Pain and Suffering

A third of the way into the movie, the sniffles among the audience turned into sporadic moaning and weeping. The relentless blows that Jesus endured en route to his crucifixion made me flinch. Perhaps the first pragmatic lesson about watching the “The Passion of the Christ” is that you need real courage. This movie means so many things to so many experts; “it encourages anti-Semitism”, “it is just all too much blood and gore,” “it is at it was” the Pope is reported to have said. But what does it mean to the ordinary citizen and perhaps millions of Christians in Africa, Asia, and Latin America? Why should the movie mean anything to these people or to any one for that matter? After all, at the height of the fight against colonialism in Africa in the 1950s and the struggle for Civil Rights in the US, many radicals called him the “White Jesus” and charged that European imperialists and missionaries had abused Christianity to oppress, brainwash, and exploit millions of people of color all over the world. After all, Christianity and Jesus do not have the best reputation in all corners of the world. The famous Karl Marx expressed similar sentiments about religion saying it the opium of the people; meaning that religion prevents people from realizing or becoming conscious that they are being abused, exploited,  and oppressed by the powers that be all over the world.

The “Passion of the Christ” provoked me to reminisce about the life of pain and suffering that we endured as we lived in our extended families and kinship in remote African villages, tribes, and schools. Many Africans endured the lives of exploitation and brutality in deep underground mines in apartheid South Africa and rubber plantations deep in the heart of the Congo then ruled by the ruthless King Leopold of Belgium. African lives and those of people in the Third World under European colonialism were often hell on earth. “The Passion of the Christ” reminded me of my experiences at Tamanda Dutch Reformed Mission school in a remote part of my Southern African country of Zambia, as a young boy learning about Jesus’ suffering on the cross for all our sins. President Kaunda, a staunch Christian who was the first President of my home country of Zambia wrote these profound words in the 1960s: “The very attempts of modern societies to insulate themselves from suffering have resulted in a refusal of love, for the willingness to love and be loved makes suffering inevitable. And in the refusal of love, modern man feels pain without the possibility of transforming it into suffering.” (Kaunda, A Humanist in Africa, 1966:40)

We commit sins ranging from denying others food and other necessities of life due to our greed and selfishness, consuming of pornography, to murder. Examples of sin and evil that humans commit are all over the newspapers. A headline in our local paper: “Couple Admits Torturing Tots” stated that the father of two young children allegedly “whipped them with dog leashes, choked them until they lost consciousness, punched their faces, and left them barefoot in the snow…..” (DNR, 03-13-04). There are those incompressible sins and horrendous evil that whole families, religions, governments, societies and civilizations have committed and continue to commit. A few come into mind: the Western Civilization imposed imperialism, introducing the universal poison that is racism, conquering, and exploiting Asia, the New World, and Africa often inflicting untold death and suffering on indigenous people. The Atlantic Slave trade of Africans that was fueled by Western capitalist greed, the American Civil War that killed millions, the 20 million souls that perished in Stalin’s gulags of the Soviet Union, the holocaust which decimated 6 million Jews and millions of others, the Armenian genocide, the killing fields of millions in Cambodia in the 1970s, the famine in Ethiopia and Somalia that starved and killed millions, genocide in Rwanda, and currently the terrorist bombings that are killing thousands creating massive fear, pain, and suffering in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.

Every skin-gashing blow of the whip, pain and suffering that Jesus endured was to absorb all our small and horrendous sins and evil humanity has committed in the past, present, and in the future. “The Passion of the Christ” has even a greater meaning for the one and half billion people who live in poverty in the Third World because many of them do not enjoy the hedonism that we assume is our birth right in our society, but instead endure pain and suffering everyday as many struggle against hunger, disease, poverty, crime, exploitation, torture and human rights abuses, and death. The pleasures of the affluent life that we enjoy in the developed countries that are now flaunted world-wide through globalization and electronic communication via television and the internet often simply worsen the pain and suffering creating poisonous envy and frustration as most of the poor in the Third World realize they will never taste the kind of opulence that we enjoy.  This is partially what may be creating and fomenting terrorism

“The Passion of the Christ” conveys the most important lesson. When Jesus was enduring the endless pain and suffering, his helpless mother at one point tried to give her collapsed son a drink of water. Another man helped an exhausted Jesus carry his heavy cross. This is a powerful symbol of kindness that also drives us humans when we see others in pain and suffering. The same sins and horrendous evil that we engage in are often overwhelmed by our goodness and kindness. Abused children who are adopted by foster families, sending food to starving millions, American civilians, missionaries, soldiers, and thousands of Iraqis died to create a better life for more than 25 million Iraqis. “The Passion of the Christ” finally made me realize why millions of Africans, Asians, and Latin Americans accepted Jesus Christ’s message and Christianity with open arms: when you experience pain and suffering,  see sin and evil around you on an every basis, Christianity and Jesus’ message of love and forgiveness is so soothing and offers an eternal light of hope.

