This week I’m reading a remarkable essay by Joanne Carlson Brown and Rebecca Parker on the many, many ways that theologians and activists have explained redemptive suffering, punishment, and justice. It’s part of the old collection Christianity, Patriarchy, and Abuse.
What’s fascinating about the arguments I’ve read so far is that they’re more than 28 years old yet still sound so current. A lot can happen in three decades—the fall of the Berlin Wall, the evolution of the internet—but theological debates about responding patiently in the face of abuse haven’t moved much in that time.
Brown and Parker review classical penal, satisfaction, moral influence atonement theories as well as recent criticisms that challenge “that distant, impassive patriarch in the clouds who is beyond being affected by the turmoil below.” They point out that knowing others suffer with us can be encouraging but doesn’t change the situation that produced suffering in the first place.
“Bearing the burden with another,” they write, “does not take the burden away. Sympathetic companionship makes suffering more bearable, but the friendship between slaves, for example, does not stop the master from wielding the lash.”
This is a good self-check for those of us thinking about what it means to express solidarity with others in our relationships and work. Our solidarity with others, and others’ solidarity with us, has to be more than a synonym for shared trauma. Solidarity should provoke ethical action: the drive to transform relationships that deal domination and death into relationships where “abundant life” is experience and not merely hope.
Redemption happens when people refuse to relinquish respect and concern for others, when people refuse to relinquish fullness of feeling, when people refuse to give up seeing, experiencing, and being connected and affected by all of life… [The insistent zest for experiencing and responding] is what has the power to create community and sustain justice.” —Joanne Carlson Brown and Rebecca Parker