Thursday, February 26, 2009

Suffering, both of humanity and of Jesus Christ

Here is more about understanding suffering, particularly, during this time of Lent, more accurately understanding the suffering of Christ. I am, however, focusing on this subject to rectify human understanding of suffering, since that has been terribly warped in modern times, particularly in the extremes (avoidance or glorification and willful infliction) that I described in my first post on this subject. So in this posting bear in mind the analogy I introduced in that post, which is that suffering is, like paper from a tree that is used once or for a short amount of time and then discarded or recycled, a natural occurrence when one is alive and one encounters a boundary of loss. Check that post out again if you didn’t read it before or remember, before proceeding here.

There are two things about modern society that have contributed to the warping of understanding of human suffering. One is that humans have, as I explained in that previous post, isolated and commoditized suffering as a free standing quantity or experience that can and should be “managed.” But that is neither intellectually, spiritually or emotionally correct, nor how humans have biologically evolved to encounter and deal with suffering. Humans have not evolved in a way that views suffering as a standalone quantity or quality of life. One evidence of that evolution is how quickly the human body recovers from an individual experience of physical pain. When one hits one’s self on the thumb with a hammer, for example, it really hurts and going forward, sure, you remember that it hurt. But if you think about it, it is difficult to bring to perfect memory recollection a rerun of the experience of that pain, short of actually doing it again. Natural childbirth is another example where mothers through the generations sure remember the agony that some, but not all, births entail, yet are preserved from having perfect rerun in their minds of that pain.

Furthermore, athletes will tell you that you learn to “play through’ chronic pain from sports, for example. As an athlete who for a while was in a martial art that involved contact (being hit by a sword or a fist) I can attest that the first few times hurt “more” than subsequent times. Part of pain is the surprise and “unfairness” of it (disproportionality) that contribute to its severity of initial “suffering”, and that with training can be managed. So the first time I was really whipped with a fencing foil it sure hurt, but as one develops one “takes the hit” while already thinking about one’s next move, and thus does not focus on the pain like one did as a beginner. Boxers can probably tell you the same thing. So these are just some of the evidences that humans have evolved to have a lasting “lesson” of pain but not a perfect rerun and recollection of pain over and over again. If humans had that they would be immobilized from risking pain in hunting, agriculture, building, giving birth and sheer survival activities (such as when there was no central heating or electricity during very cold weather). Humans are not meant to nor are they evolved to “preserve” pain and thus suffering in perfect replicable images in either their body or their mentality. People can much more easily recall the bliss of a perfect date, for example, in great detail than they can the detail of a strike of physical pain, or the details of heart rending suffering that was once experienced. They recall how awful it felt, but it is difficult, thankfully, to “mediate” one’s self back into perfect recollection of all the aspects of that pain since time and understanding always moves a body and mind forward.

So here is where we can start to understand how isolating and “commoditizing” pain is an error, and how it crept into modern society, to humans’ great disadvantage. When I was young “popular psychology” was just beginning to become part of social discourse. In other words, what had been before that part of the doctor’s or psychiatrist’s office was now a subject that average people talked and read about. One of the first things that was printed in the public media was a “grief scale,” where people were assigned “points” to understand their “level of pain” after various tragic events or during life pressures. Thus “the death of a spouse” would get something like “10 points” assigned to it, meaning that it was viewed as a high pain and stress experience, while things such as job loss, etc had lower numbers of points. When as a teenager I first saw that I thought “Oh, oh, this is wrong and a problem.” While it is “understandable” that humans try to “self understand” and medical technicians try to “quantify,” it is totally bogus and erroneous, and a result of succumbing to one of the scourges of temptation of humans, which is to dehumanize and decouple from their context their own humanity. It is a temptation and a professional and societal laziness and it is wrong. Part of it is a result of the industrial revolution where humans obtained their factory assembly line mentality, where “one part fits all.” Look at computer interface standards and their importance and you see what I mean. Humans started thinking of themselves and each other in terms of standard parts and interfaces that can be counted and quantified.

