Opening Our Eyes to Human Suffering

Opening Our Eyes to Human Suffering

Dr. Lewis Brogdon Executive Director, The Institute for Black Church Studies The Baptist Seminary of Kentucky, Louisville

Introduction Jesus announced that the Spirit of the Lord was upon him to proclaim good news to the poor (Luke 4:18). Of the four gospel writings in the New Testament, Luke’s gospel gives special attention to the theme of the gospel as “good news to the poor.” Luke’s emphasis has import for millions of Americans facing stifling poverty rooted in centuries of slavery, legal discrimination, militarism, and economic exploitation. The theme of the gospel as good news to the poor has been peripheral in American Christianity besides sporadic movements and exceptional leaders such as the poor people’s campaign under Martin Luther King, Jr. Given widespread poverty among Americans of all hues, the challenge for churches and its leaders will be to interpret the meaning of the gospel as good news to the poor. Until the gospel is interpreted in such a light, sermons, ministries, theologies, and advocacy work will continue to ignore this central and important issue for our churches and communities, which will continue to feed the decline and irrelevance of Christianity in America. The Gospel of Luke and the Poor A good place to begin is by making a connection between the gospel and poor people. When most people think of the gospel, they think of Jesus dying on the cross to save their personal sins, not God’s love for the world. Jesus as savior is an important part of the gospel but God’s love for the world and judgment of the ways we distort his will are just as important. That is why Luke has become my favorite gospel writer. Luke’s Jesus makes it impossible to have a cozy relationship with an unjust world that allows mass suffering while following him. Luke’s Jesus also brings a word of hope to those being crushed by unjust systems.

I have found Luke’s gospel to be a valuable resource that speaks good news to all who have experienced marginalization. Luke’s gospel is not a reflection of escapist theology that encourages people to ignore suffering connected to their oppression and focus on heaven. Instead, Luke tells a theological story of Jesus that frames the world of the poor in ways that provide hope and resolve for resistance in the “here and now” and not the “by and by” of heaven. Gospel writers are storytellers. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are not historians. They are “evangelists’ and storytellers, which is why the gospels are viewed as narratives. The story gospel writers tell is not a who and what kind of story. They tell a theological story about God’s work in Jesus and its profound meaning for the world. Luke’s story is the first volume of a two ‐ volume work, including the book of Acts and is the only book in the New Testament with a companion volume. Luke is the longest of the four gospels and his story of the ministry of Jesus is unique in its focus. Many New Testament scholars identify Jesus’s view towards the socially challenged as the most distinctive element of this gospel. Luke portrays Jesus as the one who goes to outcasts ‐ socially and religiously marginalized people like tax collectors, harlots, sick people, publicans and other people considered “sinners.” Jesus affiliates with these people, which creates social scandal in 5:27 ‐ 32 and 7:36 ‐ 50. In Luke’s theological story of Jesus, religious people stay away from these people because somehow, they are evil. Jesus is open and available to Gentiles because he was to be a light to the nations, to the wrong kind of people (7:1 ‐ 10, 11 ‐ 17, 36 ‐ 50; 8:26 ‐ 39; and 19:1 ‐ 10). In fact, this dimension to Luke’s gospel is so important that scholars notice four categories or groups Jesus associates with: (1) people with physical ailments; (2) the poor; (3) women; and (4) the rich or wealthy. Jesus associates with the sick, lepers, and people possessed

by demons. This is noteworthy because these people were believed to be like as a judgment of God. Jesus associates or speaks about the poor twice as much in this gospel as in all other gospels combined Jesus speaks to the poor, blesses the poor, associates with the poor, teaches parables that mandate concern for the poor and views riches and wealth in deeply problematic ways. There are twenty ‐ five references and incidents of Jesus being involved with women (compared to seven references in Mark). Luke’s Jesus includes women in his ministry. He also ministers to women. In chapter 15, the second story dealing with lostness, Jesus uses a woman looking for a coin to signify the role of God, a very radical thing to do. The “up and out” or the rich need Jesus, too. Society tries to convince them of their sufficiency, Luke tells a different story. People like the Pharisees and tax collectors are portrayed as lost and bound by material ‐ ism. The story of Zacchaeus is a compelling example of this theme. He was very rich but very short, a man with an inferior physical condition. It is possible that he overcompensated by becoming very wealthy and when we meet him, we find that he was a short and greedy man. Jesus loves him, too and goes to his house. What transpires in this rich man’s home is one of the most radical accounts of transformation recorded in Scripture. But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now, I give half of my possessions to the oppressed , and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (19:8 ‐ 9) Luke also tells a story about humanity that gives meaning to why people suffer in an unjust manner. People, particularly people with wealth and social privilege, are in bondage to the world. Because of this fact, Jesus comes to liberate them from the tyranny of things.

