Sunday, December 17, 2017

Honor and suffering

I'd like to sketch a neglected theodicy. This isn't a standard theodicy in apologetics or philosophical theology. I think the reason for this is twofold: (i) It's alien to the outlook of many western Christians, and (ii) it's not a general theodicy, but focussed on Christian suffering in particular.

Let's begin with a comparison: In the Gospels, Peter and Judas both betray Jesus, but in different ways. Judas betrays Jesus in a very direct way, by collaborating with his enemies to have him arrested. 

In the case of Peter, it's more subtle. A moral betrayal. Peter betrays a friendship. 

Peter's fear is very understandable. If the authorities arrest Jesus, then that puts his disciples at risk by association, because the authorities may well view his disciples as coconspirators. Jesus is the ringleader. If he's guilty, they're guilty because they're his followers. They belong to the very same seditious movement.

So there are two aspects to this: innocent suffering for a worthy cause, when you could evade suffering, is honorable. It's a reflection of virtue when someone is prepared to suffer unjustly for a noble cause. 

Take Christians who, during the Third Reich, sheltered Jews at great risk to themselves. The natural reaction would be to dissociate themselves from their Jewish friends and neighbors, to shield themselves from hostile scrutiny by the authorities. But these Christians did just the opposite. They endangered their reputation to protect the innocent. They took the risk of suffering the same fate as those they sheltered. 

And some of them paid the price. Some of them were arrested, imprisoned, and/or executed. But in the long run, their courage is a badge of honor in the eyes of posterity. We admire their sacrificial bravery. Indeed, it puts us to shame. 

A somewhat different example is honoring someone else by suffering for them. Suppose your best friend is falsely accused. That may put you in a bind. On the one hand, you have a duty to your innocent friend. On the other hand, if you defend him, then that draws unwanted attention to yourself. The authorities may view you as complicit in the alleged misconduct of your friend. Yet it's an honor to have the opportunity to stand by your friend in his hour of need, rather than allowing him to suffer alone.

For instance, consider the FBI's anthrax investigation, in the wake of 9/11. The Bureau had a theory about domestic terrorism. And they had a suspect. I remember one of the suspect's friends defending him on camera. But that was a brave thing to do, because a suspect's circle of friends may become suspects by association, especially if they stick up for him rather than disowning him. If the FBI questions you about your friend, the natural impulse is to distance yourself from your friend, to elude legal jeopardy. 

Another example is someone falsely accused, who could exonerate himself, yet he refuses to furnish exculpatory evidence because he'd have to betray a confidence in the process. So he allows himself to fall under suspicion or even disgrace, to protect a confidence. He's prepared to sacrifice his own good name to protect the good name of another. That's an acid test of friendship. 

Of course, many of us can relate to the principle instinctively. And it only takes a few examples to illustrate that principle. But it hasn't been developed to the same degree as other theodicies. There are stock examples like martyrdom, which carries a specific evangelistic witness. But I'm considering something more generic. Coping with the evils of life in a fallen world. Yet I think this theodicy has more immediate resonance in parts of the Third World.

From a theological standpoint, Christian suffering is a witness to fellow believers as well as unbelievers. Grace under fire. Their example can steel other Christians to persevere. And it can be very impressive to unbelievers. To be "counted worthy" of the opportunity to honor our Lord is both humbling to self and inspiring to others. In that respect there's a reciprocal dynamic, where God honors us by giving us a platform to honor him. 

That's a running theme of Hebrews 11. And it culminates in Heb 13:12-13, which trades on the paradox of enduring dishonor for an honorable cause. Christians must share in their Lord's disgrace (Heb 12:2). The Virgin Mary had the same burden. She was called upon to suffer the reproach of an outwardly scandalous pregnancy. 

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