Here are some examples to help you to understand how to identify this problem and see its fallacy and danger. Compare two widows, where each has had the death of their husband. Can the grieving be compared between them if one was married for a long time and one for a short time? What about if one is left destitute while the other, while unhappy, has more than adequate means to survive? What if one has children and the other does not? What if one has great faith and believes her husband is in heaven, while the other does not believe? While losing a loved spouse is a terrible loss, it is patently false and misleading to assign a “point” level to the totality of experience. In fact, medical people have even been “suspicious” of “denial” if a widow handles a spousal death as a “5” rather than as a “10,” if you know what I mean. Or the reverse happens, and I have seen that in actual clinical context. Medical personnel underestimate the pain of things they can assign numbers to. I have seen grieving widows be totally undertreated in individual and group therapy because medical personal have a mentality that quantifies their experience rather than have a holistic understanding of how totally shattering it can be.

Here is another example taken from sociology and anthropology. There are many studies of cultures where the most severe punishment possible is not death or torture but either exile (being thrust physically outside of the community) or “shunning” (where one stays in the community but is avoided and not interacted with as if one were invisible or did not exist). Studies have shown that people have died from the suffering of both exile but more particularly of shunning. Anthropologists discovered that in such societies the suffering of the shunned is so great that it can and does cause death. Fast forward to modern times and think about the high degree of alienation that many, particularly the youth feel, and also the problem of the “violent ex-“ who kills his ex- and even their children rather than be “without them.” When one relies on numerical and isolating experiences of pain in the medical and social community one is left not only ignorant but pointed in the totally opposite direction of genuine human experience and problems. Moderns have not only forgotten their own human experience (the pain of shunning for example) but they now wield in a very dark way that form of suffering while denying its social or medical existence. Humans used to know very well the suffering of exile or of shunning and used it as a social “last resort” for the most egregious of perceived or real behaviors. Today we have the dual problem of 1) not understanding individuals who are experiencing either externally or internally the suffering of a form of exile or shunning AND 2) actually using the “nerve endings” of such pain to market products and develop destructive social cliques and behaviors that prey on the fear of shunning and, worse, promote a sense of shunning by exaggerating real or perceived social divisions.

Racism is the most obvious example of shunning in widespread practice, in a way, and so I think those who have experienced or studied racism may be the first to understand my point here. Afro-Americans for a long time were the suffering “invisible” people expected to move among the wealthy and enfranchised, doing their work, but through segregation not expected to be “visible” and participatory. That was enormous suffering and has, thankfully, been dramatically alleviated in the last few decades by desegregation, equal rights, and social progress and societal mindset. Still, even racism cannot fully articulate the horror of individual shunning since even during the worst of racism people still had their own families, education, socializing and human-to-human interaction. Individual shunning is far worse because the person is denied all ties with surrounding humanity, including speech. You might think that does not exist in such sophisticated, refined and enlightened culture as today, but think again. Think about two examples already mentioned above: youth who are alienated, feeling out of touch with life itself, both as an individual condition and also a “popularity” and clique or gang way, and violent ex’s, who are bereft and feel invisible and totally alienated from life without their ex. The suffering of such people, whether one believes it is founded, reasonable and “justifiable” is truly “off the scale.” One cannot quantify the suffering of a person who is shunned or in a position that replicates the physical sensation and also the emotional and spiritual consequences of an alienating isolation that is akin to being shunned.

This is one reason that society sees remarkable suffering, self harm and violence that seems “baffling” to people who are part of the “majority,” who do not understand why, for example, a violent ex will kill his ex, their children, their family, friends, strangers, etc before, usually, killing themselves. On comment boards people repeatedly key in, in understandable frustration, “Why doesn’t he just kill himself rather than take everyone along with him?” See, that is the perfect example of how people no longer understand their own humanity based suffering. Anthropologists would tell you that societies that shun would understand fully well why someone who feels shunned might snap and react in exactly that same way. Modern society seems to have invented the nuclear bomb but then juggles with it and puts it in video games and then denies it exists, to use another analogy. Humans viscerally know the suffering of shunning, but then after generations of knowing about it and using it as last resort, now both “forget” that it even exists and the horrible harm that it causes but still for marketing, entertainment and other purposes, including some very dark ones, “pushes those buttons” in other people, among each other, and themselves. Thus people inflict the worst of shunning and alienating experiences on each other yet at the same time it itself is shunned, invisible and denied. As another example of this, society will push the importance of sex yet also push how inadequate a potential partner most people are. And you wonder why child abuse is out of control? Society pushes sexual gratification constantly while at the same time teaching an elite reward and shunning disapproval for those who are not “hot.” As a result, individuals, both men and not even some women, feel alienated from the “total sexual experience” they feel they are entitled to, and fill in the gaps with children.