This aspect of Jesus’s ministry is illustrated in a story of a rich man in 12:16 ‐ 21. On the surface, he has a successful harvest and does the prudent thing and builds a larger barn to hold all he has harvested. But his thinking revealed a serious flaw. He looked at his material possessions as the key to happiness and defining aspect of his identity. God’s response is insightful. “But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?” (v. 20). Why does God call this man a fool? The answer is partly in understanding the word demanded or required. The implication is that these “things” have this man’s soul (think of concept of losing your soul 9:25). Luke is clear that there is a deeper problem. This man believes he has a lot of things, but the truth is, these things have him. I say this because Luke would suggest that if your security is what you hold to and is foundational to your identity, then you are in bondage. That’s the terrifying reality for wealthy and privileged persons. The searching question of Luke’s gospel is “what has you or what are you in bondage to?” On another level, Luke uses this story and other stories about wealthy and privileged persons to show why the poor suffer. They suffer because the rich hoard resources, structure society to guard their resources, and fail to show compassion to those in need. Rich persons do these things and the suffering it causes is an important feature of Luke’s gospel. This aspect of his thought has been ignored when scholars talk about the focus on social outcasts. Luke’s message to American Christianity is that God loves and cares for the poor . Much of American Christianity’s blindness and callous disregard to the plight of the poor is not a reflection of the heart of God but rather a revelation of how bankrupt our churches, leaders, and institutions have become. We are blind and in bondage to things. I am writing with a broken heart about the kind of nation we have become and the widespread poverty we have unleashed on people created in God’s image. God wants us to open our eyes and hearts to the suffering of others. Take time to grapple with the meaning in biblical texts mentioned. Sit with the images of human suffering and the data on wealth and poverty. I pray that this small resource will be a tool God can use to open eyes and hearts. Sisters and brothers, we can build a better world than this.

The Parables of Jesus

• Parables are stories about the nature of the world & human relationships • Parables teach how disciples of Jesus are supposed to live. • Parables are about the world – past present and future.

The parable of the Good Samaritan

On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?” He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.” But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side . So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side . But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him . He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him…“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.” Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise” (Luke 10:25 ‐ 37).

A Closer Look

• Both the Priest and Levite came to a place of violence and suffering. They witnessed profound human suffering and passed by on the other side. • The Samaritan does the opposite. He witnessed human suffering and had compassion on him. • Jesus uses these stark examples to describe what neighbor love looks like and instructs his disciples to follow the example of the Samaritan. • The story illustrates how people can see suffering and yet fail to show the compassion necessary to make things better.

This is not just a parable about them. It is about us.

The question for disciples of Jesus in all ages is “Where are we in this story?”

The Challenge of Luke’s Message

• Luke’s gospel is clear that you cannot look away and ignore human suffering. You cannot hide behind class status like the rich man in Luke 16 or religion like the priest/Levite in Luke 10. • The challenge and scandalous nature of the gospel is this: our salvation is tied up with the people who are naked, hungry, in prison, and sitting in our streets (Matthew 25). • This means that one of the things the gospel of Jesus Christ challenges us to do is to open our eyes to human suffering. But doing this goes against social conditioning. The truth is, we are conditioned not to see human suffering because we are so busy with the daily affairs of life. • The scandal of American Christianity is our blindness to human suffering.

Luke’s Message & American Christianity • I am not sure our churches (and people in the U. S.) know what to do with the teachings of Jesus. I believe this for two reasons. • First, we identify with the wrong characters in Bible stories . Our sermons and theology inappropriately place us as heroes/heroines or victims. Given our social and political context globally, that is wrong. I think we are priest and the Levite in Luke 10 (and the rich man in Luke 16). We see but don’t see. • Second, we only think of Bible stories in an individualistic manner . We need to learn to think about this text in an institutional and or communal manner. The scandal of American Christianity is not an individual and their love for one person outside their home. Neighbor love is not just personal. It is national, even global. God’s world is a big neighborhood. • Because of these things, we don’t open our eyes to suffering. We kind of know it’s there. We know a few statistics, but we don’t really see them. The U.S. church is a modern ‐ day parable of the Good Samaritan.

