I've been a priest for 50 years and still struggle with the problem of evil
In anticipation of Easter, high-end jewelers advertise gold and bejeweled crosses costing thousands of dollars. This is ironic. The cross of Christ was a horrible torture. The victim of crucifixion was dispossessed of everything. Any semblance of human dignity was stripped away, even ultimately breath itself, because death was hastened by asphyxiation. Jesus suffered all the shame and horror of crucifixion. And even his clothes were distributed by lot to the executing Roman soldiers. But his cross became the ineradicable and priceless symbol of salvation and God’s unconditional love.
I have been a priest for 57 years. Ever since I read The Brothers Karamazov as a seminarian, with its description of the rejection of God by Ivan, the middle brother, because of innocent suffering, I have struggled with the tension between my belief in a loving God and the presence of so much evil and pain in the world. I have come to recognize increasingly the cross of Christ as God’s response to that suffering and as the force that inspires his followers to immerse themselves in action to overcome suffering. What has helped me is the image of “dispossession” which characterizes human life, tragic crises such as a pandemic, the very cross of Christ and Christian discipleship.
Jesus was dispossessed of life on the cross. Jesus also willingly accepted that dispossession.
Dispossession and discipleship
Jesus was dispossessed of life on the cross. Jesus also willingly accepted that dispossession. He knew well in advance of his triumphant return to Jerusalem that his enemies were plotting to kill him. He accepted that as the price of his mission. His entire life had been one of dispossession. At the very beginning he entered into a people who had been dispossessed of freedom and true nationhood by the oppressive Roman empire. His family was possessed of no abundance. Upon birth he was laid in a manger. His earnings as a young worker were likely meager.
Adding to the dispossession that his nation and neighbors endured politically and economically, Jesus embraced dispossession all the more as he began his public ministry. He left home and became dependent on others for shelter and food. His sharp calls for conversion dispossessed him of the esteem of many, even his own relatives. His bold proclamation of himself as an instrument of divine forgiveness, his insistence on faith in him as a prerequisite for healing, his interpretation of the love of God and neighbor as underlying all human laws, his severe challenge to those who stubbornly refused to hear him—all of this led to the ultimate dispossession of the cross.
I deliberately choose the word “dispossession” to describe Jesus’ life and crucifixion because it strongly contrasts with the possessiveness of our culture. Seventy percent of U.S. gross domestic product comes from personal consumption. That means not only the basics of life but also the superabundance of the “stuff” we own, to the point where there are professional advisors to help people “declutter” their homes. We become overwhelmed by our possessions even as the media entice us through advertising—often quite subtle—to possess more. Even more perverse is the accumulation of wealth by a few at the expense of the many. Some own multiple homes in different parts of the world, while vast majorities have little more than a fragile roof to call home.
The current pandemic has thrown all of humankind into a state of dispossession. Familiar routines of daily life have been taken away. More tragically, millions have lost their lives or suffered serious illness and its consequences. An economic recession has caused massive unemployment, deprived multitudes of the basics of life and intensified inequalities. The bulk of dispossession has fallen upon the poor.
I deliberately choose the word “dispossession” to describe Jesus’ life and crucifixion because it strongly contrasts with the possessiveness of our culture.
The nature of God
Pope Francis, in his teaching, travels and compassionate outreach, has made himself the voice of the poor and dispossessed, most recently in his encyclical on human solidarity, “Fratelli Tutti.” But here he also takes on the voice of a prophet, as he sharply reminds those who are possessed of much that they too suffer dispossession: Social media inhibits genuine friendship, an overloading of information blocks wisdom, xenophobia prohibits the enriching exchange of cultures, populism and nationalism foster prejudice. The phenomenon of universal dispossession did not spare the Son of God, never more so than on the cross.
Christian reflection on the cross of Christ has yielded so many meanings. Most importantly the cross is the sacrifice Christ made, a dispossession of his life for the sake of all of humankind. In our culture of massive possessiveness, the cross stands as judgment and salvation. That is all the more true because the cross reveals the very nature of God.
The Son of God “emptied” himself in taking on our human nature. He did not dispossess himself of his divine nature but revealed it in the humility of earthly dispossession. This mirrors and brings into human history the eternal self-emptying that takes place in the life of the Triune God as each person surrenders to the others the divine being so that there is one God but three persons with, as is said in the preface for the solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity, “their unity in substance, and their equality in majesty.”
The perfect and total self-emptying of each divine person means that the Son, in becoming incarnate, could not do anything but embrace a life of radical dispossession that culminated on the cross. That dispossession of Jesus was passive insofar as he entered into a history of oppression and poverty, but active insofar as he voluntarily embraced the life of a wandering prophet at the price, ultimately, of crucifixion.
When economies are built on possessions, the story of a man who dispossessed himself of everything does not easily get a hearing.
