Conflicting Moral Imaginations: Job, His Friends, and Suffering, Part 4

If you haven’t been reading this series of posts, then this one might still be interesting.  I try to interact with popular culture and the recent Batman movie’s portrayal of suffering.

Recently on the History Channel, there has been a television show entitled, Batman Unmasked: the Psychology of the Dark Knight. Various psychologists and experts debate the response to suffering and trauma in the fictional life of Bruce Wayne, the alter-ego of Batman. Bruce Wayne, as a child, experienced the death of his mother and father before his eyes. Somehow, as a result of that tragedy, he focused his life and became a vigilante of sorts with a desire to channel his fears and suffering into a positive good. He thus becomes Batman, and takes on the role of defending Gotham, the city where his parents were killed.

On the other hand, this special also portrays the Joker, Batman’s archenemy. The Joker too has experienced great suffering. In various versions of his origin in the Batman comics, the Joker is portrayed as someone who was unjustly horribly disfigured and driven insane. However the Joker’s response is quite different than Batman’s. Taking a seemingly opposite approach to Batman’s teleological view of suffering as something that builds character, the Joker reasons that if life is unpredictable and characterized by suffering, then life is utterly meaningless.

The modern moral imagination regarding suffering is the response of Batman. Many people tend to idealize suffering in such a way as to lift up the teleological “benefits,” at the expense of fully understanding the difficulty of those who suffer. For most of us, suffering is only tolerable if it makes us better people. Suffering is acceptable because it supposedly makes us stronger, holier, or wiser. Strangely enough, most of us seem to agree with Job’s friends!

In that version of understanding suffering, it is either caused by something or intended for something. The idea that suffering could be pointless or meaningless, which Job seems to embrace, is a moral imagination that is demonized and parodied in the character of the Joker. In the popular moral imagination of our day, and perhaps of Job’s day, if suffering is meaningless or pointless then life is meaningless as well. In that way of imagining reality, insanity and destruction are the only possible outcomes.

Job’s position then, offers a totally different way of looking at the world than common wisdom, both in his day and in ours. In Job’s moral imagination, the meaninglessness and pointlessness of suffering refuses to suggest that life itself is meaningless. Instead, it suggests that something is utterly wrong. In the face of that “wrong-ness,” those who suffer unjustly are called to bear witness and give testimony to the reality of their experience.