When I was a young child, the story of salvation given to me by the Ursuline nuns at Holy Cross Grade School in Euclid, Ohio, was something so simple, so compelling, and so wonderful. Adam sinned and we inherited the consequences: God’s grace dried up and the gates of heaven were sealed shut. For thousands of years, people were dying, but no one was able to get into heaven. Everyone was waiting for God to send a redeemer. Then, Jesus finally arrived and died for our sins on the cross. And, as my Baltimore Catechism so clearly demonstrated, at the moment that Jesus died on the cross, there, way up in the clouds, the gates of heaven were again being opened. Finally the souls of all the good people who had died could enter into heaven and be with God for all eternity.
While the Catholic Church has not officially endorsed any specific soteriology,[i] the most popular by far is the theology whereby God forgives all sins due to the merits of Christ’s passion on the cross.
During my eight years at Holy Cross Grade School in Euclid, Ohio, I recall vividly how we knelt on the wood floor next to our benches every morning and faced the large crucifix above the blackboard as we recited our morning prayers. On Fridays in Lent, we were herded into the church and confronted with an even more vivid reminder of
the drama of our salvation. The Stations of the Cross consisted in fourteen graphically depicted sufferings of Jesus, which covered the sidewalls of Holy Cross Church. At the beginning of each station, Fr. McMonigle, vested in his somber black cope, called out in a loud voice, “We adore thee, O Christ, and we bless thee.” All of us children then dropped to our knees and answered in a deafening chorus, “Because by thy holy cross thou hast redeemed the world!”
The Limits of Forgiveness
Should the thousands of young women humiliated, raped, and savagely murdered in the Jewish wars (66-70 and 135-136 CE) or in the recent wars in Bosnia[ii] (1992-1996) be told that they must learn to kiss and embrace their perpetrators when the new age dawns? Should the young men cut down in wars–especially those who died crying in pain as they slowly suffocated in their own blood–be told, at the time of the resurrection of the dead, that all wars were good and all wars were justified because everyone fought for what seemed to them a just cause and everyone was expected to follow orders? Should those who spent their lives “weighing down with toil the oppressed” (Did. 5:2) and those who served as “advocates of the rich” (Did. 5:2) be granted equal and ready forgiveness along with their victims? The members of the Didache would not have thought so.
Dostoevsky, in his Brothers Karamazov, tested his own objections to the fanciful preaching that Jesus “can forgive everyone for everything because he himself shed his innocent blood for everyone and for everything” (2.5.4) in the character of Ivan. Faced with the innocent suffering of children, Ivan objects to the notion that Jesus (or anyone else for that matter) had the right to forgive, either now or at the final judgment, the torture inflicted on children. Ivan provides Alyosha, his brother, many graphic examples culled from the daily newspaper. One such tale he narrates is the following:
A little girl of five was abused by her parents, “descent and most respectable people, well educated and cultured. . . .” Those educated parents subjected that poor little five-year-old to every conceivable torture. They beat her, whipped her, kicked her till she was black and blue, all for no reason. Finally, they thought of the ultimate punishment; they shut her up all night in the outside privy, in the cold and the frost, because she wet herself at night (as if a five-year-old, sleeping soundly like an angel, could excuse herself in time)‑-for this, they smeared her face with her excrement and forced her to eat it, and it was her mother, her mother who did this to her! And that mother slept unconcernedly at night, oblivious to the sobs of the poor child shut up in that foul place! Can you understand such a thing: that small child, unable even to comprehend what is being done to her, in the dark and the cold of that foul place, beating her little panting breast with her tiny fists, sobbing, weeping humble tears of bloodstained innocence, praying to “Dear Father God” to protect her. . . (2.5.4).
Only a pious, romanticized Christianity that mindlessly rhapsodizes about the unbounded love of God but has never felt the broken bodies and broken lives of the innocent victims of torture, of racial degradation, of systemic injustice would propose that everyone, no matter how heinous their crimes, need merely cry out for mercy in the face of the divine fire threatening to utterly destroy them and expect to be saved by Jesus.
