I’ve got a lot of problems with St. Paul. This much should be clear. I think I’d have fewer problems with him if he hadn’t written nearly as much (like Peter or James), but I mostly wish that Christ had said the things that Paul said, so I’d know where Paul’s opinion ends and Christ’s words begin.
Today’s Paulian problem:
Romans 12:15, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.”
Broad, broad, broad statement. Probably a true statement, but I need some parameters here, and a bit too open-ended for my tastes. So here are my qualifying questions:
How many are we to suffer with?
Who are we to suffer with?
How far away are we to suffer?
How long are we to suffer?
I’m asking for a moratorium on general grief. It’s a cold response, certainly, to the sacrificial love and grief Paul outlines. In my defense, Paul wrote his letter to a Christian world much, much smaller than our world. He believed the end of the world was upon his age, and believed even marriage was not as expedient as evangelism and devotion. In the first century, there was no internet, no video footage, no news sources, no mass media. Life unwound from birth to death in a few mile radius. There was a community to mourn with, certainly, when something inevitably went wrong. But there were fewer prayers for the outsiders, the enemies, the foreigners, and the unknown (though Christ certainly sent up plenty of these).
Now we have the choice—and it’s a very loaded choice—to stay “informed.” To choose to tune into a world that has a billion cameras pointed at seven million people. To choose “awareness” is to opt into a boundless stream of information that only works to overwhelm you or harden you. The responses I have to horrible, true news—whether continuing American injustice toward blacks or the back-lash of fear and violence toward police—tend to be either mute acceptance and a shutdown of emotion or brief rage that burns out with weariness.
Knowing the suffering of the world means never sharing any joy. To “weep with those who weep” is a full-time job. This cannot be the purpose of human life.
One of the great criticisms of Job’s friends is that they were full of advice but lacked any sense of empathy. If they could have stayed silent and supported Job without laying on the judgments so thick, they might have been more of a comfort. But they were interested in the means and ends, in the rationalizing of Job’s suffering. Their interest was academic and it was a way of protecting themselves from the wrath that Job had befallen.
Instead of staring transfixed at the big picture of a swiftly tilting planet (as L’Engle dubbed it once), or attempting to assemble the pieces of an impossible puzzle, we should instead suffer with those near, and share the joy of the same. A community can mourn, though a world cannot. Perhaps for some of us that community is bigger—perhaps Christians ought to suffer with all Christians, or women with all women, for instance. But I can’t really get behind this: there’s too much to overwhelm our short, brief lives on this earth. Training for eternity is not training in suffering; eternity is the fulfillment of joy, not lamenting the sufferings of a broken planet.
We are shattered people. As much as we ought to be otherwise, we can’t really suffer with a hurting world. But we can shrink parts of that world down to community-size. Broadening a sense of community doesn’t mean anything until I’ve met a member of that community. I can’t feel real empathy until I’ve spoken with, lived near, or fought beside someone—until we’ve become a community. I don’t think you can forge those bands over TV, and certainly not on Facebook.
All this to say: we have our communities, and that’s where our joys and griefs should remain. You cannot force your sense of community on someone else; you cannot call out someone’s membership as it suits your aims. You can ask me to acknowledge a community as it may relate to me, but you cannot expect me to shoulder the griefs you shoulder, just because I “ought” to.
Ultimately, it is not selfish to love one’s family, one’s friends, one’s coworkers, one’s schoolmates, one’s community, even one’s country (though that is an abstracted whole). But to love the world as an entirety is meaningless—we are not built for such a thing. It is something to personally strive for, in pursuit of following Christ, but it is an undue request upon another.
You don’t have the right to remove my joy, just as I don’t have a right to dismiss your suffering. There has to be some balance in between. I don’t want the world at my funeral. The world doesn’t know me. I want those to grieve me who also celebrated with me, spoke with me, taught me, moved me. I want a real community, not a nonsensical world community. We’re not made for it.
(Ed.’s Note: I’d love to hear your thoughts on this, because I may be utterly off-base in writing this. I’m mostly just tired of following the news.)