Schadenfreude, German word that comes from two words that literally mean “harm-joy,” is that certain pleasure one feels at the misfortune of others.
Do Christians feel this? Take a little look at FB or nearly any other social media outlet and it is there. Just the other day, I saw Christians reveling that an earthquake damaged some Buddhist monuments. A lot of “LIKES” from Christians. Presumably, they felt that God had intentionally decided to send an earthquake just to damage these structures, and add misery to their lives. Others seem so thrilled whenever anything bad happens to Islamists or political candidates on “the other side.” Right now it seems like so many want to connect disasters with homosexuality. Apparently, some countries are not mistreating homosexuals enough, so God is hitting them with natural disasters— or so the logic of some goes.
Christians are not alone in this. I remember 15 years ago, after the 9/11 attack on the twin towers, there was video of people celebrating in Gaza. A few days later, the revelry died down considerably, as many took time to reflect that this was not a blow against a political institution, but against fathers, mothers, children… fellow human beings. But my concern is not about how other people reconcile schadenfreude, but Christians. So, returning to 9/11, I recall a Christian friend of mine saying to me,
“I know I should feel sorry that so many people died in 9/11. But it happened in New York City, so most of them support abortion. I cannot feel bad what happened to them.”
Perhaps if he pictured them as lost sheep sought by Jesus, created by God in His own image rather than as “pro-choicers,” maybe he could find room for some empathy.
There is, actually, a positive side to schadenfreude. It is REAL and it is HUMAN. We are social beings who naturally create groupings of US versus THEM. We of a nature “love our friends and hate our enemies.” Facing that reality is not so bad, rather than pasting on a fake smile, and embrace the anemic virtue of “tolerance.” Schadenfreude could be said to be human nature. But as Ruth Sayer (played by Katherine Hepburn) said in the movie The African Queen, “Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put in this world to rise above.”
Certainly reveling in schadenfreude is not something for Christians to do. We should “weep with those who weep” rather than “laugh at those who weep.” If we are to do unto others as we would have them do unto us,” and we are to “love our enemies;” presumably we should also desire God’s mercy for those that we are tempted to be unmerciful to.
Frankly, when it comes to natural disasters, or even human-driven evils, it is questionable that we should presume them as God’s judgments anyway. The doctrines of Common Grace as well as the Fall (“Common ‘Curse'”) suggests that just as the rain falls on the just and the unjust, disasters cannot always be moralized or justified.
Jesus said that we should not judge… or at least not be quick to judge. You may think that Jesus call not to judge would not apply to disasters, but consider this passage.
At that time, some of those present told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. 2To this He replied, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered this fate? 3No, I tell you. But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Luke 13:1-3
At the very least, Jesus discouraged judging in favor of introspection. Related to this, consider the broader passage on judging:
“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.
“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye. Matthew 7:1-5
I would suggest that one should not be quick to moralize the misfortunes of others; and even more so if one is not willing to consider one’s own misfortunes as being due to one’s own misdeeds. A better option is to help those in need.
Christian witness is always stronger when seen in terms of a helping hand rather than a pointing finger.