Numerous people in the UK and abroad have recently lost their livelihoods or homes. There have been vigorous campaigns against drastic cuts in public services and welfare, and opposition to privatisation measures (including those affecting the National Health Service in England). But such resistance has largely failed to halt harmful social changes.
For many, the effects of the cuts and economic downturn include not only financial hardship but also social (and sometimes physical) displacement and increased marginalisation.
Some people also face personal tragedies, resulting from factors over which they have no control or, at least in part, their own failings.
When we face loss, failure and sometimes painful recognition of our own shortcomings, it can be tempting to despair. Certainly false optimism can seem shallow, as can the clichés of those who are themselves unaffected or who have even done well out of situations that have brought misery to millions. For churches, there is a risk of being so preoccupied with institutional matters such as fundraising that they fail to respond sensitively to the plight of so many people today.
Yet, at best, the church can stand alongside those who may otherwise feel desperately alone and abandoned, and perhaps offer a framework for making sense of what is happening (as far as is possible) without resorting to easy answers and empty reassurance. Christian doctrine and worship is not simply about joy, fellowship and confidence in God’s greatness, important as these may be, but also sorrow, defeat and God’s solidarity with human vulnerability.
In the Gospels, Jesus is welcomed by crowds as he enters Jerusalem, and there appears to be a real chance that a new world order is at hand, a divine commonwealth where justice and peace will prevail. Yet a few days later he has been betrayed and arrested, many of his followers have fled or even sided with his accusers, and the secular and religious authorities join forces to put him to death.
For his mother Mary it was as if a sword pierced her soul (Luke 2.35), and for his friends it was the not only the brutal killing of someone they loved but also the dashing of the dreams he had inspired in them. For Jesus himself, it is more than a physical ordeal: according to Matthew’s and Mark’s Gospels he cries out ““My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Though this is a reference to Psalm 22, in which good ultimately triumphs, a profound sense of abandonment is expressed.
The God whom Christians worship is no stranger to suffering and defeat. The cross is at the heart of the faith, with all its richness of meaning, including the divine willingness to engage at the deepest level with a flawed and broken world, for love’s sake to confront the forces of death and destruction and pay the price.
For many in today’s world, it may sometimes feel as if hope has been extinguished. The companionship of others who may themselves be struggling, and reminders of occasions when the forces that divide and destroy were overcome, may be of value, even if things still seem bleak.
The wait for something better to emerge may feel almost unbearably long. Yet ultimately, Christians believe, after the cross comes a new dawn and an empty tomb.
** There is a tie-in between this and other articles on Ekklesia including 'Where is God amid the suffering?' (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/14566 ) and 'What sense does it make to say "Christ died for us"?' (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/14623 ), both published earlier.
(c) Savi Hensman is a Christian writer and commentator on politics, society and religion. An Ekklesia associate, she works in the equalities and care sector.