My mom used to say I could bring anyone home except a Republican or a born-again Christian (by which she actually meant fundamentalist Christian). And the truth is that she would have very much welcomed both, if they were one of the many college friends I used take home with me for the weekend, because extravagant hospitality was kind of the basic organizing principle of my family. She would have given them a hard time – all in good fun, of course – but she would have welcomed them, and they would have loved her, because everyone loved my mom. She got along with everyone except idiots. (She really couldn’t abide idiots).
But as it turns out, I didn’t have any born-again or even Republican friends in college, and what my mom really meant, anyway, was that she’d rather I didn’t fall in love with one. But anyone else? That would be just fine. And she really meant it. I think she loved reliving her own youthful exuberance vicariously through me. Having come of age in the 60’s, she understood perfectly the sort of ardent conversion experience young adulthood can be – even if, as in my case, you’re not converting away from anything, but just passionately embracing your world and your values as your own, and not just as an inheritance, even if a welcome one.
So when I announced, after taking Intro to Philosophy: Food Ethics, that I was a vegetarian, Mom thought that was fine, especially since I could explain why. I got her a copy of The Moosewood Cookbook, and she discovered that you don’t really need meat at every meal. And when I brought home a black boyfriend, she loved him (he was pretty lovable, I’ll admit). Next was the Cuban girlfriend – she didn’t blink. Then the Methodist minister’s daughter (not Julie, the one before Julie) – even that didn’t phase her (but only because she was not a fundamentalist).
So when I announced that I was going to be majoring in Peace and Global Studies, I wasn’t anxious that my parents might suggest that I get a real degree, for all the money they were spending to send me to the most expensive liberal arts college in the state, for heaven’s sake. And I was right. My mom thought Peace and Global Studies was a splendid thing to major in, and she even got sort of intrigued. My mom had, among many other wonderful qualities, one of the sharpest intellects of anyone I’ve ever known, and a deeply curious mind, so there wasn’t much she wasn’t intrigued by. Everything I was studying was fair game for long conversations on the green couch by the wood stove in our big farmhouse kitchen.
I remember in particular a conversation on the couch about the concept of “structural violence.” I used the phrase and mom immediately perked up: “What does that mean, ‘structural violence’?” I started to explain, but she already had it figured out. “That’s the way oppressive structures – like racism, or poverty – do violence to people, right? And it can be really explicit violence, like lynching, but it can also be slower, or less direct violence, like the way a child’s mind and spirit and opportunities get more and more and more hemmed in by living in poverty.”
Exactly. Yeah, she was pretty awesome.
I’ve been thinking about that conversation with my mom a lot lately, in part because I’ve been thinking about suffering a lot lately. I’m thinking about suffering these days because I’m holding several friends in prayer who are suffering a lot right now. I’m also thinking about suffering these days because when I solicited topics for my daily Advent blogging (what was I thinking?), Ellen suggested I tackle the question, “Why is there suffering?” Ellen knows too much of suffering lately. I am quite sure I am entirely inadequate to the task of explaining suffering to her or anyone else. Indeed, the only sort of cosmic answer I know to that question is, “I have no idea.”
But still, I know a little bit about suffering, especially of the sort Ellen is experiencing right now, the suffering of losing someone very dear to you, way too young. For Ellen it was her brother, who died just a couple of weeks ago; for me it was my mom, who died almost twenty years ago.
I used to think there was a pretty clear distinction between the sort of suffering that stems from, well, life, you know? And the sort of suffering that stems from structural violence. I remember making this distinction to my mom in that conversation on the green couch, when she immediately got it about structural violence: “Yeah, and you know, it’s not like the world would be without suffering if we ended structural violence. People would still leave their lovers, and break each other’s hearts, and there would still be earthquakes and people would still die of natural causes. But war and poverty and racism? Seems like that sort of suffering is worth fighting against.” My mom, of course, entirely agreed, and enthusiastically endorsed my plan to be a Peacemaker (“A Profession for the Future,” remember Earlham friends?)
The more I learn of the world, though, and the ugly horrible ways that human structures work on it, the less I am convinced that such a stark distinction is meaningful. Cancer may not be a violent human structure, but industrialized agriculture certainly is, and so is toxic waste, and probably both contribute in ways known and unknown to many cancers. Hurricanes may not be violent human structures, but if they ramp up because of our addiction to fossil fuels, is the suffering in their wake an act of God, or the result of human structural violence? And if they wreak greatest havoc on the poorest and most wretched of the earth, what is the cause of that suffering? Mental illness may not be a violent structure created by human society (though I could be convinced otherwise). But if a brilliant and talented young man suffers from mental illness and turns to drug use to cope, and if our society maintains an absurdly ineffective and vindictive public policy around the sale and use of certain drugs, then is his death by overdose at least in part a result of structural violence?
I don’t know.
Why is there suffering? I just don’t know what the answer is. I’m pretty sure that even in a world entirely free of structural violence, my mom still would have collapsed one day while weeding the asparagus patch, and the aneurysm in her brain still would have killed her a couple of days later, just a few weeks short of her fifty-first birthday. I’m pretty sure that when I got around to trying to get pregnant at the ripe old age of thirty-four, my ovaries still would have been old souls that were no longer going to produce viable eggs, because in the law of averages, someone has to be an outlier, and that just happened to be me.
But I am also pretty sure that a whole lot of suffering in the world – so very much of it – is caused by structural violence. Which is another way of saying that a whole lot of the suffering in the world is caused by sin. That, of course, is a word which is sort of out of vogue these days, among progressive intellectuals at least. I think it’s a shame that it’s been so co-opted by the fundamentalist religious right-wing. Indeed, now that I think of it, “sin” has itself become a form of structural violence. But I’m comfortable reclaiming it, because I do think there is such a thing. I probably prefer Michael’s formulation (and I’m loosely paraphrasing here because I don’t know how to find this particular conversation on his Facebook page) – that sin is anything which takes us out of loving relationship with each other and God. Structural violence, sin, broken relationship …. however you want to define it, or whatever you want to call it, it seems to me that a whole lot of suffering is caused by it.
And where is God in all this? I think for a lot of folks that’s the hardest question when faced with inexplicable suffering. I know such suffering can cause some to lose their faith, or at least to question it. For me, actually, the opposite is true. For me, if sin is that which pulls us out of loving relationship, then God is that which puts us back together. And I know that even in the face of so much suffering in the world, there is also so much goodness and beauty and abundance. I know too, though I surely don’t understand the mystery of it, that somehow that goodness and beauty and abundance often flows right out of suffering, even the sort that results from sin. My God is the God of that goodness and beauty and abundance, even the kind that is forged in a crucible of suffering. Why God isn’t bigger than sin, why God can’t just vanquish sin and suffering in one fell swoop, I don’t know. Maybe God isn’t all-powerful in that way. Maybe God needs us as much as we need God. Maybe the more we’re in loving relationship with God – which is the same thing as saying the more we’re in loving relationship with each other -- the less power sin and suffering have over the world.
I surely could be wrong. But if faith is being sure of what we hope for*, then my faith in that God is like a rock, even in the face of inexplicable suffering.
edited to add: this is from Bart Campolo.