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Suffering Servant, the Circuit Breaker Print E-mail
By Randall Smith   
Wednesday, 18 June 2014

A former student wrote recently asking why sacrifices are necessary. By this I take it she meant ceremonial sacrifices. But let’s presume for a moment that such external ceremonial sacrifices are meant both to signify our devotion to God and to help put it into effect – for example, sacrificing meat on Fridays during Lent both signifies our devotion to God and also helps us discipline our appetites so that we can put into effect that devotion. Understood in this way, asking why we have ceremonial sacrifices is not unrelated to asking about the need for personal sacrifices.

I take it that most people understand why personal sacrifices are necessary. There is no love without sacrifice  without going out of yourself and putting another person’s needs before your own.  When we put the well being of others before our own, we sacrifice something we hold very dear: our own self-interests. When we put others first, we have to displace a very powerful force: our own ego. That sort of displacement is often painful – sometimes very much so – especially when we haven’t practiced it much.

I assign my students the task of asking their parents: “Did raising me ever involve any sacrifice?”  I’ve never had a student yet stupid enough not to know the answer to that question.  Indeed, it’s precisely because they know the answer all too well that they are so frightened of falling in love, getting married, and having children. These things makes life so. . .messy.  What they don’t see yet is that behind the mess, within the mess, is blessedness, beatitude.

And yet it’s one thing to sacrifice for our loved ones, quite another when it involves people we don’t know or like.  And what about sacrifice or suffering for our enemies – for  people who treat us badly?

It is at this point that I introduce my students to the crucial role in society played by a character I call “the circuit breaker.” You could call him “the suffering servant,” but since pious-sounding designations of this sort seem to push the “off” button in my student’s brains, I call him “the circuit breaker.” Here’s what he or she does.

It seems almost a natural law of physics that people, when treated badly, will often “pay it forward.” There is a good sense of that term (and a Kevin Spacey movie), but that’s not what I have in mind.  Rather, I have in mind is precisely the opposite of “paying forward” goodness. 

Let’s say you’re at work and your boss really lays into you for something you’ve done in front of your fellow workers. The problem with such interactions is that there is a crucial disparity in power involved. Your boss can lay into you, but you can’t “pay it back” to him or her because you’d probably lose your job. 

So what do you do?  Often enough, you pay it forward: you treat the clerk at the store with contempt, or your children find themselves taking a tongue lashing for little or no reason.  And then, because they have been dumped on by you, they “pay it forward” to the next powerless person they meet. The clerk treats other customers like the enemy; the family dog gets kicked; a younger sibling gets poked.  And so on and so forth, with each person “paying it forward” in an ever-expanding “vicious circle.” 

One person is connected to many others, and so just as infectious diseases spread readily from person to person, so too degradation and de-humanization can pass from person to person until they have become an unstoppable epidemic.  No one knows who threw the first punch, but the streets and stores and Internet “Comment” sections are filled with brawlers, primed and ready for a fight.

This is pretty much the natural fate of a society of fallen human beings unless someone rises to the occasion and elects to serve as a “circuit breaker”: that is, someone who breaks the vicious cycle by taking the hit, but then refusing to pay it forward to anyone else. He or she either pays it back to the person who has done the original injustice, willing to accept whatever suffering may result from that unequal power struggle, or, resolves at the very least not to pay it forward. I take the slap on the cheek, and I turn and offer the other as well. 

Why do I do that?  First, to show that my dignity has not been lost or diminished. And second, to offer the offender a moment to reconsider and perhaps even to reconcile, upon the realization that your courage and dignity remains, in spite of their anger and injustice. If the “victim” pays forward anything, it will only be a blessing, not the curse or the suffering heaped upon him or her.

Without “the circuit breaker” in a world of fallen human beings, no true community would be possible, and our lives would be (to quote Hobbes): “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” There is, in other words, a necessarily communal dimension of sacrifice – it makes community possible – and it can help us make sense of the communal ceremonials of sacrifice such as we find in the Old Testament.

So too, if God wanted to show us how any sort of human community could possibly take root in this world of fallen beings, how better than by coming in person Himself as one of these paradigmatic “circuit breakers”: one who takes the most outrageous and undeserved suffering upon Himself, but then pays forward only blessings.  He would then have become both the culmination of all those other sacrifices and the key to their true meaning.

Our job, then, would be to become like Him, working each in our own way as little circuit breakers to stop society’s natural vicious cycle, transforming it rather into a virtuous cycle of blessings paid forward.

Randall B. Smith is Professor at the University of St. Thomas, where he has recently been appointed to the Scanlan Chair in Theology.
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Comments (11)Add Comment
written by Myshkin, June 18, 2014
1 Cor 7:28-31 (NAB) reads,

"If you marry, however, you do not sin, nor does an unmarried woman sin if she marries; but such people will experience affliction in their earthly life, and I would like to spare you that.

I tell you, brothers, the time is running out. From now on, let those having wives act as not having them, those weeping as not weeping, those rejoicing as not rejoicing, those buying as not owning, those using the world as not using it fully. For the world in its present form is passing away."

