“We must eliminate poverty, oppression, racism…”
How is it possible to disagree with the demand for justice? Who would not agree to end all suffering? How can we not commit our lives to bringing about a better world?
The desire for justice and an end to suffering are deeply seductive in our modern world. Being told that these are false desires flies in the face of almost everything that characterizes our present culture. On their surface, these desires seem deeply religious. But as religions go, they are married more to hell than to heaven. And, just to keep my readers a little off-balance, I will start by thinking of this from a Buddhist perspective.
An easy summary of the teachings of the Buddha is to say that he offered a way to escape the world of suffering. It is possible to critique his method and his conclusions. But, prior to the modern period, no one would have criticized his observations regarding suffering in this world.
Siddhārtha Gautama lived some centuries before Christ. Disease and death were unavoidable, medical help of but little benefit. A large part of any population would not live to see adulthood. His story was that his parents sheltered him from all this. His spiritual journey began when he left that safety and first encountered old age, suffering and death. His experience posed the essential religious question: what of suffering?
It can be said that every religion in the world addresses the problem of suffering. They vary in their accounts of suffering’s origin and of the means of addressing it. But all recognize that the problem of suffering is at the very core of human existence. The Modern Project can itself be seen as a religious response to the problem of suffering. However, in a strange twist of Christian eschatology, modernity assumes that suffering, sorrow and injustice can be ended. And, if those things cannot be utterly obliterated, then the world is still rightly engaged in the ever-increasing pursuit of that goal.
A common point in any endeavor is that the first 90-95 percent of a project is the most easily accomplished. The last 5 percent or so, the completion that encompasses perfection, is the most pernicious and persistent. I have friends in Rotary International. One of them was the primary leader in Rotary’s efforts to eradicate polio. I recall the incredible efforts in my childhood that removed polio from the list of American dangers. The same work has successfully reduced its existence to only three countries. And yet, year by year, it persists. Completion is a very difficult thing.
Eliminating a disease is but a little thing. There are no vaccines against racism and poverty, no medicines that protect us from anger and greed. Indeed, even our drive against disease has sometimes resulted in new and unforeseen disease. Current studies suggest that our overly antiseptic world is producing allergies and other intractable problems. We may need dirt more than we know.
Christianity does not envision a world without suffering and injustice, except as a final gift from God in the Eschaton. God has not created an evil world, but neither has He removed evil from the world or destroyed disease. Christ tramples down Death by death, but does not thereby exempt His followers from enduring the same: we’re all going to die. His invitation to take up the Cross is a blank invitation to share in His sufferings.
I have written before about the deception of “building a better world.” Perhaps it would be proper to say that it’s fine to work for a “slightly better world,” or “improvements.” This is similar to saying that a glass of wine a day is good for your health. However, it doesn’t take much more than that to harm your health. The drive for improvement is itself fraught with problems.
Justice is an insatiable goal. Nothing can ever be fair enough, equal enough, right enough. Real or imagined, injustice remains and will remain until God alone makes it otherwise. In the modern world, the pendulum swings. Revolutions destroy empires and eradicate oppressors, always replacing them with new empires and new faces of oppression. Every swing of the pendulum seems to leave justice at a remove.
Christ said, “The Kingdom of God does not come with observation…. the Kingdom of God is within you.” (Luke 17:20-21). It is only with the apprehension of the inner Kingdom that human beings can be made to understand just how difficult the Kingdom’s coming truly is. If I can’t bring forth the Kingdom within my own heart, surely I shouldn’t imagine that by some act of force or law I could bring it forth within the larger world.
All of this being true, the virtues required for life in this world are not a passion for justice and zeal for a better world. Patient endurance and the ability to bear suffering are of much greater use. For the Church, an abiding question must be, “How do we become the kind of community that can support people in the sufferings of their lives?” This is not an acquiescence to suffering. It is the sober recognition that the limits of our power to remake the world require us to learn how to live in the world. Our hope is in the Kingdom of God, whose coming is sheer gift and wonder.