When Rod Dreher announced he and his wife were divorcing, the first thing I should have done was pray for them. Instead, I braced myself for the nasty comments that I knew would follow his announcement. And they did follow, as Dreher himself predicted they would.
Dreher has plenty of ill-wishers, and not undeservedly. Despite his large audience and capable mind, he’s not a careful man, and tends to bounce from panic to panic, often resting only in exasperating self-indulgence that’s frustrating even to people who agree with some of his views. And some of the things he believes are appalling.
Still, I guess my corner of the internet is somewhat sheltered, because I wasn’t prepared for the avalanche of delight that followed the news. This wasn’t a case of just desserts, like a bad boss getting fired himself, or a thief having his own possessions stolen. It was a man whose ideas people disagreed with announcing that he had been struggling for nine years to save his marriage, and had finally failed, and it was partially his fault. To respond to such news with glee is to pull hell down on your head.
One comment in particular stood out, because it presented itself as correcting his christianity. A woman jeered at him for using an image from The Passion as the header image for the essay where he briefly describes his suffering. Dreher was, in fact, in Jerusalem as he wrote that column, and had been praying at Golgotha during Holy Week, so it would be almost unnatural if an image of the crucifixion hadn’t suggested itself to him as a natural illustration for intense personal pain. But this commenter excoriated him for comparing himself to Jesus. She said it was typical self-aggrandizement for him to co-opt the imagery of the cross for his own suffering.
But that is the point of the cross.
That is why the execution of our savior was public. That is why it was done in the middle of the day, in front of crowd, on top of the hill: So everyone could see, and so everyone would know that Jesus wept and bled and lost the strength of his limbs just like us. Just like anyone who had ever suffered until that day, and just like anyone who ever would suffer. That’s the point. The cross is meant to be co-opted. That’s what it’s for.
I think that the woman who scoffed at Rod Dreher probably didn’t have a lot of theological thoughts in her head, and mainly just didn’t like Rod Dreher, and wouldn’t have sympathy for anything he did or said. It is, perhaps, fairly common to think of christianity mainly as a sort of overarching philosophy that describes social services that should be available to other people, and it doesn’t even occur to many that it’s ever meant to be personal to each of us.
In any case, it’s quite common for people who are more fair-minded, and who don’t reflexively kick people who are already down, to do a sort of defensive gate-keeping when it comes to suffering: To say that this or that isn’t real suffering, or that it isn’t authentic or worthy or profound enough to call itself actual suffering. That it’s something lesser, something we should be embarrassed to admit we struggle with.
Well, there is suffering, and there is suffering. I remember hearing how a friend of the family was sitting by the bedside of her dying husband. She had spent the last few months increasingly at his bedside in between her own jobs, wondering how she would care for their many children if he didn’t pull through. His roommate had the TV on, tuned to a televangelist channel, and the notorious Tammy Faye was on screen, weeping into the camera as usual, her gummy mascara bleeding into the neck of her expensive silk blouse as she begged for money for Jesus. A nurse came into the room and brushed past the widow-to-be, looked dolefully up at the TV, and asked the family plaintively, “Aww, why’s Tammy crying?”
So there is suffering, and there is suffering. This is true. There is such a thing as taking an impartial look at another human’s life and saying, “No, it’s not that bad.” Not as bad as what happened to Jesus.
And I remember some thoughtful, painful conversations around the painting “Mama,” which shows a Pieta where the dead Jesus closely resembles George Floyd. The artist, Kelly Latimore, told the NYT that he “always responds ‘yes’ when asked whether the painting depicts Jesus or Floyd.”
The artist goes on to say:
“It’s not an either-or scenario. Is it George Floyd? Yes. Is it Jesus? Yes. There’s sacredness in every person.”
I don’t know exactly what he meant by that. There is suffering, and there is suffering, and it’s worth having respectful conversations about just how firmly to draw the line between our suffering and Jesus’. It is one thing to say that he is like us, and another to say that we are like him.
What I do know is that Jesus is like is in all things but sin, but for many of us, this never feels real until we suffer. That’s where we meet Jesus, and know him, and recognize him, and feel his aid: In suffering. Sometimes that’s the only place we meet him.
And so it’s a very serious thing when fellow Christians want to take that commonality away, on the grounds that we’re not worthy to count ourselves that close to Christ, or to feel that we have so much in common with him.
Because that, too, is the point: We’re not worthy. That’s why he came for us. Our unworthiness to have anything in common with God is the very reason why we need a savior.
There is suffering, and there is suffering, but there is only one man who suffered for the purpose of public consumption, as it were. No, not as it were: Literally. Catholics, at very least, should be used to this idea.
Jesus’ suffering is universal; it is for everyone. And at the same time, it is personal. It is for each of us as individuals, and it means what it must in our specific lives. The cross is for us to use, to co-opt, to identify with, to look to, to cling to, to use however we can so we do not fall into the netherworld. That is what it’s for. As long as it is sincere, it is fair game.
The suffering of other people, though — yes, even the suffering of pundits we don’t like — is not for us to judge, and certainly not for us to use, certainly not for our own amusement or for clout on Twitter. Be careful, friends. As much as the cross is there for us to use, other people’s suffering is very much not for us to use. Very much not.
A version of this essay was first published at The Catholic Weekly on May 10, 2022.