How do we deal with the pain that is an inevitable part of life? Pain is a signal from our body that something is wrong and requires attention. But pain is also an experience that can be managed to some degree. “Pain is a warning system,” writes Dr. Abdul-Ghaaliq Lalkhen in his book, An Anatomy of Pain, “informing us that there is a threat to the safety of our body or even that damage has already occurred, bit if experiencing pain and receiving this information is not immediately beneficial, then the message relaying this information will be de-prioritized and sometimes ignored by the brain” (page 10).
We have some measure of choice in how we respond the experience of pain once it passes the gateway of our nervous system and is processed by our brain. We may choose, at least for a while, to ignore the pain and hope it goes away. We may look for the cause of the pain to see if we can stop it at the source. We may recruit others to help in that effort (they are called physicians). We may seek to dull or suppress the pain through chemicals or distractions. Or (and this is the exceptional response), we may seek to understand the pain and deal with it as part of our larger reality of being human.
The readers of the Lukan account are experiencing some measure of pain as a community. We can speculate about the specific sources of that pain, but it should be obvious from our reading that the result is a deep disruption of their lives and threats to their continued existence. The inventory of persecutions in Luke 21:12-18 makes the nature of this pain clear and specific.
It seems that they are tempted to deal with the pain by denying, dulling, and suppressing it. “Pay close attention,” we read in verses 34 and 35, “lest your hearts are burdened in dissipation and drunkenness and the anxieties of this everyday life, and that day lands upon you unexpectedly as a trap.” The language used here refers not only to emotional avoidance but also to the use of substances to dull the senses and to make one simply not care about the pain experience.
These days opioids are the primary chemical agents in use by physicians (and by any number of informal users) to dull and suppress the pain. No, that’s not quite right, as Dr. Lalkhen points out. “We use opiate medications postoperatively because they affect the way you interpret the sensations from your body,” he writes, “they make you care less. Opiates have been called the perfect ‘whatever’ medication,” Lalkhen continues, “because they allow you to ignore the messages that are coming from your body” (page 39).
I found that description surprising. I was under the impression that all pain medications interfered in some way with the actual transmission of the injury or illness information from the location in the body to the processing centers in the brain. Opiates, however, work on our assessment of the pain experience rather than the mechanism of pain itself. Since pain is an experience rather than merely a sensation, how much I care about that experience makes all the difference in what I feel.
The words in our text describe a response to the pain of life for the Lukan readers that is very much about caring less about the pain. That response to pain makes a great deal of sense. We can only be alert to pain and threat for so long before we lose attention and resilience. We can become habituated to a certain level of pain in our bodies and in our communities. We can ignore a certain amount of pain as well. The American response to the Pandemic makes it clear that given a certain amount of time and emotional distance, we can accommodate far more social suffering than we would care to admit.
If, on the other hand, we remain alert and vigilant for an extended period of time, we can develop stress disorders. PTSD, for example, keeps a person’s systems on high alert even when the pain or the threat has been treated or dissipated. The PTSD sufferer remains in the pain experience and is hearing psychological and physiological alarm bells all the time, even in response to unrelated stimuli. That sort of hypervigilance is debilitating and not what the Lukan author intends here.
I want to suggest that our text is not about maintaining hypervigilance but rather is about developing the faithful stamina necessary for the long haul. Perhaps that is the best translation of hupomene in verse 19. The translation, “patient endurance,” is certainly adequate, but it is perhaps too passive to fully communicate the Lukan intention. Faithful stamina is something that we can develop, maintain, and then rely upon in the face of pain and distress.
This leads me to reflect on the counsel and challenge Robin DiAngelo offers to White people in responding to and “treating” our deeply rooted White Supremacy. She urges us to be active in confronting our participation in the Domination system. Acknowledging our place in that system can be painful, and we can seek to escape that pain. “But rather than retreat in the face of that discomfort,” DiAngelo writes, “we can practice building our stamina for the critical examination of white identity—a necessary antidote to white fragility” (page xiv).
This particular variety of faithful stamina is about looking closely at myself as White and as living and benefitting from a web of White dominance and privilege. “Given how seldom we experience racial discomfort in a society we dominate,” DiAngelo observes, “we haven’t had to build our racial stamina. Socialized into a deeply internalized sense of superiority that we either are unaware of or can never admit to ourselves,” she continues, “we become highly fragile in conversations about race” (page 1-2).
