( Love and Death, Woody Allen, 1975 )
I wish to provide some advance warning: this post deals quite candidly with sensitive issues of death and violence. Reader discretion is advised.
The Latin root of the word ‘absurd’ is surdus. Surdus translates as ‘deaf’.
I recently viewed an extremely gripping documentary that exhibited the terrors of the Holocaust to me in a way that I had never experienced them before. I was confronted with the inexpressible despair of life in a concentration camp. In front of my eyes, I saw hundreds of ordinary people stripped of their dignity and forced from their comfortable lives into filthy, packed cattle cars. I witnessed families being torn apart at a whim: grandparents sent to death, men being sent to hard labor, and women being forced into sexual exploitation.
In the midst of such inexplicable grief, I am quite easily led to say, “If there is a God, he must truly be absurd (that is, deaf)”.
And in the pattern of history, we have observed that many people have been led to make this statement, either by their words or by their actions. Since the beginning of human history, we have been faced with the reality of our own existential angst. As we have evolved as a species, we have became rather adept at hiding from our secret anguish. We have developed many disordered “-isms” in order to distract us from our deep wound: attitudes (racism, cynicism, sexism), addictions (alcoholism, consumerism, fetishism), ideologies (fascism, capitalism, marxism)…and the list continues.
When we allow ourselves to be silent–free of these distractions–and stare at our wounded mortality, we are confronted with a certain element of absurdity. In the midst of this unfair and sometimes horrible existence, there is an irreconcilable absurdity.
The question for myself as a Christian is this: what is the source of this absurdity (deafness)?
In Christianity, we have a God that formed us into being and called every bit of our creation ‘good’. Then, this same God came down to incarnate himself as a part of his wonderful creation. He was then stripped and nailed to a board by his own creation. I have no doubt that God himself must have found life to be absurd when he cried out “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani!” (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?!”).
Suddenly, we are faced with the realization that it is perhaps not God that is absurd and deaf to our suffering…
Instead, we begin to see that we ourselves are the source of the absurdity.
Is it really God or is it humanity that is deaf to the cries of those who suffer? Elie Wiesel offers us a passage from his book Night:
“One day,” writes Wiesel, “as we returned from work, we saw three gallows… The SS [guards] seemed more preoccupied, more worried, than usual. To hang a child in front of thousands of onlookers was not a small matter. The head of the camp read the verdict. All eyes were on the child. He was pale, almost calm, but he was biting his lips as he stood in the shadow of the gallows… ‘Where is merciful God, where is He?’ someone behind me was asking. At the signal, the three chairs were tipped over… Then came the march past the victims. The two men were no longer alive… The child, too light, was still breathing… And so he remained for more than half an hour, lingering between life and death… Behind me, I heard the same man asking: ‘For God’s sake, where is God?’ And from within me, I heard a voice answer; ‘Where is He? This is where – hanging here from this gallows…’”
And to this day, we remain absurd to each other.
In our indifference, humanity often makes itself absurd. We have made ourselves strangers to each other in our own beautiful home. Homeless persons pose the question: why are we homeless when there are empty homes? Innocent victims of war pose the question: why did I deserve to be killed when I killed nobody? Those who work never-ending shifts in foreign sweatshops pose the question: why must we produce luxuries in excess when we can hardly meet our basic needs? These are only a few of the bleak absurdities that the human race has chosen to live with.
We are told that “whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40). In that vein, we have made ourselves deaf and absurd to each other (and therefore to God).
If we open our ears and listen to God crying out to us in the poor, we will no longer be strangers to each other, to God, and to our own existence.
Living in this spirit, Jesus himself was still able to live a full life, to laugh, and to share a meal with his friends…so what is there to fear?!