Stop Looking Away…

Kids in Cages

• This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth (1 John 3).

People wasting away in prison

• 41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’ 44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’ 45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me’ (Matthew 25).

People living in our streets

Matthew 25

Victims of the Grossest Forms of Violence

• Father and son use the same girl and so profane my holy name. They lie down beside every altar on garments taken in pledge. In the house of their god they drink wine taken as fines (Amos 2).

People living in

inhumane conditions (U.S.

actions abroad)

• Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers (Galatians 6).

People living in

inhumane conditions (U.S.

actions abroad)

• The L ORD said, “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering (Exodus 3:7)

People working for low wages (U.S. actions abroad)

• This is what the L ORD says: “For three sins of Israel, even for four, I will not relent. They sell the innocent for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals.

People working in inhumane conditions (U.S.

actions abroad)

• They trample on the heads of the poor as on the dust of the ground and deny justice to the oppressed…“Now then, I will crush you as a cart crushes when loaded with grain. The swift will not escape, the strong will not muster their strength, and the warrior will not save his life. The archer will not stand his ground, the fleet ‐ footed soldier will not get away, and the horseman will not save his life. Even the bravest warriors will flee naked on that day,” declares the L ORD (A MOS 2).

Wealth Inequality – a world of concentrated wealth & poverty • Half of the people in the world live on less than $2.50 a day • 80% of the world’s people live on less than $10 a day • 80% of the world’s people live in countries where the income gaps are widening • The net worth of the richest 1% of U.S. citizens is 225 times the average or median household • The richest 10% owns 85% of global wealth. The bottom half of the world’s population possesses barely 1% of total global wealth • The top 0.1% is worth as much as the bottom 90% in the U.S.

Wealth Inequality – a world of concentrated wealth & poverty  More people have died from hunger in the past five years than have been killed in all the wars, revolutions, and murders in the past 150 years.  Malnutrition is the underlying cause of 55% of deaths of children under five.  The accelerating decline in wealth over the past 30 years has left many Black and Latino families unable to reach the middle class. Between 1983 and 2013, the wealth of median Black and Latino households decreased by 75% (from $6,800 to $1,700) and 50% (from $4,000 to $2,000), respectively, while median White household wealth rose by 14% (from $102,200 to $116,800).  By 2024, median Black and Latino households are projected to own 60 ‐ 80% less wealth than they did in 1983.  If the racial wealth gap is left unaddressed and is not exacerbated further over the next eight years, median Black household wealth is on a path to hit zero by 2053 – about 10 years after it is projected that racial minorities will comprise the majority of the nation’s population.

The emergence of the “ultrarich”

• “The ultrarich represent an emergent global aristocracy – or rather, a new oligarchy. Fewer than one hundred billionaires now own as much as 50 percent of the world’s assets —the same amount that around four hundred billionaires owned a little more than five years ago. In the United States, the richest four hundred U.S. citizens now have more wealth than 185 million of their fellow Americans combined. The shift has been dramatic: the top 1 percent in America captured just 4.9 percent of total U.S. income growth from 1945 to 1973, but in the following two decades the country’s richest classes gobbled up the majority of U.S. income growth” (Joel Kotkin, America’s Drift toward Feudalism).

U.N. Report on Poverty in America

• The United States is a land of stark contrasts. It is one of the world’s wealthiest societies, a global leader in many areas, and a land of unsurpassed technological and other forms of innovation. Its corporations are global trendsetters, its civil society is vibrant and sophisticated, and its higher education system leads the world. But its immense wealth and expertise stand in shocking contrast with the conditions in which vast numbers of its citizens live. About 40 million live in poverty, 18.5 million in extreme poverty, and 5.3 million live in Third World conditions of absolute poverty . It has the highest youth poverty rate in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), and the highest infant mortality rates among comparable OECD States. Its citizens live shorter and sicker lives compared to those living in all other rich democracies, eradicable tropical diseases are increasingly prevalent, and it has the world’s highest incarceration rate, one of the lowest levels of voter registrations in among OECD countries and the highest obesity levels in the developed world (May 2018).

