Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Evil & the Economy

There are many causes of suffering. I am not a philosopher, so my description of a few of the causes of suffering is not exhaustive, or painfully, dissectedly specific.

But I think it is pragmatic.

Suffering may be caused by prolonged anguish: physical, mental, emotional. Physically, it probably involves pain. Mentally, it may involve uncertainty: a young war bride’s uncertainty of her soldier husband’s fate, for instance; mentally, it may also come from indecision – a wavering on the brink of momentous decisions. Emotionally, suffering may spring from grief, loss, hatred, or guilt. Suffering may also relate to the anguish of unfulfilled desire, whether reasonable or not.

Some of these causes of suffering come from our own choices; some are outside our control.

That there is suffering in the world is undeniable.

But is there evil in the world?

If you are someone who believes in God, then your answer is probably “yes.” And, in fact, if you are an atheist, you may also claim to believe that individuals’ choices can reflect evil, in a rather broader sense, and not linked with sin. Plenty of atheists believe the Holocaust was evil, as do plenty of Christians.

A Christian philosopher of religion will often conclude that the suffering in the world – yours, mine, the AIDS orphan’s in Africa – that all the suffering springs from evil. Not evil as a dark, murky, foggy essence, but from choices made by human beings that separate humanity from God.

And any time humanity is separated from God, it suffers.

Suffering has existed for much, much longer than market fluctuations have. Suffering has weakened and exhausted humanity for much, much longer than mass layoffs have.

So what do we do about suffering?

Well, many people believe we should do something. We just often disagree about what should be done, because we often disagree about what caused the suffering in the first place.

And this is what I’ve noticed in the past twelve months: politicians of every stripe and shade are quick to claim a monopoly on The Solution. This, of course, means that they must also proclaim a set of causes: the American people are suffering because of taxes that are too high, or because there aren’t enough public services available for the marginalized, or because of the last Administration, or because of illegal immigrants, or because we don’t have government health care, or because we have too much government health care, or because we’re racist, or because we’re a minority, or because we’re laid off, or because we’re in debt, or because we’re not spending enough, or because foreign markets are more successful, or…

Now, I have my own ideas about what philosophy of government helps both to avoid causing suffering and to help alleviate suffering. I’m sure you do, too. If you’ve read this site for long, you probably know some of my opinions, at least.

But my purpose isn’t to throw an impromptu town hall meeting. My purpose is to chat about what causes suffering: because as simplistic as it sounds, politicians can’t cure what ails you. They can implement programs that are more helpful or less helpful, they can pass bills that will help or hinder you, they can make decisions that affect your prospects for happiness in this country, but they cannot eliminate the problem of evil – that is, what philosophers of religion call suffering in the presence of a good and all-powerful God.

I have a strong preference for a particular political ideology, and the effects its implementation would have on the world.

But I do not rely on it to alleviate my suffering. I’m not at all fatalistic, but I do believe that looking to the government to soothe my suffering will be an empty endeavor.

And I say that, being laid off, with a very ill husband, and expecting our first child.

In the very, very big picture, suffering began when Adam had to work the stubborn field, sweating and laboring outside the Garden. Suffering began when Eve screamed in childbirth, outside the Garden.

Suffering began with the choice to separate ourselves from God. And suffering will only be relieved, both now and in timeless infinity, when we place ourselves back into God’s presence. This is how those who suffer can bear it with peace, or joy, or humor.

As a Christian, I believe that God wants us to work to alleviate suffering in the world, as Christ did, whether it is through helping to provide grain to a starving village, or providing company to a lonely widow, or whether it’s even to help draft legislation that will extend good, and not suffering, to others – like bills against the global sex trade, or human trafficking, or for things like alerts on mass communication venues when an elderly loved one with dementia has gone missing.

The government can be a tool to help fight suffering and promote well-being; but it will not be the cure for suffering.

The Prophet Isaiah very clearly portrays that cure: “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulders; and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace…”

And the promise is that in the end, the evil of suffering, economic and otherwise, will be no more. The lion will lay down with the lamb - or, put another way, the bull with the bear.

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