A God who dwelt among suffering people

Think of the pandemic, the economic uncertainty, the ongoing corruption… Then, there are the political intrigues and the power struggles.

Aug 13, 2021

By Anil Netto

We live in incredibly dark and uncertain times.

Think of the pandemic, the economic uncertainty, the ongoing corruption… Then, there are the political intrigues and the power struggles.

In a post-truth world, it has also become more difficult for ordinary people to discern the truth in the current climate of censorship, self-censorship and authoritarianism. The economic impact too has been devastating for many.

Some 20 – 30 per cent of the middle class are believed to have now plunged into the low-income group.

Another grim statistic is that 6.3 million or 42 per cent of all Employees Provident Fund contributors have less than RM10,000 in their Account 1, which is meant for their retirement savings. This is far short of the targeted RM240,000 in retirement savings needed for senior citizens to meet basic expenses after their retirement.

That does not include the multitude of informal workers, migrant workers, refugees, and asylum seekers, many of whom have meagre savings, or none. Never mind retirement savings, many of them have a mountain of debt. So many people are out of work and struggling to get by.

Meanwhile, after years of underfunding, our hospitals are struggling to cope with extra patient loads. For far too long, government spending on public healthcare hovered at around two per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) while private healthcare spending accounted for another two per cent. That’s a total of about four point five per cent of GDP.

This is only half of the estimated eight point eight per cent of GDP that OECD countries spent in 2018. Countries such as Switzerland, Germany, France, Sweden and Japan spend around 11 per cent of their GDP on healthcare. Others, like Australia, New Zealand and Korea, spend eight to ten per cent (Health at a Glance, OECD, 2019).

Clearly, these are grim times. Where is God amid all this suffering, we might be tempted to ask. Why does He seem so distant when confronted with the suffering we are experiencing?

Let’s go back in time. Soon after Jesus was born, the entire country was plunged into turmoil after the death of King Herod “the Great”. The level of suffering and uncertainty reached a height as members of his dysfunctional family struggled among themselves to fill the political vacuum.

Amid all this, the land seethed with revolts and reprisals from rebels who were unhappy with the local aristocrats’ collaboration with the Roman emperor, the mega-projects and the heavy taxes the people had to endure.

So intense was the power struggle that Herod’s son Archilaus, after brutally suppressing a protest, travelled to Rome to find out Emperor Augustus where he stood in Herod’s will. But when he arrived in Rome, he was shocked to find that his brother Antipas, his sister Salome, and Salome’s son Antipater, were already there to stake their claim to the territory that Herod had left behind.

While Archilaus was away, the Roman legate in Jerusalem retaliated against protesters pelting Roman soldiers in the Temple precinct. Many of the protesters were burned alive or slaughtered.

Much of the country exploded into violence and rebel leaders like Judas seized the chance to organise resistance fighters against anyone associated with the Roman occupation or the Herodian regime. They even seized weapons from the Herodian building in Sepphoris.

To quell the rebellions, Varus, the regional Roman governor based in Syria, sent in a couple of legions — thousands of troops — to restore order. He also had the help of 1,500 auxiliary troops led by Aretas, king of Arabia. These auxiliary troops moved into rebel areas in Galilee, engaging in an orgy of raping, looting and burning (a ‘scorched earth’ policy of sorts) from village to village as they headed to Sepphoris, not far from Nazareth. Many peasants and farmers lost their homes, their crops and even their lives. The invading troops seemed more interested in looting than in capturing rebels.

Many of the peasants would have been traumatised by this experience just as it took a long while for those who lived through the horrors of World War Two to shake off the nightmare.

Where was God in all this, in the horror unleashed on the people of Galilee — and the grim aftermath? He was right there — watching, learning, observing, growing in stature in wisdom and understanding, as his mother Mary observed.

Augustus reached a decision in late 4BC: on the fate of the lands formerly ruled by Herod: Palestine would be carved up among Herod’s sons — Archilaus would become Herod’s main heir, over Judea, Idumaea and Samaria, plus a few Greek cities along the coast. Not quite a king but an ethnarch, a sort of ruler under probation. Antipas would become tetrarch (ruler of a fourth of the land) of Galilee and Perea while Philip would be tetrarch of Gaulanitis and nearby territories.

Upon his return to Jerusalem, Archilaus took revenge against those who had tried to sabotage his ambitions, engaging in more barbarity, violence and misrule. By 6AD, Emperor Augustus had had enough of Arcihlaus, and turned Judea into a direct Roman province, to be governed by a Roman diplomat or prefect.

So, this period from around 4BC to 6AD coincided with Jesus’ formative years, and Jesus would have been no stranger to the darkness and suffering that had descended upon the land. Violence, power struggles, destruction of farms, hardships, rape, looting and plunder.

Where is God in all this hardship? Why, He is right among us in the suffering of ordinary people, experiencing from close quarters their hopelessness, despair, and suffering.

We have a God who knows what it is like to experience suffering. He dwelt among us — and still does — offering us hope that God is close at hand through it all, lighting up the darkness in the most unexpected places.

May we never lose hope that he will guide us out of the valley of darkness. And may we also help light the path forward.

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