This is an excerpt from a sermon preached on October 7, 2018.
While the question of why people suffer is at the heart of Job, there is another question I’ve been thinking about as I read the first two chapters of Job this week.
I’ve been thinking about this question because our political system has dismissed the voices of Christine Blassey Ford, Deborah Ramirez, and Julie Swetnick.
I’ve been thinking about this question because many public figures are expressing deep sympathy for an alleged sex offender and disdain for those who claim to be survivors of sexual assault.
I’ve been thinking about this question because I keep hearing how scary it is to be a man these days. (And let’s face it, they mean “white man” because men of color have always been in endangered in the United States: killed by mobs or law enforcement, taken by ICE, screened and detained at airports.) Some white men are now afraid of being falsely accused of sexual assault. Though I think the deepest fear is not of false accusations, but of being held accountable for sexual harassment and assault the men have actually done. For whatever reason, there are a lot of white men suffering from fear right now, apparently, and it has made me think about this question.
The biblical text itself makes me think of this question. Towards the end of Job 2, we hear—for the first and last time—from a nameless woman: Job’s wife. A woman who has also lost her children, her servants, and her livestock. A woman who is quickly dismissed and belittled.
The question I’ve been thinking about is this: Whose suffering do we pay attention to?
The writers of Job, who were almost certainly men, paid attention to Job’s suffering, treating his wife as an expendable plot device. A foil allowing Job an opportunity for a pious speech.
The members of the Senate Judiciary Committee are also overwhelmingly men (19 of 22 of them), and many of these men paid a great deal of attention to Brett Kavanaugh’s suffering: how hard this all must be for him, how his life was being ruined. The suffering of his accusers was categorically dismissed by people on the committee and beyond—sometimes by claiming the accusations were false, and also by claiming that even if the allegations were true, “it wasn’t that bad,” and “it was so long ago,” and “these things just happen.”
Whose suffering do we pay attention to?
When men—and people invested in men’s power—write the narrative, it is the suffering of men that matters. Powerful, wealthy men, of course. Not the children and certainly not the servants. But the Jobs of the world. Good men, rich men, who suffer unjustly and deserve our attention and pity.
Whose suffering do we pay attention to? With Kavanaugh’s appointment to the Supreme Court, tens of thousands of sexual assault survivors heard an answer loud and clear: not yours.
This is a very Job-like answer. I believe Jesus, in the Gospels, suggests something quite different. Because Jesus paid attention to women, to the poor, to foreigners, to outcasts. Jesus’ ministry was dedicated to paying attention to the suffering that those in power systemically ignored and belittled.
Jesus does not answer the question of why people suffer any more clearly than Job does. But Jesus does provide us with a different answer to the question of whose suffering we should pay attention to.
The ministry of Jesus challenges the human tendency to attend only to the suffering of those like us and it challenges our willingness to privilege the suffering of the powerful. Jesus recognizes, honors, and addresses the suffering of all people—particularly those most often neglected and dismissed.
From Jesus’ perspective, the suffering of Job’s wife matters. The suffering of people who have been sexually assaulted matters. If you are suffering in this political moment—feeling re-traumatized, angry, depressed, hopeless—your suffering matters.
We may never be able to adequately answer the question of why good people suffer. But Jesus gives an answer to what is, perhaps, the more important question: Whose suffering does God pay attention to?
The answer is: the suffering of the vulnerable, the outcast, the oppressed, the weak.
The answer is: Go not only pays attention to our suffering, but is present with us in our suffering.