To wrap up the point about quantifying suffering and its temptation and error, think about the implications of what I have explained here. Not only do people miss the mark in understanding their own legitimate and genuine suffering, but society has “manufactured” new ways of suffering that did not exist before. One suffers the death of a spouse, for example, but is treated in a “standard interface” cookie cutter approach due to it being a “medical pain scale and insurance reimbursed” isolated phenomenon on the one hand. On the other hand society has invented new forms of commoditized suffering, which is to be promised total sexual gratification, while at the same time reducing marriages, increasing the population of single people, yet putting them in a caste system of “hot or not,” “in or out.” Unrealistic expectations of sex, for example, are pushed on society while at the same time the most reliable and dependable forms of gratification, such as within marriage, are shattered, and people have turned into wild dogs operating within a bizarre and cruel self imposed caste system of sexual availability and desirability in intimacy. And you wonder why violent ex’s kill, and why so many now prey on the young, who are both defenseless but also deemed to be open and non-judgmental in that area where the offender is hurting. Society has manufactured of its own freewill forms of suffering that make me tremble for the survivability of humans and this is just a few examples.

The second problem with modern warping of suffering is also, in part, a result of that cookie cutter factory line mentality toward modern industrial and technological life. There is a tendency for many to “sound byte” suffering. We can use the example of the suffering of Jesus Christ to better understand this.

People are impatient with their understanding of each other and themselves and so they always try to “bottom line” their own understanding or in movie jargon “cut to the chase scene.” This is, as I’ve pointed out, not the normal evolved human condition and is, in fact, counter to evolutionary development and also is not an asset in survivability. Thus you see people encapsulate (again, how very modern, like taking a pill) not only their own experiences, and that of others, but that of the divine. You have a slogan understanding of life, including the divine, and that warps the human mindset and specifically understanding real normal life such as suffering. Therefore modern people differ from all of the previous generations by trying to bumper sticker God as “Christ died for your sins” or “Jesus suffered for you” etc. People have reduced, like a sauce on the stove, their own humanity and their understanding of divinity to encapsulated sound byte jargon of “understanding,” which is not actual understanding at all.

Jesus was not born in order to suffer and to be crucified. Jesus was born even though he knew he would suffer and be crucified. There is one hell of a difference.

The suffering of Jesus never was an “objective,” an isolated phenomenon that is a goal. The suffering was the inevitable consequence of being alive and his taking a stand. They did not invent scourging, mocking and crucifixion just for Jesus. That was the common form of punishment for the “lowest of the low” who were judged criminals or treasonous. It was also a punishment used to terrorize and subordinated population into total submission. This makes it doubly ironic that the Jews who persecuted Jesus turned to Rome to inflict the very punishment that was used to keep Roman territories and the conquered people in line.

Thus people in modern times erroneously use the foreknowledge of the prophets that Jesus would be the Messiah, rejected, suffer and be crucified as making the suffering the “meaning,” the sound byte, of his entire life and mission. Some of this is willful, deliberate and somewhat blasphemous misunderstanding, while other of it is a consequence of lazy modern people who try to cookie cutter and sound byte into capsules everything, including the divine.

Jesus did not come to humanity in order to suffer and to die. Jesus came despite knowing that he would suffer and die.

The message of Jesus was not that he was stripped, whipped, spit on, crowned with thorns and crucified. The message of Jesus was that he arose from the dead.

I’m not trying to put bumper sticker makers out of business, or to minimize the redemptive value of suffering, far from it. I’m trying to restore the glory of actually understanding it.

Was St John the Baptist born to be beheaded? Obviously not, and so when one contemplates the one who declared the coming of Christ one can better understand the risk of the suffering sound byte that I am pointing out to you. John the Baptist is rightfully revered, but his entire ministry lives on in baptism, not slogans that “John the Baptist: born to be beheaded for you.”

Likewise the focus on the physical component of the redemptive suffering of Jesus Christ, done ONCE for ALL, misses the entire point of the ministry of Jesus. Yes, it is important to have gratitude to Jesus for having suffered and died for all, but one must have a sane and balanced approach to that understanding, one that is modeled after the Gospels and Epistles themselves. None of the Apostles or disciples glorifies the physical suffering of Jesus; they document it but do not focus on it at all. Instead, as St Paul repeatedly explains, it is Christ crucified (the death, not the pain) and resurrected from the dead that is everything, absolutely everything.

