The joy of suffering
- October 4, 2022
- Candida Moss
The crucifixion lodged suffering at the heart of Christianity: to suffer was to be like Christ. This reframing of suffering had far-reaching consequences for world history.
This essay originally appeared in ‘Religion : in the past, the present day and the future- Perspectives from the Engelsberg Seminar 2014′ published by Bokförlaget Stolpe, in collaboration with the Axel and Margaret Ax:son Johnson Foundation, 2020.
Christian apologists often say that the truth of Christianity is best demonstrated in the willingness of Jesus’ followers — both ancient and modern — to accept suffering and death for their Saviour.
They would not have suffered, we are told, if they did not know that Christianity was and is true. This argument is an ancient and deeply problematic one, but perhaps the most interesting thing about it is the way in which it studiously misses the point. Suffering lies at the heart of the Christian message. Since the earliest days of the Jesus movement, suffering like and for Jesus has been a central tenet of Christian self-understanding, viewed as inherently desirable and good, an experience that conferred preferential status on those who suffered and, arguably, a shortcut to sainthood.
This presentation and interpretation of suffering is, in many ways, one of the more important cultural shifts in the ancient world. While many elements of Christian tradition — the interest in sacrifice, salvation, ethical conduct, afterlife, etc. — find predecessors in contemporary Jewish and Greco-Roman religious practice, the widespread embrace of suffering by early Christians and their heirs forms something of a cultural revolution. There are various ways to understand why Christians treat suffering more as an opportunity to be capitalised on than a problem to be solved. This essay will discuss the historical and cultural factors that led to the rise of suffering in Christianity and the rhetorical opportunities that this shift has created for the generations of Christians since.
Prior to the advent of Christianity, suffering — be it individual suffering, communal suffering, or the kinds of suffering induced by natural disasters — was generally interpreted in one of two ways: either one’s deity was impotent or indifferent to one’s cause, or that deity was angered and punishing human beings for their actions. Both of these etiologies of suffering and disempowerment were grounded in the fundamental assumption that suffering is an intrinsically negative experience that resulted from sin or disobedience.
This is not to say that there was no such thing as a righteous innocent sufferer. Indeed the idea of a perfect innocent individual suffering purposefully through no fault of his or her own on behalf of the group or in order to atone for some crime is a foundational idea in ancient mythic theories of sacrifice. (We might think here of Iphigenia’s sacrifice to the goddess Artemis.) The eighth-century prophet Isaiah describes the rejection, harassment and physical violence experienced by a ‘Suffering Servant’ who, it seems, serves a quasi-sacrificial role on behalf of the community. Even in the case of righteous sufferers like the Maccabean martyrs, executed by Antiochus IV Epiphanes for their adherence to ancient law and custom, the martyrs themselves are reported to have said that they suffered on account of their own sins. Analysis of Maccabean literature by Dutch scholar Jan Willem van Henten has demonstrated that the deaths of the Maccabees are functionally equivalent to sacrificial offerings. They expiate for sins and result in renewed military success.
The idea of purposeful suffering, therefore, was not unheard-of in the ancient world. But if the suffering and even deaths of the innocent were, broadly speaking, effective or purposeful, we should note that it was not suffering that was to be admired but, rather, the obedience, self-control and manliness of the sufferer. Socrates’s refusal to go into exile and his calm, controlled embrace of death, for example, are admirable because of his conduct. And in some instances it is difficult to know if righteous sufferers or dying heroes even experienced suffering, given their impassible stance towards pain. With the death of Jesus, however, this changed.
The crucifixion, in all its humiliating gory reality, is the event that should have put a stop to the Jesus movement, just as the execution of leaders quelled support for other would-be Jewish messiahs in the first century. Yet, with Jesus, something else happened: the crucifixion and the suffering, or passio, became the foundational narrative about Jesus and the fulfilment of prophecies about a suffering Messiah, prophecies that may have originally been found as whispers on the lips of the historical Jesus, but that were amplified in the oral tradition and earliest writings of the followers of Jesus.
As the death of Jesus came to be seem as purposeful humiliation and salvific suffering, so too the suffering of his followers came to be recast as an expected part of the Christian experience. Certainly the pages of what came to be the New Testament are replete with this idea. In his letters, the Apostle Paul commends himself to his followers as one who is tortured for Christ and bears the marks of the crucifixion in his own body. The Jesus of the Gospel of Mark instructs his followers — not only the 12 disciples but everyone — to ‘take up their cross, and follow me’. The Book of Revelation promises those who conquer (by suffering) a seat on the throne of God.
It is easy to exoticise these understandings of suffering as fringe expressions of Christian identity. Since Freud, both psychoanalysts and historians have tended to pathologise those who desire to suffer like Jesus. To this, scholars have added the observation that the Christian valuation of suffering was a necessary shift in perspective without which Christianity would have died.
