Facing the astonishing violence that has rocked Canada’s largest city this year, chaplain Josh Valley turns to Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s evocation of the God who not only loves us but suffers with us.
City of a Suffering God
As a chaplain who works in both the prison and hospital settings, I provide spiritual care for people who are either deemed by society as “irredeemable offenders” unworthy of forgiveness or “innocent sufferers” worthy of forgiveness and all the support society can muster. An overgeneralization I know, but one that nonetheless hits to the core of the recent gun violence and other tragic events that have enveloped Toronto at what seems an alarming pace.
A brief survey of gun violence in Canada’s most populous city in 2018 reveals the reasons for alarm. This year has seen not only an above average total number of shootings, but also an above average number of lethal shootings. Compounding the sheer number is that more shootings are taking place in areas of the city not accustomed to gun violence and deemed safe. Add a mass shooting in a high-profile neighbourhood and a “terrorist-style” van attack on Toronto’s most iconic street, and you have a year few would not wish to remember.
The reasons for the violence, not to mention the solutions, are complicated and diverse, and each case poses unique challenges to our common life as Canadians, especially those of us who live in urban cities and consider ourselves Christian.
As often as I listen to both the “irredeemable” and the “innocent” (the offenders and the victims of crime), I can’t help seeing two common struggles plaguing our common life: woundedness and loneliness. Woundedness in youth and adults is of course frequently related to childhood trauma, whether in the form of a violation one has experienced or parental neglect leading to a sense of abandonment.
We can see these as “violation wounds” and “absence wounds” and they can be particularly difficult to deal with especially when both are present in a person’s life as they mature. Loneliness is often, though not always, a result of isolating oneself or feeling isolated due to a lack of trust of others because of these kinds of woundedness, a sense of systemic injustice or a feeling of exclusion from society.
The two are related, of course, and when you add mental illness, religious extremism, or a severe lack of economic opportunities to the mix, some people will end up perpetuating their own afflictions onto others because of their despair. It becomes too much to absorb for the frail human soul. Only God can absorb and witness such pain and still love Himself and others perfectly, thus conquering the effects of evil, sin and death through forgiveness and mercy. It is what Christianity teaches about what God has done in the Christ event—the Incarnation, Crucifixion and Resurrection. Yes, “only the consummate love of God is capable of encountering reality and overcoming it,” as the famed Lutheran martyr and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it so eloquently.
The great Oxford theologian Alister McGrath, whom I had the privilege of meeting while covering an event as a student journalist for Tyndale University College & Seminary, writes in his book Luther’s Theology of the Cross:
"The Cross, for Luther is...the foundation and criterion of an authentically Christian theology, illuminating how the believer must exist in a shadowy world of sin and doubt, and challenging natural human preconceptions of what God is like, and how God should act … Luther offers a vision of how the Christian is to exist in the dark wastelands of a fallen world, and cope with the deep anxiety of existential and metaphysical uncertainty."
Luther’s theology of the Cross, which Bonhoeffer appropriated for his own era, emerged as a critique of the medieval Church’s centuries-old theology of glory that operated on the assumption, influenced by Greek philosophy, that God could not suffer or be affected by the suffering of human beings. But Luther saw in the Scriptures and in the reality of the incarnation, a God who cared deeply and passionately about and became vulnerable to human suffering and death. In other words, Luther's God was not wholly other, but wholly here.
Through the Incarnation and the Cross, God comes to reveal to human beings what is most true about His core nature and modus operandi in the real world where people experience the troubling and paradoxical realities of a fallen world. In Christ, God becomes vulnerable and enters into the great tragedy of sin, evil, pain and death. He does so to save, heal and reveal His broken-hearted love for His suffering children, both the irredeemable and the innocent.
In the suffering Christ, God knows our pain and voluntarily seeks to heal us through His own wounds of suffering vulnerability. “Only the suffering God can help,” said Bonhoeffer in Letters and Papers from Prison. The martyr would later be executed by Hitler’s Nazis, whose “positive Christianity” replaced the suffering Christ of compassion for the strong-man of power who despised compassion and weakness—anti-Christ to the core.
Bonhoeffer believed that the suffering and living God can heal our woundedness and restore our sense of belonging in the Divine Community that we call Trinity, the Christ-community we call the Church, as well as the human community we call society. He believed in the Christ-reality, where all has been (and could) be reconciled to God and restored to a state of perpetual love on earth.
So, when we see God and our calling as Christians through the lens of what’s called “Bonhoeffer’s theology from below,” we will be able to respond with a sense of deep compassion (albeit despair and outrage must sometimes come first) to the woundedness and loneliness that lurks beneath the surface of violent and evil events like mass shootings, and increase in gang violence, and yes, even heinous crimes that see innocents mowed down by a deranged man behind the wheel of a rental van.
“It remains an experience of incomparable value,” wrote Bonhoeffer, “that we have for once learned to see the great events of world history from below, from the perspective of the outcasts, the suspects, the maltreated, the powerless, the oppressed and reviled, in short from the perspective of the suffering.”
Bonhoeffer is saying, if we are paying attention, that there is wisdom in seeing God and our common life as he describes it here, especially events in Toronto and elsewhere that can be seen as a tragic spectacle.
As a chaplain, the most difficult emotion I encounter with people is despair. Many wonder how they will be able to live when suffering and evil seems to crush all hope from their existence. And Bonhoeffer, who knew very well that feeling and lived faithfully in spite of it, teaches us what faithfulness and courage in common life looks like for Christians in times of tragedy:
"There are so many experiences and disappointments that drive sensitive people toward nihilism and resignation. That is why it is good to learn early that suffering and God are not contradictions, but rather a necessary unity. For me, the idea that it is really God who suffers has always been one of the most persuasive teachings of Christianity. I believe that God is closer to suffering than to happiness, and that finding God in this way brings peace and repose and a strong, courageous heart."
My daughters were born in Toronto. I would only hope that Christ, whose mercy knows no bounds, and in whom all things have been (and will be) reconciled, not only feels the pain and the outrage, but has entered into the city as the suffering God to heal the wounds of the innocent and reconcile the sins of the irredeemable. He has been there when evil, sin, pain and death seem to overtake us. When woundedness and loneliness seem to conspire against us. And He has conquered. And He has not abandoned us. And He is wholly here.
Josh Valley is a hospital and prison chaplain and an award-winning writer. He holds an MDiv from Tyndale Seminary in Toronto where he studied Bonhoeffer's Christology and ethics.
*This article was originally published in Conviviuma digital publication of Cardusa leading think tank and registered charity. Cardus exists to renew North American social architecture and supports the work of Convivium as it seeks to articulate and protect a place for faithful citizens. To find the original article please visit: https://www.convivium.ca/articles/city-of-a-suffering-god