Posts tagged with: suffering

Blog author: jballor
Friday, November 11, 2016
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Edward Feser, with a nod to Thomas Aquinas, discusses whether there might be such a thing as virtuous Schadenfreude. As Feser puts it, “On the one hand, the suffering of a person is not as such something to rejoice in, for suffering, considered just by itself, is an evil…. However, there can be something ‘annexed’ to the suffering which is a cause for rejoicing.”

My collaborator and friend Victor Claar and I ran up against something like this in our engagement with Thomas on the topic of envy, and Thomas’ treatment of these questions should be read as an annex to the part of the Summa that Feser looks at. Envy is defined, following Aristotle, as grief or sadness or sorrow at the good of another. When you take the responses of grief and joy to another’s good or ill, you can plot them into four possibilities: joy at another’s good, joy at another’s ill, grief at another’s good, and grief at another’s ill.

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Envy and Schadenfreude are linked because they are opposite reactions to the evil or good of another. The envious person is the kind of person who will rejoice in the ills suffered by another, and vice versa.

And just as Thomas cautions against joy at the suffering of another because suffering in itself is evil, so too does he caution against grieving at the good of another, even as he leaves open the possibility of what might be called “righteous indignation” at the unjust or undeserved goods enjoyed by an evil person. In this case, Thomas warns against such feelings, because it really is only up to God to judge what someone really and truly deserves, and, in fact, something might be “annexed” to that good that makes it turn out to be even worse for that person.

For more on envy in relationship to economics, check out: Jordan J. Ballor and Victor V. Claar, “Envy in the Market Economy: Sin, Fairness, and Spontaneous (Dis)Order,” Faith & Economics 61/62 (Spring/Fall 2013) 33-54.

Victor has also spoken on envy in numerous venues for Acton, including Acton University. Here’s a link to a talk from a number of years back.

strong-weak-chart-andy-crouch12In our discussions about politics, society, and culture, the vocabulary of “human flourishing” has become increasingly popular, moving dangerously close to the status of blurry buzzword.

Yet at its best, the term captures the connective tissue between the material and the transcendent, the immediate and the eternal, pointing toward a holistic prosperity that accounts for the full complexity of the human person.

In his latest book, Strong and Weak: Embracing a Life of Love, Risk and True Flourishing, Andy Crouch examines the broader ideal. ‘“Flourishing’ is a way of answering the first great question,” he writes. “What are we meant to be? We are meant to flourish—not just to survive, but to thrive; not just to exist, but to explore and expand.”

In order to actually embody that answer, Crouch believes we have to grasp the underlying “paradox of flourishing.” “Flourishing comes from being both strong and weak,” he writes, requiring us to “embrace both authority and vulnerability, both capacity and frailty – even, at least in this broken world, both life and death.”

In truth, most of us tend to elevate one to the detriment of the other, relishing in abuse of power or pursuit of poverty. Yet as humans created in the image of God, and as citizens of an upside-down Kingdom, we are called to embrace and combine each together. Such is the path to real life and abundance, both in the now and not yet. (more…)

Dietrich BonhoefferWhile imprisoned by the Nazis at Tegel military prison, and shortly after learning of the last failed attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler, Dietrich Bonhoeffer penned a short poem for his friend, Eberhard Bethge, titled “Stations on the Road to Freedom.”

I’ve come across the poem before, but in recently reading Eric Metaxas’ fine biography of the man, I was reminded of its power and potency in describing the essence of Christian freedom. It becomes all the more compelling given its context, serving as a “distillation of his theology at the time,” as Metaxas describes it.

Though we must be careful to appreciate the time and place from which it sprung, it brings with it plenty of implications for the ways in which we order our lives and allegiances. Indeed, in his prodding toward obedience, discipline, and submission to God — features many would find contradictory or in opposition to freedom — Bonhoeffer’s embrace of this profound paradox dovetails quite nicely with Lord Acton’s famous notion of “defining liberty not as the power of doing what we like, but the right of being able to do what we ought.”

