Suffering, Connection, and the "wider currents of history"


I rarely find much that inspires me when I read the Baton Rouge Advocate, but, this morning, I was struck by at least part of the main editorial, “Good Friday’s story of pain and promise,” which describes this day as, “the most solemn day in the Christian church,” and “an occasion to reflect on the suffering that often touches the human experience, and how that suffering connects us with each other – and with the wider currents of history.”

I was raised in a Southern Baptist household and, while most of my family remains religious, I have come to a different understanding about meaning making, the soul, and our place in the cosmos. I am certainly not here to debate that question, just to observe that I think, in its breadth, that sentence from the editorial captures a lot of my own personal ethos and motivation as a historian.

The painting I shared, El Expolio [The Disrobing of Christ], has many layers of meaning. Its precise history is that a painter known as El Greco was commissioned in the late 1570s to create the image for a space in the sacristy of the Cathedral at Toledo, Spain. The painting portrays the moment just before Jesus is stripped of his clothing in preparation for crucifixion.

Despite the painting’s vivid portrayals, the painter had a number of disagreements with the church authorities about the details of the composition (imagine that!) and, in the end, they paid him only about a third of what they had promised. Nevertheless, historically speaking at least, El Greco succeeded since El Expolio is widely considered a masterwork (seeing it in situ is one of the things on my post-Covid bucket list).

My own interest in the painting began, oddly, in the research room of the National Archives II near College Park, Maryland. I was researching the life of a man named Clay Shaw, the only person ever charged and tried in one of the myriad conspiracies alleged in the assassination of John F. Kennedy. My forthcoming book Cruising for Conspirators, explores his case in detail.

For now I would say that I found a postcard reproduction of El Expolio in Shaw’s personal files from 1966, the year before his widely publicized arrest. The postcard is nestled incongruously among his otherwise drab personal papers from that year. I’ll never know for certain what Shaw saw in that painting, but whatever the scholarly, religious, or personal reaction he might have had to it, the truth is the image very nearly throbs with a dark, foreboding energy more than four centuries after its creation.

During his 1969 trial Shaw described himself repeatedly to a friendly reporter as feeling like a spring lamb. That vexed self-description has a lot of freighted meaning, since the fate of gamboling spring lambs is often that they wind up reduced to dismembered chops and legs served on fine china and eaten unreflectively for Easter luncheons.

I think about the cool, subliminal sarcasm involved in Shaw describing himself that way. He was a person of many layers and, in meaningful ways, of dual identities – those he adopted for himself and those that have been projected on to him in the years since.

I was drawn to Shaw as a historical subject for the same reason I am typically drawn to historical subjects – to people who I think have been misunderstood or mischaracterized in ways that seem unfair and unenlightened to me. We shall see what you, dear reader, make of my arguments about Shaw as a historical subject, but, what I will say, is that I ultimately came to identify with him as a person who suffered a great deal of physical pain in the final year or so of his life. Although I suppose it’s maudlin to say so, experiences of suffering (loss or pain) ARE one of those links that connect us viscerally to other people in the past and present. Some of my most vivid memories are of loss or of physical pain, and not just my own, but that of other people and animals I have known and loved.

Having lived through this plague year, I think we all have felt empathy for the pain of others even as we have feared those same outcomes for ourselves or those we love. We have seen in the slow, drawn out, but unquestionably brutal murder of George Floyd, something about the dark vagaries of police power (Roman centurions anyone?), the vulnerability of even the strongest bodies to the dark forces of unexamined hate or blandly enacted cruelty (most of American history anyone?). We’ve seen it, too, in grown men arbitrarily slapping or stomping or kicking, sometimes even shooting people – often women – of Asian descent, telling them to go back home. You can think of your own long list of the kinds of cruelties humans mete out to each other for all kinds of banal reasons. And, as a secular citizen, I’m not sure how much of that I think is forgivable. As a historian, however, I feel virtually certain that pain – natural or artificially-imposed – will always be with us.

So, as I think those dark and dour thoughts on this sunny but bracingly cold morning, I have a hard time thinking of it as a Good Friday. And yet, it is, because those of us who don’t kick, or hit, or choke, or curse, or who try, fail, but keep trying not oppress each other CAN take this weekend for reflection; not just about the power of the Christian story as a place to locate redemption, but to understand that even the bleakest historical episodes have the potential to be followed by a surprising twist, in which something like a miracle with a lot of hope in its hands might be lurking around the corner – something that shines a brighter light on a sometimes too-dark set of realities.

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