Friday, November 04, 2005


I was reminded by something I was reading on the web the other day about the disturbing concurrence of some militantly recidivist Christians and Muslims that the suffering incurred in recent earthquakes is 'divine punishment'. This is about as obscenely wrong as you can get, theologically. The modern sensibility is, of course the reverse - to ask how love-made-flesh can be accounted for in terms of of such events. This from Rowan Williams' Writing in the Dust (Hodder, 2001), in the aftermath of 9/11.

Once the concreteness of another’s suffering has registered, you cannot simply use them to think with. You have to be patient with the meanings that the other is struggling to find or form for themselves. Acknowledging the experience you share is the only thing that opens up the possibility of finding a meaning that can be shared, a language to speak together.

[P]erhaps this is something of what some of our familiar Christian texts and stories point us towards. In the ninth chapter of the Gospel of John [9. 1-16], Jesus encounters a man blind from birth, and his disciples encourage him to speculate on why he should suffer in this way. Who is being punished, the man or his parents? They are inviting Jesus to impose a meaning on someone’s suffering within a calculus that assumes a neat relation between suffering and guilt.

Jesus declines; guilt is irrelevant, and all that can be said is that this blindness is an opportunity for God’s glory to become manifest. The meaning is not in the system operated by the disciples, but in the unknown future where healing will occur. As the story proceeds, we see how the fact of healing becomes a problem in turn, because it does not fit the available categories; an outsider, a suspected heretic, has performed it. The blind man is again faced with people, this time the religious authorities, who want him to accept a meaning imposed by others, and he resists. It is this resistance, which proves costly for him, that brings him finally to faith.What should strike us is Jesus’ initial refusal to make the blind man’s condition a proof of anything – divine justice or injustice, human sin or innocence.

We who call ourselves Christian have every reason to say no to any system at all that uses suffering to prove things: to prove the sufferer’s guilt as a sinner being punished, or – perhaps more frequently in our world – to prove the sufferer’s innocence as a martyr whose heroism must never be forgotten or betrayed. If this man’s condition is to have a symbolic value – and in some sense it clearly does in the text – it is as the place where a communication from God occurs – the opening up of something that is not part of the competing systems operated by human beings.

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