Responding to Suffering
The photograph is of Lance Corporal Pierre Mugabo, carrying a cross at the head of a funeral procession for his father, who died of malnutrition while in a prison camp in the Democratic Republic of Congo. This image represents much of the suffering that we find in our world today – hunger, war, violence, death, and a childhood robbed of its innocence. It is a haunting image, made more so by the knowledge that we are staring into the face of a child soldier who is carrying a cross. I may stare into his eyes, but I am the one who is confronted.
What should one do in the face of such overwhelming suffering?
One response is found in one a central work on the problem of suffering, the chapter titled “Rebellion” in Dostoevsky’s masterpiece, The Brothers Karamazov. In it, one of the characters, Ivan, argues that moral decency and the love of humanity demand that we should refuse to live in what he thought to be a clearly unjust world. The only decent thing to do would be to, in his words, “return one’s ticket.”
Ivan makes two related mistakes here. First, he believes that he can judge the world from an objective position. This, though, ignores the fact that we are embedded and entangled, part of the world that we presume to judge. Our very act of judgment is instantly turned back on ourselves, forcing us to recall Jesus’ warning in Matthew 7:1, “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.”
The second mistake is to assume that the world that we now experience is morally static. We do so when we assume that the suffering of the innocent has always, and will always, occur; and if God created this world, he created it to be an unjust world.
As I said, these mistakes are related. I am not an innocent, objective judge. The level of justice or injustice in the world is, in an important way, partly a function of my action or inaction. The world that we experience, then, is one of our own creation; not one that we have created ex nihilo, but rather through our perversion of God’s good creation. God, though, can redeem even that which we have corrupted. So, instead of maintaining, like Ivan, that we cannot accept this world of God’s, we should instead strive, by God’s grace, to make his world into that which he always planned for it to be. We do this, not by loving humanity, but by loving our neighbors, wherever and whoever they may be.
May God grant us the faith to be his redeemed people, who announce to the world, by word and deed, the miracle of his reconciling love.
Photograph: Lance Cpl. Pierre Mugabo carries a cross at the head of his father’s funeral procession, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55450 [retrieved January 25, 2018]. Original source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:USMC–12469.jpg.