The Jewish survivors of the Shoah (wrongfully called “the Holocaust”) are much more on target when it comes to the issue of forgiveness:
- (a) No one can forgive on behalf of another;
- (b) No one ought to forgive unless there is teshuvah (“turning around” and repudiation of past crimes);
- (c) Finally, even when forgives comes, there is an obligation never to forget the past lest such crimes be repeated.
The survivors of rape, incest, torture, spousal abuse, and of systemic injustice are likewise today wisely counseled to hold on to their rage since only by embracing it to its depth can they be healing of their victimization (see #12a).
For the innocent victims, there might arrive a moment for forgiveness, but this forgiveness cannot come too early or too late, neither can it be given too promiscuously or too parsimoniously‑-otherwise the very justice of God would be mocked. If God is not committed to bring justice and to insure that “the gentle . . . inherit the earth” (Did. 3:7), then the entire community of the Didache would have to become a subversive organization bent upon devising means to bring justice in the face of a false god unwilling or unable to protect the victims of this world from the exploiters and abusers.
When the victims of the Shoah are raised from the dead and called by their heavenly Father to enter into his Kingdom that has finally arrived on the face of this earth, they will never go in if they see that God has chosen Nazi guards to hand out the invitations and to form orderly lines among the masses rushing to enter into Paradise. Accordingly it might rightly be said that only someone who has been unjustly victimized or someone who has wiped away the hot tears of those who have been victimized would be capable of discerning the thin raw echo of victimization that runs through the Didache and the Gospels.
Jesus’ Atoning Death and Solidarity With Victims
More than one scholar has noted that the Didache makes no reference to the efficacy of Jesus’ death in God’s plan of salvation. For that matter, the Didache likewise refrains from casting any positive light upon suffering as such. This may strike many Christians as curious since most Christians have become accustomed to accept the efficacy of Jesus’ suffering on the Roman cross as imbued with God’s mysterious plan of salvation. Hence this issue deserves some consideration. I frame my considerations within two test cases: (a) the suffering-death of my own mother; (b) the suffering-death of a million Jewish mothers.
The Suffering-Death of my Mother
By way of beginning, consider the following reflections upon suffering that my mother read from her prayer book while her pastor, Fr. McMonigle, was quietly reciting the Latin prayers that constituted the “Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.” I specifically chose her prayer book because she used this during the seven years when she was bursting with health and during the last seven months of 1946 when her body was being eaten away by an inoperable cancer.
- “Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted. . . ” (Mt 5:5, 10-12).
- By sufferings we become like to Christ and His blessed Mother, our Lady of Sorrows. Suffering was the lot of all the saints. Suffering is very meritorious. Suffering intensifies our love of God. Suffering has a refining influence upon our character. . . .
- Suffering is conducive to sanctity, for every sorrow, every trial, can be turned into a blessing. . . . Ignatius Loyola says: “If the Lord send you great tribulations, it is an evidence that he has great designs upon you, and that he wills that you become a saint. . . .”
- “The Son of God,” says St. Theresa, “has accomplished our salvation by the means of sufferings; He would by this teach us that there is no means more proper to glorify God and to sanctify our souls than to suffer” (My Prayer Book: 84-88).
Recently some Christian women have become alarmed by the distorted piety found in prayer books like the one used by my mother. Joanne Carlson Brown and Rebecca Parker stepped back from the sentiments named above and concluded that “Christianity [such as this] is an abusive theology that glorifies suffering” (cited in Heyward:384). They accordingly tried to discover the source of this distorted theology fixated upon suffering:
Is it any wonder that there is so much abuse in modern society when the predominant image or theology of the culture is [a celebration] of “divine child abuse”–God the Father demanding and carrying out the suffering and death of his own son? (cited in Heyward:384).
Struggling to retain both their faith in God and their solidarity with victims, Brown and Parker ended up affirming categorically that “suffering is never redemptive and suffering cannot be redeemed” (cited in Heyward:384).
The great lie: “God loved your mother so much.”
