Far as the curse is found
The celebrations that surround the nativity of our Lord often seem to bring a mix of joy and sorrow. While one family enjoys the holidays with a new child, some parents endure the season having lost children during the previous year. Some folks find themselves surrounded by loved ones, while others feel the weight of loneliness, or of a broken family, most intensely. The joy of Christmas cannot but be alloyed with some sorrow when people with whom we are in relation are experiencing a bit of the very darkness that the Light of the World came to dispel. Conversations with friends who recently returned from volunteering with the Missionaries of Charity in Kolkata have had me reflecting on solidarity. What does it mean to be in solidarity with those who suffer? How can the suffering of another become my own, or is it presumptuous to think that I could truly enter into solidarity with the sufferings of another?
A few weeks ago, my friend Josh Brumfield contributed a post to Vox Nova about hell. His post is worth reading, because he is raising the important question: what does hell have to do with the gospel? One approach to this issue may be helpful for thinking about solidarity. Hell names the depths of darkness into which the saint is willing to descend for the sake of others. In other words, to be in solidarity with others is to suffer with and even for others. The idea of vicarious suffering appears in multiple strands of Catholic theology, from the neo-Thomism of Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange to la nouvelle théologie of Hans Urs von Balthasar, and it is often connected with Mariology. Perhaps most importantly, it is an idea rooted thoroughly in Scripture. After Israel makes the golden calf, Moses asks God that his own name be blotted from the book of life so that the nation may be spared. In his letter to the Romans, St. Paul wishes that he might be cut off from Christ if it would mean that Israel could be saved. Perhaps this way of thinking about suffering does not quite get at my original line of questioning, but neither is it wholly unrelated, since Paul and Moses are seeking to take on the burdens of others. They are willing to make the potential sufferings of others their own, and in this sense, they stand in solidarity with those whose burdens they seek to accept.
While being willing to suffer, to sacrifice oneself, for others appears at first to be noble and a supreme form of charity, I must confess that the idea also troubles me. It troubles me because it seems to present a basis for idolatry. Does the Apostle love the nation more than God? In his recent book, On Sacrifice, Moshe Halbertal raises this very point, claiming that if one is willing to sacrifice oneself for others, then one might be willing to sacrifice one’s conscience for others. This is exactly what German SS officers did, and by sacrificing their consciences, they believed themselves to be taking on the ultimate burden for the sake of the nation. If I am willing to go to hell for my friend, then perhaps I am willing to perform an evil act, an act contrary to the will of God, for the sake of kith and kin, or of the patria. Would such an act not put others in the place of God and thus constitute idolatry?
The problem of idolatry arises when self-sacrifice and solidarity become abstract principles rather than themes from a particular narrative, namely, the narrative of Israel and her prophets, of Christ, the Church, and the saints who perform exemplary acts of compassion. Jesus took on sin and thus entered the depths of suffering, but he did not commit sin in order to be in solidarity with humanity. In Razing the Bastions, Balthasar tells the story of a Carmelite monastery that prayed to be destroyed by a bomb if it would spare a village. These are the kinds of stories that tell us what suffering for others might mean. At the same time, these stories show suffering that takes away the sufferings of others. What about suffering that does not take away the sufferings of others? To go back to my original question, to what extent can I truly enter into solidarity with the sufferings of others, even when the suffering persists? I can imagine a few ways of approaching this question, but one could be to consider the acts of religion: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. I am struck by the fact that each of these practices weakens the practitioner in some way. The person who prays, fasts, and gives alms suffers, even if the suffering is mild. Certainly, one performs these acts, in the first place, to draw closer to God. But it seems appropriate that by drawing closer to the God who suffered (by virtue of Jesus’ human nature, of course) on the cross, one should also draw closer to women and men who suffer. In this sense, perhaps solidarity with those who suffer begins with prayer.