From pictures of poor farmers in Depression era America to bloated children in Sudan, the contemporary aesthetics of poverty subtly reinscribe the ancient division between the children of the soil (chthonoi) and children of the gods (theion) familiar to us from the Greek and Babylonian myths.
Those who live some form of what is often deemed the ideal “Western” lifestyle look down from Olympus with sympathy on the sons and daughters of the soil and their visceral imprisonment to nature and necessity.
“We” who benefit from consumer lifestyles, technological advancement and decent sewers contemplate the photographs of stricken faces and think: “If only they can be more like us.”
Images of poverty, war and disaster — what Susan Sontag calls the “iconography of suffering” — provoke a response. What these images invoke is sympathy, indignation and alarm (often accompanied by an unacknowledged yet ever present voyeuristic curiosity about the gruesome, the excruciating and the calamitous). As Sontag notes, the modern representation of the suffering other, whether of the dead soldier or famished child, is of an other who is “regarded only as someone to be seen, not someone (like us) who also sees.”
The help these images stimulate is tinged with elegy for the inescapability of these suffering others “naturalness” (read barbarity and savagery). We offer them the gifts of Olympus, but heaven forbid that the chthonoi should invade our heavenly palisades through migration and thereby soil and threaten “our” perfect, cozy life.
The modern iconography of human suffering either invites the onlooker to envisage him or herself as the one who should stop the pain, or shocks them into greater awareness of what is going on. But what is not questioned is the onlooker’s way of life or basic priorities. Sight of the poor does not catalyze different ways of living together. These images do not provoke mourning and humility, but activism and altruism.
Yet the modern representation of poverty owes a great deal to earlier representations of Christ’s suffering body, and in particular traditions of contemplating the wounds of Christ.
We see here a depiction of Christ’s wounded and crucified flesh from the Isenheim Altarpiece. Mary, in the garb of a widow, faints in the arms of John the Evangelist, to whose care the Lord has commended her, and in the smaller figure of Mary Magdalene with her vessel of ointments, wringing her hands in sorrow.
On the other side of the Cross, there stands John the Baptist with a lamb carrying the cross and pouring out its blood into the chalice of the Holy Communion. John points towards the Savior, and over him are written the words that he speaks from John 3.30: “He must increase, but I must decrease.”
The Isenheim Altarpiece was commissioned by the Antonites who were a hospital order that devoted themselves to the care of people in the tiny hamlet of Isenheim. The Altarpiece explicitly links contemplation of suffering, the call to serve others, and the need for patterns of renunciation and repentance in any appropriate response to suffering.
In contrast to the modern iconography of suffering, this Christian representation operates within an iconography of sorrow. The appropriate response to the depiction of Christ’s suffering and broken flesh is not empathy leading to philanthropic action or political activism on behalf of a less fortunate other. Rather, it is meant to provoke repentance and conversion.
Christians are to contemplate the suffering and death of Christ in order to become aware of their own complicity in that suffering. Sinful humans are the reason Christ suffers. It is our alienation and distance from the suffering body of Christ — our sinful, broken and disordered relationships with God and neighbor — that is the root cause of the suffering. Only by coming into a transformed relationship with Christ can we properly respond to the suffering body we contemplate. And we can only do this through repentance.
Repentance requires a change of life and recognition that what we value materially is of little worth in contrast to the “pearl of great price” that coming into relationship with Christ enables. It is not the sinful human who has something to offer the one suffering. Rather, Christ’s situation represents our true predicament if only we could see it: rather than us having a gift to offer the impoverished suffering other, rather than us having strength that the other needs, we are the ones who need the broken body we contemplate.
Our life is precarious, impoverished and weak – we suffer an existential poverty through our sinfulness and only by coming into relationship with Christ can we gain riches of inestimable worth. By extension, the suffering and impoverished within an iconography of sorrow are not to become part of our world.
Rather, an iconography of sorrow disrupts and reconfigures our practices of recognition. It is not our gaze in the form of Western media attention that determines who should appear as the subject of care — Ebola one day, something else the next. Rather it is proximity to Christ on the cross that determines who and what we should see. Uncoupled from contemplation of Christ crucified, we will misperceive what suffering looks like and who is the stranger to be welcomed. We will determine who appears and who does not appear by our own fallen and fad driven standards of what is worthy of our attention and sympathy.
At its heart, an iconography of sorrow challenges the position of being a testis (Latin) or “third party” who observes, who is not directly involved and who speaks out on behalf of another. This is one kind of testimony, but it too often positions the one suffering as a passive victim wholly defined and determined by their suffering.
Rather, as with Christ, we must hear the testimony of the superstes or person who has lived through the events described, exists beyond what happened and so speaks from direct experience. This person is never merely a victim. Like Christ, they exist in excess of the horror and suffering they have lived through. They are not merely someone in need of our help, but someone who comes forth and challenges us to come together with them in order that we might be fellow pilgrims journeying towards something new.
We are more familiar with the Greek-derived term martyrto describe such a testimony. Theologically, the martyr or superstes is an embodied witness to the eschatological order in which all may flourish in communion with God and each other. The eschatological end to which the martyr witness holds open the need for the fundamental transformation of every aspect of this our finite and fallen age. Such a theocentric vision is very different from the anthropocentric and often racialised iconography of suffering.
This Easter let us contemplate Christ’s suffering body and, through repentance, begin a journey towards loving, faithful and hopeful ways of being alive with the destitute, powerless and afflicted.
Crossposted from ABC Religion and Ethics.
Luke Bretherton is Professor of Theological Ethics at Duke University. His most recent book is Resurrecting Democracy: Faith, Citizenship and the Politics of a Common Life.