The challenge is to sit with the discomfort – the pain – long enough that we can begin to name it for ourselves with honesty and hope. The temptation is to flee to immediate solutions, and there are many who seek to profit off that desire for quick fixes. That’s not a new game, by any means, as we can see in Luke 21:7-8. But we can be just as easily taken in by the spiritual, political, and ideological snake-oil peddlers as could the first readers of the Lukan text.
DiAngelo argues that “a critical component of cross-racial skill building is the ability to sit with the discomfort of being seen racially, of having to proceed as if our race matters (which it does). Being seen racially is a common trigger of white fragility,” she observes from long experience, practice, and self-examination, “and thus, to build our stamina, white people must face the first challenge: naming our race’ (page 7).
One of the marks of privilege is the ability to insulate ourselves from such discomfort and pain. Perhaps this is also a problem for the Lukan community as they settle a bit more into the culture — that they will become oblivious to the real pain of the world. But insulating ourselves is the moral and spiritual equivalent of using opioids to deal with long-term pain issues. The pain doesn’t go away. We simply care much less about it. The more insulated we are, the less practice we have in sitting with the pain, and the lower our stamina is. “An antidote to white fragility is to build up our stamina to bear witness to the pain of racism that we cause,” DiAngelo writes, “not to impose conditions that require people of color to continually validate our denial” (page 128).
One of the marks of my own privilege is the simple temptation to keep all the pain of Reality at a distance. I can isolate myself physically and emotionally from the hard edges of contemporary life. I can unfriend, unfollow, and uncare. I can withdraw my attention and withhold my support. I can pretend that “everything is awesome” and that I can stop worrying and be happy. In short, I can use social and informational means to “opioid” my existence without investing in the chemicals.
So, I am personally convicted by this text and led to look for the marks of faithful stamina included here. It is clear that truth produces faithful stamina and self-deception reduces it. It is clear that informed discernment produces faithful stamina and superficial panic reduces it. It is clear that authentic community produces faithful stamina, and personal isolation reduces it. After all, the “you’s” addressed in this text are indeed plural.
I depend, for example, on my Antiracism book study group with which I meet weekly for conversation and accountability. We have been meeting for more than a year at this point. If it were not for that group, I would be far less motivated to continue growing and studying, practicing and advocating for my own Antiracist growth and changes in my world. That group continues to connect me as well to the larger community of Antiracist thinking and action through the resources we discuss.
Alert attention produces faithful stamina, and sullen slumber reduces it. This is not an exhortation to ongoing hypervigilance. Luke 21 is not an invitation to faith-based PTSD. Instead, this is about willing, patient, and prayerful mindfulness. When the physical threats are real, it may be necessary to flee to the mountains. The Gentiles of our own time may well triumph for a season, and that season may need to ripen to fulfillment. But alert attention – nourished by humble prayer – is the stance of Jesus followers for the long haul.
Just as holistic pain management is still a hard sell in the larger medical community (especially when pills are so much easier and so much more popular with us as consumers), so sitting with the pain of the world and exercising faithful stamina is not the response of choice for some “Christians” in the United States at this point. It is no wonder that we fall into the traps of polarization and prejudice that ensnare us.
This collision of worldviews takes place in the headlines on a daily basis and will be focused to a hard point around holiday tables this week. I’m not at all good at acknowledging either physical or social pain, so this is a gritty text for me. It’s good that we begin our Advent journey with this call to faithful stamina. So, I pray that I might lift up my head in the face of the pain and trust that my/our redemption is at hand.
References and Resources
DiAngelo, Robin J. White Fragility. Beacon Press. Kindle Edition.
Hall, Douglas John. The Cross in Our Context. Fortress Press, 2003.
Jones, Serene. Trauma and Grace, 2nd Edition. Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.
Kendi, Ibram X. How to Be an Antiracist. Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Lalkhen, Abdul-Ghaaliq. An Anatomy of Pain: How the Body and the Mind Experience and Endure Physical Suffering. NewYork: Scribner, 2021.
Sleeth, Natalie. “Hymn of Promise.” http://www.hymntime.com/tch/htm/h/y/m/n/hymnprom.htm.
Swanson, Richard W. Provoking the Gospel of Luke: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Year C. Cleveland, OH.: The Pilgrim Press, 2006.
West, Audrey. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/first-sunday-of-advent-3/commentary-on-luke-2125-36-5.
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