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.