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Our Fundamental Option
Several years ago, at a conference that I was attending the keynote speaker challenged his audience in this way: All of us, he pointed out, are members of various communities: we live in families, are part of church congregations, have colleagues with whom we work, have a circle of friends, and are part of a larger civic community. In every one of these there will come a time when we will get hurt, when we will not be honored, when we will be taken for granted, and treated unfairly. All of us will get hurt. That is a given. However, and this was his challenge, how we handle that hurt, with either bitterness or forgiveness, will color the rest of our lives and determine what kind of person we are going to be.
Suffering and humiliation find us all, and in full measure, but how we respond to them will determine both the level of our maturity and what kind of person we are. Suffering and humiliation will either soften our hearts or harden our souls. The dynamic works this way:
There is no depth of soul without suffering. Human experience has long ago taught us this. We attain depth primarily through suffering, especially through the kind of suffering that is also humiliating. If anyone of us were to ask ourselves the question: What has given me depth? What has opened me to deeper perception and deeper understanding? Almost invariably the answer would be one of which we would be ashamed to speak: we were bullied as a child, we were abused in some way, something within our physical appearance makes us feel inferior, we speak with an accent, we are always somehow the outsider, we have a weight problem, we are socially awkward, the list goes on, but the truth is always the same: To the extent that we have depth we have also been humiliated, the two are inextricably connected.
But depth is not all of a kind. Humiliation makes us deep, but it can make us deep in very different ways: It can make us deep in understanding, empathy, and forgiveness or it can make us deep in resentment, bitterness, and vengeance. The young men who shot their classmates in Columbine and the young man who indiscriminately gunned down students at Virginia Tech University had, no doubt, suffered more than their share of humiliation in life and that had made them deep. Sadly, in their case, it made them deep in anger, bitterness, and murder.
We see the opposite in Jesus in how he faces his crucifixion. Crucifixion, as we know, was designed by the Romans as capital punishment; but they had more than mere capital punishment in mind. Crucifixion was also designed to do two other things: to inflict the optimal amount of pain that it was possible for a person to absorb and to utterly and publicly humiliate the one undergoing it.
As Jesus prepares to face his crucifixion and the shameful humiliation within it, he cringes before the challenge and he asks God whether there is another way of getting to the depth of Easter Sunday without having to undergo the humiliation of Good Friday. Eventually, but only after sweating blood, does he accept that there is no other way than to undergo the humiliation of crucifixion. But we get the real lesson only if we really understand what was at stake in Jesus' choice here. The agonizing choice that he is making is not the choice: Do I submit to death or do I invoke divine power and walk free? He was condemned to death and felt as helpless as would any other human in that situation. Invoking divine power or not invoking it as a means of escape was not the issue about which he was anguishing. The issue was not whether to die or not die. It was about how to die. Jesus' choice was this: Do I die in bitterness or in love? Do I die in hardness of heart or softness of soul? Do I die in resentment or in forgiveness?
We know which way he chose. His humiliation drove him to extreme depths, but these were depths of empathy, love, and forgiveness.
That is the issue that is perennially at stake in terms of our own maturity and generativity: In our humiliations, do we give ourselves over to bitterness or love, resentment or forgiveness, hardness of heart or softness of soul? And we have to make that choice daily: Every time we find ourselves shamed, ignored, taken for granted, belittled, unjustly attacked, abused, or slandered we stand between resentment and forgiveness, bitterness and love. Which of these we chose will determine both our maturity and our happiness.
And, ultimately, for all of us, as was the case with Jesus, we will have to face this choice on the ultimate playing field: In the face of our earthly diminishment and death will we choose to let go and die with a cold heart or a warm soul?