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Accepting the mark of suffering

“Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (Matthew 16:24)

During WWII, the great Protestant German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, while imprisoned by the Nazis, identified the primary mark of the authentic Church as suffering, or what he called “the mark of the cross.” In fact, the theme of suffering, Bonhoeffer concluded, receives more attention in the Bible than any other single ecclesiastical theme.

Bonhoeffer did not mean that suffering should be an end in itself or something to be sought after. Jesus did not say that he had come to bring more suffering to humanity or to make suffering a virtue. Suffering, rather, is the consequence of discipleship — what disciples can expect if they, like their Savior, side with the poor and needy against those who abuse and ignore them. Nor should the Church be surprised when that happens. Worldly powers that abuse and ignore the needy do not take kindly to those who call them out.

In other words, if the Church is to honor the Savior whom it wishes to follow, it must drink from the cup from which he drank and follow him to the Cross.

Perhaps no one understood this better than Martin Luther. The Church, he wrote, “Must endure all hardships and persecution, all kinds of temptation and evil from the devil, world and flesh; it must be inwardly sad, timid, terrified; outwardly poor, despised, sick, weak; thus it becomes like its head, Christ.”

Luther, as far as we know, was not a masochist; he did not seek out opportunities to increase his own suffering. But, like all great Christian scholars, he knew that the Church, to be authentic, must suffer with and for those considered disposable by an often cruel and unjust world.

The most tragic consequence of a church that refuses to accept the mark of suffering as part of its identity is its refusal to see the world as it is. Like the rich man in one of Jesus’ parables, dressed in purple and fine linen and living in luxury, the church can become blind to the misery and pain of the beggar outside its gate, unable to see the pain and suffering of the needy just beyond its sanctuary walls.

  • The pain of 25 percent of American children who go to bed hungry every night.
  • The pain of hundreds of thousands of Americans forced to endure the elements for lack of adequate shelter;
  • The pain of millions without adequate health care.

If it means anything, faithfulness to the Crucified One means identifying with crucified people — those crucified by poverty, economic inequality and lack of access to good health care and clean water and air.

The Christian profession of faith does not bind us to the mighty and powerful but the humble and meek; not to those who think they are righteous but to those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Not to those who act as if they own the earth and can do with it whatever they please, but to the meek who shall inherit it.

The Church need not rise up in indignation and defense when it is attacked by the world or its existence is threatened. As the Church of the Crucified One, it should expect that to happen. But when the powerless are victimized by the powerful, the faithful Church is called to resist with all its might.

It is in this sense, then, that the mission of the church may be said to be a fundamentally political one. Not in the sense of taking sides with a particular political party but in the broader understanding of the word — as it relates to those in government who decide whether the burden borne by the poor and needy is to be increased or reduced.

There is also confusion in many American churches about the temporal focus of the Way of the Cross. Contrary to the beliefs of many, the Way of the Cross does not first or primarily lead to heavenly rest but to the reign of God here on earth. The Church is not to suffer so that its members might someday get to heaven but so that those outside its walls might be fed, housed and visited while here on earth.

The great 20th-century American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr called God’s reign the Kingdom of Truth. By which he meant the world as it should be and would be under God’s reign, where the lies and deceptions of the world would be seen for what they are and where the hungry and homeless would become visible.

“The Kingdom of Truth” he wrote, “is not the kingdom of some other world. It is the picture of what this world ought to be.”

The Church, then, is that singular institution called to work with its Lord in making the Kingdom of Truth a reality by taking up its cross and losing its life, if necessary, for the sake of the less fortunate. To be with the suffering so that the sufferer is not alone — and to work against oppression and injustice so that the meek may be given a chance to inherit the earth.

Polk Culpepper is a retired Episcopal priest, former lawyer and a Washington resident.