John 20: 27-28
Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands, and bring your hand and put it into my side, and do not be unbelieving, but believe.” Thomas answered and said to him, “My Lord and my God!”

The Apostle Thomas declared he would not believe the others had seen the resurrected Jesus “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger into the nail marks and put my hand into his side, I will not believe” John 20:25. And so Jesus appeared to him and allowed him to do that very thing, saying “Have you come to believe because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed” John 20:29. Think about this: Thomas would be the last person to think that Jesus was nailed to the cross so that he, Thomas, would have wounds to put his fingers into and believe. Yet that mentality has crept into many in modern times that the objective of Jesus was the suffering he endured rather than belief that his resurrection from the death of crucifixion engendered.

Just as a brief aside to teach you another way to apply logic, think about this. If the actual suffering and crucifixion of Jesus were the “objective,” would not one expect that after Thomas believes only after seeing the wounds that Jesus would order that all Apostles obtain similar wounds and “pass that along” through the generations? Would we have bishops undergo nonfatal crucifixion wounds generation after generation, to pass it “on,” if the suffering and the wounding were the point? Instead we have the breaking of the bread, the consecrated wine, the consecrating oil, the laying on of hands in ordination, and baptism of the faithful. No where is the “suffering” passed on as witness of faith. Use logic, people, and it will never fail you.

John 20:30-31
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of [his] disciples that are not written in this book. But these are written that you may [come to] believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through this belief you may have life in his name.

What John did not write: And therefore we each of us drive a nail through our own hands when we become bishops so that we share in the suffering of Christ since that is the sign of faith and the whole point of his coming.

Protestants are sometimes the most contradictory on this point, and I say this with affection, not criticism. They criticize Catholics for having a crucifix (the body of Christ displayed on the cross) rather than a cross (Methodists have the cross with a red fabric draped over it) since they feel that Catholics are stuck in the crucifixion and not the resurrection, which they symbolize by the empty cross. Yet who are the ones who tend to write and verbalize the most rhetoric about the suffering of Jesus “on behalf” of the saved? Yep.

Catholics display the crucifix as a reminder that Jesus actually died, not as a reminder of his tortures. It is the fact that Jesus actually died, one, and resurrected, two, that is the essential foundation of the entire faith and the New Covenant with God, not the suffering. The fact that Jesus performed his ministry knowing of the suffering that he would work through and resurrect from that makes it “redemptive suffering,” not the suffering itself. Whenever you are tempted to be confused about this, repeat the slogan “John the Baptist was not born to be beheaded.” John the Baptist can continue to make straight the way of the Lord by today being a sanity and perspective touchstone to put the death and suffering of Jesus in the proper context. Then one can read what St. Paul wrote with restored perspective and clarity, without the strange posttraumatic intrusive thoughts about suffering that this lost generation is afflicted by.

Hebrews 2:8
Yet at present we do not see “all things subject to him,” but we do see Jesus “crowned with glory and honor” because he suffered death, he who “for a little while” was made “lower than the angels,” that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.

Hebrews 2:14
Now since the children share in blood and flesh, he likewise shared in them, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who through fear of death had been subject to slavery all their life.

St. Paul could not be clearer that it was not the suffering, but the death and resurrection of Christ that once, for all, showed everyone that they should not fear the devil of bodily death and the sin that fear tempts humans to commit. Instead, St. Paul explains, Jesus demonstrated once for all that one does die, but one then goes to God in eternal life.

Hebrews 2:18
Because he himself was tested through what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.

In Biblical language “testing” does not mean being quizzed. When St. Paul uses the term “tested” and when one reads about saints being “but to the test,” that is more of a term that comes from refining of ore, for example, where impurities are melted away. Thus Jesus showed that he could suffer bodily and emotional harm the same way that any human would, “be tested,” and come through it all the way, which is to die and the demonstrate through his resurrection and his witness that God is in control and that life everlasting exists in heaven, and does not end in the slavery of the devil of bodily death and sinful behavior.

Hebrews 9:11-14
But when Christ came as high priest of the good things that have come to be, passing through the greater and more perfect tabernacle not made by hands, that is, not belonging to this creation, he entered once for all into the sanctuary, not with the blood of goats and calves but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls and the sprinkling of a heifer’s ashes can sanctify those who are defiled so that their flesh is cleansed, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from dead works to worship the living God.

