The Suffering God:  Where Humanity is Crucified

Syrian Refugees

“Jesus continues to die before our eyes; his death has not ended.  He suffers wherever people are tormented…. Insofar as we forget the continued dying of Jesus in the present we deny the passion itself.”                                                                           Dorothee Soelle

When we consider the growing inequity, grave injustices, and unspeakable violence in our world today, the question arises:  Where is God?  Is God looking on from a distance, impassive and unconcerned?  Worse yet, are these things God’s will?  Does God inflict poverty and oppression on some because they are less deserving than others?  Does God side with those who dominate through wealth, status, or military might?

Not at all.  The symbol of the cross belies the common assumption that God is at the apex of the established order looking down on us from heaven and that everyone gets what they deserve.  When we consider Jesus crucified and hanging on the cross, those who love him see God there.

In Night, the late Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel described a scene he witnessed in Auschwitz where a child was executed by hanging.  The suffering went on and on, and the other prisoners were forced to watch.  Wiesel wrote:  “Behind me, I heard [a man] asking:  ‘For God’s sake, where is God?’  And from within me, I heard a voice answer: ‘Where He is? This is where–hanging here from this gallows…’” It is God who suffers the torments of human injustice, the God who is Love.

In Experiences of God, theologian Jurgen Moltmann wrote about how he became aware of this God who was with him in suffering as a 19-year old German prisoner of war in an Allied Prison camp. He endured not only physical suffering and deprivation, but loss of meaning, since he had become aware of the evils of the Nazi regime.  Despairing and alone, while reading a copy of the New Testament and Psalms that had been provided to him, he came to experience the presence of “the crucified God” who was with him in his suffering.  He came to understand that the crucified Christ not only represents God’s forgiveness and love for sinners, but also God’s solidarity with all who suffer.  Suffering does not mean punishment or abandonment by God.  In Christ, we can come to know the presence and love of “God with us” even in the midst of our pain.  Moltmann wrote, “I am a Christian for Christ’s sake.  I found my desolation in him, and I found God in my desolation.”

The idea that God suffers is “foolishness” (1 Corinth. 1:25) to those who equate divinity with the values of the dominant culture and worldly systems of power.  The foolish idea that God could suffer is and always has been shocking, leading Martin Luther to speak of “the scandal of the cross.”  But for those who believe that “God was in Christ” (2 Corinth. 5:19, KJV), divine suffering is part of reality.  God was in Christ, experiencing oppression, judgment, torture, and execution at the hands of the Powers.  God was in Christ, even when Jesus felt abandoned and forsaken by God.  God was in Christ, loving and forgiving anyway, praying, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).

Christ is crucified wherever people suffer violence, injustice, or oppression.  According to conventional wisdom, it would be foolish to point to refugees or hungry children or homeless families or immigrants being deported or black men being targeted or Indigenous people stripped of their rights or people losing their healthcare or victims of killer drones or people incarcerated in Super-Max prisons or Guantanamo and say “God is there.”  But that kind of empathy for and identification with those who are “least, last, and lost” according to the dominant culture is precisely what Jesus’ life and teachings were all about.  This alternative view, in itself, undercuts the authority of today’s ruling Powers.  It exposes their cruel and unjust tactics, their desperate attempts to dominate the world, and their blatant and violent opposition to the God who is Love.

Still, in the story of Jesus, suffering and death are not the end.  The ruling Powers do not have the last word.  People who follow Jesus are called and empowered by the Holy Spirit to join with others to work for an inclusive and compassionate world and to live in opposition to the Powers.  We can even point toward the hoped-for healing, reconciliation, and mutual liberation of both oppressor and oppressed.  By trusting in the hope of resurrection, we are emboldened to walk with victims of injustice, even if it leads towards the cross.  As Moltmann said, “Every theology of the cross must end in a theology of resurrection.”

We will return to the theme of resurrection during the Easter Season.

Previous blog post:  “The Subversive Jesus

Upcoming blog post:  “Creation Crucified:  The Passion of the Earth”

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