Suffering Through Holy Week

I still receive the e-newsletter from my old ministerial internship congregation, First Parish Church in Weston, MA (nothing but fond and gracious memories). Here is the brief, but powerful note from the pastor, The Rev. Dr. Thomas D. Wintle:

“Holy Week.” When I was a child, we Presbyterians and Unitarians did not use such a term. But it has grown in usage. It has to do with realizing that going from Palm Sunday happiness to Easter happiness misses the drama of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. If you can join us for these midweek moments, please do. But also know that BOTH Easter services will be truly grand.

Holy Week is important because without it we move from the mocking triumphalism of Palm Sunday into the triumph of Easter without any pain. That’s not an unusual liberal religious response to Easter, but it’s neither complex nor complete. The liberal religious tradition (liberal Christianity and Unitarian Universalism) is a humanistic tradition. Always seeming to focus on the progress of human beings and our responsibility, if not ability, to keep moving onward and upward,  forever and ever, Amen.  The big pitfall with this approach is the tendancy to gloss over the negatives of both human nature and human behavior.  Holy Week is full of both.

Holy Week is about the passion of Jesus.  The term comes from the Latin, pati, to suffer.  Jesus’ suffering is wrapped up in a lot of the negatives of human nature and behavior, including betrayal, systemic injustice, intolerance, fear, power, and corruption.  The results are emotional and physical pain, poverty, loss, control, intimidation, torture and death.

Every day in my current ministry I feed people, clothe people, and listen to people.  Sometimes I am able to pay a rent or light bill or a gas bill or for a prescription.  Nothing is enough. The amount of just plain and simple suffering is devastating.  It is suffering that represents need a deceptively grand scale; suffering and need to the degree that there is no rationalization or justification for it.  The people I assist and talk to every day are neither stupid nor lazy.  They are, however living separate lives.  They are in this world, but not of it, for this world has chosen, by and large, to ignore them and their suffering.  They are survivors, however.  They know how to get what they need to live.  The separate world they live in is a world where nothing is guaranteed and what you need to live you gather and hunt for each and every day.

This week I re-read Octavia Butler’s books The Parable of the Sower and The Parable of the  Talents.   I had to go back to them after reading The Hunger Games and seeing the movie.  Bulter’s works are scarier.  The Hunger Games begins in a world already changed by catastrophic events into a mad, totalitarian dystopia.  In the Parable series you watch the fall of contemporary America and it looks every bit like it could begin next week.  Economic downturn and environmental neglect become depression and catastrophe.  Wealth becomes so concentrated in the hands of a few that neighborhoods begin to seal themselves off and the number of unemployed and penniless grows to the point that police and fire departments won’t act unless paid for services.  There isn’t so much a revolution as a collapse.  Debt becomes crime and debt criminals are put into electronic pain/control collars and made slaves.  Corporations buy towns and offer food and housing, not salaries, in exchange for work, making indentured servants out of what was once the middle class in 21st century company towns.  The protagonist, Lauren Oya Olamina, takes to the road after her community is destroyed and starts a new religion, called Earthseed where God is change.  The Road has nothing on Lauren’s journey.  Eventually a right wing fundamentalist group The Church of Christian America destroys the community she builds in the northern California forest, and… well you can read the rest if you don’t know it.

The people I minister to every day are already living the lives of debt criminals.  Our society has reduced our neediest to beggars or thieves or both.  Their crimes, if they commit any, are usually crimes of passion (suffering, one way or another). There’s not enough food so the food pantries limit visits to once a month.  The environment under which Lauren Olamina took to the road in Butler’s books is already out there.  We don’t see it, we choose not to. There’s too much suffering.

This week there was more suffering.  We got a jobs bill, but it included provisions that weaken the regulations in the financial industry.  The richest, most powerful companies now need to disclose less information to the public.  The shell game continues and so does the suffering.

This is how I measure the passion this week – by inappropriate reactions people give me when I am able to give them one grocery bag of food or one plastic bag full of toiletries such as soap and shampoo and toilet paper.  Their gratitude is genuine and the people of 12 Fort Worth congregations who make it possible are the heroes, not me. Yet, why is this necessary?  Why, in the richest country in the history of the world does anyone have to come to my office for help paying for a $4 prescription or for soap or for beans and rice?  The only answer I come up with during suffering week is that America just doesn’t give a damn. It’s more important for Blue Cross/Blue Shield to pay it’s executives bonuses than for us to demand health care for all.

Back to the person at the center of the religious story. Jesus. Jesus was killed for having the gall to say spiritual things with deep political implications.  Blessed are the poor. You are the light of world.  It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.  This week is not about Jesus dying for anyone’s sins, rather it is about Jesus dying because of sins: economic injustice, religious and social intolerance.  A lot will be made this week by many Christians of many different stripes that  people have all sinned against God and deserve God’s judgement, therefore the big victory of Easter is Jesus being, in a very real sense, a human sacrifice to atone for humanity’s sins and pacify God.  I can not disagree strongly enough with this thinking or theology.

Jesus was killed precisely because his ministry was too accepting, too lenient and too forgiving.  The God Jesus seemed to know and understand loved everyone and accepted everyone.  The way I look at it is this:  Jesus’ suffering was about salvation in a very important way: he was killed for having the courage to say and stand by his preaching that even the most neglected and despised in society were acceptable and holy.  He didn’t have to die for them to be acceptable to God, he died because he dared to say they already were!

The question for us during Holy Week is: do we say everyone is acceptable by God?  Do we say this not just with our abstract theology and dogma and beliefs, but do we say it through our actions and how we live our lives?

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