June 26, 2014

Suffering Innocence

"For our sake he made him to be sin who did not know sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him." - 2 Corinthians 5:21 
I awoke this morning still praying that I might learn to look on the face of God revealed in his suffering servant without revulsion, and I started thinking about sin.  Paul says, "the wages of sin is death" (Romans 6:23), and I think that there is something in that to which we, I, can acquiesce.  It satisfies my sense of justice.

This is the way I expect things to work.  The guilty are punished; the innocent go free.  I like this calculation so much that I regularly run it in reverse -- if there is punishment, there must be guilt.  "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" (John 9:2).

When I see the ugliness of suffering, I want someone to blame.  I want a reason and I want it to seem fair to me.  I want the punishment to fit some crime.  If it does -- cause and effect -- I know how to control it.  I don't commit that crime, and I avoid that punishment.  I'm innocent.  I won't suffer.

Only it doesn't work that way.  People who never smoke get lung cancer.  Faithful, diligent parents have children who go astray.  Runners have heart attacks.  And so on.

These simple facts remain somehow unconvincing.  I continue to order my life around the calculus of control.  I tiptoe.  I manipulate.  I lie to myself.  Anything, anything to maintain an illusion of my own innocence so that I can be spared the suffering I so fear.  I want to game the system.  I want there to be punishment for crime, as long as it's not my crime and my punishment.

It's a story as old as humanity.  The first five books of the Bible detail how the ancient Hebrews, as all ancient peoples, developed an elaborate system of expiation.  They knew that things weren't right.  People did things that led to suffering, their own and others'.  And it wasn't just individual.  The community might rise or fall.  Food might become scarce.  Other tribes might invade.  Once we were slaves in Egypt.  They needed a calculus of control.

Blood sacrifice was the norm for the ancients.  Take a lamb or a goat, unblemished, that is, innocent.  Spill it's blood.  Give its life in atonement, an exchange, innocence for guilt.  Lay on the innocent one the guilt of the many.  Life offered unto death.

Then in the sixteenth chapter of Leviticus, we also get this, the scapegoat:
"Laying both hands on its head, he shall confess over it all the iniquities of the Israelites and their trespasses, including all their sins, and so put them on the goat's head.  He shall then have it led into the wilderness by an attendant.  The goat will carry off all their iniquities to an isolated region." (21-22)
That's right.  Take the sin and the suffering away where I cannot see it.

This is what I say I want, until I remember that I want the truth, and this picture is simply not true.

When I first started to get sick, I had moments when I wondered what I'd done.  Maybe this was me receiving wages due.  I didn't eat right or exercise enough, and now I was going to pay for that with the degeneration of my body.  That seemed sad, but fair somehow.

I have likewise looked back on the progress of my illness and its diagnosis and wondered what I could have done but didn't do.  It was months between the first time someone offered me a referral to a neurologist and my first appointment with one.  The neurologist is the doctor who diagnosed me.  Why didn't I go sooner?  The answer is that I didn't want my problem to be neurological (it's not), and I was engaging in the magical thinking that if I didn't go to a neurologist, it wouldn't be.  In the meantime, I continued to get worse.  How much disability might I have avoided?  How much trouble might I have saved the small army of people who have been taking care of me?

Do you see?  I still want to tally it all up on a tidy balance sheet with sin on one side and consequences on the other.

It is so difficult to look on the face of God's suffering servant without turning away in revulsion, because to look on him we have to embrace the dissonance of suffering innocence.  And once we see it in him, we start to see it everywhere.

Jesus is the scapegoat in the wilderness, but he is also the hideous public display of suffering innocence.  Crucifixions were meant to be seen in all their horror.  They were a warning to any who would threaten the order, the balance sheet.  Break the rules, suffer the punishment.  Except this One didn't break the rules and suffered the punishment just the same.

So it is.  It is not only the guilty who suffer, but the innocent, and it is terrible to look upon suffering innocence.  I cannot control it, so I want to hate and reject it.  But this only serves to put me in league with the forces of death.  I heap onto suffering innocence more suffering when I accuse and blame.

I have to learn to do otherwise.  This is something only God can teach me.  Only God can teach me to embrace with open hands and open heart suffering innocence.  It is beyond what my unassisted humanity can do.  It is the work not of flesh but of Spirit.  I have to learn to love.

And I become what I love.

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