Sunday, July 21, 2013
Solidarity In Suffering
There’s a scene near the beginning of the musical, Fiddler On The Roof, where Lazar comes upon Nachem the Beggar. Nachem cries out: “Alms for the poor, alms for the poor...” “Here, Reb Nachem, is one kopek”, says Lazar. “One kopek!” Nachem yells, “Last week you gave me two kopeks.” Lazar replies, “I had a bad week.” “So,” Nachem whines, “if you had a bad week, why should I suffer?!”
Implicit in that comment is the age-old question in the face of suffering: “Why?” “Why me?” The Hebrew Scriptures tell us that Job grappled with it, as have people ever since. Elie Wiesel, noted author and Holocaust survivor, whom I was privileged to hear speak at the university here in 1994, has spent virtually his entire life trying to understand, to make some sense of that horrific tragedy and of the question “Why?”, in order to bring hope to future generations.
Christians, generally, and the Anglican and Episcopal Churches particularly, have a long tradition of people who have known suffering: St. Alban, c. the 3rd century, the first English martyr, who sacrificed his own life in place of another; Bishops Hugh Latimer, Nicholas Ridley, and Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, burned at the stake in the 16th century; Ugandan Archbishop Janani Luwum, shot to death by Idi Amin’s forces in 1977.
Years ago, whenever, as seminarians, we were faced with difficulties or illnesses, I can remember being advised to “offer it up”; to accept it “all for Jesus”; to embrace “self-denial and mortification”. Such advice often didn’t make sense and fostered the danger of ignoring or denying the reality of suffering. For the most part, our surrounding culture looks upon voluntary suffering as an absurdity, offering no useful lesson other than to make us miserable. Suffering is especially hard to comprehend when we see good people go under, while misfortune often seems to pass by those who are uncaring or who cause evil. Again, it’s the age-old story of Job. In recent centuries it seems that many in Western society have become conditioned against all degrees and kinds of suffering, perhaps because it’s so prevalent. I remember a sad newspaper story some years ago where a young teenage girl up in Auburn, who’d been arrested with her friends for assault, casually commented: “We stabbed an old woman today. We had fun.”
Our society seems to try, with the help of the pharmaceutical industry, to avoid pain and discomfort at all costs. All day long TV ads push “doctor-recommended” tranquilizers, sleep-inducers, painkillers and hemorrhoid-shrinkers, intertwining these commercials with the latest news reports on who’s been beaten, robbed, stabbed, raped and maimed lately. Human life has apparently become that cheap for some. Compassion and pity seem to have become low priorities for many. We’ve almost institutionalized a new kind of barbarism, not least in our movies and video games.
The meaning of suffering in any form is difficult to grasp. We often don’t know what it is because suffering doesn’t seem to be uniform. Starvation in Mali or Haiti, for example, isn’t exactly the same as the hunger of a welfare recipient. Dying in the ovens of Auschwitz isn’t quite the same as dying in the bed of a nursing home. The physical pain of cancer doesn’t necessarily feel the same as the inner pain you feel when your spouse leaves you. Perhaps we understand suffering so variously because how we respond to it largely determines how we experience it. Throughout history men, women, and children suffer and are made to suffer. They accept, submit, and resist. The struggle between life and death is fought out in a thousand ways. We know little about the nature of suffering because it’s hard to measure or systematize how intense it is. For one person, a mental hunger may hurt more than an empty stomach. For another, separation and loss through death may affect a lover or mourner more deeply and lastingly than the loss of a home or property.
Suffering, as it has existed and exists today in our society, is often a cause of depression, even despair. The great Greek epics and elegies narrate and lament the fall of Troy and the death of great heroes. The tragedies offer their spectators a catharsis, a purging, with pity and terror. Those of us participating in the Diocesan Bible Challenge will have just completed reading the Book of Job this past week. The Book of Job outlines our sad plight as human beings, as well as the hope which Wisdom brings. Yet though all of these leave us with some small glimmer of hope, the question “Why?” remains at the forefront of our minds and hearts. For a follower of Jesus, the answer to the question “Why?” is the acknowledgment of suffering as a reality, but a reality which we confront, not alone, but in solidarity with our sisters and brothers. The Christian viewpoint is not fatalism or defeatism. There is a certain kind of escapism, such as that reflected in Psalm 124:7: “We have escaped like a bird from the snare of the fowler; Our help is in the Name of the Lord…” Escaping, as Ulrich Simon notes, is “...but a first step in resistance [of suffering]. “As we run away from all sorts of prisons and tyranny we meet with comrades and find solidarity. A suffering shared may become a suffering redeemed or at least eased.”
