Even a brief sampling of this week’s headlines illustrate a world enmeshed in severe and senseless suffering inflicted by some human beings upon other human beings:
- “Gunmen storm Tunisian museum”
- “ISIS likely committing genocide against Yazidi minority in Iraq: UN”
- “Protests break out at University of Virginia after Violent Arrest”
- “Body of Missing African American Man Found Hanging from Tree in Mississippi”
In the midst of this seemingly meaningless violence, in just a few days Christians all around the globe will come together to remember the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Many of us will find ourselves cast in the role of those who do violence, shouting out “Crucify him! Crucify him!” in readings of the passion. Our role can remind us of the insight from the great theologian Edward Schillebeeckx that the crucifixion is what “has been done to Jesus by the history of human injustice.”
Schillebeeckx was adamant that not all suffering is meaningful or redemptive. Instead, he argued that a great deal of human suffering, perhaps even the majority, is totally senseless when considered by itself. The week’s headlines contain too many examples of suffering that raise bile in our throats–repulsive, wanton suffering.
The experience of senseless suffering had a name for Schillebeeckx. He called it a “contrast experience” because of the way that it diverges from what we intuitively know to be decent, humane behavior. A person who has, in Schillebeeckx’s vocabulary, a “contrast experience of suffering,” has a negative experience that grates against what it means to be a human being invested with inviolable dignity. Thus, contrast experiences are events of severe suffering due to injustices. These experiences are fundamentally at odds with what it would mean to be a fully flourishing human community populated by flourishing people, or what Schillebeeckx refers to as the humanum.
Absorbing this week’s headlines – whether on the perpetration of genocide, police brutality, or other forms of violence — engenders a kind of collective contrast experience. We know that this is not how the world is supposed to be. We know that these acts represent a perversion of the goodness of God’s creation and of the dignity of the human person. In other words, the violence contrasts greatly with our understanding of what it means to be fully human and of what a flourishing human community looks like.
Mercifully, though, Schillebeeckx (and Christian theology broadly speaking) does not abandon us to the horrors of the contrast experience of meaningless suffering due to injustice. Instead, Schillebeeckx argues that our particular experiences of suffering simultaneously offer us a vision of a future that is not marked by meaningless violence. Suffering becomes meaningful, for Schillebeeckx, insofar as we resist injustice and struggle against it. Thus Schillebeeckx argues that the contrast experience of suffering can blossom into knowledge of a better future which “initiates a new praxis” that actually tries to bring that future about: the experience of suffering calls us to struggle against injustice, violence, and the pain they cause. Schillebeeckx calls this resistance to senseless suffering “negative dialectics.” We practice negative dialectics when we endeavor to bring about a more humane and just future, less at odds with the humanum. It is the praxis of resistance that “overcomes suffering and creates a new future.”
Fortunately, there are many people and groups embodying negative dialectics by resisting needless suffering. UVA students demonstrating against the bloody arrest of a fellow student and Tunisians protesting terrorist attacks unite in solidarity against contrast experiences of suffering due to injustice. In their resistance they witness instead to what the world ought to look like; to a vision of the humanum – the human community fully flourishing.
In Christian theology, the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, which we celebrate in a few weeks, is God’s “negative dialectic”; God’s resistance to the contrast experience of the crucifixion. That is to say, by raising Jesus – tortured and executed at the hands of the state – from the dead, God imagines a resurrected future for all humanity, a future in which we are liberated from senseless suffering and meaningless violence, and at one with our sense of what it means to be fully human. The resurrection is a model of resistance against the forces of violence and death. And it reminds us that Jesus who has suffered and died, calls us to resistance and resurrection too.
All Schillebeeckx references are from The Schillebeeckx Reader, ed. and translated by Robert J. Schreiter (New York: The Crossroads Publishing Company, 1985).