There is a profound moment in Bill Moyer’s interview with Joseph Campbell, an exchange in which the viewer can see Moyer’s utter bewilderment at Campbell’s vision. Campbell is recounting an audience he had with the Hindu teacher Sri Krishna Menon. As is the custom, the Swami invites him to ask a question.
Since in Hindu thinking everything is a manifestation of divinity itself, how should we say no to anything in the world? How should we say no to brutality, to stupidity, to vulgarity, to thoughtlessness?
For you and me the way is to say yes.
What a mind-blowing response! Is this not the stumbling block of the cross? Is this not the wisdom of the book of Job?
In Eastern Orthodox tradition it is said that when God finally speaks to Job from the whirlwind he shows him Jesus on the cross. Job’s final reply to God seems quite meek in the face of all he has lamented in the preceding chapters. With his miserable condition unchanged Job says:
Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me, which I did not know….
I had heard of you by the ear but now my eye sees you;
Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes
For the followers of a crucified God the mystery of suffering is not something that has meaning, it is not something that we can understand. But the revelation of Jesus Christ is that God Is With Us (Hebrew: Emmanuel) in our suffering. Suffering is not a punishment or a test but it is part of the unfathomable mystery of the universe. If we say “no” to it and resist it and try to keep it at bay, though understandable, we are inadvertently cutting ourselves off from the world God is working through, making our own judgment “God” in the process.
Campbell says to Moyers:
The Swami’s answer confirmed in me the feeling ‘who are we to judge’. This is also one of the great teachings of Jesus.
But, oh, how hard this is to do when we feel that only we see the true nature of justice and injustice. Job, the righteous man, would not and could not refrain from his insistence that he was right. But then, given a glimpse of the cosmic unfolding of God, he shrank in embarrassment.
The only response to suffering is compassion. We cannot understand it, we cannot explain it, we cannot end it. As the First Noble Truth of Buddhism, not to mention Genesis, tells us: Our lives in space and time are characterized by loss; Life is suffering. This moment is gone forever, and this one, this person, and this one. In compassion we do not hide from suffering, we do not explain it away, we simply love right through it. Mother Theresa did not save the world from suffering. Neither did Jesus. Their saintly witness is that they accompanied their friends through it. And they accompany us still.
We must remember that compassion is not passive. It will act to alleviate suffering where it can, but it will not mistake the presence of suffering for the absence of God. For God has been born a person to reveal that God Is With Us, God suffers too. But God is big enough to hold all the suffering, all the pain, all the apparent chaos. There is not one thing in the universe that does not exist without God’s presence and love. If this is the Way can we say yes?