At the time of my mother’s death, a pious aunt whom I greatly admired tried to console me by saying that, “God loved your mother so much that he took her early to be with him in heaven.” As I pondered her words in the days follow the funeral, I discovered that her words upset me more and more. “How could God love my mother so much and, at the same time, to love me so little?” Even as a little boy, I knew that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was transported, body and soul, into Heaven. “Why did God take my mother away from me? He already had his own mother with him in Heaven. I, on the other hand, was very much in need of my mother.”
From that day forward, I slowly began to realize that God was not the “nice Guy” that everyone made him out to be. I stopped praying to God entirely. All my prayers were addressed to Mary and to my Mom in Heaven.
As a teenager, I realized that, for seven months, my mother suffered terribly before she died. It was then that I slowly came to the understand that my aunt did not understand God at all. Considering the terrible way that my mother slowly died, it was impossible for my aunt to say that “God loved your mother so much. . . .” My logic was heart-rending and true: “When you love someone, you take care of them. My God, as it turned out, did not take care of me. He did not love me, and, he did not really love my Mom either.”
Even as a boy of eight, I sensed that I was moving into uncharted and dangerous territory. I was confused. I was upset.[iii] I felt cheated. I felt abandoned. My Baltimore Catechism had these words: “God made us to know him, to love him, and to serve him in order to be [after death] eternally happy with him in Heaven.” The truth is that I wanted to go to Heaven solely in order to be with my Mom again. I knew that she would immediately understand my “distrust” of God and that she would be able “to fix it.” Until then, I had no interest in ever being alone with God. If God could not patiently wait for another ten years—the years when I most needed my Mom—then why could I trust him to be remotely capable of making me “eternally happy”? God failed me “big time” in 1946 and some future happiness “with him” seemed very unattractive and very unlikely. My Mom and the Virgin Mary knew what I needed; my God, on the other hand, appeared to me to be entirely clueless!
This darkness of the soul overshadowed me for the next eight years. Then, at the age of sixteen, the veil was lifted. “God does not kill people because he wants to bring them (early) to Heaven.”
When I recall the events surrounding my mother’s death today, I notice how unprotected I was when it came to digesting the awful implications of my aunt’s remark. I also came to realize how sensitive and thoughtful Christians can sometimes say dreadfully toxic things when faced with the enormity of the loss experienced by survivors.
A Million Jewish Mothers Die
Just to see how far some Christians have gone in order to extend the mystique of suffering, consider the responses made by highly educated Catholics to the extermination of the six million Jews during the Shoah (also referred to as “the Holocaust”). Cardinal John O’Connor, acting as the Catholic Archbishop of New York, had this to say as part of his reflections upon visiting Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum in Israel:
The crucifixion and its enormous power continue mystically and spiritually in this world in our day and will continue to the end of time. Christ . . . continues to suffer in his Body, the Church. . . . And this suffering has a purpose and an effect, as does ours if we conjoin it with his, if we “offer it up”. . . . [Consequently] if the suffering of the crucifixion was infinitely redemptive, the suffering of the Holocaust, potentially conjoined with it, is incalculably redemptive (47-48).
Archbishop O’Connor was seemingly horrified by the mountain of shoes that were removed from the feet of mothers and children destined for the furnaces of the extermination camps. Mesmerized by the infinite redemptive suffering of Christ, Archbishop O’Connor undoubtedly thought he was honoring the suffering within the Nazi concentration camps when he associated their sufferings as being redemptive in a way analogous to the sufferings of Jesus. Many survivors of the death camps and their relatives (see Jacobs: 52-55) were neither flattered nor consoled by the Archbishop’s crude attempt to extend a Christian atonement theology to cover the enormity of evil involved in their loss. The protesting Jews didn’t mind that Archbishop O’Connor wanted to sugar-coat the sufferings of one Jew (Jesus); but they were totally livid when he tried to take his warped Christian theology and to use it to sugar-coat the Nazi campaign that brought about the death of a million Jewish mothers.
