I recently revisited the story in the Gospel of John, chapter nine, in which Jesus heals a man born blind. This time the emotional tone of the entire episode impacted me deeply. Here’s what I’ve come up with thus far as I’ve pondered the story:
First, the disciples asked Jesus a question that revealed something of their basic etiology of illness. They found a man who had been blind from birth, and their question came with an assumption: Who sinned? Him or his parents? Someone is suffering…where’s the direct sin correlation?
Jesus replied with a revision of their worldview. He answered not with a dismissal of suffering or an accusation, but with authority over the problem. He healed the man. This caused problems for everyone.
For the man born blind, this assumption of sin=illness dominated his life. He was not only differently abled, but he paid a social cost for it as one who bears shame on behalf of the community. And as one who bears cost, it was probably easy to come into agreement with the lie that his blindness was a result of his own (or his family’s) shame. At least this way he had an explanation for why he suffered.
For the disciples, I can imagine the last person they wanted to be on a day-to-day basis was the misfortunate blind man. To deal with their own discomfort with the blind man’s suffering, and to avoid awareness of their own precarious position in the universe, the illness=sin paradigm offered them the illusion of power over their fragile existence. If they only kept themselves from sin, they might avoid becoming like this blind man.
This leads to another group that Jesus wildly disrupted. The Pharisees who witness this event seemed inordinately offended by what should be a beautifully celebrated restoration of a man’s sight and his place in community. They just wouldn’t hear of it. Whenever someone is that disproportionately angry, it tells me an area of deep shame has been triggered.
Jesus’ healing of the man born blind angered the religious leaders because it dangerously upset the narrative that kept them in power. Just as Jesus’ challenged the sin-suffering correlation of the man’s blindness by healing him, in the same stroke he dismantled the meritocracy myth that the Pharisees used to deny their own sin or shame and displace it onto others. The man born-blind-now-healed represented an existential threat as one who was previously disenfranchised by their religious power structures and now restored to community contrary to their system. And they made him pay for it with their slander and further disavowal of him.
At the end of the day, Jesus ruins everything. He invited the man born blind to give up a narrative of shame in exchange for one of grief, uncertainty, and love. He invited the disciples to identify with and see as human someone they previously marginalized because of their own fear and shame. And the Pharisees are offered the invitation to set aside their narcissism and power to become like the God they claim to serve—humble and self-sacrificing on behalf of the powerless (spoiler: not many of them take him up on the offer).
I sometimes find myself like the man born blind, looking for an answer as convenient as “whose fault is it?” when I experience suffering. In my own struggle with anxiety, depression, and PTSD, there are times I experience near-crippling loneliness, and physiologically the effects of anxiety and depression mimic a kind of intra-psychic blindness; the world actually looks less colorful to me when I’m highly anxious or going through a dark time. Sometimes I’m like the disciples, when I watch someone else suffering and I can’t be present to their experience because of my own fear and shame. This is part of my privilege as a white person in America. This privilege also makes me a shade closer to the religious leaders of the time.
The question of suffering may be intellectualized (which is its own defense mechanism) as “Why?” But on the deeply embodied level, it is really a question of expiation. Someone has to pay for this suffering. I usually try to make that happen on my own. In some contexts I project that shame and guilt onto others. This makes Jesus’ words and actions all the more brilliant. In the narrative, he validated the man’s experience and he healed him. We read later in the passion narrative that he also took the role of the ultimate scapegoat. That’s hella authority. Guess that authority gives him the license to be the one who catastrophically ruins our shame-based narratives and shepherds us into new ways of life.