Suffering by Rev Wale Hudson-Roberts

Let’s begin with the New Zealand mosque shootings. To fully comprehend that 51 people were killed and 48 wounded in shootings at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, is possibly impossible.  And, just when they thought the news couldn’t get any worse, the gunman, a 28-year-old Australian called Brenton Tarrant, live-streamed the attack from a head-mounted camera. The footage showed him firing at men, women and children, from close range inside the Al Noor Mosque. Obviously, this atrocity raised questions around New Zealand’s rather lax gun laws. I would hope too that theological questions concerning why God allowed the deaths of so many people were also raised by Muslims and Christians.  After all, where was God in Christchurch, New Zealand, on Friday, March 15, 2019?

The same question can be asked by Sri Lankan Christians. On Easter Sunday, suicide bombers killed at least 253 people and injured some 500 at churches and top-end hotels in Sri Lanka. What makes this atrocity difficult to grasp, is that on Easter Sunday Christians celebrate the resurrection of Christ, the God who overcame death. Yet churches holding Easter Mass on Easter Sunday may have been forced to question the presence of the resurrected God, the One who overcame death at Easter. The irony is not lost on the worshipping Christians celebrating the Christ who conquers death on Easter Sunday.

It is regrettable that Lent, just gone, cannot and will not remove the pain and scars from those who have suffered loss because of these or other forms of suffering. What the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection can do is bring some comfort by helping the sufferer begin to appreciate the responses of God to human suffering.  

The early Greek Fathers of the Church believed that God was incapable of feeling the pain of others, seeing Him rather as a distant God, devoid of emotion and detached from the pain of those who suffer. That is not our God.  The story of the Crucifixion reminds us that the pain of the bereft matters to God. The Cross smashes the caricature of a God resting in some ‘celestial deckchair’ while the hungry millions starve to death. If God’s full and final self-revelation was given in Jesus, then His feelings and suffering are an authentic reflection of God’s responses to suffering. That Jesus ‘wept’ with grief and ‘snorted with indignation’[1] and wept again for Jerusalem, points to a God who weeps with the weeping and laments with those who lament.  

Christ more than embraces the internal suffering of those who suffer. He inhabits the world of their fears and longings, living in complete solidarity with those who suffer. The God who is capable of suffering is the same God who is capable of love, and opens Himself up to the suffering, which is involved in love.  This is surely the reason why Bonhoeffer wrote, some nine months before his execution: ‘only the suffering God can help’. God is unable to exclude Himself from the pain of parents, who have lost their child to violent crime, or any other sufferer. God, being participatory, means He hears and remembers the cries and groans of those who suffer, and is more than able to redeem their circumstances for His good.

I am delighted that some of our highly respected Black theologians, the likes of Professor Anthony Reddie and Professor Robert Beckford, continue to develop a helpful protest challenging much of European theology. This theology maintains a traditional, mournful mystique of the Cross, which is individualistic and myopic. Instead, in seeking to relate the Cross to the contemporary world and its social injustice, they have challenged a God, Himself untouched by the historical Cross because He is untouchable. Both professors resolutely conclude this not to be the case. He listens. He acts by providing comfort. Importantly, the Crucified God is there – ever present in our human mess. His permanent presence may not necessarily eradicate the pain we experience. Yet the God, who is responsive to the groans of human pain and suffering, is lasting in His presence, the professors rightly argue.

So, what comfort do we take from the Cross of Christ? Surely it is the fundamental Christian assertion that God is love. As difficult as this might be to fully grasp by those made homeless, those struggling with their relationships (at home and at work), and parents of young people caught up in the underbelly of the criminal world, the Cross of Christ tells us that the love of God is a constant, originating from the heart of the Divine. The fact remains that God is ever present in our moments of joy and our moments of hell – an omnipresent presence for those impacted by shootings in New Zealand and the bombings in Sri Lanka, and for all who cry for help and support.


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