I recently stumbled across this provocative quote from George Bernard Shaw:
“What you yourself can suffer is the utmost that can be suffered on earth. If you starve to death you experience all the starvation that ever has been or ever can be. If ten thousand other women starve to death with you, their suffering is not increased by a single pang: their share in your fate does not make you ten thousand times as angry, nor prolong your suffering ten thousand times. Therefore do not be oppressed by “the frightful sum of human suffering”: there is no sum: two lean women are not twice as lean as one nor two fat women twice as fat as one. Poverty and pain are not cumulative: you must not let your spirit be crushed by the fancy that it is. If you can stand the suffering of one person you can fortify yourself with the reflection that the suffering of a million is no worse: nobody has more than one stomach to fill nor one frame to be stretched on the rack.”
This quote rings true to me and it resonates with many scriptures. In the parable of the lost sheep, Jesus suggests that one lost sheep is as important as the entire rest of the flock. In the strange mathematics of heaven, two sheep are not greater than one sheep. Accumulation has no meaning in divine judgement. God judges a single individual as if she were the whole, and the whole as if it were the single individual.
A seminary teacher of mine once told me that Christ would have gone through the atonement even if it was for me alone and no one else, down to every last drop of blood. At the time, I remember strongly objecting to this idea. It was simply too intimate for me to comprehend. Nevertheless, such is the nature of God’s love for the individual.
George Bernard Shaw’s idea that “there is no sum” has some profound implications. Sarah Silverman has an perversely hilarious skit on the holocaust where she cracks this joke:
My niece called me up and she’s like, “Aunt Sarah, did you know that Hitler killed 60 million Jews?” I corrected her, and I said, “You know I think he’s responsible for killing six million Jews.” And she says, “Oh, yeah. Six million. I knew that. But seriously, auntie, what’s the difference?” “The difference is that 60 million is UNFORGIVABLE, young lady.”
If Hitler had only sent one Jew to die in a gas chamber, would we care? Is the death of one more horrible than the death of many? George Bernard Shaw suggests that whether we kill six, six million, or 60 million, on some level, it is the same.
The Holocaust was a terrible event that was responsible for a great collective loss of faith. Many of those who survived became atheists because they could not believe in a God who would allow such a thing to happen. Yet from the beginning of time to this very day, various individuals around the world are suffering their own private holocausts. Their suffering may not be as obvious to others, but depending on their own resilience or lack thereof, these private holocausts can be as traumatic as anything experienced in the death camps.
As good-hearted, religious Americans, we sometimes feel far removed from the evils of those camps. We would never have done something like that. Yet when it comes to interrogating terror suspects, religious people in the US are far more likely to approve of torture as an interrogation technique than non-religious people. To be fair, this could simply be because religious people are more likely to be Republican, and Republicans are more likely to support torture. But still, in the economy of heaven, would God really approve of the torture of only a few Muslim terror suspects any more than he might approve of the torture of many more Jews in German concentration camps? Are we really that far removed from the Nazis?
The Death Penalty
We all know that occasional mistakes in our criminal justice system have sent innocent people to death row. Death penalty advocates argue that executing an innocent person is extremely rare and that it is the price to pay we must pay in order to bring justice and deter crime.
But what if we accidentally executed 100 people? That might get our attention. It might seem so terrible that we would collectively agree to ban the death penalty. But if we execute just one innocent person wouldn’t it be as great a crime as if we executed a hundred? This argument has obvious limitations. One might say we should reduce the speed limit to 45 MPH because it will save that many more lives than a speed limit of 55 or 75. Where does it end? Nevertheless, regardless of how we end up calculating the cost/benefits of the death penalty or traffic laws, from a religious and spiritual perspective, it is important to remember that for God, the one means everything: “inasmuch as ye have done it unto the least of these, ye have done it unto me.”
Atonement Penal Theory
The atonement is one of the few areas of mystery in LDS theology. We are often told that it is impossible to comprehend how Christ paid the price for our sins. Yet, of all the mysteries that might baffle us in the gospel, why is it the atonement that so mystifies us? Christ came down and died on the cross, paying the price for our sins. What’s so hard to understand about that?
I think what mystifies us about the atonement is that we apply our misconceptions about collective suffering to the atonement. We think that if two people starved to death, Jesus must have had to suffer twice as much to experience both of them. If two people need to be punished for committing adultery, Jesus must suffer twice for the same crime in order to bring forgiveness to both of them. Then we start adding up the infinite amount of suffering in our head and the horror of it starts to overwhelm us. So we make a quick escape into the mystery and incomprehensibility of it.
But what if George Bernard Shaw is right? What if “pain is not cumulative?” For that matter, what if sins are not cumulative? Maybe Jesus’ suffering was not a cumulative suffering for every person who ever lived, but a representational suffering. He came and experienced the worst of what a life on earth can be. But at the end of the day, He experienced life as we experience it individually. He is one of us, one of us as individuals, not one of us as part of some incomprehensible collective. To me, this idea helps me feel closer to Christ. His suffering on the cross is something I can imagine, something I can relate to, something I could even go through myself, as horrible as it is to contemplate. I take God at His word when He tells Martin Harris, that he must “suffer even as I.” The atonement is a comprehensible suffering. It is something we can understand and could experience ourselves. The fact that Christ spares us from a comprehensible suffering has more meaning than if Christ spares us from an incomprehensible suffering. He is the One, just as I am the one. We are all in this together.
- Do you agree with Shaw that “there is no sum” to suffering?
- Is the holocaust any better for having killed 6 million Jews, not 60 million, or any worse for having killed more than just 6? Are we any better than the Nazis for advocating the death and torture of only a handful of Muslim terror suspects, as opposed to millions of Jews?
- Does a single innocent person executed by the death penalty justify opposition to it?
- What might the supremacy of the one have on discussions of our duty towards individuals who might not conform as well to the collective values we try to espouse as an institution?
- Do you think the atonement was a collective suffering, or a representational suffering?