Ever since I listened to clip of an interview of the now deceased Congressman John Robert Lewis by Fareed Zakaria, on Sunday, I have been mulling the statement that was one of the guiding principles and beacons of the life of the activist for racial justice: Unearned suffering is redemptive.
Searching in various places for how others have considered such a pungent, penetrating and provocative mantra, I found these words on the reformjudaism.org website, words written by W. Gunther Plaut*:
(Many Jews) ask: how could a benevolent God permit the Holocaust-the murder of six million innocent men, women, and children whose only offense was being Jewish? Where was divine help when God’s chosen people were being slaughtered? The biblical Book of Job is the most famous attempt in our tradition to wrestle with the issue. The hero of the prose poem suffers a personal ‘holocaust’: his family is wiped out, his wealth and health are taken from him, and he sits on the dung heap challenging God and his comforters to let him know why all this has happened to him. The answer he receives in the end does not tell him the reason—on the contrary, it teaches him that God cannot be questioned by humans. While Job accepts the divine reply, many moderns cannot and do not.
I believe that God’s possibilities of and caring are endless in space and in time. There is an essential mystery here that will always lie beyond my comprehensions. If I cannot fathom how a piece of silicone can perform its tasks, how much more reason do I have to stand in awe before the presence of the One who made the world and its resources and put them at our disposal….The God who suffered and wept with us during the Holocaust is my God. To say this is a statement of faith, and admittedly not grounded on scientific proof. But that does not make it any less real.
If there is any people who “know,” embody, incarnate and illustrate unearned suffering, it is the Jewish people…slavery in Egypt, plagues, targeted for millennia, incinerated by the Third Reich and even today, besieged by growing numbers of incidents of anti-Semitism. And yet, as a people, not only is their faith not shaken or evaporated, dissipated or eroded, it has not turned bitter. Never far from the consciousness of the Jewish tribe is their ‘exodus,’ their liberation from slavery in Egypt, a story that has become an integral component of the air they breathe in every generation. And while Jews are renowned for conceding that they cannot and do not “know the mind of God,” nevertheless, they are firm in their shared commitment to a homeland. If you have spent time in homelessness, feeling, for example, that you are living (either or both literally or metaphorically) out of your car, you might have a glimpse of how important having a home really is. And if you and I, or our families, had undergone the traumas in Auschwitz, Birkenau, Bergen-Belsen, Dachau, and those stories had clung like mud to the shoes of our ancestors, and to the bones and the nerves of those who survived, we too would be among those not merely advocating for a homeland for our people, but, back immediately after the war, but perhaps even actively campaigning for such a homeland.
From the website, islam-today.co.uk/suffering, we read these words:
The novelist Somerset Maugham had trained as a doctor. In his autobiography, The Summing-Up, he confesses that, as a Christian, he had been taught the redemptive value of suffering. His experience in working in medical wards persuaded him that such a view was wrong. He saw how suffering stunted and impoverished people, mentally and physically. He did not perceive any spiritual elevation, and inner refinement or meaning brought on by much anguish and pain. That sad realisation partly led Maugham to lose his faith in a benevolent and loving God. ..There is a difference however, between voluntary and involuntary suffering. Maugham’s patients had not freely chosen to suffer. They had nor of their own free will embraced their pain as means to redemption. It came on them as a necessity imposed by physiological conditions over which they had not control. This is not the case with Jesus Christ. The teaching of the Christian Church is that suffering may have a redemptive quality, the supreme and normative example being, that of the sacrifice of the Cross. A supernatural event willed by God as indispensable to the salvation of humanity, to which Jesus freely submitted. Accordingly, article 31 in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer states that: ‘The Offering of Christ once made is that perfect redemption, propitiation and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world.’ And the Catholic Catechism affirms that it is ‘love to the end that confers on Christ’s sacrifice its value as redemption and reparation….
It is well-known how Islam denies the reality of the Crucifixion. Also, the Qur’an, Chapter al-Najim, verse 38, seems to say that no person can bear the sins fo burden of another. In that sense, Islam’s Holy Book rejects the whole Christian theological idea of Atonement. All Muslims appear at one about that. On the other hand, it is distinctive of the Shi’a tradition that it crucially focuses on the martyrdom of Imams like Ali, Hassan and Husayn. Here suffering takes on a more profound meaning and purpose. Husayn particularly is seen as victorious at Karbala despite undergoing a cruel and excruciating death at the hands of his unrighteous enemies.
John Robert Lewis is being hailed as a hero in his unwavering commitment to the freeing of African Americans from their deeply rooted second-class status, including the unearned suffering at being beaten by police batons after crossing the Edmund Pettus bridge, in a peaceful march for the right to vote. Unwavering too was Lewis’s commitment to non-violence and his exhortations to the next generations not only never to lose sight of the prize but also never to grow bitter.
In the Christian lexicon, redemption and salvation are tightly woven. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church says this:
The idea of redemption is common to many religions, being based on the desire of man to be delivered from sin, suffering and death. Christianity claims that in it alone has it become a fact through the Incarnation and the Death of Christ. It is viewed by theologians under the double aspect of deliverance from sin and restoration of man and the world to communion with God.
Salvation, too is the ‘saving of human beings from sin and its consequences, which include death and separation from God by Christ’s death and resurrection. (Wikipedia)
The deep and inextricable link between the “sin” (as in ‘original sin’) and the fundamental nature of man, remains a chicken bone stuck in the craw of this scribe. It is not to deny our shared capacity for evil; rather it is to “frame” the definition of the human being in this epistemological, theological, spiritual, and especially ethical “cell”…that is so upsetting.
