The Suffering Question
October 28, 2021 | by: Dale Thiele | 0 Comments
Posted in: Pastoral Encouragement
This is part 11 of a multi-part series reviewing Thaddeus J. Williams’ book, Confronting Injustice Without Compromising Truth: 12 Questions Christians Should Ask About Social Justice. This book is published at a critical time when many in our nation, including Christians, wrestle with the concept of justice. Williams starts with the clear biblical command that Christians must “do justice” (Micah 6:8) and “seek justice” (Isaiah 1:17). Not everything labeled “justice,” however, is necessarily biblical justice. Therefore, Williams poses twelve questions to help Christians discern true, biblical justice, while calling us to do true justice. I commend this book if you want to dig deeper and be more faithful in seeking justice.
The eleventh question Williams poses is the “Suffering Question.” He asks, “Does our vision of social justice turn the ‘lived experience’ of hurting people into more pain?” (p. 139). The phrase “lived experience” has become prevalent in conversations about social justice in the past few years. It speaks about the experiences of oppression that some have endured. These “lived experiences” are taken authoritatively and “must, in turn, become the foundations on which we rebuild everything from public policy and school curriculum to theological systems and church ministry. Questioning the narratives of the oppressed and the policies or theologies derived from them makes you the oppressor” (p. 139).
Williams acknowledges that “lived experiences do matter. The Bible commands us to ‘be quick to hear,’ ‘bear one another’s burdens,’ and ‘weep with those who weep.’ … In our post-Genesis 3 world with billions of firsthand experiences with evil, listening with open ears and hearts is our Christian duty. Any ‘Christianity’ that plugs its ears is not worthy of the name” (p. 140). How in the world, then, can attention to lived experiences lead to more pain? Williams provides two answers.
First, generalizing lived experiences as the common experience for all situations can lead to psychological oppression. Williams explains this progression: “If we care about people, we shouldn’t turn them into festering balls of suspicion and anxiety… To see every interaction as containing hidden violence is to become a permanent victim… If [we see] ourselves primarily as oppressed, then most everything around us will look like oppression… We are inadvertently adding to the net anxiety, depression, anger, and fear in the universe” (p. 143-144). The idea here is that to generalize a genuine lived experience of oppression as the universal experience is to trigger more and more anxiety and anger and fear.
Williams responds: “The Bible is as antifear as it is anti-oppression. God commands us to ‘fear not’ over a hundred times. God is not only pro-justice; he is also pro-fearlessness, and we should be too. It is not enough to merely be on the side of the oppressed. If we aren’t for the oppressed without also being antifear – if we advance ideologies that generalize people’s painful experiences, leave them chronically triggered, and set their ‘uh-oh centers’ ablaze – then we should not pretend that we are doing the kind of justice Scripture commands” (p. 144-145).
Second, elevating lived experience as authoritative can inadvertently displace truth. As Williams warns, “The difference between those who do justice and those who merely think they do comes down to the question of truth… If we’re on the wrong side of truth, then no matter how virtuous we believe ourselves to be, we are adding to the net injustice in the world” (p. 145). He then observes that “we hear that the lived experiences of the oppressed should be paramount over and against oppressive notions like objective truth, facts, research, and evidence.” College students are encouraged “to treat their own feelings and experiences authoritatively, while questioning facts, evidence, and the search for objective truth as the tools of white cisgender racist male oppression” (p. 146). The pursuit of biblical justice, however, rejoices in the truth. The pursuit of compassion does not need to be in competition with the pursuit of truth. They must go hand in hand.
There are a lot of strong, emotional appeals to fight for justice. As Christians, we are to be compassionate with the downtrodden and oppressed. We are to fight for justice. But we need to be careful to not allow true lived experiences of pain to become authoritative. Compassion does not override truth. They must work together.