This, by the way, is one of the Biblical justifications that Catholics use on Ash Wednesday, when the sign of the cross is marked on their foreheads. It is a ritualized reminder of these words of St Paul that no longer, as in the Old Covenant, are the heifer’s ashes needed to sanctify the defiled, but that the blood of Christ, shed once for all, is the cleanser that the ashes once were under the Law.

Hebrews 10:26-29, 31
If we sin deliberately after receiving knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains sacrifice for sins but a fearful prospect of judgment and a flaming fire that is going to consume the adversaries. Anyone who rejects the Law of Moses is put to death without pity on the testimony of two or three witnesses. Do you not think that a much worse punishment is due the one who has contempt for the Son of God, considers unclean the covenant-blood by which he was consecrated, and insults the spirit of grace?... It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.

I include this because passage because again I must correct the notion that the physical suffering of Christ somehow “clears the way” for people. St Paul warns FELLOW CHRISTIANS that if they sin deliberately after knowing the truth of what Jesus has proclaimed that “there no longer remains sacrifice for sins but a fearful prospect of judgment and a flaming fire.” A profane and immodest treatment of the sacrifice of Jesus is an insult to “the spirit of grace” and will result in falling into the hands of the living God who will judge and who will cast into hell. St. Paul would be shocked to the core of his being by ghoulish and profane modern perspectives regarding “the covenant-blood by which he [Jesus] was consecrated.”

I could cite much, much more from St. Paul but I have demonstrated my point and it is better that people now read scripture on their own with clear eyes and understanding after this commentary I have provided.

The suffering of Jesus was not an exceptional phenomenon to be encapsulated as glorifying suffering. In fact, the reverse is true where suffering is not glorified and instead Jesus stoops in order to undergo what humans do to each other, and the natural boundary of life which includes death, in order to show the open path to the one true God. I have demonstrated how to read several selections from scripture and observe that the suffering is not a quantity or a quality, but simply a signpost along the way of the totality of the ministry of Jesus Christ. I have also given you a tool to use, showing how the saints remain a welcome friend, wise counsel and aid to today, where one can realign inappropriate thoughts about human suffering and the suffering of Jesus with the yardstick that “St John the Baptist was not born to be beheaded.” Finally I have pointed out that humans are in great peril of encapsulating and making into sound bytes entire perspectives of human and divine reality and that this encapsulating and “sloganizing” of human or divine reality results in dire and destructive perpetuating error that must be corrected in this time of physical, moral and spiritual crisis.

Galatians 3:1-4
O stupid Galatians! Who has bewitched you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was publically portrayed as crucified? I want to learn only this from you: did you receive the Spirit from works of the law, or from faith in what you heard? Are you so stupid? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh? Did you experience so many things in vain?-if indeed it was in vain.

I include this to remind you that glorifying in things such as the physical suffering of Christ is like thinking one is saved through works and not grace, because merely counting the wounding of Christ is like relying only on works and denying faith.

Romans 6:5-11
For if we have grown into union with him through a death like his, we shall also be united with him in the resurrection. We know that our old self was crucified with him, so that our sinful body might be done away with, that we might no longer be in slavery to sin. For a dead person has been absolved from sin. If, then, we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him. We know that Christ, raised from the dead, dies no more; death no longer has power over him. As to his death, he died to sin [my notation: this phrase "he died to sin" means that Jesus died on account of sin being done to him of his unjust condemnation and thus in death moved out of the reach of further harm by sin to him] once and for all; as to his life, he lives for God. Consequently, you too must think of yourselves as [being] dead to sin and living for God in Christ Jesus.

Just as a dead body cannot be forced to sin, since that person is dead and thus absolved from sin, living people must be like a dead body toward sin. To use a scientific term the living must be like inert matter that does not bond or interact with any sin. This is another, more oblique, way to apply scripture to my admonishment to you all that sinful behavior and suffering cannot be “managed,” accounted for and commoditized, since that is interacting with sin and not being, as Paul warns one must be, “dead to sin” and instead “living for God in Christ Jesus.” Those who commoditize suffering are interacting with sin and are not dead to sin. Insensitivity and worse the promotion of suffering in others is an obvious example, as is the enumeration of occult practices, including self harming in order to do suffering “accounting,” which is not only wrong but blasphemous.