• "The gassing of Syrian children. The bombing of a Coptic Church in Egypt. The mudslide in Colombia. These are events really are rightly described as ‘tragic’." (newzulu.com/AAP Image/NEWZULU/ Msallam Abdalbaset)Source: newzulu.com/AAP Image/NEWZULU/ Msallam Abdalbaset
With so much happening around us, how do we even start to comprehend the enormity of ‘tragic circumstances’ across the world? Anglican minister, Dr Michael Jensen, explains what he sees as the flipside of tragedy: human compassion.
By
Dr Michael Jensen, St Mark's Anglican Church Darling Point

13 Apr 2017 - 4:50 PM  UPDATED 13 Apr 2017 - 4:50 PM

The word ‘tragedy’ did always seem out of place when it was sung in falsetto by the Bee Gees. Is it really a tragedy ‘when the feeling’s gone and you can’t go on’ – or is just a bad romantic break-up?

And, while it was sad when Ian Thorpe flopped into the pool at the Australian swimming trials in 2004, John Howard was surely overstating it when he called it a ‘tragedy’.

We can perhaps forgive them that, but we need the word ‘tragedy’ back from disco music, and Prime Ministers. There are plenty of things in the world we confront daily that are actually truly tragic.

The gassing of Syrian children. The bombing of a Coptic Church in Egypt. The mudslide in Colombia.

These are events really are rightly described as ‘tragic’. They remind us that calamity happens to human beings. We are vulnerable creatures, with a finite life span. Whatever unknown force guides the universe – whether you call it fate, or chance, or destiny, or karma, or even God – we are subject to it.

The gassing of Syrian children. The bombing of a Coptic Church in Egypt. The mudslide in Colombia. These are events really are rightly described as ‘tragic’.

At the same time, as a race we human beings make much of our own mess. We are not simply limited; we are error-prone. We cannot blame karma, fate, a higher spirit, God, or whoever, for the violent deaths in the Middle East. Nor should we fail to notice that so-called ‘natural disasters’ do their worst where government corruption and inaction on climate change is most obvious.

Tragedy tells us that human beings as a whole are both victims and perpetrators. We stare with shock at the suffering of others and our own, but the collective human race also bears some responsibility for it.

Even when there is a heinous act committed by a psychopath or a terrorist, we still feel as human beings in some measure that we share in the conditions that created the villainy.

The best tragedians have realised this. In Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, the protagonist unwittingly kills his father and marries his mother. This was all apparently described in a prophecy before he was born. And yet, he is also the responsible agent of his own demise. We feel sorry for him as a victim, but we also can see that he has acted freely at every point.

But what of the story of Good Friday? You don’t have to be a Christian, or religious at all, to find it a powerful drama with a message that human communities still need to hear.

In Shakespeare’s King Lear, likewise, we can feel sorry for the old king who is treated with such callous disregard by his ungrateful daughters. But he is also a vain old fool. Gloucester complains: "As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods; they kill us for their sport…”

You can’t help feeling he’s hiding half the truth: human beings aren’t simply there to be tortured for fun by the heavens. Sometimes we are simply victims. But in many instances, we are the authors of our own tragedies, or we share in causing those of other people.    

Dramatists put tragedies on stage because they felt that the depiction of human suffering would help us to understand this paradox. But they also hoped that watching a tragedy unfold on stage would help us to see that suffering can be ennobling.

Tragedy is not sadistic, as if Oedipus plucking out his eyes is what we’ve come to see. We aren’t meant to enjoy the pain. We are meant to be comforted that even amid unbearable suffering, human meaning is not destroyed.

But what of the story of Good Friday? You don’t have to be a Christian, or religious at all, to find it a powerful drama with a message that human communities still need to hear.

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Its tragic elements are obvious. As the story is told, Jesus is the victim of a combination, sadly familiar to the modern world, of religious hypocrisy, a mob mentality, and bureaucratic indifference. Pontius Pilate, called by the 1st Century Jewish writer Philo a man of "vindictiveness and furious temper", has him killed simply to keep the peace. It’s a death of convenience. He is the scapegoat for the anxiety in the society of his day – the one who must be expelled from the body politic in order to guarantee the power of those in charge, and to quell the angry mob.

He is lanced like a boil.

The Easter myth is tragic. But the story is more than a tragedy. The central figure of the story, Jesus of Nazareth is neither hapless victim of the system, nor somehow to blame for his own death because of some flaw in his character.

The Easter myth is tragic.

Two aspects of the story stand out. The first is that the main character is always depicted as going willingly to his death. This was not from some death wish, or because he was suicidal. On the contrary, that this act clearly terrified him. But, history tells us, despite the machinations of the authorities, he did not seek to escape.

Why? This is the second thing. He saw – and some others saw – his dying as a death for others. He offered his life, as the story is told, as a gift to others – even those who were his enemies, those who crucified him. Whether it actually succeeded as an act of love is of course a matter of interpretation. But whatever the case, the story opens up the possibility of a different response to tragic events.

And here’s the dimension that Good Friday adds in the face of the tragedy-stricken world, no matter whether you have spiritual leanings or none at all. It’s an invitation to all human beings, whatever their beliefs, not to remain as passive bystanders to the slaughter of the innocents we see on the television and in current world events, nor to simply submit to the tragedies that befall us, but to see ourselves as gifts that we may give, whether in small ways or large, for the sake of others.

We need to respond to tragedy in our world by going beyond tragedy, to compassionate action. It’s vital to grieve with those who mourn. The tears must flow. But it’s also crucial to recognise the possibility beyond tragedy, in the life that we have been given, for remarkable acts of love.

We need to respond to tragedy in our world by going beyond tragedy, to compassionate action.

To respond to tragedy with love will mean giving up our natural tendency to blame the victims (‘they must’ve deserved it’) and instead thinking creatively and generously – and courageously - about what can be done for those who suffer. What do you have that others need?

I think of the way that various community groups in Sydney are preparing to welcome Syrian refugees with food, shelter, clothing, education, and all the help they need to start again. Or of the way a young teacher than I know gave up her career in a prestigious Sydney school in order to provide teacher education in Nepal. Or of the way another woman I know, a busy lawyer, spends her spare time sitting with the homeless.

These are Easter-shaped acts; and there’s opportunity for us all to do them everywhere we look. 

Dr Michael Jensen is an author and the rector of St Mark’s Anglican Church Darling Point. 

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