Sorry to say, even John Paul II has flirted with applying a mystique of suffering to the Shoah. When addressing the Jews of Warsaw on 14 June 1987, he spoke as follows:
We believe in the purifying power of suffering. The more atrocious the suffering, the greater the purification. The more painful the experiences, the greater the hope. . . (cited in Jacobs:53).
A year later, while visiting Mauthausen Concentration Camp, the Pope further observed that “the Jews [killed here] enriched the world by their suffering, and their death was like a grain that must fall into the earth in order to bear fruit, in the words of Jesus who brings salvation” (cited in Jacobs:53).
Such language is confusing and/or outright blasphemous in the ears of most Jews. Does a Jewish father whose daughter has been conscripted to provide sexual favors to the German troops in the front lines tell his daughter that her suffering will purify her love, purify her body, purify anything? Does a Jewish mother tell her little son who is about to be separated from her and to die a slow starvation in the transport trains that the more painful the experience, the greater hope he ought to have? Hope for what? Even popes, one can see, sometimes make silly and injurious remarks when they are blinded by an unexamined and unreflective doctrine that seemingly inflates the benefits of the sufferings of Christ.
The truth is that Golgotha and Auschwitz do have a common thread of interpretation but this has nothing to do with a distorted mysticism of suffering or with the forgiveness of the guilty due to the death of the innocent. The common thread is that any system or person systematically dehumanizing others and using prolonged torture and slow starvation to make his/her point is acting cruelly and inhumanely. Inflicting torture cannot be sugar-coated. The screaming victims cannot be imagined as gaining for themselves or for others some mysterious benefit in this world or in the next. One can only say that the torture should never have happened and that the survivors stand as a witness to the depth of sin in the world. As for God, we should never even hint that God would encourage, allow, or make use of torture. Rather, we can only say that this kind of stuff makes God cringe and to avert his eyes such that the torture victims themselves cry out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Edward Schillebeeckx, in his two-volume investigation on Christology, came to this same conclusion after investigation the whole gamut of biblical references pertaining to the suffering and death of Jesus. By way of reflecting upon his findings, he wrote:
God and suffering are diametrically opposed. . . . We can accept that there are certain forms of suffering that enrich our humanity. . . . However, there is an excess of suffering and evil in our history. . . . There is too much unmerited and senseless suffering. . . . But in that case we cannot look for a divine reason for the death of Jesus either. Therefore, first of all, we have to say that we are not redeemed thanks to the death of Jesus but despite it (1980:695; See also 724f, 729).
There is neither the time nor the place to develop how Schillebeeckx moves through the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures in order to arrive at this stark and unexpected conclusion. It suffices, for our purpose here, to note that the Didache deliberately refrains from making any positive gesture toward the crucifixion of Jesus whatsoever. My hunch is that the framers of the Didache, like contemporary Jews and like the young boy who lost his only mother, are repulsed by any notion of God that glosses over and makes torture acceptable. Whether it is Jews being tortured by medical experiments in the camps, or Jesus tortured on a Roman cross deliberately designed to humiliate and prolong death, or the case of a young mother tortured by the cancer eating her body‑-there is no divine reason for any of these. God cries out with the victim and tears his garments in grief as he does so. Any other God cannot be said to be in solidarity with victims.
God Tears his Garments and Grieves for Jesus’ Death
The closer that one examines the passion narratives, the more remote the Christian theology of atonement becomes. According to this theology, Jesus’ death on the cross is the brightest moment in salvation history. According to the Synoptics, however, it is the darkest: “From the sixth hour, there was darkness over all the land until the ninth hour” (Mt 27:45 and par.). At the moment of Jesus’ death, my childhood catechism presents the imagined image of the Gates of Heaven being thrown open after having been locked ever since the sin of Adam and Eve. According to the Synoptics, however, it is the temple veil that is rent in two “from top to bottom” (Mt 27:51 and par.). In most instances, this rending of the veil has been interpreted to signal that the crime of the priests is so grievous that God abandons the holy of holies‑-tearing through the temple veil as he exits. Such an interpretation fails to take into account that the disciples of Jesus in Jerusalem went to the temple daily to pray and to teach (Acts 2:46, Acts 3:1, Acts 5:42). Seemingly they have not the slightest hint that the temple has been vacated; they pray and teach in the temple and experience the closeness to God as usual.