The Demands of Being Christian

The Powerful Demands of being a Christian in Our Lives
These ideas have been inspired by my life-long human struggle and contemplation of goodness and evil, human suffering and triumph, appreciation of both beauty and ugliness. Growing up as a child in the village in Zambia, Africa, I remember my parents and grand parents pointing out to me what was cruelty and kindness, goodness and evil. Their teachings were mixed with personal example sprinkled with generous doses of laughter and a sense of appreciation of all that is good; the gift of life, good harvest and meals, dance and song, wearing good clothes to go to church on Sunday, the goodness that comes from living a righteous and dignified life of hard work. All of these created in me and my community a deep sense of appreciation of life and the power and magnificence that God created.

Then I went to college at the young and only University of Zambia at the time. This was in the country’s Capital City of Lusaka. I was the type of student who read the text books to pass tests but often spent a great deal of time reading material that was outside class reading. This material challenged me at a tender age to think more deeply about life. When I first read the “Autobiography of Malcolm X” as a freshman English course assigned reading, I had to stop half way in between and put the book down. It was eleven at night. I walked out of my dorm room and walked for two miles along the Great East Road near campus up to the Zambian parliament building. I was very angry, confused, and eighteen years old. How could there be so much evil and pain intentionally inflicted by some human beings on others in the world? Why was racism created in America? How could some human beings (whites) enjoy the evil that they were doing and inflicting on other human beings (Blacks)? There was a haze in my eyes as the street and car lights glistened through my tears. This was confusing for me as most of the African people I grew up with in my family were kind and dignified. When my parents received many guests including Europeans, they treated them with cheer, respect and hospitality. At about the time I went to college, I met a young White American couple that were to be my dear and life long great friends. Most whites I met were descent human beings. How could many Europeans and Americans claim to be Christians and yet practice or believe in colonialism, racism, and own slaves or approve of slavery? Is Christianity synonymous with evil? These questions could not be answered at that time because people often use cliches as answers to such deeply troubling questions. I have struggled continually with these questions and I am not certain they will be answered during my life time.

When God created Adam and Eve, the two were endowed with spiritual passion and surrounded with physical beauty. One can see this beauty when you see the Shenandoah Valley and Blue Ridge Mountains, the Muchinga Escarpment, the gorgeous Blue lagoons and magnificent blue waters and sand beaches of the world, and the breath taking green river valleys. The ability to engage in evil of varying degrees is present in all humans. Parents and the community are the first line of defense against evil. God helps as they raise and nurture children be these their own or those of others in the community. A bad, cruel, poor  or a lack of proper parental or extended family upbringing with little or no spiritual nurturing tremendously increases the chances that the child will not distinguish between good and evil.

Christianity and believing in God and Christ is the most powerful spiritual force when individuals open themselves and their hearts to the force. God works through parents and the community to teach children about kindness, sharing, treating all human beings with fairness and respect, and to revere life itself. When we are born then we have a tremendous gift for doing good through our families and communities. When does evil begin to grow in humans? When human beings acquire power, material possessions and wealth for greedy ends, their powerful, true, compassionate and genuine Christian beliefs are threatened or begin to decline. Lack of or weak parental extended family upbringing and the desire to acquire material possessions and power  beyond our immediate needs is the beginnings, if not the foundation of evil and sin and sometimes misery. What does all this mean in everyday life and especially for a Christian during this end of the second millennium?

It means as humans, we all live the way God intended us to live until we begin to engage in limitless hedonism, or exercise the desire for more power and material possessions for greedy ends for both individuals and nations. The foundation for all egregious evil is the desire for more power, and material possessions which is reflected in human greed of different degrees. The root and beginning of the evil and atrocities humans commit on both a small and grand scale is always the desire for more power, and material possessions than God intended for our happy, compassionate, righteous, happy fulfilled lives.

One scholar, Inge Bell asserted: “Slaves were better human beings than their masters”. A variation of this statement is the simple question: “Can a slave owner also be a good person?” Many years ago, I posed this question to my sociology class. I was astounded at the convoluted answer. “Many slave owners treated their slaves with kindness; fed, clothed, and housed them.” Since then I have asked a variation of this simple question? “Can a slave owner be a true or genuine Christian?” The answers to these simple questions vary: “Slaves were being civilized as Africans were primitive”. “Many Whites were poor and did not own slaves”. I have never understood this obfuscation and the difficulty in answering this question when this society believes it has the most educated, informed, compassionate, and sophisticated people. A slave owner, however kindly he may have treated the slaves, could NOT have been a good human being, let alone a true Christian. I hope this says “the Emperor has not clothes”. The practice of slavery especially in the US, greatly damaged the powerful good influence of Christianity. European colonialism in Africa and elsewhere and the practice of apartheid in South Africa also tremendously destroyed the image of God, Christ, and Christianity. Fortunately in every society in the world, there are thousands and sometimes hundreds of courageous people always fighting to eliminate evil and needless suffering and spread kindness and compassion.

What are you going to do in this new millennium to eliminate evil and needless suffering? Are you going to be kind and compassionate to all humanity?