On Suffering

On mornings like this, only the tears flow easily. Thoughts and words grapple with the enormity of a tragedy so devastating. Three of the four horsemen of the apocalypse have made their grim way to Haiti – War is busy elsewhere – and yet, already, we discern a fifth horseman on the horizon, Chaos, and know that he may bring the most evil and be the most difficult to overcome.


We give our writer’s mite to CRS. We pray. We watch the images on television and weep.

My friend Christopher Hitchens says that the suffering of one child should force us to question the existence of God. And so it should. But, it is more than a little ironic that Hitchens’ robustly secular worldview does not require anything in the way of solidarity with the suffering of a child and the religious worldview he questions not only demands such solidarity, it already had people on the ground before the earthquake. The Church’s concern and care for the poor does not need a headline to become manifest, it is on-going, and has been from that day when the Master fed the hungry multitudes with five loaves and two fish until today. Still, Hitchens’ question cannot be dismissed by good works. Why is there this new, acute suffering in a land where suffering was already chronic?

There is no answer to the question of suffering. Rev. Pat Robertson thought he had a reason as he mouthed some gibberish about Haitians making a pact with the devil centuries ago. What is he talking about? Wait – don’t answer that Pat. This is the same Reverend who said Hurricane Katrina happened to cause the postponement of a gay pride parade.

My issue with Rev. Robertson is not, ultimately, his bigotry. My problem is with his view of the Christian faith. My problem is with all those evangelical and charismatic preachers who suggest that discerning God’s will for us is a simple thing, that finding the "purpose-driven life" the Lord intends for you is as easy as opening a checking account, and that suffering is always a punishment. Yes, Robertson is a bigot, but he is also a false prophet and that is a greater indictment in my book.

In the 1990s, at the beginning of the siege of Sarajevo, Slavisha Sokolovic was killed defending his city. He was a Serb who was loyal to the multi-ethnic culture of Sarajevo, a culture that produced the highest rate of ethnic inter-marriage anywhere in Europe in the years before the war. He died fighting for the mostly Muslim government. I did not know Slavisha but a few years later, his twin brother escaped that country and came to Washington: Zoran was the driver of Bosnia’s four man bobsled team at the Winter Olympics in Lillehammer in 1994 and, after the Games, he and his teammates came to the United States. We became friends. I could not imagine the suffering of this young man, to see his twin killed, to see his city destroyed, to find his life uprooted so that instead of making a fine living in Sarajevo he was dependent on charity in Washington.

On the anniversary of his brother’s death, Zoran asked me if we could have some kind of religious service. Theological College permitted us the use of their chapel. A group of waiters at the restaurant where I worked formed a little choir and provided the acolytes. Nine priests came to concelebrate. The homilist was Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete and he spoke about the mystery of suffering. He warned us not to try and seek answers to our suffering lest we become like Job’s friends. They, too, tried to explain to Job why he suffered and, at the end of the story, God upbraids them for this. He told us that only those who love suffer, that only a heart that is open is capable of breaking, and so the mystery is not suffering, the mystery is love. In the end, we are not called to understand suffering nor to explain it, but to embrace it as the price of love.

Today, let us embrace the suffering we feel in our hearts and the much greater suffering we see in the streets of Haiti. Let us turn our prayers to God, not in the manner of Job’s friends, but in the manner of the Mother of God, silently standing at the foot of the Cross. Let us dig yet deeper into our pockets to send some money to the Church’s relief agencies. In a word, let us not be crippled by the suffering we see but let us find ways to love these Haitian neighbors in this dreadful hour. The mystery is not suffering. The mystery is love.

