Once upon a time, in a land not very far away, the thought of the Black Plague did not give me the creeps. But then one day there came The Evil Educational Technology Project. The project that I unwisely chose to do on the Black Plague. The project that required a main character (mine was a plague doctor wearing a creepy beaked mask). The project that also required a video attachment (I did not use the one that robbed me of sleep and sanity). By the project’s end, my skin crawled whenever I worked on it. If my reaction sounds extreme, I have only two excuses—an overactive imagination and the creepiness of the material itself. Few diseases have wiped out 70 to 80% of a population, as the plague did in medieval Italy. Cases of plague are today nearly unheard of, partly in thanks to better sanitation. But plague can pass from person to person as well as through fleas, and there is no absolute guarantee that it will never break out again.
Albert Camus, the French existentialist philosopher, capitalized on that terrifying prospect in his novel The Plague, in which the disease strikes the French-colonized city of Oran in North Africa. For a year the plague ravages Oran. Cut off from outside help, the people struggle in an aloneness that Camus uses to represent a universe without God. Camus suggests that God must not exist because of the human suffering and death that the plague symbolizes. And earth’s people, like the people of Oran, are left to decide their response. The moral of the story? Be a healer. No matter how terrible the world is, do not lose your humanity. The moral sounds very good, of course—but in a world without any secure standard of goodness, defining what true good is impossible. How can we prove that the looters aren’t right? What reason is there to heal when the world is beyond healing.
The priest Father Paneloux tells his parishioners about Abyssinian Christians who, during a time of plague, wrapped themselves in the garments of the plague-stricken to show their self-surrender. Appreciate their zeal, says Paneloux, but do not go to their excesses. Yet, contrary to Camus, Someone has already done that. Someone wrapped Himself in the filthy garments of our plague, taking it upon Himself. Isaiah 53 says he bore our “griefs,” which can also be translated “diseases.” Jesus Christ suffered with out plague, and then He died.
Like Albert Camus, G. K. Chesterton centered one of his novels around the problem of suffering. Unlike The Plague, that novel, The Man Who Was Thursday, is a detective story. Gabriel Syme is commissioned to infiltrate a group of anarchists—a difficult problem enough. But not all the anarchists are what they seem, and Syme faces fear, confusion, and betrayal before the real anarchists are uncovered. Near the end of the story Syme demands to understand why events were allowed to unfold as they did. The only answer: “Can ye drink of the cup I drink of?”
Yahweh is hardly immune to suffering; rather, being a larger personality than any of us, he has experienced more of it. Given his knowledge of all things, His presence everywhere and in all times, and His deeply sensitive nature, perhaps it is more accurate to say that He has experienced all of it. Can we imagine? Do we want to?
In the end, Yahweh’s answer to our questions is found in his name—“I AM.” Toward the end of his life, even Camus found that his former answers could not satisfy him, and he began to seek the Christianity that he had previously turned away from. Some have tried to stop suffering—and have failed. Others have attempted to approve of suffering—another failure. And still others, like Camus for much of his life, have tried to transcend suffering on their own. They, too, have failed. In a world that desperately needs healing, the only solution is for us to seek our Healer.