Other scholars have suggested that this tearing “originally represented Jesus’ death” and later became a “supernatural portent of Jesus’ deity” (Gundry 1994:575). But what sense does it make to represent Jesus’ death symbolically when, in actual fact, the event itself, with all its gory details, had just been carefully narrated? The Letter to the Hebrews makes an oblique reference to “the new and living way that he opened for us through the [temple] curtain” (Heb 10:20), but it would be risky to transpose the theology of Hebrews back into the Synoptics.
Following a suggestion of David Daube (23-26), a Jewish scholar, here is an interpretation that Christians have been prone to overlook:
One has to be aware of the modes of expressing grief then current among the Jewish people. When a father of Jesus’ day would hear of the death of a son, he would invariably rend his garment by grabbing it at the neck and tearing it from top to bottom [see, e.g., Gn 27:34, Job 1:20, b. Moed Qatqan 25a, b. Menahot 48a]. This is precisely the gesture suggested by the particulars of Matthew’s text: “The veil of the Temple as torn in two from top to bottom” (27:51). In truth, God is Spirit. Symbolically, however, the presence of God within the holy of holies was rendered secure from prying eyes by the veil that surrounded that place. As such, the veil conceals the “nakedness” of God. It is this “garment” that [the] grief-stricken Father of Jesus tears from top to bottom when he hears the final death-cry of his beloved son. Even for the Father, therefore, the death of Jesus is bitter tragedy and heartfelt grief (Milavec 1982:57).
This should provide my readers with a point of departure for reeducating ourselves how to distinguish various kinds of suffering, how to recapture our rage and indignation at the suffering of the innocent, and how to wrest the message and death of Jesus from being a soft-headed plea for submitting to evil and forgiving enemies under any and all circumstances.
[i].Soteriology seeks to make sense of how God offers salvation to his/her people. Jesus and his immediate disciples anticipated the coming of God from heaven to gather the Jewish exiles and to establish his kingdom on earth. The Church Fathers preferred to think that the divine Logos had become human in order to establish that humans could, by successive stages, attain to that divinization to which they were destined by God. During the medieval period, Christians were preoccupied with sin‑-Adam failed God in the Garden and accordingly, all his children were conceived in sin and destined for eternal damnation. Jesus, the Son of God, however, became human such that a human could make complete satisfaction by his death on the cross for all the sins of the world. Whether God is envisioned as bringing the kingdom or as restoring human access to divinization or as providing satisfaction for sins makes a big difference in how God is understood and how Jesus relates to God and to our salvation. Interested readers might read Karen Armstrong, A History of God (New York: Ballantine Books, 1993).
[ii] During the Bosnian war, 50,000 Bosnian women faced gang rapes and forced impregnation in what became known as “rape camps.” Today there are 2,000-4,000 children born out of that war. The children born following these rapes are neither Serbian nor Bosnian; they are invisible. Now, as adults, they struggle to cope with the past and its consequences. Moreover, any hint of their existence in public life is reduced to a faltering silence.
In support of the ethnic cleansing strategy engineered by the Serbian authorities, genocidal rapes aimed to “plant the seed of Serbs in Bosnia” and produce little “Chetniks.” Also, it intended to prevent the captives and their families from returning to the region. A whole system was constructed – villages transformed into rape camps, gynecologists were on shift, and to avoid miscarriages and abortions, women were released only in advanced pregnancy.
[iii] What I felt at the age of eight was “raw anger.” I couldn’t say this out loud, of course. I was raised as a “nice boy.” If someone does something nasty, one immediately thinks of getting ready to forgive. No one was talking about times when it was permitted (nay, even necessary) to be “angry with God.” Being a “nice boy,” I was raised only to “love God.” So, my own rigorous religious formation refused to give me permission to be “angry with God.” Thus, I was entrapped and crippled in the web of my own beloved faith tradition.