law of Caesar and the works of Christ are rarely the same thing. Bless you for this story.
Isn’t it a powerful phrase? Thank you for your blessing Claudia, and for reading.
Thank you for your blog! What you say is so important. You describe my own belief that we as Christians are called to be peace and justice makers. I think Jesus is with us as we stand up for human rights. Thank you and bless you. Roland Legge
My pleasure. Thank you so much reading. I agree completely with your vision of peace and justice makers. That is such a beautiful call.
This theology born in wondering and birthed in the wilderness. I love your words. The realities you are describing are our daily realities here, in our immigrant population at Neighborhood. Sharing food, listening to story, providing a safe place to disappear when the raids come… where is the yes? But is no.
Thank you, Joanna. I love and am heartbroken by the parallels you are seeing in our own neighborhoods. I’ve been hearing more and more stories like that these days–in Memphis, in DC. What’s it costing us to be ignorant? Where are we being called to say “yes”? Love that you are right there in the middle of it!
This.is.haunting! Thank you. “But is no” will stay with me. And, having traced steps of Dutch Resistance two years ago in the Netherlands, I’m surprised and saddened by that church’s decision!
Wow, Beth. Thank you. I am with you–becoming more and more familiar of spaces where I am longing for more from the institutional church and finding more and more spaces of faithful individuals. I believe we are being drawn into new faith space here, but I am still trying to figure out my own place in it. Grateful for your reading here!
Katy, your writing has left me in hole of sorrow. You wrote an agonizing piece on trauma and the human condition. I did not mark March 15th either. I didn’t even know that I should have on behalf of the Syrian people and their current terror. I love how you wrote this: “Because theology is born in wandering
Theology is born in the wilderness.”
So true. Bless you in your studies…Your heart has touched many people already!
Thank you, Becky. The sorrow here is hard for me too; I get overwhelmed at my lack of awareness sometimes. Grateful for spaces like this where we get to hold the hard stories of this world together. Sending love!
This is so powerful that I must step back and say, “WOW!” Forever, I will remember this and hear “But is no.” I totally agree. How many times did Jesus hear “but” even from his own disciples? Thank you for sharing this story!
So honored by your words, Natasha. Thank you. And I’ve been thinking about that “but” space where we find Jesus a lot these days. Feeling like I should be locating myself there more often. Thanks for reading!
Katy, I absolutely love this post. I love the types of conversations and experience you are gaining in school and the types of stories you are getting to engage with! When you share these experiences with us, it brings so much richness. What stood out most to me in this post was this line:
“It was rebellion. It was isolating. And it was Jesus”
Yes, yes, yes! Gosh, how often does the heart of Jesus call us to rebellion or isolation from popular opinion? I wrestle with this in my own life on a daily basis, and it’s so powerful to hear how this looked for Dutch Christians choosing to do the right thing even when the church didn’t.
Thanks for sharing this and pointing us back to God. I love the idea that we only gain a rich and complex theology after much struggle. That feels validating! Love you, girl, great writing. xo
Girl! Thank you 🙂 I love it too– feel like I’m developing a heart that might bleed out on itself, but I love it. And love you. Thanks for reading and wrestling life out with me.