Wednesday, May 16, 2012

"Trials and tribulations" vs. Injustice

How often do we hear the phrase "trials and tribulations"? Although it is certainly not an everyday occurrence for most people, the phrase is pretty common in parlance, especially for those of particular religious backgrounds. Lately, having heard the phrase come up a few times in speech, I have been reflecting on how the concept of "trials" affects our understanding of our lived experience and our perceptions regarding our own social responsibilities. As I reflected, I began to wonder whether, (and then even conclude that) the language of "trials and tribulations" can sometimes function to exclude the possibility of seeing the need for concepts like social justice. "Trials" after all are a way one's character is shaped. They are obstacles to be overcome, not consequences of the actions of wounded people with desperate needs left unmet. I suspect in fact that often when we label something a "trial" instead of an injustice, we run the risk of excusing a socially passive response to wrongs and simply allowing the wrongs to compound.

I'll give an example. When I was 14, myself and one other friend were returning to my house from dropping off another friend at her house, just literally down the street from my own. The neighborhood we lived in at the time was struggling with gang violence, poverty, and a rampant drug trade. It was not late, but being October, it was already dark. Just before we reached my house, my friend and I were attacked by a group of about five teenage or early 20's males. We were lucky in that my house was within sight, and having grown up the proverbial Tomboy, I had done a lot of play fighting. Without getting into all the details, I managed to break away and get to my porch, at which point they scattered when my mother opened the door. My friend and I were bruised and a bit bloody, but had managed to get away before things went much further. But I knew from what they said when they attacked that the intent had been to do a great deal more harm than they actually managed.

At the time, I knew the attack was wrong. I insisted we call the police, but when they did show up hours later, they wouldn't do anything about it. They had bigger problems than dealing with two young girls who had been roughed up but managed to get away. There was a national recession, leading to massive unemployment in my community, and it had broken my community's fragile ability to care economically for itself. Poverty led to despair, and despair led to all sorts of social problems. Added to this mix of poverty and despair were racial tensions that had always been just below the surface and were now, for a variety of reasons, bubbling over again. I suspect all these issues played into that violence. The police didn't even bother to take a statement or open a file. And yet at no time in this process did I, as a 14 year old, really perceive a systematic problem. My understanding was that what happened to me was just another, albeit traumatic, "trial" I had to go through, a "thing" that had happened to me and my friend as individuals. I understand now that this meant I didn't see the people who attacked us as people with their own struggles (however poor their actions were), but as instead I saw them as Problems.

As time went on and I continued living in that neighborhood I began to suspect that something(s) was wrong on a deeper level, however. What happened to me was not just a thing or event, but also a symptom of a much bigger problem. And gradually I came to the understanding that what was wrong was a whole plethora of compounding social injustices that were causing all this (continuing) violence--and that many of those injustices were structured well outside the bounds of my particular community. I also started wondering what had led my attackers to be out that night, and what it was that had filled them with such rage toward two young girls who were complete strangers to them. I began, though still angrily, to see them as people and not Problems. The more I watched and lived, the more I understood that "trials and tribulations," the way I had explained to myself what had happened, didn't cut it as a category for dealing with social issues. Both their lives and mine were wrapped up in compounded layers of social practices and broken relations that had became part of, or were interwoven with, deep and pervasive injustices. Trials are something you live through, to show your mettle. Injustice is something that needs to be confronted and fought systematically, not just for you, but for society as a whole, or it consumes in a way that even "trial by fire" can't.

To my knowledge, I never saw those boys/men again. If I did, I didn't recognize them, and I doubt they would have recognized me. It was dark, the struggle was brief (though violent), and it was just chance that our paths crossed at all. But it is in looking at experiences such as this one that I was eventually able to realize that the "story" or phrase by which I had organized my understanding (this was a "trial" that happened to me) was not permitting me to see systematic issues. Concepts like justice and injustice, however one works them out, are necessary to social flourishing, and do work that concepts like trials and tribulations cannot do. It was experiences like this one that made me want to work on issues of social justice--partly so that what happened to me and my friend happens to fewer (better, zero!) people, but also partly as an understanding that there are two sides to my story, and that, though I can't say with certainty because I don't know who they were, it is likely that the actions of those people who hurt my friend and I were largely products of an unjust society. I still can't excuse their actions, but I have come to an understanding that those actions didn't happen in a vacuum. I came to believe that if we look systematically at issues, we may be able to find ways to prevent contexts where gross injustices are allowed to flourish and nurture violent (re)actions. Instead of seeing such violence as a society "given", just some "thing" that happens, perhaps we need to see it in terms of something gone drastically wrong somewhere; a communally grounded injustice, and not an individual person's "trial"--or simply an individual person's crime, for that matter.


