When I was in seminary, I heard a brilliant observation from one of the Teaching Assistants, Cassondra. She said that it does not do us any good to play “Who has the bigger slice of the Sufferin’ pie.”
She was and is right. When we engage in verbal competitions to receive acknowledgement that our suffering was greater than someone else’s what do we hope to achieve? Does that in any way ease our pain, or end our suffering? Of course not. While the recognition that we suffer, that we are in pain is important, it does not require that our suffering be placed above all others. Suffering is like sin in that way. All sin is a problem, and my sin is as bad for me as your sin is for you. Suffering too is a problem, and my suffering is as painful for me as yours is for you. So instead of battling it out for most suffering title, let us draw close to God and one another to find healing and wholeness. All suffering is evil, and against the will of God. God’s desire is to make us whole, not tear us down through pain and torment. If God preferred us to be in a state of pain, then Christ would not have come to take our suffering upon himself and die the death our sin warrants upon the cross. Yet that is precisely what Christ, God the Son, did.
Our suffering is not more noble than another, and we are not more righteous for bearing it than any other. What we are is struggling under the weight of trial and tribulation. We can struggle separately or together. We can refuse to come together, to comfort one another, and to set aside the human desire for hierarchy. The Apostle Paul wrote to the Church of Galatia: “Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2 NRSV). If our burden is suffering, and for many it is, then should we not bear one another’s sufferings? Some suffer from physical ailments, chronic diseases, and the pain of the body aging. Others suffer from prejudice, discrimination, and persecution. None of these is greater than another. They are all evils humanity experiences. The challenge for Christians is to be with those who suffer, work to alleviate their pain, and stop the cause of their suffering wherever possible. Christ did not say, “I am holy because I suffer.” Instead, his testimony was that he came to we who suffer to be with us: Emmanuel. While we are struggling against one another for the biggest piece of the Sufferin’ pie, opportunities to heal and find hope slip through our fingers. Can a white woman oppressed for her gender find healing and hope with a black man persecuted for his skin color? Yes, I know because I have. I do not have to have experienced your suffering first hand to know that your suffering hurts you and is wrong. I can look at someone as a beloved of God who is in pain and seek to comfort, be present with, and strive to help overcome. Whether our differences and therefore our sufferings are caused by religious belief, the color of our skin, our gender, our socio-economic status, our legal status, our sexual preference or any other category used to distinguish and then to oppress, we can be united in the truth that we are one in Christ, and in him all sufferings will be extinguished for all time.
I have been watching for over a week the events of Ferguson, Missouri unfolding when a young man was killed. It was not the color of his skin, his gender, or the status of his criminal record that made my heart break, but the loss of a life that God cherished, and seeing the suffering on the faces of his family, friends, and community. In the aftermath I have heard echos of the battle, the fight for the biggest slice of Sufferin’ pie. While there are cries for justice, I really hear many more cries for vengeance. While there are responses of silence, I really sense great apathy. Will violence bring about change? It was violence that brought us to this point. I would not have had his life ended. I would gladly bring him back and restore him to his loved ones, if it were within my power. Since I cannot, I pray and stay mindful of the suffering all around. I work to change how I react to suffering, how I contribute to the sufferings of others, and seek to be a loving presence of Christ for those who are suffering. I am only able to do this because someone put aside their battle for the Sufferin’ pie to sit down and be with me. Together we broke bread and mourned our pain, and then took comfort and hope in one another and our Lord. To this I believe we have been called, for this the world, in all its suffering, cries out. Perhaps the day will come when we can put down the knives and the battle for the pie, and take up the cup of salvation and break the bread of heaven. There is healing there.