Unwelcome message or promise of salvation?
From the beginning, the cross has stood in judgment over the church and world. It stands in sharp contrast to all greed, obscene consumption, exploitation of people and earth, unnecessary accumulation of goods, abusive power, excessive competitiveness, unbridled ambition and manipulative dealing. Because of that, the cross often does not offer us a welcome message.
In the Catholic Church, we lament declining numbers of practicing Catholics, for which there are many reasons, one of them being perhaps the worship of a naked messiah on a cross. In the developed world, with its comforts purchased at the expense of cheap labor, the cross is not a welcome message. When economies are built on possessions, the story of a man who dispossessed himself of everything does not easily get a hearing. More welcome is the story of Jesus the friend who understands.
But the cross also saves. The primary beneficiaries and heralds of that salvific message are the poor. Most Catholic homes have crosses, but almost always among the few possessions of the poor is a cross. I grew up with Polish grandparents who came from a poor village in the Tatra Mountains and brought with them a cross that was prominently displayed in our home. The message of the cross for the poor is simple: God died on the cross. It is the sheer event and image prior to doctrinal refinement that speaks to the poor.
The message is straightforward: Jesus, poor like us, God, crucified like us, still lives for and with us. It is the unspoken “sensus fidelium.” Poverty deadens and kills. Many survive because they find in God crucified solidarity, hope, purpose, love and destiny. Though the poor are the primary beneficiaries and heralds of the cross, those who are possessed of much can also be touched by the power of the cross, most especially in moments of tragedy and death itself.
For untold masses of human beings since the beginning of history, there has been dispossession of fundamental rights to nutrition, health, education and freedom.
Active and passive dispossession
I taught theology for many years, and what I write here is a personal distillation of the works of many theologians. But I do not consider myself current in philosophy. With some caution I raise the following question: Can we or do we have a Christian metaphysics that is based on the phenomenon of passive and active dispossession? Metaphysics asks universal questions and dispossession is a universal phenomenon. It might be objected that I am raising more a question of anthropology, but I want to suggest that dispossession is inextricable from human existence.
Every person is born into some situation of passive dispossession. Some may be surrounded by favorable circumstances, although they eventually must face dispossession. But for untold masses of human beings since the beginning of history, there has been dispossession of fundamental rights to nutrition, health, education and freedom. Children have been born into abject poverty that then remains their destiny. We generally define abortion as cutting short the life of an unborn child, but the lives of so many born children have also been cut short or diminished by famine, disease, migration and war. To neglect these children is immoral and criminal, too.
In 1961, as a young seminarian in Rome, I visited the American military cemetery in Anzio, the site of a fiercely fought invasion in 1944 with many casualties. It is the resting place of thousands of young men who died in the battle. They are one contingent of the parade of armies lost in the savagery of countless wars. They were dispossessed of life. But again, they are only a fraction of the worldwide masses who have been involuntarily dispossessed of life because of slavery, disease, famine and cruel oppression by autocrats.
Where is God in all this? This is the age-old question that has vexed me for many years.
In the Old Testament, Job is the quintessential poor man, dispossessed of everything, lamenting before God and friends his miserable state. In the end God responds by revealing the awesome mysteries of creation and his wise establishment of order. Job can only surrender in humility to this overwhelming revelation. Can we hope that every dying person surrenders to the mystery that lies at the root of all human consciousness? A doctor I know once told me she had never met any atheists on their deathbeds.
In the New Testament, God reveals himself definitively in the death and resurrection of Jesus. This poor man is crucified and dispossessed of all. All the dispossessed of the world can see him in themselves and themselves in him. Simply speaking that he is God crucified is all that is needed to have some meaning in the midst of dispossession. We are not alone. Merely to gaze on the cross is to gain a sense of solidarity. One of the actions by which Jesus identifies his mission is in the good news he proclaims to the poor. Is this the good news? God crucified, but living?
A doctor I know once told me she had never met any atheists on their deathbeds.
Christ revealed in the dispossessed
In the Old Testament, God frequently condemns the people for not attending to the stranger, the widow, the orphan. For Christians it is one from among the people, from among the dispossessed, who attends most fully to them by his crucifixion, by accepting dispossession in order to enter into solidarity with all the dispossessed. God is of the poor for the poor. If not, there is no God. It is the poor who especially preserve the memory of the dispossessed Jesus, the crucified God. So many popular devotions have come from the poor focusing on the passion of Jesus.
Raymond E. Brown, S.S., a renowned Scripture scholar of the 20th century, once asked in a lecture whether Jesus saw Christ in others. Though I do not recall the reason for the question or his answer, I would say that Jesus saw in them what he saw in himself: the universality and inevitability of the cross. He saw the dispossession of his fellow Israelites as a nation, and he saw those around him dispossessed of food, health, meaning and fellowship. His reaction was solidarity, empathy, compassion and mercy. He was a poor man among the poor.
