Thought for the Day - Rev Dr Michael Banner
Every week, images of suffering fill our screens and newspapers. Recently you may have seen pictures of the stacked bodies of the hundreds who died in the prison fire in Honduras, of brutality on the streets of Syria, and of monks and nuns dying by self-immolation in Tibet. But no week goes past without natural disasters, horrific accidents, political strife or simply the relentless toll of poverty and starvation, together providing ample shots for a daily supply of drama and tragedy.
Some commentators worry that this amounts to ‘infotainment’. We have become voyeurs of human misery, it is said, and we’re in danger of making human suffering just another installment in a soap opera of real life.
Christianity, of course, has its images of pain and woe. Walk into a church and you may find the stations of the cross – a veritable exhibition of torment and torture. And the Church has a season (Lent), beginning today on Ash Wednesday, when we are enjoined to turn our minds towards a particular instance of suffering - Christ’s suffering - and in Holy Week to follow it, blow by blow. What is this, a hostile critic such as Nietzsche might ask, but a morbid enjoyment and thrill at the horrors of pain and degradation?
There is a serious question for both the media and Christianity about the spectacular, even gruesome depictions of human distress they put on display and about the effect these images may have. Christianity is clear, however, that we are not to be mere spectators of Christ’s suffering – rather we are to enter into it in an imaginative and symbolic way, and in particular in Lent, to do so by undertaking some discipline of self-denial. We are not to let the fact and nature of human pain simply flit into our minds and out again; instead, we are to attend to suffering with such a degree and kind of attention that we come to share in it – so that it might touch and even disturb us. Inevitably, whatever we give up for Lent, our self denial will be a token gesture compared with genuine suffering – but it can still serve, nonetheless, to keep the fact of real affliction before our minds, if not for the whole 40 days of Lent, at least for a little bit longer than the length of a news bulletin. In such a way, Lent will be not a school for suffering, as if this were an end in itself, but a school in which, by attending to suffering, we are moved to sympathy and compassion.
Some suffering is said to be unspeakable – and yet, paradoxically, it may seem, a morally responsible representation of suffering, whether in the media or in religion, will surely be one which enables human anguish to find a voice. Courtesy of worldwide news, we are in danger of being merely passive spectators of vast amounts of distant suffering – in Lent, but not only in Lent, we need to find ways of bringing the actuality of affliction powerfully and effectively before our minds.