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This morning at Acton University I attended a fascinating lecture by Dr. Edd Noell, “Origins of Economics: The Scriptures and Early Church Fathers.” I have briefly examined one ancient Christian perspective on wealth in the past (here), but Dr. Noell’s survey today was far more expansive. For the benefit of PowerBlog readers, I would like to reflect on some of the major themes of his talk here as a sort of preview of what one could expect once the audio is available for sale. (more…)

This country suffers no shortage of heroic tales. For the Union soldier who served under Ulysses S. Grant, there certainly was no greater leader. Often referred to by detractors as “a butcher” for the wake of Union dead left after his victories, he took the fight to the Confederacy. After the Wilderness campaign in 1864, where 17,000 Union soldiers died in just a few days, Grant unlike all the Union generals before him refused to lick the Federal wounds and retreat across the Rapidan River to resupply and reorganize. Instead Grant famously turned his massive columns not North, but South towards the heart of the Confederacy. Towards Richmond. Those that have studied the Civil War are familiar with the iconic story, as war whoops, hat waving, and wild cheering echoed across the forest. There was no doubt that The Army of the Potomac, which had suffered a barrage of whippings by General Robert E. Lee and the Confederacy, was under new leadership.

It was moments like this, and not Grant’s largely unspectacular two terms as president, where one can understand why his funeral procession was seven miles long. Grant’s Final Victory by Charles Bracelin Flood is not a book about his time as commander of the Union or president, but the fascinating and heroic tale of his race against time to publish his memoirs and save his family from financial ruin.

In 1884, Grant was embroiled in one of the first famous Ponzi schemes on Wall Street, and his son’s partner at Grant & Ward, an investing firm, bankrupted the company and fled. Grant and his entire family was wiped out. Grant wrote his niece, “Financially the Grant family is ruined for the present, and by the most stupendous frauds ever perpetrated.” He was personally embarrassed having lent his name and prestige to the company. Doubtless many assumed it was on firm footing with the hero of the Union watching over it. In reality, Grant had little knowledge of the day to day operations of the firm.

Soon after the scandal, Grant was diagnosed with terminal mouth and throat cancer. He was said to partake in an average of 20 – 25 cigars a day. He rushed to write his personal memoirs of the Civil War. Before his financial destruction, he was on record as having little desire to write his own account of the war. Grant eventually settled on an agreement with his friend Mark Twain that would give his widow Julia 75 percent of the profit of the book sales.

As he toiled away with his pen, sometimes writing as many as 25 – 50 pages a day, The New York Times and publications across the country offered daily updates on Grant’s condition. His suffering was immense. His throat had to be constantly swabbed with cocaine to relieve the pain. As the illness progressed, it literally began to suffocate him and he would often wake at night in a panic, trying to gasp for air. Just swallowing was especially agonizing.

Grant received an abundance of personal letters and well wishes from North and South. He felt his illness was helping to further heal the sectional divide and noted as much. The author notes Grant was especially touched by a letter by A.M. Arnold from Rockbridge Baths, Virginia. Arnold wrote:

I hope that you will allow one, who, when but a boy, laid down his arms at Appomattox and gave his allegiance to the Union, to express his warmest sympathy for you in your hour of affliction. Dear General, I have watched your movements from the hour you gave me my horse and sword and told me to go home and “assist in making a crop” – I have been proud to see the nation do you honor . . .

May the God who overlooked you in battle and who has brought you this far give you grace to meet whatever He has in store for you. And may He restore you to health & friends is the fervent prayer of one who at 15 years of age entered the lists against you and accepted the magnanimous terms you accorded us at Appomattox.

Grant had his share of well wishers in the South because of the respect he showed for General Robert E. Lee at Appomattox and the brave men of the Army of Northern Virginia. Grant also later intervened on Lee’s behalf when President Andrew Johnson and others in the federal government wanted to arrest Lee and have him tried and hung for treason.

Grant, a lifelong Methodist, was not particularly known for devoutness. Nearing death he spent more time with his Methodist pastor and was baptized for the first time in his life. Flood suggests that Grant may have at times kept his pastor at arms distance because he thought he might have been being used by the clergyman so the minister could cement his own notoriety as Grant’s pastor. Grant refused public communion near his death, writing his pastor:

I would only be too happy to do so if I felt myself fully worthy. I have a feeling in regard to taking the sacriment [sic] that no worse sin can be committed than to take it unworthily. I would prefer therefore not to take it, but to have the funeral services performed when I am gone.

