We are watching scenes of suffering, devastation and despair on our TVs, and in our living rooms. And we respond in different ways. We might switch off the horror or change channels (being spoilt for choice). Or we grow immune, moving into a “death with dinner” mode as we watch suffering over a meal. We may feel depressed asking “Where is God?”, “How can we make sense of this”? Or we may wonder if we should, as God’s people, respond to this suffering in our world? The suffering of “our neighbours".
Daniel Migliore in Faith Seeking Understanding* suggests a threefold
Biblical response to suffering and evil:
Acknowledging the Providence of God in the midst of it
Watching and praying
We cannot make sense of suffering. But as we ask “Where is God?” we can know that in the midst of terrible evil and suffering, as Migliore affirms, God’s Providence is “rooted...in the gospel of the crucified Lord”. I find that a powerful reminder as I watch scenes on TV. God is both immanent and transcendent. We believe in a God who is with us, who suffered with us. We remember that Christ was a refugee, his childhood clouded by the slaughter of infants. And that at the end he faced torture, abandonment and death. Our God does not stand aloof from human suffering.
We respond to suffering by watching and praying as Christ asked his disciples to do in the garden of Gethsemane. We pray as He taught: “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done... forgive us our sins... deliver us from evil.” We pray, not just for our own sins and evil, but the sins of our world and deliverance from evil. And we ask ourselves how we can bring His Kingdom at these times, how we become part of God’s answer. As Migliore puts it “a Christian response to the reality of evil will always first of all be practical. Solidarity with victims and costly ministry to the wounded and the dying are primary forms of Christian witness in the midst of shattering events.”
Yet, these situations are far away. We have our own frenetic lives. Can we act in practical ways in solidarity with those who suffer? We should, because Christ calls us to love our neighbour. And we can, because He showed us how.
The story of the Good Samaritan declares that our “neighbour” is not the person we know or like. As Christ asked, “If you love those who love you, what reward will you have?” It is the stranger, the outsider who needs our help. The Samaritan was the enemy of the man he helped. This is indeed “costly ministry to the wounded”. We are called not just to pray; I am sure the passing clerics and priests prayed for the injured man on the roadside. We are called to give and invest our time, emotions, commitment, money, for those who will give nothing back. No conversion, no church attendance, no statistics to present to the church as “Growth” to prove successful ministries.
So who are our neighbours? Are they not the suffering in Gaza, Israel, Iraq, Syria, South Sudan, or those in West Africa amidst the Ebola epidemic? Closer to home it is the unemployed, disaffected, protestors, paramilitaries and their victims, Muslims, Romanians, Big Issue sellers. This is not an easy thing being asked of us. It probably makes us, if we are honest, recoil with fear and apprehension, even distaste.
In the great judgement scene in the gospel of Matthew, Christ defines the faithful servants: those who responded to the suffering in our world. Why? Because, besides salvation, when Jesus brought the Kingdom of God on earth: the undeserving received grace; the sick, healing; the outcast, acceptance; the dead, life; the sinners, forgiveness.
We are called to love our neighbour be it here or elsewhere. May we find practical ways to do so, at such times as these.
* Eerdmans, 2004.
Maithrie White is Chairperson of Transforming the Mind (www.transformingthemind.org/) and a member of the Board of Contemporary Christianity.