Survivors’ Guilt

We hear quite a bit about survivors’ guilt these days.  A neighbor’s house has a tree through the roof, while yours was spared.  A soldier walks behind another; the one in the lead steps on a landmine, and the follower does not suffer loss of limbs.  The hurricane skirts your hometown, and the adjoining county is hard hit.  The rains come in due season to your land; not too far away drought is ravaging crops.

These may be grateful for the good fortune they experienced, but they also know at what cost to others.  It is hard not to construct a “spared for a reason” narrative; however, it diminishes a sense of providence for those not spared.  Even more horrific is the disregard for the value of lives of a different ethnicity.  Survivors’ guilt is to be preferred over callous indifference.

View of the unofficial Rohingya IDP camp of “Rubber Garden” near Hamanzi Junction,Sittwe.
Tens of thousands of Rohingya, fled the country in recent months, setting off a regional crisis when boatloads of migrants were abandoned at sea or abused by traffickers.

Yesterday the lesson from the Hebrew Bible was the story of Israel crossing the Red Sea with the army of Egypt in hot pursuit.  Written obviously from the perspective of the liberated, the story is grisly in detailing how the Lord fought against Egypt on behalf of Israel.  God instructs Moses, “Stretch out your hand over the sea, so that the water may come back upon the Egyptians, upon their chariots and chariot drivers” (Exodus 14:26).  Moses follow this directive, and the entire army is drowned.  Not one of them remained.

The rabbis have long struggled with this text.  God’s preservation of the people of covenant seems to have blood cost.  Codifying this narrative of election in Scripture then extended to Christians, many of whom became supersessionist, i.e., arguing that now their election in Christ eclipsed the Jews.  Even when the humbler Christian approach acknowledged that they have been grafted into God’s enduring covenant with Israel, this claim still argues for a preferential treatment that elevates this Judeo-Christian trajectory over against all the rest of the world’s people.

As we struggled with this text in my Sunday School class yesterday morning, an older man posed this question: “So who are God’s people?”  I responded, “Everyone.”  The follow-up question in my mind was, “when life is so hard, how do they know God is for them, that they are God’s own?”  This is where survivors come in, it seems to me.  Those who are spared must not simply rejoice in their seeming “chosenness,” but must use every resource to alleviate the suffering of others.  Guilt may not be the best source of motivation, but if it spurs compassion, it is constructive.

Just as blaming God for every natural event founders, so does expecting God to provide miraculously all the recovery.  There is so much healing work to be done, and it is urgent.

Molly T. Marshall

Central prepares leaders for compassionate ministry in a groaning world.