SUFFERING AND DEATH: A REFLECTION
Each day we awake to a new world of struggle.The abuse crisis of the Catholic Church continues unabated, children and refugees are held captive in the U.S. borderland camps, racial profiling and inner city violence continue unresolved and the climate is getting warmer while plastics fill the ocean. We are in a serious state of affairs as we enter into Holy Week, which culminates in the pinnacle of Christian faith, the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Christians proclaim that death no longer has power over us: Christ is risen from the dead. If Christ is risen from the dead, why are we are surrounded by death? The death of innocent children; the death of animal species; the death of wildlife and ocean life; the death of the poor; the death of the broken-hearted. Do we really believe that death is conquered by death in Christ? Do we think that Easter is about Christ saving us so we can go to heaven when we die, or do we realize that we are called to die if we believe in the fullness of life?
We are in a bad way, a very bad way.The truth is, religion no longer empowers our lives to act toward unity. It can soothe us and give us a sense of comfort, maybe even security, but Christianity is neither about comfort nor security: it is about death and life. Are we willing to die for what we believe in?
The Lutheran Pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, was imprisoned for speaking out against the Nazis in the 1940s. He was a young man, thirty-nine years old, when he was imprisoned and held in a concentration camp. Like Jesus he allowed himself to be taken as an innocent victim, led to the slaughter like an innocent lamb. He did not have to speak out; he could have prayed for the Jewish people in their plight. He could have given money to the Jewish cause or he could have formed a study group to discuss why Jewish people were being targeted. But he did none of these things. Instead, he spoke out eloquently and forcefully against the brutality of the Nazis. The power of Christ had grasped his entire being so that he could do no other than live his Christian faith to the fullest, even if it meant martyrdom. In a letter dated July 16, 1944, the year before he died, Bonhoeffer wrote:
God lets himself be pushed out of the world on to the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us . . . The Bible directs man to God’s powerlessness and suffering; only the suffering God can help.[i]
Bonhoeffer’s words here are alarming and startling—“God lets himself be pushed out of the world on to the cross.” God is weak and powerless. Surely this is not a God who can save the Catholic Church from the mess it is in. Either Bonhoeffer was mistaken about God or Bonhoeffer met a God who is infinitely close and hidden within.
We often look for a God who will save us from trouble. We want a Zeus God, a powerful God, who will lift us up out of the mess we have created. Such a God is a fantasy, an illusion; such a God does not exist. There is no Zeus God of Jesus Christ, as if there is a powerful divine figure (the Father?) who looms over the fate of Jesus and brings him back to heaven. The whole point of the events that lead to Easter is that there is no God in heaven. God emptied Godself and took the form of a servant (Phil 2:6) and he was led to a cross. God died on the cross and no one really cared, except his mother and a few friends. Isn’t this shocking?
I think this is what Bonhoeffer pondered deeply. God became human. God entered into the pain and suffering of the world. This is a God who gets so “foolishly close” that the boundaries between what is human and what is sacred become blurred. God has become a beggar, an immigrant, who will not force his way into our homes unless we open the door. We have the power to open the door and let God into our lives or we can shut God out. “God is weak and powerless in the world,” Bonhoeffer said, because God is powerless in the face of human freedom. If God was not powerless, God would not be absolute love; and if we are not free, we cannot choose to respond in love. This is the great paradox of divine power; God is powerless to act because it is the power of love to give oneself over to another and to remove oneself in the act of giving. God’s powerless love is the power of our lives. This is the God Jesus came to know in his life, which led him to the cross and the wages of love. This too is what Bonhoeffer came to know, that God’s powerless love was the empowerment of his own life to act in love.
The one who contemplates the deepest center of one’s life knows this God of humble love, and from this center swells up a power of love that is godly, that sends one to the gallows or the cross, because that is where God is struggling to be born in this unfinished universe. One who lives in the power of God’s love knows that love is stronger than death; that no matter what happens we belong to another and that the absolute power of God’s love will always be the future fullness of our lives. We are in the image of an unlimited, unrestricted, unimaginable love. When we forget the new law of love, as Jesus proclaimed, then Christianity becomes a shield and a crutch; church becomes a gas station to fill up instead of empowering us to boldly throw ourselves into a harsh world, knowing that is precisely where we discover a God of generous love.
The late German theologian Dorothy Sölle wrote, “When a being who is free from suffering is worshipped as God, then it is possible to train oneself in patience, endurance, imperturbability, and aloofness from suffering.” [ii] Apathy, Sölle writes, “is the sickness of our times, a sickness of persons and systems, a sickness to death.” [iii] To find in the pain of human weakness the liberation of love and to love by accepting human weakness is the path to God.
All of nature is cruciform, environmental philosopher Holmes Rolston writes, “this whole evolutionary upslope is a calling in which renewed life comes by blasting the old. Life is gathered up in the midst of its throes, a blessed tragedy, lived in grace through a besetting storm.” [iv] We are called to let go and enter into the storm, to love as passionately, extravagantly and wastefully as God has loved us. We are called into the fullness of our humanity through the crucified Christ.
The cross is the unsurpassable self-definition of God. It is not a self-abandonment or de-divinization of God. The cross is the revelation of the divine God. This is God and God is like this; God is not more powerful than in the cross; not more glorious than in his sufferings; not more beautiful than in what caused him to be despised. This God of Jesus Christ flips the world on its head and scares us, if we are not prepared to drink from the same cup as Jesus (cf. Matt 20:22).
Only when we can abandon ourselves in faith, into the heart of another, into the incomprehensible embrace of God’s love visibly seen on the cross, can we wake up to the reality that our world needs us, every fiber of us, if we are to move beyond human violence and the earth damage we inflict and perpetuate. But this will not happen by reading the internet news or endless shopping or debating climate change. If the planet is dying it is because we refuse to die. We have shrunk God to meet our own needs; our love is too selfish and small. The Christian paradox is this: if we reject death, then God is dead. Otherwise the incarnation is gnostic if not irrelevant. If we accept death by faith in the power of God’s love, then God lives in us and the world lives in a new way.
We are called to let go into the extravagant love of God who is waiting at the door of our hearts. “See I stand at the door and knock,” says the Lord (Rev. 3:20). Open the door and let God in. Fear is driven out by perfect love. If we could really begin to love in the path of suffering and death by leaning on the power of God’s love within, then we will not die and the world will find its peace. For how we love and the degree to which we love is how we live forever.
[iii]Dorothee Söelle, Suffering, trans. Everett R. Kalin (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975), 36-59; Lucien Richard, What Are They Saying About the Theology of Suffering? (New York: Paulist, 1992), 76-7.
[iv]Holmes Rolston III, “Kenosis and Nature,” in The Work of Love, 59.
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