As Grant declined he was moved to a cabin in upstate New York where the climate better suited his illness and suffering throat. He sat on the porch working feverishly to complete his memoirs. Former generals and military men paid their last respects, and Grant mostly communicated through notes by now. Well wishers often walked by his cabin and if they were fortunate Grant would tip his cap to them or raise a hand. One minister upon seeing Grant writing on his porch while suffering in such agony expressed that the image was “the finest sermon at which he had ever been present.”

Grant died three days after completing his memoirs in 1885. He dedicated the publication to the “American soldier and sailor.” When it was suggested that maybe he should change the dedication so that it read “the Union soldier and sailor,” he declined. The healing of the nation was always on Grant’s mind and at the conclusion his optimism shined as he stated his belief that the healing would continue. As Grant peacefully departed this life, his son stopped the clock at 8:08. The hand of the clock still remains fixed on that time in the cottage where Grant passed away. The cottage is Wilton, NY is heavily visited today and is an enduring symbol of Grant’s courageous life and death.

The well wishes poured in for one of the most beloved leaders in American history. Church bells across the country chimed 63 times, one for each year of Grant’s life. The former Confederate General James P. Longstreet called him “the soul of honor,” adding that Grant “was the highest type of manhood America has produced.”

While his funeral was epic affair of state, it clashed with the humility that Grant would cast in his memoirs. Often memoirs of great generals or statesmen are puffed up affairs, but Grant’s work would be forever known as a chronicle that praised the men around him, with the attention focused not on himself but the battles and conflict. The chronicles avoided flowery speech and was straightforward and honest, much like many of the fellow Midwesterners Grant led. Flood has written a powerful story and helps the reader to see why Grant was so loved even through faults and poor choices. It could be easily said that no American in the 19th Century was more admired than Grant and did more to save the country.

I had the privilege of lecturing at last week’s Acton University on the topic of Lutheran Social Ethics. In preparing for that session, I was struck again at just how “Lutheran” Dietrich Bonhoeffer sounds every time I read him.

Here’s an example. Last week I asked, “Whither justice?” and noted some of Luther’s words on the subject. Here’s Bonhoeffer, from Life Together, virtually echoing Luther:

What does it matter if I suffer injustice? Would I not have deserved even more severe punishment from God if God had not treated me with mercy? Is not justice done to me even done to me a thousand times over even in injustice? Must it not be beneficial and conducive to humility for me to learn to bear such petty ills silently and patiently?

Blog author: jballor
Monday, June 30, 2008
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The latest issue of Christian Scholar’s Review (vol. 34, no. 4, Summer 2008) features a contribution from me, “Bonhoeffer in America—A Review Essay.” Using the rubric of Bonhoeffer’s two trips to America in 1930-31 and 1939, I examine his reception in the United States and the broader English-speaking world via a number of recent texts by and about the German theologian.

Earlier this month, the United Methodist Church recognized Bonhoeffer as a Christian martyr, the first recognition of its kind for that denomination.

One of the books I consider in the review essay is Craig Slane’s excellent study, Bonhoeffer as Martyr: Social Responsibility and Modern Christian Commitment. One of the nice things about this book is its attention to the historical development of martyrdom and suffering as a phenomenon in the Christian church, as well as the focus on bringing their significance to bear in the modern West.

Also forthcoming from me in the more distant future is a contribution to the International Encyclopedia of Revolution and Protest: 1500 to the Present on the assassination plot of July 20, 1944, related to the work of the resistance circle of which Bonhoeffer was a part.

A feature film, Valkyrie, starring Tom Cruise is due out next February and “is based on the July 20 Plot of German army officers to assassinate Adolf Hitler.” (An interview with Ralph Winter, who produced previous films by Valkyrie director Bryan Singer, appears in the Autumn 2005 issue of Religion & Liberty.)