Suffering has always been a theme that’s central to Christianity. After all, Jesus died on the Cross to save us from our sins, so they tell us.
Those of us who consider ourselves Christian are told in so many ways that suffering is good, suffering can be noble and if we can understand God’s greater plan for the reason of our suffering, that, in and of itself is a form of salvation.
Evelyn Waugh wrote of Sebastian Flyte’s suffering in Brideshead Revisited as something quite holy, even though the root of Sebastian’s suffering is due to his alcoholism and deliberate dissolute lifestyle. Sebastian Flyte’s suffering is largely self-inflicted, but it’s still holy.
When Western powers were conquering and colonizing Africa and North, Central and South Americas, along with guns, disease, alcohol, they also brought Christianity with them, specifically, Catholicism. The Catholicism practiced by the Spaniards and Portuguese are particularly fatalistic and savage, and they’ve managed to convince continents of people that their suffering wrought by foreign imperial powers is for their own good. They were transformed from heathen savages to faithful Christians. Those who didn’t comply were slaughtered. Father Junipero Serra has just been granted sainthood, on the basis that he was the first to bring Catholicism to North America, even though he decimated millions in the process. He decimated Indigenous people’s bodies and their cultures. Scores of ancient indigenous languages, writings and cultures are lost to civilization forever as a result. Everyone thought this was a good thing, after all, the Mayans offered human sacrifices to their gods, Christians don’t do that, they just kill people for non-compliance and before their last breath is drawn, quickly given last rites.
For those that reside in the West and for those of us who attend church, we often hear the sermon of “everyone has a cross to bear, and we must bear that cross with grace, dignity and without complaint”, just like Jesus and the prophets before us did. We all have our burdens and hardships. May it be chronic illness, addiction, battling a mental illness, difficult relationship with a parent, a wayward child who cannot figure out their lives, a child who is ill, a difficult marriage, contentious relationship with family or siblings, discontented with one’s career, not being able to fulfil one’s life’s passion and purpose, poverty, engaged in cycles of chronic poverty, or just plain unhappiness and depression, we all have our own burdens to bear. And we are told a good Christian bears them with quiet courage, dignity and grace, just like Jesus would want us to.
In the Third World where abject poverty exist alongside with rampant capitalism, those who live in grinding poverty are told to bear their plight with patience and grace, for God will reward you in the afterlife, or what Karl Marx refers to as “opiate of the people.”
In America we are told that poverty can be character building, an enriching experience, resilience building and to experience poverty and suffering can be a good thing, with the hope that one will one day grow from poverty to prosperity and that time in spent poverty will be seen through rose tinted lenses. The time spent in poverty will be seen as a character building exercise for greater things to come later in life. Except the American Dream was never a real thing, it was just a fantasy.
The notion of suffering as a noble thing has been used to oppress people all over the world. To complain of life’s unfairness is to be ungodly. To feel bitterness or angry at those who’ve wronged us in life is ungracious. We should be forgiving and tolerant of the shortcomings of others just like God is forgiving of our shortcomings.
As a churchgoing person, I’ve heard the “we all have a cross to bear” homily one too many times. I have heard it delivered in different ways and delivered by different people. There have been some times when I hear this homily in the most opportune time, and it’s given me reprieve. Every once in awhile, we need perspective, we tend to get tunnel visioned and only see our own problems and forget the real problems out there. Sometimes we need a jolt as a reminder.
Then I started to critically think about the whole notion of suffering and what it entails – not all suffering is equal, not all suffering is noble, worthy or needs to be tolerated.
To suffer from things and people which are preventable is not noble, it’s simply irritating and unnecessary. That toxic parent who refuses to acknowledge you, why must one tolerate insufferable people like that and dress it up as noble suffering, a noble cross to bear? That wayward child who disrespects you at every turn, that child whom you’ve given many chances to and have tried your best to parent but to no avail, where does it say that tolerating such ingrates is a noble thing? Toxic friends who won’t leave you alone, but you want to help them detoxify, why? Unreasonable siblings and family members, besides holidays and special occasions, why is contact with such people even necessary?
Suffering from addiction, a chronic illness, mental illness, loss of parent or a child or any other loved one, or poverty which for one reason or another we cannot escape – these are sufferings which the person has very little control over. These are events which can overtake someone and their lives.
Take poverty – since post Industrial Revolution, most of the poverty people experience is largely manufactured, it’s not from scarcity of resources or natural events such as drought, floods and other natural disasters leading to famine and disease. The poverty the world experiences today is an event manufactured by humans, or more specifically, the 1% of the world. The 1% of the world have stolen all of the earth’s resources for themselves and have left the 99% scrambling and fighting over crumbs. There is absolutely no reason for all of the people on this earth to not have enough to eat, clean water to drink, shelter, basic clothing and other necessities, even taking into account global warming and other weather changes. The earth is abundant and with birth rates declining in many parts of the world, there is no reason why anyone should go hungry, not have clean water to drink and basic shelter accommodations. None. So, to tell people who live in poverty that their turn at abundance will come later, in the afterlife, is adding insult to injury.
Income inequality and poverty is the greatest issue of our generation right now. For the single reason that so much wealth has been created on the backs of millions but the rewards only went to the top 1%. To use Christianity or any other religion in any way to justify suffering or poverty is perversion of the religion. It is insulting the intelligence of the people. It is degrading their personhood.
There is no justification for poverty ever. There is no justification for events which are the result of poverty. There is no justification on how the earth’s abundance of resources only go to a few people. Poverty is not noble. Suffering which are caused by the actions of others are not just or noble. That is not suffering, that is injustice.