Some Thoughts on Suffering and Powerlessness

I meant to write this some weeks ago. Months ago. For Holy Week. Because that’s where this belonged.

But as you have noticed, the blogging has been light of late — almost nonexistent. I have no good reason for that except “bleh, I didn’t feel like it.” For some weeks. Which ought to be good enough.

At any rate, some weeks ago, I came across the column on theodicy — the perennial question of how a just and omnipotent God can allow or even countenance human suffering — from the always thoughtful Peter Berger at The American Interest. It starts out a review of sort of the movie Silence, but moves into some well trod territory as it asks a very hard question:

Most of what passes for atheism is either a naive belief that science can explain everything or a childish desire to upset pious grandparents. I would propose that the only serious atheism comes out of the problem of theodicy: Arguably its most powerful expression occurs in Dostoyevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov, where Ivan Karamazov refuses to accept any acceptance (say by promising solace in a future life) of the death of a child (in this case, the killing of the child of a serf for the amusement of a feudal lord). Why is the death of a child so special? I think there is a fundamental anthropological reason for this: The first smile of a child stakes a claim to non-negotiable happiness. Speaking of human universality, Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), the Bengali poet who was the first non-Westerner to receive a Nobel Prize for Literature, wrote: “Every child is proof that God has not given up on humanity”—serious atheism is the sense that God, if he exists at all, has forgotten humanity.

[Elie] Wiesel’s memoir [Night] is almost unbearable to read (I read it in English). In it is a scene that screams. In one of the death camps of Wiesel’s captivity a young boy was sentenced to death for stealing food (the inmates were always on the verge of starvation.) Wiesel only describes the boy as having the face of an angel. He was to be hanged, but he was too light to have his neck broken when he was thrown from the scaffold. The guards had to hold him and pull him down in order to strangle him. It took him a long time to die. All the inmates had to watch. The prisoner standing next to Wiesel whispered: “Where is God?” Wiesel answered: “He is there, on the scaffold.” Long after I read this passage, it occurred to me that Wiesel’s answer could be understood in two different ways: As meaning, “In some way God is sharing the agony,” or “Belief in God is no longer possible before this horror—if there ever was God, he is now dead.”

I’m partial to Berger’s first consideration — “God is sharing in the agony.” Not just the agony of boy, but the agony of those forced to observe. “All the inmates had to watch,” which means they were utterly powerless in any meaningful sense to do anything about the execution.

Powerlessness. That’s the only real way we come to any meaningful terms with suffering, either our own or the suffering of those around us. The suffering of the world. And this goes against just about everything we moderns haver come to believe. We are agents, actors, we are responsible. We tell our own stories. And the only meaning suffering has is told by the one who suffers. Anything else robs someone of their voice. Their agency. Their power.

We are a people obsessed with power above all things. Ideologies and theologies of liberation promise power to those long deprived of the ability to shape and determine their own lives. Power has become the only form of meaning-making that we have, and we demand the right and ability to tell our own stories our own way, to have the power to negate circumstance and nature and history.

As Rod Dreher wrote last month, quoting Israeli philosopher Yuval Harari:

Yet in fact modernity is a surprisingly simple deal. The entire contract can be summarized in a single phrase: humans agree to give up meaning in exchange for power.

And thus, power becomes the only meaning we have. The only meaning we know and understand.

I think this demand, this expectation, for absolute power and agency is what is driving much of the discontent in the world. We want control we are never able to fully have.

But power itself is a lousy form of meaning. The inability to have as much of as we feel necessary to secure our lives, our loved ones, our possessions, and the space to construct a fully autonomous understanding of our lives leaves us feeling deeply fulfilled. We are promised all, and as we seek, we get less than all (usually a lot less), which keeps us struggling for more, because we believe the promise that we can and should and are entitled by right to have all. And we compete against those driving by the same urge to different ends, ends that don’t appear to include us or even give us space to exist under any conditions that resemble ones we’d choose for ourselves if we could.

And we are driven by the desire to use power and agency to ensure there will never be any more suffering — at least unearned or innocent suffering — ever again.

Meaning can, I think, only truly come to us in moments of true powerlessness, when we are either faced with situations we have no control over, or we accept that we don’t have anything remotely resembling the resourced to affect the change we’d like to see. When we appreciate we have no control, no promise of control, and no ability to grasp at control.

Two things have happened in my life to lead me to this place.

The first was being a first hand witness to the attack on the World Trade Center in New York on September 11, 2001. To stand underneath those burning buildings and know nothing you can do — except maybe run away — is going to save you, is going to save anyone, is a quite a realization. To watch people die and know you have to watch — you are made to watch — and can do nothing. To know, as I wrote in my book The Love That Matters, that as I stood underneath those towers and looked up, these buildings are coming down and nothing anyone can or will do can stop that. All smart little animals will run away as fast as they can.

In that powerless, I heard the words of Jesus — My love is all that matters, and this is who I am.

This is not something I likely would have ever heard absent the terrible events of that horrible Tuesday morning. Jesus, and love, is how I make sense of what happened on that day.

