Eric Idle’s immortal words at the end of Life of Brian strike a surreal tone in the context of Brian’s inevitable demise on the cross of his crucifixion. Yet it is a striking truth which is sung out – one which I believe better epitomises the good news of Jesus than many have before or since. It is further ironic that the film was so widely derided by the established church as heretical. For me, it contains the only universal truth I can hold on to:
We are capable of framing a negative experience in a positive light. When we do this, we not only learn to live more positively ourselves, but encourage others who suffer and struggle that they can do this also.
For me, that’s part of what Jesus’ message was all about: life’s a piece of shit; when you look at it. But if you look on the bright side, if you frame experiences positively – no matter how hard or impossible this may seem – you can begin to overcome adversity. You can take part in a better world. One where the circumstances may not be perfect, but where our reaction to those circumstances both as individuals and as communities, can be near-as-dammit so.
Jesus didn’t claim everything would be okay – far from it he claimed circumstance would be worse. But what we have in Jesus’ ways are ways which help us to deal with life well. It is universally true across all peoples and cultures that overcoming adversity of any kind is a positive and helpful trait – even if it boils down to evolutionary necessity.
The ancient Hebrews told a story about a man named Job. Job was tormented by Satan, with permission from God.
So – wait a minute? God causes the bad things to happen? This isn’t the only incident of such an idea in the Old Testament. It is however superseded by the idea that Satan does evil of his own volition independently of God. So in the original way of thinking, God commands everything, and it evolves that God only commands some things.
We’ve been becoming Atheists for a while, huh? gradually taking away God’s control in our narrative of reality. I know that’s something I do. I used to believe in miracles, I used to believe God had a plan for my life, that sort of thing. I’ve been busy “weeding out” those thoughts for a while on account of their “stupidity” or “naivety” or something or other.
What if the ancient Hebrews were right? What if all comes from God? What if it isn’t about not suffering but about learning to live in the world the way the world is. If I take my universalistic tendencies and add them into the mix, then this can actually begin to make some more sense. If everyone eventually makes it to the ‘other side’ then it’s okay if we have different levels of “suffering” because the “suffering” itself is blown away by the joy.
The suffering is very real and very painful – but suffering is not an absolute. It is about how much we can cope with our circumstances. It is about how we live in the world that we are in. We compare our suffering with others, but the truth is that the smallest amount of “pain” can cause untold misery for a TOWIE star, whereas a week of nothing but a handful of rice grains can be enough to bring joy to the face of the most impoverished child.
It’s plain to us which of these situations is more “just” and which is “ridiculous” but it is not plain to the participants. They are stuck in their own relative experiences. One of the things about the Kingdom of Heaven is its emphasis on “otherness” and seeing the world through the eyes of those around us. This helps us to move towards a more just society, and is, in my view, all a part of the plan. We can all learn from suffering – big or small – our own or suffering of others.
What I’m really trying to get at here is that perhaps it isn’t as simple as the old “mankind screwing up so there’s sin and brokennes” narrative, or as simple as the “God isn’t real and/or suffering isn’t of God” narrative either. Perhaps there’s more to it than that?
Jesus dies on the cross not to make things right – that would simply be an act of divine Justice which reset the God-human divide. No, the cross is an act of mercy where God wipes clean the records, where we are no longer bound by rules of in/out , good/bad, Christian/Non-Christian. Instead we are bound together, as humanity, by our suffering and our joy – both of which we must share so that we can learn from one another – full in the knowledge that God himself entered into this bargain as the person of Jesus Christ.