Thursday, March 3, 2011

A Culture of Co-Suffering, Part Two: The God Who Suffers With Us

In my previous article, I began to explore the phenomenon of rising violence in society. Reflecting on Gil Bailie’s book Violence Unveiled, I suggested that it is becoming more and more difficult for us to “cure” destructive violence by uniting in acts of violence against our chosen scapegoats.

I can hardly imagine a more opportune time for this topic. Even as I write, Muammar Gaddafi is blaming the forces of rebellion in his country on terrorists and gangsters—his own clumsier version of Bush’s “War on Terror.” The failure of his efforts to have the desired effect—renewed loyalty to himself and his regime—demonstrate that the “official” violence intended to maintain social order are increasingly incapable of preventing the kinds of violence whose purpose is to overthrow the established order.

More than that, the distinction between the two kinds of violence are blurring to the point where it is getting harder to tell them apart. What exactly is it that distinguishes Gaddafi’s mercenaries shooting at people from ambulances from the rebel “thugs” he believes are trying to destroy his country? And lest we take the moral high ground, even we who pride ourselves on the peace of our country regularly witness the blurring between official and destructive forces. Consider, for example, the police actions during the G20 summit last summer, or the taser incident between RCMP and Robert Dziekanski…

What to do about this trend? In my last reflection, I said that the breakdown between “official” and destructive violence was first set in motion by the Gospel itself, where a scapegoat of official Jewish and Roman violence is resurrected, upheld and proclaimed as the One to whom “every knee bows in heaven and on earth.”

The Gospel ignited, for the first time in history, our dormant compassion for victims. And that sense of compassion is precisely what is making it more and more difficult—in those of us affected by the Gospel teaching—to unite against our scapegoats. The tipping point in the recent Egyptian revolution, for example, may well have been the sympathy of the military for the protesters, which ultimately deprived Hosni Mubarak of the most important means to maintain his grip on power.

While the Gospel makes it impossible for us to use official violence as means to end destructive violence, it also offers us a way beyond violence to what I have called a culture of compassion, which translates literally as “suffering with” or “co-suffering.” By revealing Himself as the sacrificial Lamb, Jesus makes possible a new kind of unity, one based on our commitment to suffer with one another He suffered with us.

This, of course, is a massive and challenging topic. All I can do here is sketch a broad outline. You can fill in the blanks.

To begin, we need to state explicitly what we believe about the Jesus of whom we are speaking. If we are indeed created in God’s image and likeness, then His identity shapes who we are, which in turn affects how we behave towards each other. While not an end in and of themselves, beliefs are foundational to everything we do.

If we are to build a culture of co-suffering, then, we must first clearly say that Jesus—and thus, God—is none other the One who suffers with us. In past articles, I have defined suffering as being powerless over forces beyond our control. Jesus suffered in that He was subject to time constraints, gravity, hunger and thirst, ignorance of the future, and ultimately, death on the Cross. That the eternal God who is beyond suffering, who cannot be subject to anything, would reveal Himself in this way is the central Mystery of the Christian faith. We don’t try to explain the spiritual mechanics—that’s why it’s called a “mystery”—but the declaration is central to our belief and therefore, our life of faith.

According to the Eastern Orthodox teaching, Jesus did not suffer so that we don’t have to. Like Adam, we squandered the good life God has given us, frittering away our humanity and digging ourselves into a debt of inhumanity against ourselves, and each other. In this state of rebellion, we experience God’s eternal love as a fire of divine wrath that will consume and destroy us unless our humanity is restored.

In this understanding, Jesus’ sacrifice is not a ransom payment to the devil, as if God should reward the evil one who instigated our fall in the first place. Neither is Jesus’ sacrifice to His Father since, as Gregory the Theologian puts it, “it was not by [the Father] that we were being oppressed. And … on what principle did the Blood of His only-begotten Son delight the Father, who would not receive even Isaac, when he was being sacrificed by his father, but changed the sacrifice by putting a ram in the place of the human victim?”

Rather than a legal payoff to God or the devil, Jesus’ sacrifice was a payment made to our fallen condition. We mortgaged our human worth to pay for the false thrills of sin. In His life and death on the Cross, Jesus has paid off that debt, restoring us to our true worth by filling up what we lost from the treasury of His full and perfect humanity.

Jesus suffered, then, not merely to erase suffering, but to teach us what it means to be truly human. And being truly human is fundamentally about accepting that we are powerless creatures, subject to forces beyond our control.

Why is this important? Because ending history’s cycle of violence and building a new culture means abandoning all attempts to define ourselves through the use and abuse of power, a process that always uses violence to achieve its selfish ends. Instead, we are called to embrace a new identity of shared personal powerlessness that unites us to each other. And that identity is rooted ultimately in the One who became powerless for us and who leads us through suffering, death, and into a resurrected life beyond.

More next time.

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