Making a Fetish of Suffering

Goya, "Christ Crucified"

Goya, “Christ Crucified”

Spiritual Sunday 

I am a member of a “Restorative Justice Faculty Reading Group” and on Friday, to finish off a semester where we focused on the meaning of suffering, we discussed passages from The Brothers Karamazov along with a 1995 Christian feminist article  (by Joanne Carlson Brown and Rebecca Parker) entitled “For God So Loved the World?” It was a powerful way to end the semester.

The Karamazov passages were (1) Ivan’s despairing rant about the presence of meaningless suffering in the world and (2) Father Zossimov’s discussion of hell, which he defines as the absence of love. Brown’s and Parker’s article, meanwhile, complains about how suffering has been fetishized by many of Christianity’s traditions, leading to (among other things) a celebration of female passivity and female masochism. When it becomes a positive Christian virtue to be long suffering, the authors write, then something is wrong.

Ivan refuses to see suffering as redemptive in any way. To graphically make his point, he cites instances of children suffering (a child covered in excrement by his parents, a child deliberately torn apart by his master’s dogs) and attacks those who try to see the presence of divine purpose. His rant is against those who say “Thou art just, O Lord!” in response to accounts of suffering and who assert that there must be some longer viewer, some “higher harmony,” at work. Here’s Ivan talking to his younger brother, the spiritual Alyosha:

I renounce the higher harmony altogether. It’s not worth the tears of that one tortured child who beat itself on the breast with its little fist and prayed in its stinking outhouse, with its unexpiated tears to “dear, kind God”! It’s not worth it, because those tears are unatoned for. They must be atoned for, or there can be no harmony. But how? How are you going to atone for them? Is it possible? By their being avenged? But what do I care for avenging them? What do I care for a hell for oppressors? What good can hell do, since those children have already been tortured? And what becomes of harmony, if there is hell? I want to forgive. I want to embrace. I don’t want more suffering. And if the sufferings of children go to swell the sum of sufferings which was necessary to pay for truth, then I protest that the truth is not worth such a price. 

And later:

…too high a price is asked for harmony; it’s beyond our means to pay so much to enter on it. And so I hasten to give back my entrance ticket, and if I am an honest man I am bound to give it back as soon as possible. And that I am doing. It’s not God that I don’t accept, Alyosha, only I most respectfully return Him the ticket. 

Brown and Parker, meanwhile, argue that “suffering is never redemptive and suffering can never be redeemed.” Like Ivan, they say that to think otherwise is to diminish suffering. Furthermore, to think that God would send his son to earth to die is to see him as an abusive parent. (“Can you imagine a female god sending her child to be sacrificed?” my Religious Studies colleague Katharina VonKellenbach asked.”) It is we, in our own sickness,  that see God in this way.

Brown and Parker write that

Jesus was not an acceptable sacrifice for the sins of the whole world because God does not need to be appeased and demands not sacrifice but justice. To know God is to do justice.

The authors argue for abandoning the idea that suffering is necessary to absolve us. Christ did not come to earth to suffer but to put people in touch with the divine. If he suffered, it is because he refused to abandon his mission in the face of threats. Or as Brown and Parker put it,

To be a Christian means keeping faith with those who have heard and lived God’s call for justice, radical love and liberation; who have challenged unjust systems, both political and ecclesiastical; and who in that struggle have refused to be victims, and who have refused to cower under the threat of violence, suffering and death.

This thinking leads Brown and Parker to a different notion of the Resurrection than many hold:

Resurrection means that death is overcome in those precise instances when human beings choose life, refusing the threat of death. Jesus climbed out of the grave in the Garden of Gethsemane when he refused to abandon his commitment to the truth even though his enemies threatened him with death. On Good Friday, the Resurrected One was Crucified.

Katharina noted that she herself now prefers to call humans “natals” as opposed to “mortals,” thereby emphasizing the fact that we are born over the fact that we die. Christmas she finds to be a more powerful celebration than Easter because of its focus on life.

Ivan might well agree.

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