But something else happened in the last year to heighten this. My foster daughter Kaylie stayed with us for a while, and I would keep watch over her as she relived much of the abuse she suffered in some very vivid and active nightmares. (At this point, I want to say that I was only up to this work with Kaylie because of what my wife Jennifer taught and told me, and how I learned to love and care for her.)

It is hard to describe just how powerless I felt. Kaylie would lie on the floor next to Jen and me, and I could hear her crying. She would tap on my arm in her sleep, demand to hold my hand. She would relive the events — I won’t describe them here, you don’t need to know. But most nights, in her worst nightmares (she had four different kinds), even in her sleep Kaylie knew I was there. A couple of nights, she would grab my hand, ask me “can I tell you something?” and then mumble sometimes incoherently and sometimes all too coherently what was going on.

All of it.

I was powerless to stop any of it. I wasn’t there when she was 14 and 15 — or eight, or 13, or 17 — when any of this was happening to her. I was powerless to stop her nightmare, her reliving all this, even as I was there in her dream and she was talking to me in her nightmare. I tried short-circuiting the nightmare a time or two with “I’m here” or “You’re safe with me” or “Grab my hand and follow me” or “I’m going to take you away” and it never worked. Kaylie would take me through the whole awful experience, narrated it, as if she believed it was important for to me to be just be there holding her hand and witness the whole horrifying thing. To be made to watch. She was truthful and honest in her sleep in ways she was not awake, and told me — showed me — things she was too afraid or embarrassed to say when she was awake.

Yes, Kaylie struggles with the meaning of what happened to her. She will for much of her life.

But I struggle with that meaning too. I witnessed something both sacred and horrifying, was made to watch the very real abuse someone I love and care for a great deal suffer over and over again. And there was nothing I could do. Nothing.

And so I watched. With a broken heart, a soul torn in two for what I was made to watch. But I watched.

I’m a Christian. I have some pretenses to, at some point, actually being a called pastor some place. (Don’t laugh; it could have happened two weeks ago.) To preach and teach the Gospel, to walk with a very particular group of God’s people as they struggle with meaning and power in their lives, with what it means to be called to follow Jesus.

So as I consider what it means to face the suffering of the world, I consider the crucifixion of Christ. If we are true in our belief that the only real story that matters is the story told by the one who suffers, then we need to consider the passion narratives of Christ.

In Matthew and Mark, from the moment Jesus is delivered by Pontius Pilate up to be crucified, he says only one thing — “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” In these two gospels, the only words Jesus speaks during the whole ordeal of mocking and flogging and carrying the cross are words of despair and abandonment. Words spoken by Wiesel’s fellow prisoner — Where is God? Because it doesn’t feel like he’s here in this place of suffering and death.

These are not words of power of agency.

In Luke and John, Jesus is much more talkative. In Luke, he tells the women of Jerusalem to weep for themselves, and to consider the awful things that are coming. He says “Father, forgive them, for they not what they do” after being raised up to his place between the thieves. He proclaims the penitent thief will join him in paradise. And as he breathes his last, commends his spirit to God.

In Luke, Jesus is very outwardly directed. In his suffering, he focuses on others. Warns them, forgives them, promises them paradise. This is agency, but it is not power the way we understand it. Jesus does not stop his own suffering, or that of the thieves crucified with him. He does not despair. He forgives.

In John, after Jesus is handed over to be crucified, he says little except to tell his mother that the beloved disciple is now her son, and she is now his mother. He cries out, “I thirst” and then “It is finished.”

Again, Jesus is not a man of despair here. To the extent he says anything, he is outwardly focused, adopting his beloved disciple to his mother. Even as it is the most spiritual of gospels, John is also the most carnal, and only here do we have Christ complaining of thirst as he dies.

We have no record of the crucifixion from Christ’s perspective, unless you consider Psalm 22, which is an intriguing mixture of despair and hope, though for the future, and not necessarily for the here and now.

Jesus doesn’t tell his own story. We tell the story of Jesus. That’s what the Gospel is all about. All we have are these gospel witnesses of those who were made to watch. And we are made to watch, every Holy Week, and I think we frequently forget what we are really watching. Just as it took me time to understand quite what Kaylie was saying and showing me. And we forget that we are in that place where we can only just watch.

I will not deny Kaylie her agency. I am too modern for that. And I love her too much for that as well. She is not Christ, she is not bearing the sins of the world. She will have to find some kind of meaning in what has happened to her. I can’t tell her what it means, and I won’t even try.

And yet, in watching what I have watched, in hearing what I have heard, I remember a morning mass sitting and looking up at the bloody and agonized Jesus hanging from the cross, I had been given the terrifying, horrible, staggering privilege of witnessing Christ’s suffering in Kaylie (and Bethany). Of watching, knowing I could do nothing but watch. I can find meaning in this.

And tell what I have seen. Bear witness.

Thankfully, unlike the story of Hussein and his followers with their backs up against the Euphrates near Karbala, this story doesn’t end with death. And because of that, it doesn’t demand our suffering either. Kaylie’s suffering was not necessary, and could have and should have been avoided, but in her suffering, I have again met Christ. She bore her wounds to me. I can testify to a crucified and risen Lord who shows us his wounds and demands we muck around in them — “My Lord and my God!”

But only because I have no power to change or undo any of this.

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