The cry of the downtrodden is Jesus' cry

  • February 8, 2010
Years ago, a friend of mine volunteered to teach in a Haitian orphanage. When she returned home temporarily due to political upheaval, I was rapidly educated about this country, its beauties and its pains.

Among many discoveries was that Canadians waste water. Growing up surrounded by fresh water, I’d never considered that water might be finite and we could waste or should conserve it.

After she returned to the orphanage, she sent me a photograph of a tiny chapel of the Sisters of Charity in Port-au-Prince. A simple wooden altar was draped with white cloth and red flowers; behind hung a crucifix and beside it, printed on the white wall in clear black upper case letters, the words: “I thirst.” Thinking of the water supply, at first I connected these words with the Haitians. Only secondarily did I recognize one of the seven “last words” of Jesus on the cross. I heard clearly in Jesus’ voice the voice of His people — that His thirst is their thirst — in His nails the plight of His people, pinned by poverty. I saw Him suffer and thirst with those who suffer and thirst, so close that their cry is his cry. I saw on the altar, laid ready for the banquet, His communion with them. Later I began to learn how often poverty is behind suffering — and behind poverty is injustice, which is another way to say people’s cruelty to one another. This human sinfulness is what brought Jesus to the cross. Rather, love in the face of sin brought Jesus to the cross. 

A homily I heard reflected on the Jan. 12 Haitian earthquake. The priest didn’t give neat answers to the excruciating questions, but had the courage to wrestle with them — to stand toe-to-toe with God, as Job did, and say, in essence, “I need you to explain yourself on this. You can’t expect people to bear great suffering without some word from you.” And as he spoke, the priest wept. In his tears was his communion with the sufferings of people he’d never met and couldn’t directly help. God’s answer to Job, some have said, was simply Self-revelation, His presence with the sufferer.

Over two centuries ago, on All Saints Day 1755, an earthquake and tsunami directly killed some 100,000 people in Lisbon, including deaths after from fire, hunger and disease. Why? What does it say about nature, about humans, about God?

Questions today need answers for the living, such as how humanity can continue to support the gross economic imbalance that’s starker today than in the 18th century. Also questions for the dead, the question of meaning in thousands of lives taken violently in a moment of time. They’re not academic questions, to be neatly polished and delivered in the clouds while people suffer below. They’re practical questions, which our actions answer every moment; do we witness our faith that humanity is made in the image and likeness of God, that we belong to each other and to Him, that the cry of the poor is His cry?

Dialogue between Voltaire and Rousseau exemplified contemporary reflection on the Lisbon earthquake, and forever affected Western thinking about the presence of God in natural events. “Why suffer we, then, under one so just? There is the knot your thinkers should undo. Think ye to cure our ills denying them?” wrote Voltaire. The medieval view of God as the author of natural events receded in favour of seeing natural disasters as impersonal, utterly random events. No surprise that a letter to a Canadian newspaper after the 2010 Haitian earthquake proclaimed: “God was not there; Darwin was.”

If these deaths are meaningless, who could God be? How does faith respond to such suffering, such an inversion of goodness? To whom do we appeal? “Nature is dumb,” continues Voltaire, “in vain appeal to it; the human race demands a word of God.” But nature does speak to us. Dead and living are united by the common reality that nature turns against humanity for failing to see and use it as it was meant; for failing to live in and with the universe as sacrament. Such tragedy as Lisbon, as Haiti, calls us all into reality of how our fundamental injustices create suffering in the poor and disorder our world. The scientific, the political, the social and economic answers will be discussed. Can we respond strongly out of faith, that is, out of our relationship with God, with one another, with all creation?

Our church bids us into the Lenten desert, the path towards (not away from) suffering and death, proclaiming it’s also the path to resurrection. We enter that desert with the triple ensemble of prayer, fasting and almsgiving (the Gospel of Ash Wednesday); hard to accept, when we might be looking to the triple panacea of money, machinery and medicines. But where better to hear and wrestle with the questions, with our bodies and hearts as well as our minds?

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