Today I take off my shoes and walk for a short while on that uncertain, stony, and hallowed ground called suffering. It’s a ground where expertise counts for naught, the power of influence is laughable, and empathy is the paramount currency.
Not that I know too much about suffering – indeed most of us are novices compared with those who have been brutalised. Yet as Viktor Frankl[i] the holocaust survivor said, “All suffering should be taken with utmost seriousness, however brief or minor”. So with brevity I offer these barefooted thoughts:
Thought one: You lose control of nearly everything.
Others do things to you – sometimes for ill, sometimes for good. You can get beaten, or demeaned, or nailed, or ignored, or operated on, or pitied, or cared for, or prayed for... You become an object with a label: criminal, patient, needy… Sometimes those who are doing these things to you have good intentions, and sometimes they don’t. Regardless, the effect is you become less than an equal, less than fully human. Part of a survival strategy is struggling to maintain your sense of self as an equal, as a fellow human being.
As we suffer we try to keep control of our mind and our reactions but sometimes this isn’t possible. The struggle for control feels like a tug-of-war between determination and despair.
There is not a lot of the Jesus crucifixion story that is factual. Certainly he was crucified, certainly he died, certainly he suffered, and certainly he was abandoned. Yet the order of events, the words uttered, and the people present are a product of later Christian reflection [using in particular Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53] rather than historical fact.
That said I like the Lucan passage when the three being crucified, nailed and dying, talk to each other. Suffering has imposed some affinity between the three criminals. One man is angry and he jeers at Jesus. His pain and anger control him and he can’t overcome them.
Another though has transcended his pain enough to reach out with empathy towards Jesus – identifying with and thus affirming Jesus’ vision of a kin-dom of God. And Jesus, inspired by this convict’s example, responds likewise.
The words ‘Today you will be with me in paradise’[ii] are encompassing of both the thief who reached out to Jesus and the thief who reviled Jesus. The ‘you’ is a plural. The words therefore weren’t just addressed to the so-called ‘good’ thief. As in death they hang together so in any afterlife.
It amuses and saddens me that one of the institutional church’s debates around this passage is the admittance to heaven of the thieves without the requirement of baptism. When you are in acute pain such religious niceties are the furthest things from your mind.
I remember being in a hospital room of four beds and lots of machines. I was an occupant of one of those beds. None of us were sleeping; none were speaking, save for the occasional cries of pain. The machines beeped and whirred.
One way of regaining a semblance of mental control was by consciously choosing to be empathetic. Empathy is not a gift, or a skill, or a genetic predisposition… it’s a choice. Unable to move or speak one could lie in bed and visualise and practise sending compassionate thoughts. Prayer if you like.
Some of the imprisoned talk about freedom like this. First comes the inner seeing, the inner networking, and the inner solidarity. This is the dream. Next comes the articulation, then the actions with others. Freedom begins in the mind, and it is a choice.
Frankl notes that the people who survived the horrors of Auschwitz were not the physically strong and robust, but those who found strength despite, and sometimes through, their suffering.
Mind you there was also a lot of luck in not being incinerated immediately upon arrival. No matter how much strength, resilience, and prayer one musters survival has a lot to do with luck.
Thought two: The relationship of God to suffering is vexed.
Jesus’ disciples and their 1st and early 2nd century successors were deeply troubled by the savage demise of their would-be saviour. Why did a good human being in whom they experienced God suffer such an inhumane fate? The early followers searched for any Scripture that would help, latching on to the words of 2nd Isaiah who wrote some 500 years before of a redemptive suffering servant. The ‘servant’ Isaiah was referring to was a metaphor for the Hebrew people suffering during the time of Babylonian hegemony, but the early Christians borrowed it and applied it to Jesus.
Most Christian theologies of the cross seem to want to justify Jesus’ suffering as part of God’s plan. Unfortunately that makes God into a murderer. Do you want to be ‘atoned’ – made pure or righteous – through the means of another’s death? This might have made sense in a 1st century sacrifice-based religious culture but it doesn’t in our 21st century world. Quite simply I hope I’d choose to rot in hell than have Jesus suffer and die for me.
I prefer Michael Leunig’s description of the cross: “Jesus [was] a radical interested in the phenomenon of hypocrisy who was executed for proposing that enemies are to be loved. [He was] seriously out of step with society.”[iii] Leunig does not mention God.