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Beth Cioffoletti
9 years ago
I spent some time in Haiti in the 1990s.  The people are beautiful there, despite the poverty.  Time stands still in Haiti.  I felt that I was being "fed".  They could look at me, see my white guilt, and then smile wonderful smiles of forgiveness and welcome.
Carol Lott
9 years ago
I hope some Church Leaders come out and say something about Robertson's statement.  Sometimes, they are less forthcoming in criticism of those who might be allies in the pro-life movement.
James Lindsay
9 years ago
Michael, very profound. Perhaps the reason for suffering is for the opportunity to show love, which I think is close to what you said.

Don't be so hard on Hitchens. He acts out of love, even if unconsciously, in condemning the dysfunctions of the religious. He may be a fool, but is a fool for God, albeit unconciously.

I agree with you on Robertson. There is no excuse for turning the Gospel into a screed of hate. He is the kind of preacher that makes Hitchens' point. My counter-point to Roberson is that the only sin Haiti and New Orleans (Los Angeles, San Francisco, Sodom and Gommorah too) is bad urban planning - i.e., locating your city in an area that is unsafe over the long term. That is the real bargain with the devil, thinking that the worst will never happen when experience says something different (and yet we mostly rebuild in dangerous places).

Of course, ours is not to judge, but to love and to dig deep for Haitian relief.
Thomas Piatak
9 years ago
Was Christopher Hitchens acting out "of love" when he said, of Mother Teresa, "I wish there was a hell for the bitch to go to?" Was he acting out "of love" when he praised the murderous suppression of the Russian Orthodox church by his heroes Lenin and Trotsky, mass murderers both? Was he acting out "of love" when he said he was looking forward to a religious civil war in the United States? Was he acting out "of love" when he launched into a drunken diatribe against Mother Teresa during ABC's broadcast of her funeral? Was he acting out "of love" when he wrote vicious obituaries for John Paul II, Mother Teresa, and even Bob Hope?

Those who are interested in reading more about this troubadour of love may wish to consult my review of his atheist diatribe:
James Lindsay
9 years ago
Certainly not out of love for Mother Teresa. That was not my point. In his perspective, religion is a malignant force. Whether it is or not is beside the point.
Pearce Shea
9 years ago
Michael Binder, acting out of love can only be only taken so far. If, acting out of love, I do horrible damage to you or hope for horrible damage to be done to you, _intentionally_ then what kind of love is that? Do I really love you or only my conception of what you are or ought to be? He quite actually has said he yearns for the day when religious people are wiped off the face of the map, if necessary, by violence. Was it out of love that he dedicated the entirety of the obituary for Bob Hope (which he asked Slate.com if he could write, I understand it) to talking about how horribly unfunny Hope was? That's not love, that's a sneer. Seen in the context of his writing on religion and religious people, it's much easier to assume that the sneer is the driving force there, not love. 
Jim McCrea
9 years ago

“In the end, we are not called to understand suffering nor to explain it, but to embrace it as the price of love.”

In the case of what has happened in Haiti, this bromide falls flat.  Why should those who are most deserving of the love and compassion of humanity be the ones who suffer because of an apparent insufficient display of that love by …. whom? God is Love. Is this Love insufficient?