In addition to the death of Jesus, early church historians often identify martyrdom and persecution as the experiences that changed Christian attitudes to suffering. According to Sunday school tradition, Christianity was a persecuted and suffering religion for the first three hundred years of its existence. The blood of the martyrs was, in the words of early Church writer Tertullian, ‘seed’ that fostered the growth of the church. Members were hunted down and executed, their property and books burned by crusading emperors intent on rooting out the new religion. Women and children were thrown to the lions and boiled alive in cauldrons as maddened crowds bayed for blood. Jesus, Stephen and the Apostles were only the beginning of a history characterised by physical suffering.
As Christianity grew, so did the ranks of martyrs. According to the fourth-century historian Eusebius, early Christians were racked, whipped, beaten and scourged. Tens of thousands were condemned to the amphitheatres to face wild animals, forced to fight gladiators, beheaded, strangled quietly in jail or burned publicly, merely for the crime of being a Christian. According to this view, martyrdom stories — the concrete literary record of the Church’s experience of suffering — were written to promote martyrdom and to prepare lay Christians to suffer and die for Jesus.
The difficulty with this view is that it suffers from a dearth of evidence. For most of the period before the emperor Constantine came to power, Christians were not persecuted. While they did fall foul of legislation promoting the imperial cult in 250 AD and were singled out by the emperor Valerian (257–58) and Diocletian’s tetrarchy (303–305), Christians were not the victims of sustained persecution. For the majority of the pre-Constantinian period, Christians flourished.
Most of the martyrdom stories that scholars have claimed were written to inculcate a desire to suffer among the laity were written hundreds of years later, in the late antique and medieval periods. The lack both of instances of martyrdom and of texts describing martyrdom (whether real or fictional) demonstrate that persecution was not a feature of the day-to-day lives of early Christians. While they were occasionally killed, it is impossible to attribute Christian interest in suffering and self-identification as sufferers to the direct consequence of external danger or political pressure.
It might be argued, and it would certainly be true, that even a small number of deaths can leave a lasting impression in the Christian consciousness. Even if Christians did not suffer and die in the quantities ecclesiastical tradition describes, some were executed. Perhaps those rare individual deaths deeply affected early Christian literature and theology. This argument and the evidence it amasses must be set alongside the evidence and impact of other unnatural deaths in the period. During the mid-third century, the Roman Empire was hit by a plague commonly known as the Plague of Cyprian. In his essay On Mortality, the third-century Bishop Cyprian described the gruesome effects of the plague: ‘The intestines are shaken with a continual vomiting; the eyes are on fire with infected blood; that in some cases the feet or some parts of the limbs are taken off by the contagion of diseased putrefaction.’ In many cases, blindness and deafness would ensue.
At its height, the epidemic is estimated to have killed 5,000 people a day in the city of Rome alone. Among them were two Roman emperors: Hostilian and Claudius II Gothicus. Sociologist Rodney Stark writes that as much as two-thirds of the population in Alexandria died. The precise dates of the plague of Cyprian are unknown, but scholarly ‘best guesses’ place it between 250 and 271 AD, meaning that it was an approximate contemporary of the Roman legislation under Decius and Valerian. It is difficult to imagine, under such circumstances, that the rare execution of Christians for treason would have been as devastating. Interestingly, and even though it seems that people were dying en masse, the plague seems to have left little impact on the Christian consciousness. It is mentioned by Cyprian and Bishop Dionysius of Alexandria, but only as something that encouraged Christians to more ethical conduct.
What this means is that Christian interest in suffering does not directly correlate to the experience of suffering. While the Christian descriptions of suffering emerged in a particular political and historical context, this is not only a theological crutch for dealing with immediate events. It is worth noting that, once we look outside of Christianity, there are a variety of social locations in which suffering was construed positively.
As already noted, Christian evaluations of suffering often tie the experience of the individual and the community to the suffering of Jesus. Christians suffer like and for Jesus, in imitation of him. In other words, the expectation and easy embrace of suffering is grounded in mimesis or imitation. The turn-of-the-second-century bishop and martyr Ignatius famously stated that he ‘longed to be an imitator of the suffering of his Lord’. Ignatius stands close to the beginning of an ascetic Christian impulse that glorifies bodily suffering — however wilfully assumed — as a means of imitating or participating in the sufferings of Christ. From fifth-century desert fathers to medieval mystics seeking ascent to the divine, personal suffering and pain is fairly consistently grounded in both imitating and building a connection with Jesus.
