Water Man Spouts

Monday, April 25, 2005

"God is a concept ......"

(1) "God is a concept by which we measure our pain." -- John Lennon

I read a thread on the relationship between suffering and redemption this morning. It is an interesting topic, and I'd like to approach it from a different angle. This is a topic that should be of interest to people from a variety of different belief systems, and I hope that this may offer people the opportunity to discuss suffering as having the potential to bring about good.

The topic should be as important to atheists as theists. I do not think that opinions on religion need to play a defining role. Yet I recognize that there is a division between some DUers from the various schools of thought, and so in an offer to find a position of mutual respect, I am not going to butt in on the other thread.

(2) "Unearned suffering is redemptive." -- Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.The concept of "unearned suffering's" redemptive power is closely associated with Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. For many Americans, it was during his "I Have a Dream" speech that they first heard this revolutionary preacher state, "...You have been veterans of creative suffering. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive.

"King was clearly referring to a specific type of suffering. And while some may take offense in his use of the word "faith," it is important that we keep in mind that Rev. King was struggling to free all people from a perverted interpretation of the gospel. His efforts were not geared to simply help black people, or Christians, but all people .... including those who had the essence of their being contaminated with bitterness and hatred.

In his 1960 essay "Suffering and Faith," Rev. King wrote of his personal struggle to keep from becoming bitter as a black man in America. It led him to recognize that "unearned suffering is redemptive." He notes that if suffering is not properly channeled, it leads to bitterness and destruction. Clearly, King recognizes that redemption is not the only potential result of unearned suffering, but rather is the best one. Those who admire Rev. King -- theist and atheist alike -- marvel not only at King's insight, but his dedication to putting his belief system to the test.

Rev. King learned much of this doctrine of non-violence from Mohandas K. Gandhi. In his essay "An Experiment in Love," King quotes the Mahatma: "Things of fundamental importance to people are not secured by reason alone, but have to be purchased by their suffering. Suffering is infinitely more powerful than the law of the jungle for converting the opponent and opening his ears which are otherwise shut to the voice of reason." It is worth noting that Gandhi identified himself at times as an atheist; at other times as a theist; and frequently as both. Like King, his goal was not to promote a religion to power: it was to create social justice for all.

Thus, in "Love, Law, and Civil Disobedience," King states that, "unearned suffering is redemptive, and that suffering may serve to transform the social situation." Further, in his account of the Montgomery experience, Rev. King states that black Americans could not afford to allow unearned suffering to cause them to become bitter, and that "(t)o suffer in a righteous cause is to grow to our humanities' full stature. It is becoming clear that the Negro is in for a season of suffering."

(3) "Bitterness contaminates the vessel which contains it." -- Rubin Carter

Surely not all suffering is experienced as part of a noble cause. Yet because there is some suffering in every individual's life, it is worthwhile to examine unearned suffering on the individual level. The other thread which I read this morning reminded me, in a curious manner, of a book that a friend of mine is writing.

The book has to do with what I think is the ultimate in unearned suffering: child abuse. The author, a PhD who teaches at a local university, examines the power of forgiveness. It is important to remember that Gandhi and King both promoted forgiveness as a necessary part of movements to transform a sick society. The author of this book was considering the power of forgiveness in the context of adult survivors of severe abuse.

One of the people she interviewed was Rubin Carter, who had marched with King in 1963 in Washington, DC. He stated that she "raises an interesting question. Like pain is pain, suffering is suffering -- whether from being wrongly imprisoned, wrongly placed in a concentration camp, or wrongly abused as a child. But pain is a component of suffering, not suffering itself. There are no degrees of suffering."

Carter told the author how being wrongly imprisoned had made him bitter, and how that bitterness ate away at all of his other qualities. And then one day, when being taken for a physical exam after 30 days in the darkness of solitary confinement, he saw his reflection in a mirror. He describes it as seeing a "grotesque image. I saw the face of hatred, a monster, and that monster was me. I realized I was not hurting them (those who railroaded him, taking him away from his wife and daughter). They were hurting me. .... How could I forgive them?"

Carter spoke of the influence of the writings of Vicktor Frankl, a holocaust survivor. Frankl was able to survive the terrors of the concentration camp in large part by his insights on the power of unearned suffering. His redemption was not as a result of the concentration camp, but in spite of it. He did not allow the experience to make him bitter and hateful.

In "Beyond Belief," author Elaine Pagals addresses what I think is the ultimate horror and cause of the most profound suffering: the death of a child. Years ago, a tragic accident killed one of my friends. His mother died a few years later, as a result of grief. She was a beautiful soul, and was not bitter .... just wounded beyond description. When I read Pagals' work, I was reminded of my friend's mother.It would be wrong to say that the death of Elaine Pagals' child was in any way other than tragic. Yet Pagals was able to survive where others do not, by finding some meaning to her unearned suffering.

My brothers are both atheists. I recall that one was offended by some people who described the finding of Elizabeth Smart some nine months after she was kidnapped as "God's will." He said by this logic, God likes some children more than others. I believe that this takes us back to the two threads on DU religion & theology that compared Paul's Christianity with the acual teachings of Christ. Those who believe that God preferred Elizabeth Smart would seem to fit the Paul doctrine; while those with greater insight, such as Pagals, find understanding in the Gnostic Gospels.

Others survive unearned suffering in other ways. We know that Robert Kennedy, an Irish Catholic, scrawled on a paper after his brother's death, "The innocent suffer -- how can that be possible and God be just. All things are to be examined & called into question. There are no limits set to thought." Many, though certainly not all, find the journey that RFK took after Dallas to be one of the most important parts of the 1960s.

And that brings us full circle. On the night that Rev. King was murdered, Robert Kennedy addressed a crowd that was stunned by the bitterness and hatred that was tearing this nation apart at its seams. Kennedy quoted Aeschylus: "God, whose law it is that he who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom by the awful grace of God."Did King's unearned suffering benefit humanity? Did his sacrifice make America a better place to live? I can't answer for anyone but myself, but I certainly think so.


At June 11, 2005 at 10:29 AM, Blogger the iconoclastic cat said...

Will you please write a book?

At June 15, 2005 at 6:43 PM, Blogger Donailin said...

You're thoughts are really spot on, Waterman. I'll be reading more of them.

Thanks, Danielle


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