When Suffering Overwhelms

I often listen to movie soundtracks from large sweeping epics of films as a backdrop to my workdays. Movies like “Legends of the Fall,” “Last of the Mohicans,” “Out of Africa,”and “The Mission.” Rarely are there singing voices in the soundtracks I prefer; this allows me to concentrate and focus on writing or contemplating one idea or another. And for the last dozen years or so throughout Lent—and especially as I reflect on and write my Holy Week sermons—I listen to the soundtrack from “Schindler’s List.” I’ve only seen the movie a couple of times, but I know the haunting music that John Williams and Itzhak Perlman co-wrote very well. The way the violin takes center stage throughout many of the pieces, providing movement and giving a depth to the story that both crushes the soul and lifts the heart. 

A Palm Sunday sermon on Mark’s Passion.

I listen to it during Lent and Holy Week because of the backdrop of the human suffering of the Jewish people during the Nazi regime in Poland and the hope and audacity shown by Oskar Schindler who saves so many Jewish people as employees in his factory. There’s such a senseless injustice to the fascism; people murdered simply because of how they worshipped, because of who they were. Listening to the music helps me to reframe the story of Jesus’ crucifixion from just a mere bump in the road on the way to planning for Easter to a much deeper appreciation of the injustice and cruelty of his death. I am able to pause and contemplate the suffering experienced by Jesus and his followers. As theologian Dr. Margaret Farley put it, “At the heart of the Christian symbol of the cross has been a kind of paradigm of human suffering where bodies are destroyed, minds ravaged, and spirits broken, in the agonies of human history when peoples subjugate peoples, families are rent asunder by abuse and starvation, and everywhere there is relentless dying.” The suffering we heard about this morning in our Passion reading comes about because of injustice, it encapsulates “the kind of suffering that does not have to be” as Dr. Farley puts it. And, as we know from both Nazi Germany and the senseless cruelties in our day, that kind of suffering sadly continues even now.

Because sometimes people who hold power seek to destroy the lives of others simply because they think it is expedient for them. You could hear it today in our Passion when the chief priests along with the elders and scribes consulted with one another and decided to bring Jesus to the Roman governor. Pilate questions Jesus, and then sensing that this is really about jealousy—that the ones in power just want to be done with him—he tries to have Jesus released. Pilate brings out a prisoner who had been charged with committing murder during an insurrection attempting to overthrow the government and places him alongside Jesus. “Which do you want me to release to you? Which one of these prisoners shouldn’t face the death penalty?”

But the religious leaders had made their way into the crowd, encouraging them to ask for the insurrectionist—certainly he’s not that bad, he’s just one of us wanting to be free of that oppressive regime—and to call for Pilate to crucify Jesus. The crowd follows along, demanding Jesus’ death. Pilat’s no fool, he sees how whipped up the crowd is, and it doesn’t really matter to him in the end anyway, so he hands Jesus over to be flogged and crucified. Their bloodthirst is satisfied as they watch Jesus be tortured. The soldiers taunt him, mock him, forcing a crown fashioned out of thorns onto his head. And the crowd seemingly approves. Or at least doesn’t say anything to stop it. Cruelty reigns at least for now.

As the music plays in the background, I cannot help but imagine lines of Jews as they are corralled onto freight trains to head off to Auschwitz or Birkenau or Buchenwald or Dachau. Of the way the crowd of normal German citizens turns on an individual or a group seeing them as “other” and lashing out. It’s a narrative known only too well by anyone who’s deemed a minority in our country. Hateful comments and hate crimes perpetrated against Latinx people in our country, or against Native Americans, or those of Asian descent or our Black neighbors have been on the rise recently and have been a part of the fabric of our nation since its beginning. While it may seem like a big leap from acts of hate to concentration camps, the more we see deeds of aggression and hate become normalized, the closer we get there. Once someone is dehumanized, all bets are off. 

What that should lead us to as Christians is, as Dr. Farley describes it, a cry for there be significant change. For there to be an end to hate-fueled acts. As she puts it, “Christianity is a religion of resistance and hope. The point of the cross is not finally suffering and death; it is rather, that a relationship holds. There is a love stronger than death that can withstand whatever the forces of evil do against it, and that can hold suffering even as it struggles to alleviate it.” 

The world threw all of its worst at Jesus—the one who did not sin, the one who embodied love—and he held that suffering focused against him. And it is through his suffering and death that we now have a God who suffers with us. God intimately feels when anguish of any kind—and especially that due to injustice—is experienced by any of us. God knows the pain deep inside. God recalls the horror and the God-forsakenness of that moment. Which is an odd way to put it, but one expressed fully by German theologian Jürgan Moltmann in his book The Crucified God. God experiences that suffering on the cross in God’s self fully. But that does something extraordinary. Moltmann writes, “God allows himself to be humiliated and crucified in the Son, in order to free the oppressors and the oppressed from oppression and to open up to them the situation of free, sympathetic humanity.” To open to them the way of love.

Friends, on the cross, the relationship holds. God’s love doesn’t end for any in this world—oppressor and oppressed alike.  God offers the way of hope and reconciliation. And in a week’s time we’ll hear again just what that love will fully set in motion, but we do well to hold tightly to Dr. Farley’s words during this Holy Week: “the meaning of the cross can be understood finally only within the whole of the good news of the promise of God to overcome terror, enfold us in Life, and dwell with us forever.” May we let those words wash over us as we walk the way of the cross.

Image by Ron Porter from Pixabay

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