Monday, February 13, 2006

A Response to Suffering

The following essay is a response to the book Disciplines of the Spirit by Howard Thurman.  I wrote it for my Introduction to the Spiritual Life class.
It would not surprise anyone if 2005 became known as the year of suffering.  The year began with the world responding to the worst natural disaster in modern times:  the Asian tsunami.  More than a quarter of a million people were killed and tens of thousands were left homeless.  In August, Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf coast of the United States.  Although it initially appeared that New Orleans was spared, the city’s levies proved unable to contain the flood waters leaving three quarters of the city underwater.  More than a thousand were killed and tens of thousands were left homeless in one of the worst disasters in United States history.  In addition, earthquakes in Pakistan and Iran, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and genocide in Darfur undoubtedly affected hundreds of thousands more.
     Modern technology has given us instant access to pictures and video from these news stories.  Who can forget the pictures of the bodies on the beaches in Indonesia or the thousands suffering at the Superdome in New Orleans?  One would think that such images would make people more sensitive to the suffering of others, especially Christians.  Actual reactions, however, show that we still have a lot to learn about helping those who are suffering.  After each disaster, there were those in the Christian community, especially more conservative evangelicals, who said that the disasters were examples of God’s punishment of sin.  Unfortunately, this response ignores the suffering the victims are enduring, including young children who are presumably innocent of whatever sin God is allegedly punishing.
     Howard Thurman points out the danger inherent in this type of response.  He writes, “…when a man is driven by suffering to make the most fundamental inquiries concerning the meaning of life, he has to re-assess his total experience.”  This re-assessment will undoubtedly include questions about the meaning of life and the existence and/or nature of God.  Combined with Thurman’s assertion that sufferers often seek community to help them cope, the failures of the blame response become obvious.  If one blames the victim for his own suffering or for the suffering of others, he distances himself from the pain of the victim and removes himself from the support community.  A Christian cannot help a sufferer manage or overcome his suffering if he is excluded from the conversation.  Instead, he should nurture the spirit of the victim and discover, as Thurman writes, “that his life is rooted in a God who cares for him and cultivates his spirit, whose purpose is to bring to heel all the untutored, recalcitrant, expressions of life.”  Contrast that response with the image of a God who punishes the innocent for the sins of others.
     Those who used the “blame response” often used passages in the Old Testament to support their positions.  Such responses are often filled with images of Sodom and Gomorrah and Levitical laws.  Thurman however provides a quote from Jesus which addresses the whether or not sin is the cause of suffering.  Consider the following verses from Luke 13:
At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, ‘Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.’ (Luke 13.1-5, NRSV)
So, did the people of New Orleans die because they worse sinners than the others living in the United States?  Jesus says no.

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