Bleak Theology A post-punk counterweight to joy.

The Battles of Marathon


The marathon begins in violence, death, and tragedy. Most people do not know that Pheipippides, who ran from the Battle of Marathon to Athens to announce the Greek victory over the Persian threat in 490 BCE, died with the words, “Rejoice, we win!” on his lips. We, as civilizations, have worked hard, through the institution of spirited competitions, to hegemonize violence into collegial and fraternal sport. Iliad ends in funeral games in memory of the dead of both Trojan and Greek. In 776 BCE, Hellenic city-states established the Olympic Games among themselves, transforming internecine squabble into a religious festival of idealized virtue, force, and power. Games are ways of keeping us from killing each other. Well, they’ve become that way, at least. Our gladiators no longer wield swords and fishnets.

Thus, it is even more troubling when here not a competitor dies or is killed, but when spectators are murdered and maimed. The Boston Marathon is a century-old and storied event in its own right. It is a monument of and for virtue, of our highest, loftiest ideals and goals. There is a distinct form of unkindness in this attack. I say “unkindness” because the being a cheering spectator for this endurance event is a kind of kindness, a kind of encouragement. The attack was an act of a kind of discouragement, which ultimately failed and continues to fail. The marathon began with a proclamation of victory and sudden death.

But what is this victory? When Boston was attacked, a whole people shuddered. The city-state of Boston mourns and the United States with her. And then the city-state acts and the United States with her, capturing a nineteen year old who grew up here, a citizen of barely seventeen months. What causes a young man to turn like that? His older brother? Had his displaced sibling turned to Salafism for a sense of identity or was it a more diffuse anger? Immigrant children, those of the 1.5 generation, half-in/half-out, are difficult to discern. And then there are the traditional questions of grief that seek overarching, superstructural answers of intent and purpose. We like intent and purpose. Marathons are embodiments of intent and purpose, which is why when bodies are shattered and ripped apart in Boston, it is intent and purpose denied. Our virtues are thwarted and it affects us deeply. Where is our victory?

The small victories are found in the people of Boston pouring out themselves in the midst of trauma. They poured out their blood for the bloodied. They poured out their tears for the weeping. Kindness is victory. Kindness is not vengeful. Kindness acts through and beyond fear. Kindness transcends fear. Kindness is forgiveness, a most difficult kind of kindness.

Trauma has no aftermath for trauma is aftermath. Bleak theology is a theology of trauma. This theology exists in the event of aftermath. In aftermath, there is doubt and uncertainty and the need and desire to act in reaction. It is mindful of this Moment, of this Event. It lives in this Event and is critical and metacritical. It knowingly acts in the midst of sorrow, knowing that we must act in the moment of sorrow and woe. It is not an analytic theology. It has no time for that. Bleak theology is a theology of crisis. It can only ever live in the moment of crisis. And it does live. It is sorely contextual, because trauma is of the Moment and a memory and re-membering of the Moment.

So what does bleak theology offer in the aftermath of this past week in Boston? For one, it offers no pedantic theodicies or causations for this specific turn of events. It seeks to serve in kindness in relief efforts. It does not participate in the institutionalized and militarized police response. Bleak theology’s post-punk roots resists (even tacit) hegemonic participation in the organism and organic membrane of the polis, the body politic. Bleak theology does not chant “USA! USA!” in the streets. It squeezes the hand of the injured and the sorrowful. Bleak theology operates with the subversive mandate of kindness found in “love one another” in the hope for a God that will protect and serve the traumatized, whether that God exists or not. Kindness is the ultimate resistance. Kindness is risky. Bleak theology risks kindness in the trauma of God’s seeming absence.

Let’s not romanticize things. Three people are dead, including one child. Almost 180 people are injured. In Iraq, on that same day, at least 75 people were killed and more than 350 people were in injured in bombings across the country. When will this race of violence end? It won’t. But we can help those who are hurt by it. We must. It is the only we can win. Kindness is the only victory.


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By Burke
Bleak Theology A post-punk counterweight to joy.


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