St Andrew’s Parish of Indooroopilly
10 April 2020
Beyond the scales of suffering ©Suzanne Grimmett
Bertrand Russell famously said that “Life is nothing but a competition to be the criminal rather than the victim.”
Jesus, on these terms, ended up an utter failure at life.
Of course, often the crucifixion is understood as the greatest of experiences of human suffering. Perhaps, on the competitive scale of who has suffered the most, Jesus does win. This seems to have been the thinking behind the scenes of gore and agony in Mel Gibson’s movie, “The Passion of the Christ”. We humans can’t seem to turn off our need to compare and cannot manage to discipline an innate habit of competitive thinking. It leaves its mark on almost everything, including the way we deal with our own suffering. We are particularly good at ranking negative experiences, both in our own life and as compared to the experiences of others. We find ourselves putting our sufferings on a better to worse scale. We take consolation in the idea that even though we are experiencing pain in some form or another, we are better off than someone else we know who is clearly suffering more. As the saying goes, “I was saddened by the fact that I had no shoes until I saw a man who had no feet.”
The current experience of Covid-19 is shaking our confidence in the way we rank and categorise pain. This virus has so many expressions of suffering that we are being forced to let go or at least struggle for a new way of processing this experience. Comparing and categorising, ranking from the worst off to the best is just not going to work. How can we compare one person’s experience of life threatening illness to the person who is shut in a house that is not a home because their own family threatens their safety and personhood with violence and control? Who is worse off when one person has lost a job they loved and their future landscape of fulfilling industry is being utterly rewritten… and another is isolated and separated by the lockdowns in hospitals or nursing homes from their lifetime partner and family at a time of their greatest need?
What is more terrible, to be working every day to the point of exhaustion and at great personal risk or to be alone without work or community?….. or maybe it is to be the one on whom the lives of so many depend- in your ability to produce accurate insight, knowledge and wise decisions?
Is the greatest suffering to be in physical pain or the anguish of mind and spirit? Is it the approach of your own death or the death of one you love?
Such things cannot be weighed in the balance scales, or stacked up across a continuum of greatest to least. The lived experience of a pandemic defies all our efforts to categorise and makes our comparisons a nonsense. I think this is part of the realisation that is enabling many of us to release our conventional metric and say with a poignant mixture of hope and longing and sorrow; “We are all in this together.”
In that moment we see that it is not about “my suffering” and “your suffering” but rather about “the” suffering of the world in which we all are participating in varying degrees at different moments.
Jesus did not suffer the most.
The salvation he brings is not through having endured the greatest degree of pain. Hundreds of other human beings, after all, knew the experience of a cross, suffering that same ignominious death devised by the Romans. Countless, nameless, faceless others through history have died in other horrors imagined by the worst of human ingenuity or by the natural threats to our existence. Jesus on the cross was not elevated to be at the pinnacle on a scale of human ordeal and pain.
So on Good Friday, we are not meant to see One who has endured the most so we can be saved. Rather, on the hill at Golgotha we see a radical identification of God with the human condition in a way that unravels competition and isolation. The participation of the God-man Jesus in the suffering of the world means that we are never alone in our pain and cannot be separated from communion with the source of all life and love. All of the violence and striving for power and dominance in this human experience is exposed on the cross as utterly impotent and meaningless.
All of the desperation that fights to be the self-serving criminal rather than the victim is revealed. Jesus, alone and vulnerable on the cross crying that “it is finished” is a moment that has echoed down the millennia ….not because his was the greatest suffering, but because he became the surrendered victim who allowed the fearful mob to do its worst and yet identified with them in loving forgiveness and solidarity. Here God says, not “Look I have suffered more than any of you” but “look, even though you hate and revile and betray and mock, I am as one with you and will never leave you.”
Suffering in the world of a given. There is no human life that is immune. The death dealing forces of this world would have us believe in our own unique separateness and teach us to do anything we can as an individual to avoid and actively ensure that another’s suffering is worse than our own. But God, the source of all life, has suffered with us and for us, so our suffering can be transformed from an experience of isolation and despair to a participation in love with all of life. Love, after all, is just another name for life.
We cannot choose not to suffer and we cannot choose how we suffer. This is not the promise we are given. But the God who created and sustains us in life does give us a choice between criminal and victim. We can give ourselves to the one who gave himself up for us, and in doing so, we choose communion over separation…solidarity over competition.
We are never able to determine or control the future, never able to say when we live or die, never able to guarantee that things that are important to us will always remain the same. In some ways, Covid-19 has not changed anything but just made what was always true, confrontingly and unavoidably clear.
As we meditate on the loving surrender of Jesus on the cross this Good Friday, may we let go of the metrics of comparison and competition that lead us away from one another. Let us follow in the way of the one who turned his back on the tyranny of the self so that he could bring us all to a place of freedom. May we discover that downward journey that leads not to shame and victimhood but to a liberating communion where my suffering is your suffering and yours is mine and the Christ who knows our pain will hold us now and always in the eternity that is the life and love of God.