Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Ecce Homo?

It has been observed many times that the Catholic Church has a morbid fascination with suffering. The very symbol for the faith is that of a man suffering on a torture device.

Yesterday, we buried my aunt. She had known a lot of suffering. For the last ten years, she had had Parkinson’s. By the end she had been bent and twisted by the disease that had frozen her into a grotesque form. All of her muscles were in a permanent spasm. She had not been able to speak for many months, recently not even been able to point out letters on the ouija board that we had made for her. So, when I saw her laid straight out in the coffin, I found the sight strangely disturbing. Not because she was dead - I had seen dead people before - but because lying straight as an arrow simply wasn’t her.

And then the church. A small rotunda in the suburb where she had lived. Inside, dozen of friends and family. During the service I looked at the place. Of course, above the altar hung the cross. Seemingly larger than life-size: Christ’s body twisted in pain. On the left, Christ standing, crowned with thorns, his hands tied. There is even a name for representations of Christ in this pose – Ecce homo – ‘Behold the man’ as Pontius Pilate cried when presenting Jesus to the Jews demanding his crucifixion (or so the anti-Semitic authors of the Gospels have him say). On the right is a Pieta – another traditional pose – Mary is holding Christ’s body in her hands after it has been taken off the cross. Thus the story of Christ’s sacrifice is told in statues. Behind all this a stained-glass representation of the Shroud of Turin – that medieval fake. All of these symbols focussed upon the one thing – suffering: pain that is supposed to be redemptive.

The priest spoke at length about redemptive pain: my aunt’s suffering that, he claimed, somehow ennobled us. That is not my experience at all. Neither as one who has witnessed people in pain, nor as someone who has, mercifully rarely, felt it. Pain does not redeem anything. It may make the religious feel cleansed of whatever sins they feel they have committed– thus the self-mutilation that is an undertone in much Catholic practice. But it does nothing to redeem. My aunt’s suffering was pointless, it gave her and us nothing. Though pain can have a positive role. I experienced it myself after I had broken my leg. Though this was nothing compared to what many go through I did feel a sense of ‘communion’ with them, a sense of compassion for what they must suffer. And I have seen this in others - the most compassionate people are those who have suffered. The callous ones are without blemish.

But what does real compassion bring? Surely, the unbearable need to act, to help. And while Christ’s life may have been full of compassion, his death on the cross – the central motif in Christianity – is a denial of this. He suffered passively and redeemed nothing. Original sin? The very concept is as immoral as that of a Ladder of Being. By focussing on that last moment in Christ’s life Christianity is trying to somehow redeem one thing – the senselessness of his death and suffering. It is trying to give it meaning when it had none. The same it true of religion in general. It tries to give meaning to death and suffering when there is none.

My aunt’s faith helped her bear the pain and face death – as was pointed out repeatedly during the day (most often to me, pointedly). Indeed, the thought that they will meet again in heaven has made the process of saying goodbye to her sister much easier for my mother. And sometimes – when faced with the inevitable – to take up a Stoic attitude is the best that one can do. But one does not need to be religious to be a Stoic – many an atheist faced their own annihilation with equanimity. But the Stoics did not counsel passivity. They had no concept of redemption. They realised that we often can not control what happens. Instead, they believed that rational thinking should guide us in acting virtuously. We should do they right thing and accept what happens. This acceptance is different from passivity and only makes sense once one has done everything that one can.

By focussing upon Christ’s death, Christianity counsels, in the face of suffering, passive acceptance in hope of redemption; analogous to God’s passivity. Thankfully, humanity, including many Christians, has not been heeding this advice since the Renaissance. Instead, we have been far more Stoic in acting to change what little we can. If God did exist, his failure to help should be taken to mean that his son’s death has not taught him compassion.


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