The season of lent invites us once again into the uncomfortable tension that Suffering is. Each year we are challenged to not rationalize suffering and to not jump ahead to a happy ending. Instead, stay here in this tension for 40 days.
The US culture of triumphalism allows us to pretend that we worked hard for good things, and are immune to bad things. Triumphalism is the false assumption that we deserve to keep moving upward, to achieve, and to succeed.
A ‘just work harder’ society creates a ‘just work harder’ religion. We falsely place the responsibility on God to reward us with gold stars. It is our privileged position in life that gets surprised by suffering each time it comes near as if we assumed suffering can’t touch me.
Triumphalism resists suffering because it has no way to account for it. And in the face of suffering faith crumbles. So we continue to avoid it. Theologian Dorothee Soelle explains that we often deal with suffering with “minimization, illusion, apathy, and suppression (Soelle, 4).”
Lent invites us to be formed in a radically different way. Just as Christ held the sufferings of the world in his body, we can practice lent by holding our collective suffering.
Suffering is Collective
In the West sin is often seen as a list of bad behaviors, choices, and morals. This view of sin makes it easy for me to excuse myself from the sufferings of others. I am only responsible for myself.
Social anthropologist Melba Padilla Maggay teaches us a non-western way of viewing sin as social disharmony (Maggay, 38). With this collective view of sin there is “the sense that a whole community is responsible for the breakdown of life systems…(Maggay, 39).” In this way, our suffering is also held collectively. Liberation theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez wrote, “For each of us our sorrows are deeply personal. For all of us our sorrows, too, are universal (Gutiérrez, 34).”
I am responsible for our racist and biased social systems just as I am also suppressed by such systems. When we view sin as broken relationships and a failure to fulfill our responsibilities to our community, then we are all mutually responsible for holding the sufferings of our sisters and brothers.
Furthermore Gutiérrez asserts that a Western understanding of suffering overlooks a crucial reality. He writes, “The West has not had a theology of the evil of misfortune, the evil suffered by the innocent (Gutiérrez, xv).” Tragedy does not discern between deserving and undeserving. Triumphalism does not understand this. Triumphalism does not see the masses; it does not account for the innocent who do not have the privilege or opportunities to just work harder.
In this century we can move faster and travel farther, we can live longer and know more. We have advanced technology, but we are not better. We are the same human beings capable of great evil with the capacity for extreme hatred. We are not a better society.
So I invite you this season to the practice of holding our collective suffering:
1. For some of us with too much to bear in this season, this practice means to share your burden with others. Allow us to carry your burdens with you.
2. For others of us this practice means to acknowledge and hold our collective sins and our collective injustices. We are hatred. We are unjust. We are pride. We are power hungry. We are insecure. We are self centered.
And together we continue the prayer that has been prayed for centuries:
“Lord Jesus Christ Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.”
*This blog series is my own journey to de-westernize the ways that Western values have distorted my spirituality. This series is not a criticism of Western spiritual traditions. See series Introduction: This is my Un-Forming for more info.
- Gutiérrez, Gustavo. On Job: God Talk and the Suffering of the Innocent. New York: Orbis Books, 1987.
- Padilla Maggay, Melba. “A Religion of Guilt Encounters A Religion of Power.” The Gospel in Culture: Contextualization Issues through Asian Eyes.Manila: OMF Literature Inc., 2013.
- Soelle, Dorothee. Suffering. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1984.