The Christian Economy of Pain

From William Cavanaugh’s superb Torture and Eucharist: 

The Christian economy of pain, therefore, overcomes the strict incommunicability of pain on which torture relies. Torture is so useful for isolating individuals in a society from one another in large part because of the inability of people to share pain. Pain is incommunicable beyond the limits of the body, and the sufferer must suffer alone. Christians, nevertheless, make the bizarre claim that pain can be shared, precisely because people can be knitted together into one body.

I am reminded of Stanley Hauerwas’ remarks on the subject of pain and medical ethics. Hauerwas observes the profoundly alienating character of pain, recognizing that, even when we successfully develop a narrative within which our pain is accommodated, this narrative will tend to separate us from others, as it can’t easily be shared. He challenges any approach to medicine that regards it as primarily being about cures, claiming that medicine is primarily about the commitment to be present with those in pain.

Without these habits of presence with those in pain ‘the world of the ill cannot help but become a separate world both for the ill and for those who care for them.’ Hauerwas argues that medicine as the practice of presence is only possible for a particular type of community, and that it is in the life of the Church, a community formed by God’s presence with us in our sin and pain, that such a practice can be formed. ‘Only a people trained in remembering, and remembering as a communal act, their sins and pains can offer a paradigm for sustaining across time a painful memory that it acts to heal rather than to divide.’ Illness and pain come as strangers in our midst. Only a community that has learnt how not to fear the stranger (and we can become strangers to ourselves through illness), through God’s presence with us, can truly practice this presence with others.

Our ability to be present to the sick, to encounter Christ in the one alienated from us by pain, may thus be a test of the degree to which we truly belong to this ‘Christian economy of pain’. It is here that the gospel of health and wealth can most radically jar with the message of Christ. If all of the above is correct, should not our visitation of the sick be seen as a deeply theological practice, a practice that is more than an expression of mere generic charity, but something that should be marked out as distinctively Christian in its character. Can a Church that is not present to the sick be truly Christian? To the extent that my life is insulated from the pain of others, can I call myself a Christian?

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
This entry was posted in Christian Experience, The Church, Theological. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to The Christian Economy of Pain

  1. John H says:

    I was struck this morning reading Philippians 3:1-14, and Paul’s statement that “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death“.

    We tend to overlook (or metaphoricalise out of the way) the last part of that sentence.

  2. Pingback: Tarrying with the Tragic | Alastair's Adversaria

  3. garver says:

    I’ve always taken the “and” in that sentence of Paul’s as epexegetical – against the horizon of this present age Paul wants “to know Christ and the power of his resurrection: that is to say, sharing in his sufferings by becoming like him in his death.” During our present pilgrimage sharing in Christ’s sufferings is how we know Christ and the power of his resurrection, since we suffer in hope.

    • Helpful observation, Joel. Thanks. Theologically, that definitely makes sense as a reading, especially against the background of 2 Corinthians 12:9 and other such texts.

      (Sorry, your comment got caught by my over-eager spam filter.)

  4. quinnjones2 says:

    I came across this via a link on ‘Tarrying with the Tragic’. I had read neither post before today – two more fine posts you wrote in my pre-Twitter days. Thank you. I will comment on ‘Tarrying with the Tragic’ later. Re: this post, I just have a thought on your questions: ‘Can a church that is not present to the sick be truly Christian? To the extent that my life is insulated from the pain of others, can I call myself a Christian? ‘ When I first became a Christian, my answer to both of those questions would have been ‘No’. Now I think of us all as ‘work in progress’ and I am now more patient with fellow Christians who seem to expect others to smile though their hearts ( and also their bones!) are aching.

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