There are times when the personal suffering endured by people is so immense, so deep, that it violates our limited capacity to comprehend. We don’t like to suffer and we don’t like to see others suffer. It is comforting, in a way, to distance ourselves from the suffering of others because, from a distance, the suffering of others is watered down. We can minimize the pain of others so as to make our own existence easier. When a parent is deathly ill, some children will stay away as much as possible because seeing suffering does something to a person’s soul – but only if the person who is suffering is seen as a human being.
When a person is not seen as a human being, he or she is not seen as capable of suffering. It has long bothered me that we can and do hurt others – all of us – at various times in our lives. For most of us, once we are aware that we have hurt or are causing another to suffer, we stop what we are doing. We feel a sense of shame or guilt. But when any of us see another person as an object, the dispensation of pain which causes suffering is not of importance to us. Through cognitive dissonance, we continue to inflict pain on others and think nothing of it; it is as though that person, or that group of people, are no more than bark on a tree. We lose our humanity which includes a natural capacity to see suffering. In treating another person as inhuman, we become inhuman ourselves.
James Baldwin wrote “…people who cannot suffer can never grow up, can never discover who they are…The man who is forced each day to stanch his manhood, his identity, out of the fire of human cruelty that rages to destroy it knows, if he survives …or even if he does not survive it, something about himself and human life that no school on earth, and indeed, no church, can teach.”
In this world, there are people who have endured the most heinous suffering at the hands of another group of people, or from a loved one. Women (and men) who have suffered from domestic abuse, women who have been raped, survivors of those who have been lynched by the justice system or by violence on the streets which has come largely because of the damage done to them because of primarily because of racism, sexism and capitalism – are among the groups of people who have learned to suffer – and to keep on going.
What is this gift we receive through suffering? It is none other than faith – a faith which is not based on religion but a faith based on the insistence of our souls to survive. Those who have endured personal suffering receive the gift, but those who as a people or a group have endured suffering for generations have received the gift in an amount which even we do not and cannot understand. The spiritual strength, determination and stamina of those who have endured and survived social suffering is like a precious metal or jewel, though, if the truth be told, we would rather not have had to receive either.
When we grow frustrated with God’s apparent absence and/or silence in the face of evil in our society, we sometimes turn away from God. It might be safe to say that in fighting racism in this country, many of our strongest warriors turned to and away from God at the same time. While they knew that it was only their faith in God that would empower them to engage in their fights of justice, they were also confounded by what they perceived of as an impotent Christianity, a religion which, practiced by whites, demanded respect of a God who apparently had no respect for them or their people, and, which practiced by blacks, urged too many people to seek salvation at the expense of the suffering of others. People like Ida B. Wells Barnett and Rosa Parks and Nannie Helen Burroughs and others held on fiercely to God while simultaneously rejecting Christianity. In holding onto God, even though they could not understand how and why God would allow such suffering, they received the strength to stay the course on which they found themselves.
Because there are too many people who have become inhuman because they look on others as objects, social suffering will continue, and because of that fact, many will turn from God, frustrated, angry and confused. In this season of Lent, we might stop and think of the unintended benefit given to us by God if we continue to walk toward God, in spite of our pain and the pain of so many of God’s children because of the evil of objectification. We might do well to remember that because of God with us, “Emmanuel,” we have made it through some heinous experiences. We have “grown up,” in Baldwin’s words. That more people would lose their fear of turning toward God and thus develop “eyes that see and ears that hear” is a prayer we can all utter, but at the end of the day, what we must most thank God for is the fact that God has “kept us, so we wouldn’t let go.
To God be the glory.
Amen and amen.