In a radio interview this week, an Alabama pastor in a small suburb of Birmingham articulated for the interviewer his rationale for – reluctantly – voting for Roy Moore. While he would not try to convince others of his own views on abortion, he asked the interviewer to imagine the choice from his perspective: “Imagine someone asks you to choose between a candidate who has been accused of sexual assault – multiple times – and a candidate who supports the murder of millions of people. Who would you choose?” He attempted to communicate the gravity of the choice to someone who might not agree with his position on abortion.

Meanwhile, other Republicans and Roy Moore supporters, including many women, question why the women accusing Moore have not come forward sooner. “Why wait forty years?” they ask. Especially given the public offices he has previously held in Alabama. They are suspicious. “Makes you think somebody might be paying them to speak out now.”

For these particular Christians who oppose abortion, we have, on the one hand, a suffering that is devastatingly obvious (to them): the death of millions of innocent babies. We have, on the other hand, a suffering that has been cloaked in silence for decades: the (alleged) suffering of Moore’s accusers.

It is a broadly human trait, I believe, to see suffering only where we have been trained to see it, and to see it most clearly in those with whom we easily identify. And by “a human trait,” I mean the trait of a broken humanity. But many white evangelicals seem to have developed a particular filter in this area, one that blinds them to suffering that is not glaringly obvious or that is endured by those with whom they have trouble identifying. In other words, suffering that is hidden.[1]

Pain and injustice suffered in silence goes unrecognized and unacknowledged. We mistakenly interpret the silence as a sign that the person is not really suffering or that the pain is not “that bad.” When those in pain do finally speak, we blame them for the years of silence, rather than asking ourselves why they never felt safe bringing their hurt to us. We neglect to ask, “Who (or what) silenced them?”

But silence and pain go hand in hand. Elaine Scarry makes this point regarding physical suffering in her influential book The Body in Pain:

Physical pain does not simply resist language but actively destroys it, bringing about an immediate reversion to a state anterior to language, to the sounds and cries a human being makes before language is learned.[2]

While physical pain may be unique or at least extreme in its reducing us to pre-linguistic cries, all suffering is to some degree incommunicable. What is most present to me – my suffering – is invisible and unfelt to another, even if I try to communicate it. The very thing I cannot escape is that which the person next to me struggles to acknowledge and believe. Scarry, again:

For the person whose pain it is, it is “effortlessly” grasped (that is, even with the most heroic effort it cannot not be grasped); while for the person outside the sufferer’s body, what is “effortless” is not grasping it (it is easy to remain wholly unaware of its existence; even with effort, one may remain in doubt about its existence or may retain the astonishing freedom of denying its existence…) So, for the person in pain, so incontestably and unnegotiably present is it that “having pain” may come to be thought of as the most vibrant example of what it is to “have certainty,” while for the other person it is so elusive that “hearing about pain” may exist as the primary model of what it is “to have doubt.”[3]

So we doubt the victims of sexual harassment and assault because the suffering they endure lies in the shadows. The interactions and attacks that have caused their pain normally happen behind closed doors, with few or no eyewitnesses. The trauma and effects they suffer after the fact are shared openly with few trusted confidants, if any, thanks to the guilt and shame that usually follow – not to mention intimidation and threats from the perpetrator.

Meanwhile, the shame brought on the accused – in recent days, all high profile men – is more visible, even when the accusations are denied or consequences are late in coming.

In other words, the “suffering” experienced by the perpetrators – loss of job or position, distancing of friends and colleagues, public shaming – is more visible to us and easier to acknowledge because they have power. With power comes visibility. With power comes the right to be heard. But it is that very power that allowed them to assault, abuse, and harass in the first place.

The suffering of the victims, however, even if made public, remains veiled in silence and hiddenness. This is in part due to the nature of the events causing hurt, but also due to the weak and vulnerable position (relatively speaking) of most victims – due to gender, age, social status, or job position. The same lack of power that made them vulnerable in the first place makes their suffering easier for us to ignore or at least downplay. Their pain remains invisible to us.

We can see a similar dynamic at work in a host of current social and political issues. We see it when news of a terrorist attack in Europe spreads like wildfire while a vicious attack in a place like Egypt goes underreported. We see it in those who feel sorrow and anger on behalf of police officers they think are being criticized unjustly, but who feel only numbness at the sight of an unarmed black man being shot to death. We see it when black men with some social power (NFL players) seek to make visible the hidden pain of their brothers and sisters, only to be shouted down by those who prefer to talk about the sacrifice and suffering of soldiers.

In this season of Advent, we remember and await anew One who entered humanity via hidden places: hidden in a poor unwed mother’s womb, birthed in a stable among animals, raised among a conquered people. In his ministry Jesus elevated the hidden suffering of the weak and humble. In his death he submitted to shameful execution as a criminal (whose pain is more silenced and less deserving of sympathy than a criminal’s?), abandoned by his friends and seemingly by God himself. He endured his suffering silently, as so many in our country have and continue to do. And just as God vindicated him in raising him up and giving him new life, so he will give new life to those enduring their pain in the shadows. But woe to those who contribute to or ignore that suffering in the meantime:

Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”[4]

[1] I can imagine that many would make an argument for opposing abortion in similar terms – that it is a suffering “silenced” and unacknowledged by our society – and that by opposing it they are seeking to highlight suffering that would otherwise go unseen. This actually proves my point: certain sectors of our society are trained not to see the suffering associated with abortion, while white evangelicals have been formed not to see other kinds of suffering.

[2] Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain: The making and unmaking of the world, (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1985), p. 4.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Matt 24:44-46

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