For a Christian, the answer to the question “Why?” is also the acceptance of suffering shared as redemptive. You’ve heard the old adage: “Misery loves company.” There must be truth to that because, according to the Good News which Jesus preached, through our solidarity in suffering as people of faith we’re somehow able to lessen it and even overcome it. We can’t argue this by way of the world’s logic. It doesn’t seem to make sense, but when we share each other’s burdens, we experience a sustaining love which goes beyond and conquers suffering and evil. God, in Jesus, has been depicted through the centuries as the eternal sharer in our suffering: most notably, in medieval icons, in the music of Bach, etc.
The Epistle passage today from Paul’s letter to the Colossians (1:15-28) helps us understand this: “...I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the Church…” Paul certainly isn’t implying that a balanced, mature, normal Christian person enjoys suffering or sets out to be a victim or a martyr. But once one faces inevitable suffering, or even death, that suffering and dying can be transformed through union with Christ crucified. Polish workers back in the 1980‘s had a sense of this in the Solidarnosc (Solidarity) workers’ movement. Solidarity with Jesus has been the hallmark of all those who’ve accepted suffering and dying as the mystery of “Christ in you, the hope of glory”. It’s never a question of abnormally delighting in pain, but rather of making a conscious choice to bear the reality of our suffering in union with Christ’s Body, in order to go beyond suffering.
Our Christian witness is to share with those suffering and dying all around us, who are part of us, that despite our suffering we and they are in solidarity through the Person of Christ, that their hurts and needs are ours, and that because we are the Communion of Saints, we’re committed to do what we can to minister to their needs.
This message has become an increasing reality for me these past three years especially. During that time I’ve struggled daily with the fact that my closest friend, Fr. Leo Joseph, priest at St. John’s, Lakeport, was diagnosed with terminal liver cancer, and with the reality of his eventual death. It’s hard for me to imagine a time when Leo won’t be around. Our friendship began in September, 1994, when I was Rector here at St. John’s and Leo came as a guest preacher. Two years later, when I was appointed Regional Missioner at Ukiah and Lakeport, we became close colleagues in developing shared ministry in what became the Redwood Episcopal Cluster. I can hardly think of a week, sometimes even days, in a row since then that Leo and I haven’t talked by phone, in addition to our many visits together. As “Roman retreads”, according to Episcopalians, we’ve bantered about the commonalities and quirks of our shared Roman Catholic background: the “in” jokes, the love for good liturgy and theology, and spirituality. As one of the most pastoral priests I’ve ever known, Leo has taught me in so many ways about what it means to genuinely care for others. He consistently represents in his own daily living what the patron of his Order, St. Francis of Assisi, had in mind for his friars. Even in the midst of Leo’s worst suffering over the past three years, his deep spirituality has still enabled him not to lose his devilishly refreshing humor, even his quips about wanting to be remembered as “St. Leo, Virgin & Martyr”! He and I have helped one another over the years through each of our “down” times, thankful for our solidarity in suffering, as we’ve equally rejoiced together in celebrating the good things with which we’ve been blessed.
Through Leo’s incredibly realistic, honest, and wholesome confrontation of his illness, suffering, and eventual death, he continues to convey to me and others what I spoke about earlier: learning hope through the presence and power of Jesus and through solidarity with one another in the face of suffering and death. Leo truly understands Paul’s words: “Christ in you, the hope of glory”. As he told his congregation at St. John’s, and as he’s told me many times, Leo sees his present journey as one of letting go and “going home”. He inspires and witnesses to all who know him by living with such graciousness, “securely established”, as Paul says, “steadfast in the faith, without shifting from the hope promised by the gospel…” Like Mary of Bethany in the Gospel reading, Leo has “chosen the better part”, that is, being “a [true] servant of this gospel...rejoicing in [his] sufferings for [others’] sake...in [his] flesh...completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body...the church”; a true servant commissioned by God “to make the word...fully known, the mystery that has been hidden throughout the ages...but has now been revealed to his saints.”
My prayer is that you and I might be given such grace and courage to cope with our suffering together.