A kindly chaplain visited me once in hospital and began to pray. The prayer was a vehicle for expressing her empathy and kindness. Yet it was addressed to a Supreme Being God who is supposedly the king of the earth and then some. I happen to not believe in a Supreme Being God, and the chaplain never asked.
I suspect some of you, and a number of your friends [like a number of my friends] believe in a Supreme Being God. And because of the way you and they live their lives – trying to walk a path of compassion, overcoming hate with love, pushing back the brambles so that the little flowers can have light and hope – I respect you and them, their beliefs, and their Supreme Being. For all of us it’s not what we believe that ultimately matters, but what we do.
However there are other Christians, like me, who experience God not as a Supreme Being. We envisage God as the loving bonds of friendship between us. God is not a loving father but the experience when a parent empowers a child through love. God is the subjective, in-between, stuffing of love, not the objective, beyond-us, loving, omnipotent Being.
Some may counter my thoughts by saying that Jesus related to God as a loving Father, and that is certainly how the Gospels portray it. Jesus however was part of 1st century Judaism and would be aghast at the Christian doctrine of Trinity [a doctrine that I find helpful – but that’s another sermon!]. My point is that as we follow Jesus in walking the path of compassion in this time and place our understandings of God may (and some would say should) differ.
Of course I might be wrong about God. I simply point out that there is a way of understanding the Christian God without having to accept the agency of a Supreme Being.
So to suffering:
I think the crucifixion scene painted by the early Christians is instructive. Darkness has descended - a darkness of suffering and pain - a darkness that will lead to death. Yet in this scene, like a few stars peeping out from behind clouds in the night sky, there are stories of human beings offering empathetic thoughts or actions. I’m thinking of the women weeping, Simon carrying the cross, the person who offered Jesus a drink, and the thieves. They embody, albeit in a sequestered way, the hope that compassion and solidarity can’t be killed so easily.
The powerful Supreme Being God with his angelic armies does not appear at the crucifixion scene. There is no 11th hour rescue. While a number who suffer can visualise a personal God beside them, strengthening and comforting them, for most such visualisation is neither possible nor credible. Rather strength and comfort comes from the godly empathy of the brave few and the divine resilience within oneself.
That said there is no one right way to think about God and suffering. There is only ambiguity and paradox, deep darkness and specks of light. As I said it’s an uncertain and stony ground.
Lastly, thought three: Although we want suffering to be meaningful – we want what we are going through to have a purpose – in essence it isn’t and doesn’t.
The Hebrew Scriptures describe a history of struggle and pain: from the tribulations of the patriarchs, through to slavery in Egypt, and exile in Babylon. The wisdom literature voices questions of justice in this context.[iv] The desolation of a good person, for example, is the principal theme of the book of Job. The psalmist, on the other hand, describes the silence of God in times of adversity. The Hebrew Scriptures do not praise the benefits of suffering, and are ambivalent about the God who allows it.
The Christian Scriptures however have been often interpreted as viewing Jesus’ crucifixion as a triumph. His seeming acceptance of the agony and pain has been hailed as an example to us in our lesser agony and pain. We are encouraged by this understanding to ‘take up our cross’ and accept our suffering.
Yet this interpretation of suffering as triumph has fed those given to self-hatred and masochism. Certain prayers are awash with self-humiliation and derisive of human emotions. Self-mortification – whips, hair shirts, fasting, and all that – is seen by some to be a path to holiness and godliness. Therefore suffering is seen as something to seek rather than as one consequence of radical religious-political action [as in the case of Jesus] or as a consequence of ill fortune [as in the case of most of us].
There’s a Leunig cartoon of the soldiers about to put Jesus on the cross and one says, “Last chance Jesus… Be a nice chap and convert to Christianity: pleasant sensible polite Christianity, and we might release you from detention…”[v] Institutions, political or religious, still prize docility.
At this point I’ll put my shoes back on and retreat from the ground of suffering. Too long on this subject detracts us from all that is beautiful, honourable, and wonderful about this life.
[i] Frankl, V. Man’s Search For Meaning, 1946 revised edition 2004.
[ii] Luke 23:43.
[iii] Leunig, M. A New Penguin Leunig Melbourne: Penguin, 2005.
[iv] The principal question is how can a righteous God allow a righteous human being to suffer.
[v] Leunig, M. A New Penguin Leunig Melbourne: Penguin, 2005.