Nicholas Collura
9 years ago
''The mystery is not suffering; the mystery is love.'' This is very beautifully put. I was just having a conversation with a non-believing relative who wanted to know how I could rationalize a belief in a god who would allow all this to happen, and we came to a similar conclusion: Many theodicies take the wrong point of departure. Rather than starting with faith and considering, next, experiences which challenge it (''if God exists, then how can we understand this suffering?''), couldn't we begin with the more indisputable facticity of human experience and then imaginatively trace a number of potential philosophical consolations which might present themselves? In fact, the more devastating question may be: ''If God does not exist to redeem all this suffering, then can our anguished existence ever make sense in a way that's compatible with a belief in the meaningfulness of love?'' If there is no justice to right the wrongs of history, if there is no infinite reward for those who have suffered like our cousins have in Port-au-Prince, if there is no meaningfulness which will someday settle the confusion we have about our lives, then any merely humanistic explanation for our moral impulses will ultimately ring hollow. Even our solicitude for Hitchens's suffering child would be superficially nice, but not grounded in any transcendent reality which could make it philosophically coherent or morally urgent. If some sort of God (define the term as you will) does not exist, then our suffering is, necessarily, ultimately as gratuitous as everything else in our life is purposeless. Suffering presents a paradox to theists, but it poses a question to atheists which is equally unanswerable, and certainly of less help to those who do suffer: is there really nothing in our lives of eternal value?
Maybe Hitchens would say this just confirms his idea that religion is nothing but an evolved defense mechanism against the fear of death. Yet the Haitians that I've known start not from fear but from a deep feeling that life is meaningful, and that it's not absurd to believe there is an explanation out there that correlates with that intuition of meaningfulness without reducing human consciousness to a random evolutionary event. Haiti, a country which has so little and stands as a reminder that life is, at its core, a drama, may have learned better than many of us have that without God, we have nothing. I don't mean this as a rousing hymn to theistic belief: for a Christian, it's a reminder of how truly agonizing the path must sometimes be towards understanding the beguiling, awful mystery not of suffering (as you put it, Michael), but of His Love. 
Jim McCrea
9 years ago
My final statement was supposed to be:  Is this Love insufficient?
Pearce Shea
9 years ago
Nicholas, that was a very nice insight into a very complicated issue. Thanks.
Jim- I think you've got the formula wrong. First and foremost, it's a bold statement to make as to who God should and should not love more. We've got indications as to who those people might be, but it's dangerous to think you know God's mind (and heretical, really).
The other issue is, of course, something you seem to sort of acknowledge: the word "apparent." Is the Saint murdered for their belief an indication of an insufficiency of Love or is it an indication that we aren't particularly good at recognizing God's Love? That perhaps we've not got the best tools for the job?
It's really not a bromide. It's a pretty big underpinning of an enormous amount of Church philosophy and theology. 
So really, we're failing twice when this sort of tragedy calls us to question (natural enough as it is) God's Love: once in failing to find that Love and again in failing to have faith that our failure to bear witness to that Love isn't some deficiency in the divine but us (which is not suggest, as Pat Robertson does, that is suggests a deficiency in the victim). 
9 years ago
Annie Dillard writes, in Holy The Firm:

His disciples asked Christ about a roadside beggar who had been blind from birth, " Who did sin, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" And Christ, who spat on the ground, made a mud of his spittle and clay, plastered the mud over the man's eyes, and gave him sight , answered, "Neither this man has sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest to him." Really? If we take this answer to refer to the affliction itself-and not the subsequent cure-as "God's work made manifest,"then we have, along with "Not as the world gives do I give unto you," two meager, baffling and infuriating answers to one of the few questions worth asking, to wit, What in Sam Hill is going on here?

The works of God made manifest? Do we really need more victims to remind us that we are all vitims ? Is this some sort of parade for which a conquering army shines up its terrible guns and rolls them up and down the street for people to see? Do we needs blind men stumbling about, and little flame faced children, to remind us what God can-and will-do?

...Yes in fact, we do. We do need reminding, not of what God can do, but of what he cannot do, or will not, which is to catch time in its free fall and steal a nickel's worth of sense into our days. And we need reminding of what time can do, must only do: churn out enormity at random and beat it, with God's blessing, into our heads: that we are created, created, sojourners in a land we did not make, a land with no meaning of itself and no meaning we can make for it alone. Who are we to demand explanations of God ? ( And what monsters of perfections should we be if we did not?). We forget ourselves, picnicing; we forget where we are. There is no such thing as a freak accident. "God is at home," says Meister Eckhart, "We are in the far country."
9 years ago
When Hitchens says that the suffering of one child should force us to question the existence of God, he's in a way  repeating Dostoyevsky's argument given in The Brothers Karamazov  by the character Ivan about the wrongness of an all good and all powerful God who allows evil.  I think it's a valid perspective.


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