In many ways, individual suffering is presented less as a problem and more as an opportunity to imitate Christ. Merely because in the Middle Ages Thomas à Kempis staked a proprietary claim on the idea of imitating Christ does not mean that the answer to this question is markedly different in Protestantism. If we were to ask the American Protestant question ‘What would Jesus do?‘ were he faced with a choice between apostasy and suffering, the answer would be: Jesus would suffer and die. Linguistic quibbles do not render the basic answer any different.
Much of this language of mimesis is in keeping with ancient theories of education and learning. Imitation was not only the way in which children learned, it was also the manner in which ethics was inculcated and art and literature were produced. A child learning to write, for example, would learn by copying lines from Homer and changing singular nouns and verbs into the plural. As they progressed through their education, they would learn to write in the style of great poets, as creativity took a back seat to imitation. As for suffering, it was well established in the ancient world that paidea or physical discipline was an effective and in fact the preferable means of instruction. In the context of ancient education, imitating the conduct of a beloved and respected leader was assumed to be the goal of instruction.
The interest in mimetic suffering is about more than pedagogy. In ancient medical thinking, the physically weak were more susceptible to supernatural influence. On an anatomical level, pop medicine regarded sickly and female bodies as especially permeable — they were quite literally full of poroi or holes — and thus more vulnerable to penetration by supernatural entities, whether those entities be run-of-the-mill demons, holy spirits or Christ figures. It is for this reason that women made such excellent prophetesses, epileptics were believed to have precognitive abilities and Paul talks about his powers being perfected in weakness. Weakness could be spiritually beneficial. The second-century orator Aelius Aristides characterises the relationship between his famous bodily weakness, his personal connection with his daimon and his oratory as a productive one. He describes in the Sacred Tales how ‘that famous Pardalas […] the greatest expert of the Greeks of our time in the knowledge of rhetoric, dared to say and affirm to me that I had become ill through some good fortune, so that by my association with the god, I might make this improvement [in oration]’.
It is not only the case that suffering is a form of mimesis, but also that suffering is a sign that the body’s defences are degraded and that the human body is, in this state of physical vulnerability, more capable of communing with God. This broadly-held ancient view contributed to early Christian understanding of suffering as spiritually and ethically beneficial. Suffering in Christianity functions mechanistically as a means of accessing divine realms and power. In this context the question is not ‘Why does God let us suffer?’ but, rather, ‘How should I behave when I suffer?’
If suffering provides access to God on a physiological level as well as a mimetically grounded relationship to the experience of Jesus, it also provides Christians with positions of authority within their own community. This appears to have been the case even from the beginning. Paul leverages his suffering in order to garner rhetorical power. Grounding his own relationship to Jesus in experiential visions and suffering, he frequently exhorts his communities to imitate him as he imitates Christ. He creates a hierarchically organised mimetic economy in which the experience of suffering serves as the currency. In revaluing pain and hardship, Christians transformed suffering into cultural capital.
This is true even today. Many Christians continue to interpret individual and communal struggles as part of the traditional history of persecution and the conflict between good and evil. Sometimes that self-concept inspires great courage and heroism, or provides comfort to the suffering. In the context of North American political debate, there are less lofty goals in sight. Christians can claim to be oppressed as long as they feel opposed. And the claim that modern Christians ‘suffer’ or ‘are persecuted’ by the unseen forces of secularism leverages the idea of the Christian sufferer to score political points.
It is certainly not the case that every Christian, ancient or modern, has subscribed to this view of suffering, either individual or corporate. And the placement of suffering at the heart of the Christian experience has not gone unchallenged. The idea found in Peter that slaves should embrace the unjust sufferings forced upon them by their masters has received particular scrutiny. The selective historical application of the concept of redemptive suffering in the lives of women and slaves has led many modern theologians to abandon the concept as a masochistic relic from the medieval period. Moreover, those ascetics, medieval mystics and martyrs who have cultivated suffering in their own lives as a means of reaching God could be accused of practising disabled drag. They do not wrestle with the pains of unavoidable suffering so much as seek romanticised notions of physical pain.
If, historically speaking, the death of Jesus forced what would later be known as orthodox Christians into revolutionising their view of the experience of violence and pain, we should note that historical necessity produced both a viable theology and an explanation of the world that helped shape and nurture the growth of Christianity in the Roman Empire.
This profound shift in thought produced a powerful discourse of righteous suffering that bookended the more commonplace notions of religious triumphalism and contributed to the success of the Christian movement. The potency of the God of Christianity no longer rested on that deity’s ability to rescue his followers from misfortune. The situation was win-win for a deity who was omnipotent when he won battles for Constantine and thoughtful when he allowed his followers to be slaughtered. The ebb and flow of Christianity’s success in the world was easily transferable to the individual. Ultimately the genius of the Christian movement was its ability to dissociate the experience of suffering from notions of divine punishment and to reposition suffering at the heart of the Christian experience.