Has the Church Forgotten How to Suffer?


Jesus suffered and died alone. But those who follow him suffer and die in fellowship with him. (Moltmann, The Crucified God, p. 56)

This is a continuation of my ongoing blog series through The Crucified God by Jürgen Moltmann. To see previous posts on this topic visit here. Below Moltmann discusses the important role suffering and martyrdom played in the life of the early church:

In the ancient church of the time of persecution, martyrdom was regarded as a special charisma. Those who were put to death were considered to have undergone the ‘baptism of blood’ and to have fellowship with Jesus in death. Their testimony was consummated in the giving of their lives, and the giving of their lives was understood as sharing in the victory of the crucified Christ. Thus a martyr did not suffer only for Christ, his lord, as a soldier goes to his death for his king. His martyrdom was understood as a suffering with Christ, and therefore also as the suffering of Christ in him and with him. (CG, p. 57)

This is one reason reading a book like The Crucified God can be difficult (and at the same time vitally important): the above description of the early church seems so alien to me. We are the farthest thing from persecuted here in North America; if anything we are privileged (unless you count the mythical “war on Christmas”; or the refusal of educational bodies to put “intelligent design” into science textbooks; these things are self-inflicted parodies of martyrdom, if anything! There are of course, plentiful examples of real martyrdom elsewhere in the contemporary church. But I digress…). I cannot comprehend having to face the kind of suffering that the martyrs in the early church experienced. I live a life of relative ease (though I might not admit it on Monday morning!); I work to take care of my family, and have the ability to spend some of my free time in the luxury of theological reflection. I don’t take it for granted! But at the same time, I think that Moltmann is right: The embrace of suffering in the church is essential to following in the way of Jesus. Our sufferings shine the spotlight on the suffering of Christ and it is only the suffering Christ who gives us hope. Therefore, for Moltmann (and for me, and for all of us!), something very important is lost in a church that forgets how to suffer:

The suffering and rejection of Christ on the cross is understood as eschatological suffering and rejection, and is brought by the martyrs into the eschatological public arena, where they are cast out, rejected, and publicly executed. Kierkegaard’s ‘attack on Christianity’, in the midst of the liberal bourgeois-Protestant world of the nineteenth century, made impressively clear that the rejection of the concept of martyrdom had brought with it the abandonment of the church’s understanding of suffering, and meant that the gospel of the cross had lost its meaning and ultimately that established Christianity was bound to lose its eschatological hope. The assimilation of Christianity to bourgeois society always means that the cross is forgotten and hope is lost. (CG, p. 58

At some point, the church of the persecuted martyrs – those who, like Christ, were victorious via the path of suffering and defeat – would become the church of the powerful and the comfortable. This is more than an abstract theological problem (like a heresy that can be corrected with a council or creed – as if having the right “atonement theory” is all that is needed). Here it is vitally important that we learn to move from the “theology of the cross” to the “way of the cross”. What might it look like to suffer “for Christ” and “with Christ” in today’s world?

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