In her haunting story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” Ursula LeGuin describes a city that is a kind of utopia. Omelas is beautiful; set by the seashore and lush with trees, graced with harmonious architecture that delights the eye while it fosters community among its inhabitants. Life there is good: food is plentiful; the streets are peaceful; the pace of life is moderate; and days of work are punctuated with festivals which gather all in the city, young and old, for dancing and music and athletic competition and mutual joy.
In all this beauty, there is but one blemish. When they are in the last years of their childhood, each resident of Omelas is told of a room in the heart of the city. There, in darkness and in filth, a single child dwells in utter squalor and isolation, in a closet among mops and brooms, sitting in its own ordure. Each resident of Omelas knows that the child’s suffering is the price of the flourishing of the city, and of their own joy. Some come to see the child; most prefer not to. But among those who go to see, a few — barely a handful — do something astonishing: they choose to leave Omelas. LeGuin writes, “They leave Omelas, they walk ahead into the darkness, and they do not look back. The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness. I cannot describe it at all. It is possible that it does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.”
LeGuin’s story captures a fundamental truth, or, rather, two: That the price of our societies is too often the suffering of others, and that this condition is, or should be, intolerable to us. Underneath those two statements is a third: Societies based upon suffering repel those who are good. Outside the pages of fiction, of course, it would be difficult to imagine a society in which only one person suffers. (In this is revealed the poverty of our collective imagination.) But when poverty and violence become endemic; when the rich profit from the desperation of the poor; when people lack access to clean water (in the 21st century!) or work that affords them dignity; when agents of the state gun down innocent men, women, and children on the streets and go unpunished; and when it becomes clear that those with “mass and majesty”* in a society accept these things as the price of their own comfort; and when the struggle to change these conditions has proven utterly futile; then people with courage and intelligence and grit and gumption pick themselves up and head toward other societies, places which hold out hope of a better life, or seem to.
For Christ, too, the suffering of even one person was intolerable, but he did not walk away. He went towards it, embraced it, took it upon himself and wore it like a cherished garment. He bore it all to the place of utter desolation, and then he went into the dark room and he sat in the place of abandonment and he bowed his head and submitted to it all. He went to the room of suffering we had created for one another, and he took our place there. St. Augustine writes, “Coming from another realm, what did he find here other than that which abounds here: struggles, sorrows, and death, for this is what you have here, what abounds here. He ate with you of what abounded in the poor dwelling of your misery. And he invited you to his own splendid table, the table of heaven, the table of the angels, where he himself is the bread.” (Sermon 231,5)
Christ’s action has consequences for us beyond even our salvation. The old language of Book of Common Prayer states that he “made there, by his one oblation of himself once offered, a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world.” One oblation, once offered, full, perfect, and sufficient. Those words were written to address a theological controversy, but they carry moral weight. He allowed us to inflict all our suffering on him so that we would not inflict it on one another. Not again. Not ever. Not in Haiti. Not in El Salvador. Not in Fergusson. Not in Flint. Because those suffering children, those crucified peoples? Christ lives in them, closer than their breath.
Just as he does in us, when we go to the place of pain and lift one another down from the cross.
* Auden, “The Shield of Achilles.”
The image at the end is by Ruth Councell.
The title is taken from Jon Sobrino.