“At the gate there lay a beggar named Lazarus.” (Lk) (photo: SEAV, Rome)
“A priest traveling the same road passed by on the other side.” (Lk) (photo: Richard Walker)
“My days have passed…every fibre of my heart is broken.” (Job) (photo: SEAV, Rome)
“When were you in prison, Lord?” (Mt) (photo: John K. Isaac)
“Woe to that man through whom scandal comes!” (Mt) (photo: Rev. Richard Mooney)
The poor, the hungry, the aged, victims of prejudice, prisoners we speak of people in groups and often either accept or dismiss them on that basis. One obvious reason for this is that man is, by his very nature, a social being. We think of ourselves and others in certain categories; men or women, old or young, sick or well, Christian, Muslim, Jew. We feel connected to others who are like us in some way, or who share with us some common characteristic or bond.
The benefit of such grouping is that it enables us to learn. From the time we are born we are taught to simplify our understanding of the world around us by distinguishing likenesses and differences. However, this way of thinking can become dangerous if we allow it to blind us, or if we reject people because we see them as being different simply because they belong to groups with which we cannot identify. Whether it stems from prejudice, hatred, neglect or indifference, much human suffering is caused by this type of misconception.
Human suffering such as this can be alleviated because it is of a type over which we have control and which we can either prevent or eliminate. It is the moral, psychological and even physical suffering which results from sins of prejudice, greed, pride and neglect, or which if it is not caused by such sins, is intensified by them.
The social aspects of suffering have three dimensions. The first is the sharing that those who suffer have in the sufferings of Christ. When these are endured for the love of Christ, and in union with His Passion, they have deep sociological effects. As St. Paul writes, Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christs afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the Church. (Colossians 1:24) That this social aspect of suffering benefits all of mankind is reaffirmed by the Holy Father in his letter on human suffering Those who share in the sufferings of Christ preserve in their own sufferings a very special particle of the infinite treasure of the worlds Redemption, and can share this treasure with others. Moreover, he tells us that suffering is both a trial and a mystery which is present in the world in order to release love, in order to give birth to works of love toward neighbor, in order to transform the whole of human civilization into a civilization of love.
The second sociological implication of suffering is caused by an absence of love toward those whom we perceive as belonging to certain groups (prejudice). On the other hand, suffering can be caused by neglect of a group such as the sick. The absence of love is sin. This creates or prolongs suffering. In this way it afflicts others with pain.
In war, which results in suffering beyond reckoning, mankind puts the boundaries of geography above the unbounded love of God and His commandment to love even our enemy. This is the most hideous sociological aspect of suffering.
Today there is being unveiled another aspect of human suffering. Each year in the United States alone, thousands of cases of child abuse are reported. Many children suffer physically, and over the long term emotionally, from lack of love. These children are blameless victims. Their suffering is inflicted by the uncontrolled anger of immature parents as well as by sick individuals who subject them to physical and moral abuses.
Recently the medical profession has produced many articles in its journals recognizing that much human illness is directly caused by emotional suffering such as stress, loneliness and neglect. For example, a child becomes sick when his classmates decide not to speak to him all day. If neglect and loneliness can make us ill, love can help to heal us. All the more reason then for the true Christian to seek out the abandoned, the ignored, the neglected, the friendless, the desolate and the outcast.
Of all the causes of social human suffering, the most pervasive is prejudice. This suffering arises from ungrounded fears and myths passed on from generation to generation. It exhibits itself in unfair practices in housing, zoning and socializing. It tries to hide at times under the guise of ethnic jokes and remarks aimed at people of different races, color, religions or culture. Even good Christians unthinkingly indulge in this practice unmindful of the human suffering it causes.
Like the sick, the elderly often suffer from neglect which causes loneliness and illness. In many cases their pain is compounded by poverty. Our society, unlike other cultures, seems to worship youth. This can make people in their declining years feel superfluous and useless. The pain of those older than we can so easily be alleviated by a visit, a smile, a letter, a phone call all such simple ways to lessen suffering.
Prisoners are often subject to rejection and loneliness. Their sufferings are generated by shame and humiliation because they are ostracized from society. The acknowledgement of guilt and separation from family and friends adds to their pain. Some of this pain can be relieved by writing or visiting those in prison, or providing moral support to a prisoners family who also suffer shame and embarrassment. It is important to provide support to a prisoner once he is released from jail for that is when his self-respect is most vulnerable. An ex-prisoner seeking employment is possibly one of the most discriminated against.
Poverty is not a state people choose. More often than not it is an accident of birth. Poverty is also the result of unjust structures, since the resources of the earth are here for all. It brings with it other ills such as hunger, illness, inadequate education, lack of opportunity and lack of hope, all of which are self-generating and continue the suffering.
What are our obligations to the poor? When he visited the United States in 1979, Pope John Paul II answered this question in this way: The poor of the United States and of the world are your brothers and sisters in Christ. You must never be content to leave them just the crumbs from the feast. You must take of your substance and not just of your abundance in order to help them. And you must treat them like guests at your family table.
The Pope is alluding to the third social aspect of suffering: that it offers us an opportunity to show our love for God. His letter on suffering tells us that we are no closer to God than we are to each person we meet. We are closer to God when we are kinder to the person we least like.
Love is the greatest sacrifice. It is also a difficult discipline. To reach out and help heal physical, mental and emotional suffering is what it means to be a Christian. Christ Himself, the Holy Father reminds us, is the one who receives help when this is given to every suffering person without exception. He Himself is present in the suffering person. The Holy Fathers letter on suffering is, as he himself says, disturbing in that it reminds us that no matter what we think being a Christian is, Christ has a different view: I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink; I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was in prison and you came to me I say to you, as you did it to the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.
Therefore, if we would take this Christian approach to suffering, we will visit the sick, be concerned about the imprisoned, become involved in the hunger of the poor at home and abroad, forsake the ethnic slur. If we remember that they are Christ.
Veronica Treanor, an anthropologist, is a former editor of Catholic Near East Magazine.