No Comfort For the Afflicted?

This excerpt is the conclusion of Bruce Rogers-Vaughn’s brilliant Bias Magazine essay “No Comfort for the Afflicted?,” a response to a piece published in The Christian Century written by Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon

In effect, this dialogue between two white men sets a low bar for the pastoral care that is so badly needed today. Hauerwas concludes: “If in a hundred years Christians are identified as people who do not kill their children or the elderly, we will have done well in our pastoral care.” Really? I can only assume that such a statement is intended to shock rather than be taken seriously. And when he adds: “Words like care, love, and compassion can be self-deceptive when not disciplined and driven by our theological commitments,” I have to wonder if behind the theological commitments to which he alludes lurks the image of a muscular Jesus who kicks asses and takes names. As historian Kristin Du Mez has documented, we have had enough of that Jesus already.

Finally, I question the location and timeliness of this anti-empathy diatribe, appearing as it does in the middle of a global pandemic, in the context of political chaos, in the shadow of a rejuvenated white supremacy and emboldened patriarchy, record-breaking economic inequality, and a withering level of empathy in our society—especially toward those we perceive as different or foreign. What we need is more pastoral care, not less; more empathy, not less. To an overwhelming degree, pain in our world has little or nothing to do with narcissistic self-indulgence, or wallowing in victimhood. The outliers who appear masochistically attached to their pain are not typically catered to or coddled, as Hauerwas and Willimon insinuate. Rather, they are easy targets for discipline, punishment, blame, and shame. Pain is not primarily a plea for attention. It is a cry for connection in the midst of alienation, for justice where there is none, for love where apathy and hate prevail.

This is why, in the Gospels, healing is a core feature of Jesus’ ministry. It is quite appropriate to recognize, as Hauerwas and Willimon obviously do, that pain is not simply to be vanquished. Some suffering—death, disease, grief, etc.—is endemic to the human condition. However, pain must always be heard. What is it saying to us, and about our world, in the particular situation where it arises?

In a neoliberal world that offers us “networking” instead of friendship and mutuality, and substitutes “measurable outcomes” for the virtues of faith, hope, and love, we have never needed a recovery and reformation of genuine care and the healing arts as much as we do today. Attending to the many ways our souls are wounded by a soul-killing global capitalist order—and the conditions under which our woundedness might bind us to one another and to our planetary home—is the beginning, not the end, of nurturing the sort of faith communities that Hauerwas and Willimon appear to envision.

Bruce Rogers-Vaughn is a pastoral psychotherapist at the Pastoral Center for Healing in Brentwood, Tennessee (USA), and is a psychotherapy member of the Association for Clinical Pastoral Education (ACPE). He taught at Vanderbilt Divinity School for 23 years, serving as Associate Professor of the Practice of Pastoral Theology and Counseling, and is now a Visiting Scholar.  He is the author of Caring for Souls in a Neoliberal Age (2016). His continuing work as a public theologian is available at his website.

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