Innocent Suffering

Several Christian theologians, including H. Richard Niebuhr, have used the term “innocent suffering” to provide us with clues to our ethical priorities. What do we mean by this term?

For example, it is certainly true that African American persons in the United States confront an up-hill slope compared to their white brothers and sisters. To even be a candidate for the office of president, Barack Obama had to be qualified way beyond the norm for this job. Though we might not support some of Obama’s policies, we had in him a superbly qualified person: a law scholar; a public speaker of Abraham Lincoln class (many of whose speeches will be remembered for centuries); a talented comedian seldom seen in public office; a person of self control, obvious sanity, and sincere intent to be a positive influence. Had he had any of the flaws or weaknesses of Donald Trump, he would never have been elected Senator, much less President. Can we imagine the response of voters, had Obama said things about women that Trump apparently got away with (at least with millions of voters)? A white man in our culture often avoids sufferings that a black person will almost certainly experience.

And this was only the beginning of the innocent suffering inflicted upon our first black president—falsely accused of not being a citizen, irrationally opposed by Republican leaders, assassination threats beyond the norm. And even all of Obama’s sufferings are less than the innocent suffering faced by every black inner city boy who is often instructed by his parents on how to avoid getting killed by the police or vigilantes walking home from school. “Black Lives Matter” is indeed a slogan that speaks to this innocent suffering.

There is no fault involved in being born black or brown or tan, so this is properly called “innocent suffering.” Women also face innocent suffering: their opportunities are still restricted compared with men of equal qualification; our culture also allows various dangers to their person (and life) that exceed those of most males. Innocent suffering is certainly endured by the poor: their pathway to success and prosperity is becoming more, not less, restricted. Gays, lesbians, and transgender citizens face innocent suffering of a most insidious form. Innocent suffering is likewise endured by the mentally ill. And we must not overlook the worshipers of a religion that is not typical in the general society. This list of innocent suffers goes on and on. Suffering of all sorts is unfairly distributed in every society, and this unfair distribution tells us much that we need to know in order to prioritize our fight for justice.

Yet, there is a problem with fully understanding the concept of “innocent suffering,” for all people suffer and no person is wholly innocent. If we view “innocence” from the perspective of not being estranged from our profound humanness, then in terms of this baseline, we are all guilty of being less than human. We are all on a journey either forward toward more authenticity of living, or on a journey backward toward more debauchery and other escapes of our essential being. “Innocent” is not the whole story about suffering.

Guilty of Despair

Innocent before some law can be fairly cut and dried. That is why we have courts and judges and juries—to figure out that sort of innocence or guilt. But on the more profound level of our being human, “guilt” means something far more basic than violation of a law. The deep refusal to live our real life is a guilt that we do not get away with, Reality catches up with us and casts us into some form of despair. We are all guilty of the suffering of despair.

Also, no one avoids the temporal sufferings of ordinary living. It is often true that suffering is about half of our lives. Pain and pleasure are both experienced by all of us. Success and frustration are both there in our lives. Both approval and disapproval come our way. Both beauty and ugliness happen to us. Our lives includes many “little deaths” to our living, as well as that final ending in total biological extinction.

And in addition to all these qualities of our temporality, we add suffering to our lives by our attitudes toward our temporal ups and downs. By clinging to these impermanent realities, we create a suffering that need not be. By hoping for things that can never happen, we create a suffering that need not haunt our lives. We can needlessly despair over anything, both our so-called “ups” as well as our so-called “downs.” Mostly we despair over our “downs”—over our loss of a mate we wanted but did not get, or had for a time and then lost—over a job we loved but cannot no longer perform—over a discovery about our own person of something we abhor. Despair is the most intolerable of all sufferings, yet most of us are trapped in some form of despair most of the time.

Despair is a suffering that Buddhist practices can assist us to heal—making us ready for the “accident” of liberation from our despair. Despair is a suffering that Christian practices also assist us to heal: this heritage calls this “accident of liberation” the “grace of God.” Grace is a happening that enables us to trust in Reality, a trust that leads to the consequences of freedom, hope, love, peace, and joy. These two religions and others have come into being because humans all face the need to heal from the sickness of despair. In spite of the fact that we all tend to avoid the whole topic of despair, we all need means of healing our despair — of getting loose from the trap of despair and finding release for our true human potentials.