So although, I very much like Dr. Smith's metaphor of "the circuit breaker", let's not get carried away that we have it within our power to "stop society’s natural vicious cycle, transforming it rather into a virtuous cycle of blessings paid forward." We CAN make a difference, evangelizing through our words and deeds, but we cannot stop the dissolution of our evil society as the just consequence of human sinfulness.

Indeed, it was the goal of Pelagius that, in imitation of Jesus, we could redeem the world by doing good deeds. To him it made perfect sense: if we all did good, I.e., "paid it forward", we could turn our evil society around. Unfortunately, the problem of evil is much deeper than this ... Thank God that "the world in its present form is passing away."
written by Ryan, June 18, 2014
I literally just had a difficult time with a boss yesterday, so being led to read this piece this morning was divinely inspired. Thanks!
written by schm0e, June 18, 2014
Let's get real with the example. It isn't really a sacrifice unless it's in response to your boss "laying into you" for something HE did. Or cheating you out of your pay. Or giving your job to an HB1 or an illegal alien. Or sleeping with your wife. Or how about this one -- an adult, maybe even a clergyman, who has had sex with your child?

If there is an effective analogy, say a model in nature, of this principle (and I myself at this point doubt it but wdik?) I think "lightning rod" or "short circuit" might be a better one, because the current is being redirected into the ground, where it basically dies.

Is there a saint for this?
written by Jack,CT, June 18, 2014
Dr Smith,
How True!
Find myself thinking of the "Ways I payed it forward"

I love this Article and will start thinking about my
own "Internal Breaker"!
written by william manley, June 18, 2014
The brilliance of this essay is in its concise distillation of Christ's mission and its application to everyman. Bravo. Do your students realize their good fortune in having you as their professor?
written by Randall B. Smith, June 18, 2014
The Author Replies:

Dear Myshkin, it is one of the seemingly paradoxical parts of our faith, which embraces the value of both nature and grace, not solely the one or the other, that when one is discussing personal moral reform, one can seem to be ignoring grace. By the same token, when one is glorifying God's grace and its marvelous effects in human life, one can seem to be implying that personal moral reform is unimportant or unnecessary --- that "piety" is all that is required.

Let us both agree, then, that both are important --- that as St. Thomas says: "Grace does not violate nature, but perfects it."

Granted, the first crucial step is always God's, who sends His Spirit so that "charity may be spread abroad in our hearts." We love, as the first letter of St. John tells us, "because God has loved us first."

And yet God does not work our sanctification in us without us. We must cooperate with God's grace. We are creatures of intellect. Thus we can begin to understand the nature of our sinfulness and take steps to rectify our behavior. As for the state of our souls, for that we must simply pray and receive the sacraments as often as possible. These two steps, prayer and moral reform, are not, I think, mutually exclusive.

As for selling any false utopian promises, I take it that the readers of this site are pretty clear on the fact that our salvation isn't going to be achieved in this world, and certainly isn't going to be achieved through our own actions. But as you say, we do have our part to play. So perhaps we should get to it and start small, with baby steps, resolving not to "pay forward" the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune that the world throws at us. Agreed?
written by mtngrl, June 18, 2014
The point about disparity in power is very insightful. This is what makes children, the elderly, and the differently-abled so vulnerable.
written by Elizabeth Sheehy, June 18, 2014
St Therese of the Child Jesus talks about doing small things with great love. Blessed Mother Theresa of Calcutta echoes this.
As parent to a mentally ill person, I live this out on a daily basis. HE does also, coping with ME!

Your "circut breaker" analogy is very good. I think of it more as a diverter, however - I'm redirecting the flow; adding my mite to Christ's sacrifice for the sake of the Kingdom.

To Jesus thru Mary...Totus Tuus
written by Myshkin, June 18, 2014
@ Dr. Smith,
I was not in any way accusing you of Pelagianism or semi-Pelagianism. In terms of plain doctrine I know from past columns you have an unwaveringly orthodox understanding of nature and grace. My critique was solely that the **rhetoric** of a few sentences would lead someone who was reading this column with no deeper knowledge to the conclusion that by simply being a "circuit breaker" all the deep-set-evil vices of human society could be transformed into healthy, happy, indeed blessed virtues. Or as you hyperbolically expressed it, as we do "Our job ... to become like Him" we can "stop society’s natural vicious cycle, transforming it rather into a virtuous cycle of blessings paid forward." This rhetoric has an unmistakable Pelagian ring to it.

Rather, our "circuit breaker" actions resemble a volunteer fire department, pulling people from a burning building using tools we didn't make ourselves, but that we know how to use from experience ... or if you wish a more venerable example, rescuing people from a shipwreck or a raging battlefield. The house is on fire and will never be good, the ship is wrecked and will never sail, the war is on and cannot be made into peace until the King rides forth ... Yes, we CAN do a little good, but nothing to stop the house burning, the ship sinking, or the battle raging... They remain starkly the realm of sin and death ... which is passing away ...
written by Charles Bellinger, June 18, 2014
This is one of the best summaries I've ever read of Rene Girard's interpretation of the centrality of Christ in human history.
written by Paul, June 18, 2014
"turning the other cheek"

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