Faith Matters: What we see: A reflection on Slovakia and the human condition

  • Jan Rudolf Flaska in Old Deerfield, where he lives on the Deerfield Academy campus. Staff Photo/Paul Franz

Deerfield Academy
Published: 11/1/2020 2:39:44 PM

(Each Saturday, a faith leader offers a personal perspective in this space. To become part of this series, email religion@recorder.com)

Why do bad things happen to good people? The ancients, the contemporaries and the perplexed have sought refuge in the depths of crisis; know that the presence of such scenarios in scripture does not necessarily imply that they were resolved to the satisfaction of the afflicted. Rather, the existence of those stories assures us that for centuries and millennia, folks like us have tried to understand and find the source of evil, injustice, hate and, by many other names, bad luck.

As one of many varied, rich and fascinating sources of wisdom, handed down to us from those that came before us, the Book of Job from the Jewish scriptures looks at and faces the most demanding of questions: Why is goodness not returned as good? Why does evil befall the blameless? Why does hurt afflict those of moral worth?

In the previous school year, in the six months of normalcy that preceded the pandemic of this day, I lived in Slovakia. It is a country I love, whose generosity is palpable in the people, traditions and settings I encountered. I was there to study the story of refugees, particularly those migrating against their will from places like Syria to the southern shores of Greece, Italy and Turkey, making their way north to countries that might provide life some semblance of peace and predictability.

In my exploration of Slovakia, the obscure and lost stories I discovered surprised me. I found an abundance of Jewish architecture and art, but very few Jews; I found numerous Muslims from western Africa and the Middle East playing professional soccer, but not a single mosque; and I found out-of-the-way Roma communities criticized for not educating their children, and then discovered that public transportation routes — the busses that bring children to school — intentionally avoid those communities. Why do bad things happen to good people? In what I saw in front of me I acknowledged a need for reconciliation with this impossible question. I would not find it.

When Job (pronounced with a long “o,” like “oh”), the most devoted of God’s disciples, questions the reasons for his endless affliction, God responds, “Will you condemn me that you may be justified? Shall a faultfinder contend with the Almighty? Anyone who argues with God must respond ... Look at Behemoth, which I made just as I made you ... It is the first of the great acts of God ... only its Maker can approach it.” This is clearly not the response that Job hoped to receive.

My residence in Slovakia was rural and speckled with apiaries, sheep and small, backyard distilleries. The mountains were full of wildlife and busy with mushroom foraging. Remarkably, just up the hill from my home was an equine farm, with one solitary central U.S. plains buffalo in her own expansive pen. Let me state this again: In Slovakia, a central plains buffalo lived in my backyard! I went to central Europe to explore the story of refugees and the first chapter of that book was a buffalo brought across the Atlantic to be caged in a travelling zoo in the Czech Republic. The buffalo was later abandoned, saved and relocated to a small mountain town in Slovakia. This behemoth, looking intently back at me, came to represent the classic moral problem of injustice.

The buffalo became a reminder of the forced relocation and cultural genocide of indigenous Americans. This behemoth spoke without speaking. The story of refugees was to be found in my backyard. I did not find an answer to the question, but the ubiquity of the affliction of good beings who seek safety and care became clear to me. If suffering exists, then the need to recognize the suffering of our sisters and brothers yearned to be acknowledged in our own existence. The classic mystical search for union affirms that when one suffers, we all suffer.

Job never finds an answer and that may be the point. The early chapters of this book present Job as the most productive and selfless person in God’s midst. So why does he suffer? Job, for no reason, it seems, humbles himself before God. “I have uttered what I did not understand ... no purpose of yours can be thwarted; I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”

In Slovakia, I found a solitary central plains buffalo, and it was in my backyard. The buffalo was a message to me to find hope in the eyes of another: to look in, to be looked back at, and to come into the presence of union with the other.

In these days of social distancing, we are called to meet the eyes of another and express gratitude through words and disposition. We can create love in the space between. In these days of public and personal demonstrations, we are called to hear the voices that have been under-represented or ignored, and allow those words to resonate through our bodies and into our hearts. In the presence of conflict and injustice, we are called to enter into community with care, concern and collegiality, even if, as poet Wendell Berry writes, “despair in the world grows.” We set the model of compassion and comportment, in shared co-existence, with the human family. In these times, when someone looks at us and to us, look back.

Ján Rudolf Flaška is a teacher of philosophy and religious studies at Deerfield Academy. His mother is from Bratislava, Slovakia and his father is from Cheb, Czechia. Ján spent the 2019-2020 academic year living in Divina-Lúky, just outside of Zilina. He can be contacted at jflaska@deerfield.edu




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