And our despair is basically needless, for it is not built into the structure of the cosmos. Despair is an accomplishment of human beings. It is possible to give up hoping that our temporal lives will cease to be temporal and become lasting in the ways we wish to be “lasting.” However, that deep possibility of being reconciled with our real, authentic, essential lives is not so easy. Our despair is caused by attitudes that are deeply entrenched. If fact, most of the time we have no idea why we are in despair or what it might be that we are in despair over. Even when we do have some insight into the causes of our despair, we may still be strongly bound in clinging to whatever it is that is passing away. Such clinging makes us slaves, bound and groveling in some state of despair. And despair can be very dangerous, for it can seem to us so bad that we can choose not to live at all, rather that go on with the pain of our despair or even the humiliation of its admission and healing.

Most often we find ways of burying our feelings of despair in some form of drunkenness or debauchery or busyness. Even our most noble living may provide a way of escaping a full experience of our despair-dominated lives. But such escapes from despair do not last. Eventually we become exhausted, numb, burned-out, and thereby brought home to an even deeper awareness of our despair.

Most tragic of all, we are capable of taking on a very advanced attitude toward despair—the notion that despair is all there is to living a human life. We can simply resign ourselves to despair and thereby embody some sort of firm hatred toward human living that our despair reveals, making ourselves into a demonic force that lacks all genuine love for others or even love for ourselves—a spirit that hates the cosmos for being the cosmos, and that hates the cosmos for working in the ways the cosmos does in fact work. Such despair-sick lives take on a sort of purpose, the purpose of hating reality and evangelizing others to hate life along with us. This horrid state can endure as a sort of grim fun, until we get tired of it. We know that we can always kill ourselves when we want to quit this weird project of hate. We need not be so surprised when people actually do kill themselves and take a bunch of others with them.

Seeing clearly these consequences to which despair may lead, let us ask further about the possibility of healing despair. Paul Tillich has given us a formula for noticing this path of transformation. First, we look our despair in the face and acknowledge that we are the cause of it, that we are guilty of despair. Second, we notice that the cosmic truth of Final Reality is an acceptance of us—an acceptance of us just as we are, in spite of our self-inflicted despair. This cosmic acceptance offers to us a fresh start for our lives. And third, all we have to do right now is simply accept that fact that we are accepted. Transformation follows. However grim our despair has been, we can be and therefore act differently. We can be reconciled in our overall attitude toward everything.

“Everything” Includes
all Sorts of Suffering

There is suffering that is simply our finitude—the impermanence of every aspect of our lives—our bodies, our health, our peers, our thoughts, our feelings, our lives. This suffering of impermanence is neither innocent nor guilty: it just is. It is just part of our lives to which can be reconciled or needlessly fight against.

Policing Despair

The social role of policing might better be called protecting, for that is the positive meaning of police action, protecting us from the consequence of our despairing neighbors and protecting our neighbors from a despairing “me.” The Declaration of Independence referred to the task of policing with the poetry “domestic tranquility.” We have often developed antagonism toward policing, because we have experienced despairing police officers who are causing innocent suffering. Nevertheless, the true role of policing is to protect us, not cause us more suffering.

The laws of state power and their enforcement do not heal despair, but law enforcement can restrain the despairing from the consequences of their despair upon the rest of us. In love for ourselves and others, we can experience the call to restrain “evil,” where “evil” is defined by just law and by common-sense moral custom. We can restrain such defined “evil” along with promoting the accompanying works of love that have to do with assisting the despairing to be aware of their despair and to find the path of forgiveness that leads toward being healed of despair.

Such healing and such restraint of evil do not contradict each other: these two forms of love support each other. Healing the despairing provides society with persons who do the tasks of justice. And the application of justice can be a tutor to the despairing about their despair, which is the first step toward healing their despair.

Such a balanced understanding of the works of love protects us from seeing ourselves as guiltless avengers at war with the guilty criminals. We all despair. And we all need just applications of law to restrain us. A police officer confronts the delicate task of restraining the consequences of despair, while also noticing the humanity of the people they restrain, a humanity that always includes a potential for humanness, no matter how evil and dangerous that human may still be.

It is not a contradiction that we need to restrain criminal persons as well as treat them with the respect they deserve. Criminals deserve respect in line with the simple fact of their being born into the common life we share with them. The suffering that policing must cause a criminal is a suffering that is needed because of the sickness of despair in that criminal. No permission need be granted to the police to heap innocent suffering on the criminals they care for and protect the rest of us from.

Police work is an honest and needed profession—no less so than nurse or teacher. Each profession has its characteristic temptations. Our police need to be trained to watch out for their own need to be powerful over others, or to hate those it is safe in this culture to hate. This need for a seeming softness of spirit in our police does not contradict the need for our police to be clear, careful, and firm with the destructive consequences of the despairing. We can be thankful for our police as well as for our therapeutic and religious ministries that are aimed at making us ready for the healing of our despair.

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