From matthewfox.org, referring to his book, Original Blessing, we find this:
Fox believes that the teaching of original sin—which Jesus never heard of (no Jew has) has served empire builders very well but that original blessing—the awareness of the goodness of creation—must take precedence. The implications are profound for psychological as well as sociological and ecological transformation. Oppressed people everywhere will recognize the difference. Fox lays out the ancient but often neglected (and sometimes condemned) creation spiritual tradition in Original Blessing.
It would seem clearly evident, especially from yesterday’s funeral service in Ebenezeer Baptist Church in Atlanta, that the unearned suffering of the beatings, the arrests, the incarcerations and the original extreme poverty which characterize the life of John Robert Lewis had a profound impact on his body, mind, spirit and purpose. From rushing to hold the meagre house from losing its moorings in the wind, with the rest of his family (literally) to his invitation to join the civil rights campaigns of Dr. Martin Luther King, under the tutelage of James Morris Lawson in nonviolent civil disobedience, to his speech at the Lincoln Memorial and the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, to his life-long commitment to find the best in everyone, John Lewis has been legitimately enshrined in the lexicon of American political, historical, and spiritual heroes.
It would be both quixotic and foolish to attempt to trace a cause-effect link between the unearned suffering in Lewis’s life, and his spiritual maturity. Suffice it to say, not only has he “become a sermon” (in the words of Rev. Warnock at his funeral), but he has transcended the bounds of not merely civility, and visionary political judgement and activism, but even the bounds of what comprises revolution.
As Rev.Warnock ironically put it, it is not that John Lewis is on the side of history, but rather history is on the side of John Lewis, although it clearly was not when he began his life of “good trouble”. And, he made good trouble in the fight, not only for racial equality, but also for gender equality, worker rights, immigration rights, senior rights and also the right of the poor to a life of dignity and respect.
Beyond the logic of political strategy, tactics, theory and specific lobbying, Lewis incarnated an identity, (and from all reports that identity was as completely and totally authentic as it is possible for any human being to attain) that confronted his opponents with respect, dignity, non-violence and a degree of overt and demonstrable commitment that, after his eight decades, found the deputies saluting from the same constabulary who previously beat him and his activist colleagues.
Raised in a home in which support, love, encouragement, and blessing (in all of the various manifestations of that notion) abounded, and was shared among and between his parents and his siblings, John Lewis was moved by a radio address by Dr. King, and nurtured as a rookie in the circle of King’s activist cohorts.
The very antithesis of wealth, social status, hob-nobbing with the “rich” and the politically and culturally elite, John Lewis’s biography and his person are and will continue to light the darkness of political chicanery, deceit, dissembling, pursuit of personal glory, and the insatiable pursuit of political legacy, through offering himself as a humble servant.
So completely in contrast to the ‘stereotype of the “politician” the scheming, narcissistic, opportunistic sinister villain in contemporary history, John Lewis benefitted from the silent, and even unconscious comparison with what is conventionally considered the ‘norm’.
There are millions of people whose “unearned suffering” portrays and depicts a very different biography. Domestic violence has robbed too many children of their innocence, given that their experience of false and hollow accusations, and unearned suffering of physical, emotional and psychological abuse inside the home, twisted their early view of the nature of the world. If there did not seem to be allies inside the home, how could there possibly be allies and supporters outside the home. Nevertheless, it would be almost impossible even for those millions who are and have been abused by their families and their communities not to take heart, comfort and even inspiration from learning the details of the life of John Lewis. As openly acknowledged ‘hero’ to Barack Obama, who signed the Inauguration Program “This is for you!” to John Lewis, none of those listening, watching, reflecting on the biography, including the many legislative successes, could or would come away from this past week wondering if s/he has a role to play in the human (globally) pursuit of human rights, human dignity, human access to affordable food, health care, and basic necessities like water, clean air and personal safety and security.
The Jewish community has a movement named Tikkun Olam, “heal the world”…and the notion of the community which is central to the Jewish theology, spirituality and sheer survival, continues to remain a distant and often only vaguely perceived and conceived notion to the Christian community in which the individual is the object of God’s, and the world’s attention.
It is not only in pursuit of a healthy environment that we all need to start from the place of seeing ourselves and the rest of the world, as individuals and as communities, as bearing the marks and the potential of the divine. Preventing unearned suffering, as a means to ensuring public safety and security, has not been nearly as effective a “stance” for the body politic, as a ‘stance’ that originates in the seed of tolerance, hope, acceptance, and even love, first for one’s own being and then for the others in one’s circle, including even those considered sinister. It is only coming from our own insecurity, inadequacy, previously applied judgements (also the projections of the fears and anxieties of those others) that we start too many of our conversations, observations, perceptions and evaluations from a negative point of view. Cynicism is not exclusive to the current occupant of the oval office, although he depends on it for his political survival. Indifference, too, is not exclusive to those Republican sycophants who defend his abuses of others and especially of the truth.
Hope, optimism, courage, and a maturity that focuses on the “prize” that defines each individual’s and each group’s highest ideals are just some of the more obvious and yet required ingredients of a life well lived. And John Robert Lewis has been a high-profile gift to inspire, motivate, mentor and guide others in pursuit of what he termed “the beloved community”…..and isn’t belonging to a beloved community the goal of each of us?
*Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut was senior scholar at Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto and the editor and principal author of The Torah—a Modern Commentary. Rabbi Plaut passed away on February 9, 2012.