Wealth Inequality Created by Slavery & Racism

• Black community will reach zero wealth by 2053. Permanent caste at bottom of society • White American households own 90% of wealth. Black American households own 2.6% • Median wealth levels for African Americans is $1,700 vs. $116,800 for European Americans • For every $100 in white family wealth, black families hold just $5.04. • White families have nearly 10 times the net worth of black families

A question from America’s slain prophet…

• Dr. King said over and over again…“Things are not right in this country…Why are there 40 million poor people in a nation overflowing with such unbelievable affluence?”

The world is NOT as it should be…

• “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6).

After looking we must ask ourselves this question: “What are we going to do about what we see?”

Please, Don’t Do This…

• Privileged groups have a “default” setting and common excuse for not working for change. They say, “I didn’t create the problem.” This statement then exonerates them from doing anything meaningful about the problem, especially if it will cost them something. This response is antagonistic to the gospel and allows evil and suffering to continue.

Philip Zimbardo on Good People Participating in Evil

• Zimbardo was the researcher behind the “Stanford Prison Experiment.” • Situational forces influence individual behavior . Argues that a full understanding of the dynamics of human behavior requires that we recognize the extent and limits of personal power, situational power, and systemic power. • The Lucifer Effect was his attempt to understand the processes of transformation at work when good or ordinary people do bad or evil things. We will deal with the fundamental question “What makes people go wrong?” Research sought to understand the nature of their character transformations when they are faced with powerful situational forces.

Philip Zimbardo on Good People Participating in Evil

• Definition of evil – Evil consists in intentionally behaving in ways that harm, abuse, demean, dehumanize, or destroy innocent others – or using one’s authority and systemic power to encourage or permit others to do so on your behalf. In short, it is knowing better but doing worse. • Most of us hide behind egocentric biases that generate the illusion that we are special. • End up not challenging ourselves and our participation is social systems.

Niebuhr on Individual Behavior in Groups

• Individuals may be moral in the sense that they are able to consider interests other than their own…and are capable of preferring the advantages of others to their own…But all these achievements are more difficult, if not impossible, for human societies and social groups. In every human group there is less reason to guide and to check impulse, less capacity for self ‐ transcendence, less ability to comprehend the needs of others and therefore more unrestrained egoism than the individuals, who compose the group, reveal in their personal relationships” (xxv).


• There are powerful situational forces in play affecting how we think and behave and too few of our leaders are aware of them. Good people can be co ‐ opted by evil forces. • There are three takeaways from the Niebuhr quote. • First, this would suggest that we behave differently in groups than we do individually. • Second, we need discernment, strength, courage, and radical honesty to resist what comes naturally to peers within our groups. • Third, we also need to be aware of the different groups we are a part of as each group presents unique temptations that if unchecked unleashes evil onto others and the world. • I wrote this to open our eyes to forces shaping our thinking and behavior as members of a class system. Good people are participating in evil, and it is too widespread. We need change!

The deeper challenge for American churches – too busy

• The priest/Levite had to go somewhere. There was some place more important to be, something more important to do than help this person in need. What was that? Did they have to get to the Temple? • You see, we have the same the problem today. Some place we have to be, something more important to do. Our scandal are the institutions, structures, and processes that have gotten in the way of people created in the divine image. In the coming months and years, we need a radical reimagining of how we do life/society so we can begin to open our eyes to human suffering and to love our neighbors, by doing something about the violence that produces human suffering. • This is why I wrote this. I want to bring these visuals of human suffering into our churches & homes in order to disrupt the culture of blindness and callousness.

Closing Prayer

• Loving God, open our eyes to your suffering and the suffering of others in the world. Arrest our compassion so we will work to build a world where all may share in the blessings of creation. I ask this in the name of Jesus, amen.

Dr. Lewis Brogdon

• Dr. Brogdon serves as the Executive Director of the Institute for Black Church Studies and a professor at the Baptist Seminary of Kentucky in Louisville. Brogdon is an accomplished writer. He is the author of several books such as A Companion to Philemon (Cascade 2018), The Spirituality of Black Preaching (Seymour Press 2016), The New Pentecostal Message? (Cascade 2015), Dying to Lead: The Disturbing Trend of Clergy Suicide (Seymour Press 2015), Hope on the Brink (Cascade 2013) and No Longer a Slave but a Brother (Scholars Press 2013). As a regular contributor to Christian Ethics Today and Black Politics Today , Brogdon authors numerous articles and book chapter essays for both academic and non ‐ academic audiences.

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