  1. I think you’re right Allyson. I just don’t want to lose touch with 'trials and tribulations' language, which I think is important (as I’m sure you do to). My thought would be to look at classic trials in the Bible, like Abraham’s and Job’s, to see what is involved. To support your case, do deep-rooted injustices contextualize Biblical trials? I think they do. We see it in Job’s trial for instance, where the satan makes accusations against humankind for injustices committed. The satan is convinced that every human is bad, including Job, presumably because of the evil in the world. So you’re right: when thinking in terms of 'trials and tribulations' we mustn't be distracted from our long history as a species of compounded injustice. Trials exist because of this reality, and are meant as an address to this reality. But with this latter point I think we find what is especially important about trials, or 'trials and tribulations' language. Trials are about setting the record straight and getting PAST evil. They are not about looking backward and being reminded of injustices (past or present) but moving forward following the event of human redemption. The point of Job’s trial is for Job to prove his worth as a human being, and in doing so to show that the rest of us are not so bad either, or that we might be worth keeping around. Job’s trial takes place BECAUSE OF evil, and it certainly shouldn’t distract us from evil, but the REASON FOR the trial is to save us all from the ash heap (or condemn us to it). It is to redeem us and give us a fresh start at life, or at least another chance to show that we’re worthy of life. That’s why we can’t lose touch with the 'trials (and tribulations)' language. It indeed points us backwards, as you note, to the injustices underpinning the trial, but also forward, as I would stress, to a humanity 'pardoned' its past by the redemptive actions of a single human.

  2. You bring up an interesting point with Job, Jared, and my first draft of this particular entry actually began by reflecting on the experience of reading the book Pilgram's Progress as a child (an abridged version that was very graphically illustrated... not really something I'd recommend for children, but it was just sitting there on the bookshelf...)Job is a complicated story, and one I continually find myself drawn back to when thinking of the nature of God, humanity and the world. But I don't have a ready interpretation of it yet. I'll have to go back and struggle with it some more.

    Aside from the story of Job, however, I think there are times when language of "trials" can be appropriate and helpful. But other times it can lead to being passive when one should be actively working to stop an injustice going on. I tend, now, to use the language of injustice because injustice calls for a response to deal with the problem at its root while trials calls for gritting your teeth and just getting through it.

  3. Systemic analysis is valuable and good. It can and does allow us a partial, universalizing look at human sorrow. We are embedded within contexts that condition the environment in which we live and respond to. Certain conditions enable bad responses or alternatively facilitate good responses. In neither case however do they account for either good or bad responses. Privileged people act badly or well from out of the contextual pattern we identify with privilege; the same is true for underprivileged people. The contextual playing field is not level to be sure and that can be valuable in responding to bad behaviour with a certain intelligent grace or with stiffened resistence if the bad behaviour comes from a position of privilege perhaps. The language of trials also is a way of coming to terms with bad behaviour or other occasions for suffering. It is a language that also provides a partial and universalizing context for understanding what one faces. Neither sets of terms are exclusive of the other in absolute terms and each is more appropriate in a certain set of circumstances and in relation to distinct intentions. So you, Allyson, remind us that there are times when a social systems analysis gives us greater purchase on a given set of circumstances and you Jared make the point that social systems analysis does not interpose itself upon the language of trials and tribulations absolutely. Here is another thing that universalizing discourses cannot efface: bad behaviour. They might provide circumstances that mitigate anger at the presence of bad behaviour, but social lack of privilege does not excuse bad behaviour, even if one can see that social pressures do not bring out the best in most people. There is surely room for a variety of partial and universalizing horizons in which to view human behaviour and arrangements, and it is the better part of prudence to be able to discern which are the horizons that allow for an understanding and response to the behaviour that is wise, whether or not it be gracious. We need to consider a/the whole complex of legitimate horizons, or at any rate that would be my two-cents worth in this particular discussion. Within that relative frame I can see you particular juxtapositions as meaningful, but then perhaps in a far more restricted sense than you were imaging?

  4. I like your way of relating both Jared and my responses as on the same spectrum, Bob (if I may paraphrase my understanding of what you said). And I agree that we can't simply excuse bad behavior because a person is living or was raised in unjust situations. Actions have consequences. Social pressure (in both negative and positive ways) happens, but the actions we do are still our own. The prudence you call for in responding to those actions is spot on and I would echo it, but I'm also saying, aside from calling for appropriate consequences to bad behavior, "let's look at those social pressures. Let's see what we can do about not having them be negative social pressures for the future."

    Quite frankly, the people who attacked my friend and I should have been arrested and spent some time in jail. What they were attempting to do carries a pretty hefty sentence, and I am not saying that they should not have had to face that sentence, if the police had followed up. With no followup, a rift in the community that was already there became wider. Had there been followup, that rift could potentially have been addressed (not healed, but maybe started to be healed?) if we had undertaken something like restorative justice. But since no justice was pursued, that was not a possibility. Then nobody "wins"--not my attackers, not me, not my community, and the whole thing just feeds back into the "social pressure cooker".

    In thinking through your comment, Bob, I'm led back to Jared's comment on Job, and its discussion of trials like Job's taking place because of evil. Perhaps one way of proceeding toward social healing is to see violent events both through the lens Jared proposes and through the one I propose, at the same time. That may allows us, in the absence of justice, to both call for justice and to understand negative social pressures as a chance for all of us to show our collective "good". Would that get at what you're calling for, Jared?

  5. Allyson, absolutely, that is what I would call for. Trials as a chance for any one of us to show our collective good, or our worthiness of being kept around. (Which is to say our life and resurrection.)

    That is what Job shows (or part of what he shows) and that each of us has a chance to reveal every moment of our lives. Perhaps most pressingly in times of trial and tribulation.

    And I hear you Bob. It is a rich and challenging world that we find ourselves in. We need to consider concepts in their fulness and be always open to new horizons in our search for wisdom.