From the devotion of the poor to the crucified Jesus—one of them, for them—comes the remarkable solidarity that is often exhibited among the poor. That solidarity is manifested in hospitality, the sharing of meager resources and participation in cooperative enterprises. The poor reveal the power of the crucified and risen Jesus who lives among the poor, who thereby reveal him to the rest of us—if we have ears to hear, and eyes to see.
When ancient Israel was devastated by exile and Jerusalem was destroyed around 587 B.C.E., a remnant endured: “But some of the poor the captain of the guard left behind as vinedressers and farmers” (2 Kgs 25:12). The Israelites were poor, but they were also the faithful ones, maintaining the covenant. If today and in following years we experience apocalyptic times, the dissolution of institutions both secular and religious, there will still be the remnant, called that even if quite numerous: the poor who continue to find in the cross of Jesus meaning, hope and love. Will it be the pickers of fruits and vegetables, the day laborers, the nannies who will maintain the memory and presence of Christ crucified and risen?
I do not intend to romanticize poverty. It is merciless, unrelenting and brutal. But I have seen many of the dispossessed find in the dispossessed one on the cross a consolation beyond words. And the cross also inspires them to active dispossession—the surrender of what little they have, sometimes in heroic ways, for the benefit of others: children, neighbors, communities.
Will it be the pickers of fruits and vegetables, the day laborers, the nannies who will maintain the memory and presence of Christ crucified and risen?
Encountering Christ crucified
What is also remarkable is how the cross inspires Christians of means to dispossess themselves for the sake of the dispossessed. Throughout the liturgical year we celebrate the feasts of many women and men who came from royalty and wealth, from which they dispossessed themselves to serve the poor and ill. They plunged themselves into the midst of plagues and conflict to bring healing and consolation. They founded religious communities to continue their mission. The response of Christians throughout the ages to the suffering of the innocent was not abstract questions of theodicy but solidarity and action flowing from contemplation of Christ crucified.
The cross of Christ is divine solidarity with the dispossessed. The cross inspires the dispossessed to establish solidarity among themselves and inspires others of the Christian community to enter into solidarity with the poor by voluntarily dispossessing themselves of their goods. This is the source of the principle of solidarity as a pillar of Catholic social doctrine.
But solidarity is not born of a lecture. The sense of solidarity, especially with the poor and dispossessed, flows from encounters with Christ crucified.
Certainly, the celebration of the sacrifice of Christ in the Eucharist ought to be the privileged moment of such an encounter. But that demands preaching that is able to point the Scripture readings to the culmination of all of revelation in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Other experiences are needed as well, ones that enable people to encounter Christ crucified and risen.
Many years ago, I participated in the prayer around the cross at Taizé, which brought together monks and young people in contemplation of the Cross. That intense focus remains a vivid memory for me. And while there has been a recovery of adoration of the Blessed Sacrament in the monstrance, I am afraid that often there is an emphasis on the comforting real presence and not the demanding and disquieting sacrifice of the one who is being adored.
Solidarity is not born of a lecture. Solidarity, especially with the poor and dispossessed, flows from encounters with Christ crucified.
Empathy and solidarity
To take seriously that sacrifice requires that we recognize the solidarity of all human beings in the experience of dispossession, and therefore respond with empathetic and compassionate action. In the words of St. Paul: “Bear one another’s burdens, and so you will fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal 6:2). Or, in the words of Dostoyevsky: “We are responsible to everyone for everything.” In “Fratelli Tutti,” Pope Francis calls for a gratuitousness that works for the good of others without seeking recompense for ourselves (Nos. 139-141). Ultimately all we possess is gift—gratuity that then should provoke generous sharing of gifts.
In recent years the emphasis in catechesis has been on imparting knowledge of the teachings of the church. My own experience as a pastor taught me that children quickly forget terms and definitions. The challenge is to get children and young people to know Jesus Christ in the setting of his times, in the concreteness of his encounters with people, in the poetry and wisdom of his teachings, in his care for the marginalized, in his steadfastness in the midst of opposition, in the humiliation and horror of his crucifixion and in the power of his resurrection.
It is a challenge for Catholic education to create an ineradicable impression in the imaginations and hearts of students of who Jesus is by the convergence of all the evidence in the New Testament, especially the Gospels, the testimonies of his deeds, teachings, death and resurrection. How do we move young people to what St. John Henry Newman calls a “real assent” to Jesus or to what the Jesuit theologian Bernard Lonergan calls “falling in love with Jesus”?
The future of the human race depends on the empathy and solidarity that we derive from the most pivotal moment of history: the death and resurrection of Jesus. If we fail, there will be no alleviation of the material dispossessions suffered by the poor. There will, unfortunately, always be a fraction of humankind possessed of much. And among their possessions there still might be an expensive gold cross.
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