I have a wonderful ten-year-old boy in our church community named Levi, Levi Matthew. Levi was born with terrible birth defects, a condition—I don’t know the name of it—that usually limits the life expectancy of children with this condition to six months. Levi broke the record.
When I first told my spiritual father about Levi, his only response was to be quiet for a moment, shed a tear and eventually say, “I am Adam.” What he meant by saying “I am Adam” is that he is personally responsible for the suffering in the world. His sin, his failure to fulfil the divine image, is the cause of Levi’s suffering, of all the suffering in the world. This is similar to what Elder Zosimas in Dostoevsky’s Brother Karamazov says: “However mad it seems, it is true. For if I myself were righteous, perhaps there would be no criminal standing before me now.” The big difference between the two is that Elder Zosimas is a fictional character, while my spiritual father is a living person. There are real “Elder Zosimases” in the world. They are just hard to find.
Scott Cairns points out in his excellent and beautifully written book, The End of Suffering, that the age-old conundrum of theodicy has a useful purpose nowadays. For those who might not know, theodicy is expressed by the question, if God is good and all powerful, why is there suffering in the world? The useful purpose of theodicy nowadays, or rather the usefulness of reflecting on theodicy, is that it forces us to examine the assumption of individuality. That is, one of the several aspects of the conundrum of theodicy is the assumption that human beings are autonomous individuals, that human beings are unconnected and thus not sharing together in the responsibility for the suffering that each and all bring into the world.
You might ask, but how does that explain something like what happened to Levi? And I would answer, I don’t know, completely. But I do know that most children who are not born with serious birth defects suffer because of what the adults in their lives do or don’t do. I know that most of the suffering that I encounter is not because of an apparently random and so called “act of god.” Most people who suffer, suffer because those they love, do not love them, because those who should protect and help them, ignore or abuse them—not out of hatred, but out of selfish preoccupation with their own pain. Most people suffer because human beings are not autonomous individuals, but because human beings are persons in relationship and are connected most intimately with other human beings. We hurt each other by our sins, by our selfish preoccupation with ourselves, by our inability and unwillingness to pay attention to anyone but ourselves.
And even in the case of Levi or other people with serious handicaps, I would imagine that most of their suffering is not because of the physical pain they experience nor because of some existential questions that are going unanswered in their mind. I think most of the suffering severely handicapped people experience is because they are largely invisible. Because their humanity and personhood is often ignored by you and me, because we are uncomfortable in their presence, because we are too busy with our selfish pursuits to take the time to love someone who might not be able to love us back in a way that would make us feel good about ourselves. Yes, I think even for people who have been born with serious handicaps or have been injured in an apparently random accident, for these too, most of their suffering (but certainly not all) is due the sin and selfishness of others.
Because human beings are persons, and not autonomous individuals, each person’s sin affects everyone. There are no victimless crimes, you might say. Or you might also say, “I am Adam.”