What does it feel like to be caught in a systemic cycle of suffering? In Peckham, southeast London, where I lived for seven years, many families have experienced five generations of unemployment, neglect, illiteracy and poverty. To be in pain because you are stuck in a faceless, impersonal system that grinds on and on is hard to imagine if you have not experienced it personally.
When Chinese workers in the main iPhone factory in China began killing themselves in large numbers in 2010, it became a story in the Western press. The corporation went so far as to install large nets outside many of the buildings to catch falling bodies. The company hired counsellors, and workers were made to sign pledges stating they would not attempt to kill themselves. The popularity of the iPhone continued to increase.
The British nation was shocked in December 2018 to hear that a homeless man had died from cold outside Parliament, aged 43, while Members of Parliament debated legislation inside the chamber. The man, who was named as Gyula Remes, was found by British Transport Police outside Westminster Underground Station directly opposite the Houses of Parliament. A woman who knew him told the BBC, “He was blue last night, and everyone was just walking past him like he didn’t matter”.
In countries where corrupt and privileged elites hold down the vast majority of the population in poverty, human suffering is rife. Writer and philosopher Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who experienced Stalin’s tyranny in the Soviet Union and was sent to the gulag, wrote: “Unlimited power in the hands of limited people always leads to cruelty”.
Where is God? Does God have any relevance in the face of great mountains of human degradation and pain?
Suffering and the Bible
The Bible explores the human experience of being caught up in systemic suffering. The Old Testament devotes an entire book – Exodus – to the experience of an enslaved people and their journey from slavery in Egypt to the challenges of being a nomadic people.
The Old Testament prophet Jeremiah writes of his people exiled and oppressed by a foreign power. The generational oppression of invasion and foreign rule is expressed by the psalmist who laments “by the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept” (Psalm 137). There is a whole book of the Bible devoted to an exploration of grief and lament for a people ravaged by war, violence and death – it is called Lamentations.
The four gospels were written about the life of Jesus Christ, himself born as a Jew into an occupied territory, the child of a refugee teenage mother. Jesus goes on to be unjustly accused and tried by a powerful and corrupt system of collaborators and Roman oppressors.
The pain of systemic injustice is not ignored or swept over by the Bible. It is a prominent concern in both Old and New testaments, and a significant focus of the ministry of Jesus.
Teaching that endures
Early Christian faith was indistinguishable from practical love for the poor and for those who were suffering. By the fourth century, Christianity had gained serious ground in the Roman Empire. But when the Emperor Constantine’s nephew Julian wanted to take the empire back to its pagan roots, he found that Christian charity towards the poor was a significant obstacle.
Julian wrote a letter to Arsacius, the pagan high priest of Galatia, saying it was disgraceful that Jews and Galileans (Christians) never had to beg because they and anyone else in poverty were supported by Christian communities. He urged his fellow pagans to follow this example if they were to have any hope of resisting the growth of Christianity: “Teach those of the Hellenic faith to contribute to public service of this sort”.
Jesus’ teaching has inspired Christians to work for the good of those suffering from systemic injustice. William Wilberforce, with his vision to see the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade in his lifetime, or the Earl of Shaftesbury – who worked for child labour and factory law reform, seeking better conditions for human beings caught up in the Industrial Revolution – are well-known examples of this impetus for social justice.
On the wrong side
The truth is, of course, that Christians have also often been on wrong side of justice issues in the past 2000 years. While Wilberforce campaigned for the abolition of the slave trade, Church of England bishops owned slaves, and many of the worst perpetrators of slavery called themselves Christians. While many of the earliest suffragettes in the UK drew inspiration from biblical imagery and were inspired by their faith, many in the institutional church sought to hold on to male dominance and resisted the impetus for votes for women.
The institutional churches in America and Britain have not responded justly to the victims of child abuse – who have called for justice when priests or clergy have abused them and have been ignored by bishops and elders.
We cannot skirt over this truth lightly: the church has done much that is good in social-justice terms, but there have been many instances of individual Christians and of the institutional church failing dismally to represent Christ and his ethic.
For me, the key question when trying to make sense of such a confusing mixture of good and evil is this: what is the basis for those actions and positions?
When we read the Old Testament or look at the example and teaching of Jesus, the clear and logical conclusion is that the Christian worldview places a value on our neighbour and gives a practical imperative to care for the poor. And so the inspiration to start schools and hospitals, to fight for decent living conditions for children, or to care for the dying, has been a driving force of Christian mission in spite of all the entanglements of colonialism and empire in the more recent developments in church history over the past 200 years.
The love of God
Jesus’ ethic still calls his followers to demonstrate the love of God in practical ways in this painfilled, systemically unjust world.
Where is God in the systemic suffering of people? He is present in his followers, who are working to overturn such systems in the very midst of the darkness of the world and to bring the love, light and truth of God’s presence to all who will receive it. He is present in the intuition of sufferer and observer that this is not how things are meant to be. He was willing to be subjected to systemic injustice himself: to stand trial and be unjustly sentenced to death.
A God who suffers and challenges systemic injustice is not remote or distant from this world. In fact, there is a place that we can look at in more detail that brings God’s involvement into clearer focus. A place called Calvary.
Dr Amy Orr-Ewing is co-director of the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics. This is an adapted extract from her new book Where is God in All The Suffering?