In the past few weeks, there have been renewed debates throughout the US about death with dignity laws and the role of government is providing or securing access to health care. The tragic story of Brittany Maynard and the incessant election-year politicking about the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) have made issues about human suffering more visible and volatile than usual. These are topics I deal with in two courses I am teaching this semester–one about Christian ethics and the other about bioethics.
I truly admire those who work in the presence of suffering daily by caring for others. It’s difficult to even talk about suffering in the classroom day after day. My intention behind doing so is for my students to resist simplistic responses by either valorizing human pain and suffering or retreating to escapism. I caution them about using religion to legitimize suffering when it accompanies from evil, yet encourage them to see the meaning in suffering as well. We try to maintain the fine line of affirming the experiences of those who claim to gain strength or some other good from their pain without crossing into discourse that names the pain itself as something good. We debate whether there can be any way of discussing suffering as redemptive. We discuss disparities in medical treatment and health care along economic, racial, gendered, cultural, and international divides and what the responses of clergy, medical providers, and everyday people to remedy them.
Through these heavy debates, I’ve gained more clarity about the ways that suffering is often a result of human injustice and I’m deeply saddened by it. How do I come to terms with the astounding number of expensive cosmetic surgeries done for purely aesthetic reasons in the US when others in the US and around the world cannot afford procedures that prevent loss of life and livelihood? What sense can I make from the knowledge that some starve and others die from lack of access to clean water while we Americans use clean, drinkable water to flush our toilets and water our lawns? Some causes for suffering are caused by a true lack of resources, but many others result from disparities in distribution of resources. I am particularly troubled by the latter.
I am grateful for the work of feminist theologian Margaret Farley for moving me from sorrow to a disposition that might prove more helpful. Farley discusses the ways that compassion, joined with respect, will address human rights and the roots of injustice in her book Compassionate Respect: A Feminist Approach to Medical Ethics and Other Questions. Farley raises several medical ethical issues, including those related to the treatment and prevention of HIV/AIDS throughout the world. She isn’t afraid to implicate religious leaders’ reluctance to address and even change teachings that reinforce taboos and silence around human sexuality.
As I read my copy of Compassionate Respect again earlier this week, I was struck by Farley’s discussion of Jesus and his followers’ obligation to address suffering. Farley draws an important lesson from a story in the Christian Bible’s Gospel of Mark 10:35-39 and the Gospel of Matthew 20:20-21. In these accounts, Jesus, James, John, and the mother of James and John are traveling when the two men (or their mother depending on which account you read) ask whether they can have positions of power and privilege next to Jesus. Their question is followed by Jesus’ cryptic response:
And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” 38 But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” (Mark 10:37-38 NRSV)
Although James and John do not understand his meaning, the Christian tradition teaches that Jesus is referring to the cup of suffering of all humankind. His followers are called to share more than the experience of suffering that he endures. They share in the burden of bringing about the end of unjust suffering. Farley explains:
The cup indeed signifies human suffering in all of its forms—sickness and tragic accidents, aging and diminishment, miscommunications and disparities in love, failures and catastrophes great and small. Yet in the context of the passion and death of Jesus, the sufferings that are central to the image are of a particular kind. They are the sufferings that are the consequence of injustice. They are the sufferings, therefore, that do not have to be. The suffering that results from violence and abuse, indifference and false judgment, exploitation and oppression, abandonment and cruelty is suffering that cries out for an end not in death but in change. (Compassionate Respect, 70-1)
Farley’s words compel me. They’ve moved me beyond an impotent sadness and defeat. I’m compelled to find ways I can act in the world. Beyond writing and voting and teaching, I seek to find ways to be bodily present and active in bringing about change. It’s a meager start, but this weekend, I’ll be participating in the Waco CROP Hunger Walk to raise funds to end hunger in the U.S. and around the world. (Find me on Twitter or Google+ for more details if you are interested in hearing more.) Acknowledging that a walk in the park does not demand much from me, I commit to do more to address suffering in our world.
Elise M. Edwards, PhD is a Lecturer in Christian Ethics at Baylor University and a graduate of Claremont Graduate University. She is also a registered architect in the State of Florida. Her interdisciplinary work examines issues of civic engagement and how beliefs and commitments are expressed publicly. As a black feminist, she primarily focuses on cultural expressions by, for, and about women and marginalized communities. Follow her on twitter, google+ or academia.edu.
16 thoughts on “Responding to Human Suffering by Elise M. Edwards”
I think you are right, that doing something, even if it seems a small step, is one way to combat despair about the state of the world. And when despair is at bay, we can take the next step and the next. Whether we change “the whole world” or not, we can make a difference for some.
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Thank you for the encouragement to me and others who wish to make a difference.
This is amazing and beautiful post! I enjoyed reading the details of your post!
On human suffering. It’s not just the obvious problems. The wealthiest can be the most miserable, and secretly desperate for help, while the poor, barely eking out a living, can be joyous and free. The happiest character in the Gospels is that old widow with her tiny offering.
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This is very true! We suffer when we lack love and human connection.
Well done you! Much appreciated.
When I took hospice training and when I was an AIDS emotional support volunteer, our teachers told us to NOT say, “It’s God’s will that you’re dying.” What they taught us to do was to be kind and supportive.
Comments about God’s will for a person’s death are unfortunately too common, which is one of my motivations for discussing it with students. Some of them will get a thorough training as they move forward in their careers, but it’s the ones who lack such direct training that I’m concerned about.
Yes, any small step in the direction of justice moves that arc in the right way (…a la Martin Luther King). A powerful piece, Elise. My only quibble is the word “impotent,” since it’s mostly associated with male sexuality. I’d use “powerless.”
Thank you! I did hesitate about using the word “impotent” but decided to keep it since it refers to a kind of powerlessness with the (male) body’s inability to function properly. I guess I was trying to communicate a sense powerlessness that felt like I didn’t know what to do with my body. My mind wants to fight against suffering, but my body doesn’t respond adequately.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the primary definition of “impotence” is “Want of strength or power to perform anything; utter inability or weakness; helplessness.” The association with the inability of a male to perform his sexual function is a secondary definition.
Oxford English Dictionary accessed online 11.22.2014.
That may be true in England, but if you ask anyone in the U.S. what impotence means, they’ll tell you differently. Within American culture, this word is directly and primarily connected to male sexuality.
Thanks for your work with the medical profession and with anybody who wants to explore this subject.
As a disabled person, I have a complex relationship to assisted suicide. Many disabled people are
angry at the medical profession assuming that we would rather be dead than disabled and some
unethical ones ( ones who have not taken your class) just put DNR (Do Not Recusitate ) tags on
us when we are in the hospital. Do people sometimes choose assisted suicide because life
as a disabled person is so so difficult. What if disabled people where supported and encouraged,
required to participate in life in any what we can? Being disabled has complicated my position on
abortion as well. As disabled advocates we were talking to a “supporter” of our requests and
there came talk about abortion ( and right wing nut jobs). She mentioned that she had had
an abortion. She had an ultrasound and found out the baby would be disabled. So she aborted the child.
Wow! And she had the gall to tell us that without a glitch or even knowledge of what she was saying.
Our culture’s policies and programs for disabled people reflect people’s desire to eliminate suffering
(they think we are suffering by simply existing, I guess) by eliminating anybody or anything that
brings up complex and difficult feelings. Thanks for your work. Wish there were many more doing
So much to think about Elise. Many thanks.