In my previous article, I began to explore the phenomenon of increasing violence in society.
Reflecting on Gil Bailie’s book, Violence Unveiled, and the thought of French philosopher René Girard, I suggested that in Western societies at least, the “good” kinds of violence intended to maintain order are increasingly indistinguishable from the “bad” kinds of violence, the purpose of which is to overthrow the established order.
I also put forward Girard’s provocative argument that the breakdown in our ability to distinguish and tolerate a distinction between “official” violence and destructive violence has its roots in the Christian Gospel itself, where Jesus, the victim of official Jewish and Roman violence, is proclaimed as the resurrected one to whom “every knee should bow (Phil. 2:10).”
This teaching ignited, for the first time in history, our dormant compassion for victims, which is precisely what is making it more and more difficult — in all those that Christianity has influenced — to victimize others with violence.
To see that this is true, recollect in your mind images of riots, such as those that took place in the United States following the death of George Floyd in the spring of 2020.
When you see those images, you are no doubt horrified at the vandalism and looting of the rioters.
However, do you also feel nothing but pleasure and satisfaction at the actions of the police in their riot gear, wielding their batons and firing tear gas?
Perhaps you do, but I would submit that most of us who witness such events are profoundly disturbed by the violence on both sides, whether the “illegal” violence of looters or the “legal” violence of the police.
The fact is, our tolerance for violence has declined significantly in the past 2,000 years and the Christian Gospel is to blame. At the same time, the Christian Gospel offers us a way beyond violence.
By glorifying Jesus as a victim who rose from the dead, Christianity makes possible a new kind of spiritual and social unity based on what I have called a “co-suffering culture.” What does a co-suffering culture look like?
Before I can get to my own answer, I think it is important to reflect on what it means to suffer in the first place, as well as the place of suffering in what it means to be truly human.
To build a co-suffering culture, then, we must first clearly state that suffering is not merely about experiencing pain and, therefore, something to be avoided. Rather, suffering in the broader sense is powerlessness over forces beyond our control. In this sense, life is suffering and that is neither good nor bad.
It just is. We suffer all the time simply because we are always subject to birth, time and gravity, physical and mental limitations, hunger and thirst, pleasure and pain, joy and sorrow and ultimately, death itself.
Orthodox Christians believe that Jesus, who suffered all these things just as we do, is none other than God himself. In short, we believe God is a suffering God.
How can that be, given that God by definition is all-powerful and cannot be subject to anything?
That’s the central mystery of the Christian faith.
We don’t try to explain the mechanics (that’s why it’s called a “mystery”), but it’s fundamental to our confession.
According to the Orthodox teaching, Jesus did not suffer to help us escape from suffering. Like the Prodigal Son, we squander the good life God gives us, frittering away our humanity and digging ourselves into a debt of inhumanity (See Luke 15:11-32). In this understanding, Jesus restores us by paying our debt; however, this is not “ransom” paid to the devil, as if God should reward the one who instigated our fall.
Neither is Jesus’ payment to his Father since, as St. Gregory the Theologian puts it, “it was not by [the Father] that we were being oppressed.
And on what principle did the Blood of His only-begotten Son delight the Father, who would not receive even Isaac, when he was being sacrificed by his father, but changed the sacrifice by putting a ram in the place of the human victim?”
Rather than paying off God or the devil, then, Jesus pays the debt to our fallen condition.
We pawned our human worth to pay for the false thrills of sin. In his life and death on the cross, Jesus drew from the treasury of his own full and perfect human life to reclaim our humanity, which was languishing “in hock.”
Jesus suffered, then, not to erase suffering, but to restore to us what it means to be truly human, which took place within the suffering condition of human life.
As Orthodox sing at Pascha (known as Easter), “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death …”
Being restored to true humanity, then, begins when we accept that we are suffering creatures, subject to forces beyond our control.
Why is this important? Because ending history’s cycle of violence and building a new, co-suffering culture means abandoning our attempts to escape suffering by acquiring and exerting power, usually at the expense of others.
It means instead embracing the human suffering as a fundamental principle that unites us to each other, forming the basis for a society in which we can be restored to our true humanity.
More about that next time.
V. Rev. Richard René is the priest-in-charge of St. Nicholas Orthodox Mission (orthodoxkamloops.ca), an English-language Eastern Orthodox Church for the Kamloops community. KTW welcomes submissions to its Faith page. Columns should be between 600 and 800 words in length and can be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include a very short bio and a photo.