Posted by: Philip Rushton | July 15, 2013

Pain Killers

“I was the lie that Empire tells itself when times are easy.”
– The Magistrate in J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians.

I just finished a book that I did not enjoy reading. J.M. Coetzee’s book, Waiting For the Barbarians, tells a dark tale of a corrupt empire. The story is told from the perspective of a magistrate who starts off as a passive observer to the torture, oppression, and racism that are taking place by those in power. While the magistrate is aware of what is going on he initially tries to avoid it. In order to numb the pain of reality he seeks escape in mindless hobbies, fine food, and prostitutes.

The book put me, as the reader, in an ironic situation. I stopped reading the book on three different occasions on the grounds that it is too disturbing. However, in doing so I essentially took the position of the magistrate by wanting to avoid the painful parts of the story. Though I am frustrated by the main characters passivity, I find myself having the same reaction. When faced with the reality of suffering I would rather avoid it.

painkillersThe point of the story is to get us to consider how we respond to the injustices in our world. Like the main character of Coetzee’s novel, it is easy for us to slip into passivity. This is particularly easy in our American culture. For one thing, many of the injustices going on in our world are removed from us. The wars our countries fight are taking place in other lands. The economic exploitation behind many of the products we buy go unseen – (save for a quick news cycle when a garment factory collapses). When injustice and poverty happen closer to home we have access to all kinds of “pain killers,” that help us avoid reality. It is easy to crowd out the uncomfortable realities of life when we have instant entertainment, access to all the food we could want, and opportunities for recreation. It is easy for us to avoid suffering.

Throughout scripture we are called to respond to injustice and suffering. The prophet Isaiah says that we are to “loose the bonds of wickedness, To undo the heavy burdens, To let the oppressed go free (Is 58:6). The writer of Proverbs warns against shutting our ears to the cries of the poor (21:13), or closing our eyes to the reality of poverty (28:27). Jesus continually calls us to reach out to the least, the last and the lost.

These themes of scripture have left me with a holy restlessness and discomfort lately. While I know that I am called to respond to the needs of our hurting world I don’t know where to start. The amount of suffering and pain in our world is overwhelming. When I was on vacation I realized how burned I was getting with what I already have on my plate. How do we remain faithful to God’s call to fight against injustice without completely burning out? How do we avoid the extremes of passivity and burnout?

While I was at the summer institute at Duke, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove talked to us about how the biblical character Daniel faced these challenges. Daniel lived in a time of a corrupt empire. The Babylonians had taken the Israelite people captive. One of their strategies was to bring the brightest Israelite men to the palace in order to teach them their philosophy, immerse them in their culture, and feed them fine foods. In the midst of this situation Daniel tried to remain attentive to the oppression and suffering of his people. He refused to be blinded to the reality of corruption by maintaining some important spiritual practices.

First of all Daniel fasted. Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove suggested that this was means by which Daniel avoided the pain killers of the day. He refused the fine foods so that he would not be numbed to the reality of his people’s suffering.

At the same time Daniel engaged in practices that helped him avoid burnout. A second practice that sustained Daniel was his commitment to community. When Daniel was placed in the fire for refusing to worship the emperor he was in the company of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. Wilson-Hartgrove emphasized the need to confront the problems of our world in the context of community. We need the gifts, support, and companionship of others. We cannot face the injustices of our world alone. We need to share the load and support each other in our journey. The commitment to community also puts us in touch with Paul’s teaching on the body of Christ. We need to realize that we have different callings and different gifts. As individuals we cannot take on every major issue of injustice. Together, however, we can accomplish much.

Daniel also maintained a life of prayer. In the second chapter of Daniel we read that Daniel maintained a fixed hour of prayer. Three times a day he turned to Jerusalem and prayed. Similarly our action must be sustained by our relationship with God. In the midst of our activism and outreach we need to stay rooted in prayer. We cannot respond to the needs of our world apart from the intervention and and empowerment of God’s spirit.

Coetzee’s novel has caused me to face an uncomfortable realities in my life. Too often, I am like the main character who responds to the reality of injustice with passivity and deflection. Desmond Tutu famously said “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer articulates a similar sentiment when he writes, “Silence in the face of evil is evil itself: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”

I think Daniel provides us with an important model for how to we might live faithfully. Like Daniel we need to remain aware and attentive to the injustices of our world by refusing the pain killers that numb reality. At the same time we need to be sustained by the support of a community and remain connected to our source of life through prayer.


  1. Wow, Phil, this is a strong message. And comes at a time I’ve been wrestling with what my response should be to the beggars on the corners of Fred Meyers parking lot. Especially the older woman.   At one point when I kept seeing the same ones, I concluded that I wouldn’t participate. But the older woman got to me, and I looked for her today. She wasn’t there. Am I missing Jesus in disguise?   Your thought-provoking message hit a nerve. Thanks. I really really like the way you write (and think!)   We don’t have to go far to see poverty. One day Henry and I took a drive up the West Side Highway and stopped in a trailer park on the river that he had wanted to see. As we drove around, the sights of poverty of spirit were so evident, it made us uncomfortable. And sad for the people. There is real poverty and there is povery of spirit. Both are upsetting.   Keep reading, keep sharing, keep on being the one who causes inner heart wrestling. love, Victoria


    • Hey Victoria, well as far as panhandlers on corners: hard to know each time isn’t it? the other day I asked a very scruffy guy if he wanted half my sandwich and a bottle of water. He said yes. There have been times when someone has said “No, I just want $5 bucks or whatever.” I think the key is having eyes open and seeing. Err on the side of compassion but don’t be manipulated.

  2. always the real issue, yet the desire to escape that actual reality is strongly ever present.  Henry


  3. Thanks for your thoughts Henry and Victoria. One of the things I have been thinking about after I published this post is that we need to keep before us is the practice of discernment. I think this is tied to the practice of prayer that Daniel was committed too. Knowing what, how, and when to respond to the problems in our world is an important question. For example, we could have a real heart for the poor and yet respond to the issue in a way that is not particularly helpful – i.e. creating unhealthy dependency or serving people out of a self-righteous spirit. I am becoming increasingly aware of the need to discern what God is calling us to at any particular moment.

    • Please define “self-righteous” spirit:
      do you mean involving bragging about what you’ve done? Prideful?

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