The most “viral” suffering-for-charity stunt since the Middle Ages…  but no one wants to acknowledge its spiritual roots.

Stripped to its essence, the “Ice Bucket Challenge” works like this: You suffer the unpleasantness of having ice water poured over you, or you donate $100 to ALS research. (Or you’re a wuss who failed the Challenge.) The challenge and the suffering become transmissible when others can see what you’ve suffered, i.e., what you’re challenging them to do. Modern electronic “social media” makes that easy, of course—so easy that all this dunking and donating has gone viral. Even President Obama, nudged by celebrities including LeBron James and Justin Bieber, recently felt obliged to make a donation.

Where did this bizarre behavior—this public, self-inflicted discomfort, linked to charity—come from? Is it, as some have complained, the latest variant of web-mediated narcissism? Of empty “slacktivism”?

Well, yeah, it is probably both of those things.

But as I wrote here four years ago, in a post titled “My Sweat For Your Sins,” there is a lot more to this suffering-for-charity behavior than meets the eye.

First of all, this type of behavior is very common, although we usually see it in forms that are less dramatic and a bit less individualized than ice water dunkings. On any given weekend in the Western world there are hundreds if not thousands of 10K races, swim-a-thons, bike-a-thons and other events that require a modicum of suffering from participants, and that also aim to raise money and awareness for some worthy cause.

If these events were just about raising money and awareness, the organizers could simply put up a big, flashing sign by the road, with a bucket for donations. That is to say, they could call attention to their cause in ways that don’t require volunteers to endure something unpleasant. Certainly there are other categories of charity event that don’t feature suffering: at a charity ball, for example, would-be donors are asked to dine, dance, booze, schmooze and generally enjoy themselves, and there is no element of physical suffering (other than the hangover). But charity events that involve long runs and swims or bike rides, or ice water dunkings, are in a category by themselves. Their charitableness is expressed at least partly through public suffering, which should clue us in to the underlying logic.

That logic is the ancient logic of sacrifice—the crux, so to speak, of early Christianity, which obviously was a major source of our modern Western culture. Aside from providing Christianity with its central symbol and narrative, the concept of sacrifice eventually gave rise, in medieval Europe, to popular displays of self-inflicted suffering for charity.

One of these was the walkathon known as the pilgrimage. Participants—pilgrims—typically would spend weeks or months in arduous travel to places of special religious significance. Wealthy people who were too busy or too soft to undertake these journeys were sometimes called upon to sponsor them. The payoff, as Christians then saw it, was a spiritual boost not only to the pilgrims and their sponsors but also to the friends and loved ones for whom the pilgrims offered prayers as they suffered.

The medieval practice of public self-flagellation also bears a strong resemblance to our modern suffering-for-charity stunts. It appears to have originated with certain monastic orders, who at times would emerge from their cloisters and parade through nearby towns, publicly scourging themselves and streaming with blood.

At first these may have been little more than public relations exercises. Monks were often resented by townsfolk for their ample landholdings and their well-fed, alms-funded lives. I suppose that for much the same reason, our modern celebrities and billionaires have fallen over themselves to do the ice bucket stunt.

However, in the late Middle Ages the monastic displays of self-flagellation turned into a popular movement that, despite the lack of electronic or even printed media, went viral. According to the historian Norman Cohn in his book The Pursuit of the Millenium, cults of flagellants roved from town to town and were popularly seen “not simply as penitents who were atoning for their own sins but as martyrs who were taking upon themselves the sins of the world…” The belief that the sins of the world had brought the deadly pandemic known as the Black Death made the flagellants’ public service seem especially important, and certainly worth paying for. “It became a privilege to welcome and assist such people,” wrote Cohn. Ordinary folk donated to the flagellants, and “even the urban authorities drew freely upon public funds” to do the same.

Why does this historical background remain unspoken—even unspeakable—when we participate in modern suffering-for-charity challenges? Why does the mainstream media (in the West) resolutely avert its eyes from the obvious spiritual origins of these behaviors?

Perhaps because acknowledging those origins would mean admitting that the logic of these challenges is also spiritual, even magical: One person’s suffering is held to be a service of definite value to others, interchangeable with money ($100 = one ice-water dunking). And of course such a spiritual logic does not compute in our “scientific” world.

I also suspect that those in media who get all warm and weepy when they read stories about these charity challenges just don’t want to see them deconstructed with cold logic.

Perhaps it even verges on political incorrectness these days to propose an ancient root for a modern behavior—because that would contradict the dogma that we are blank slates at birth.

But I’d bet that any older Catholic—or for that matter any practitioner of Islam, a religion that still prominently features pilgrimages—would understand my argument in a heartbeat.

In any case it never ceases to amaze me that ostensibly non-religious people in the West continue to participate enthusiastically in these stunts, while refusing to acknowledge their implicit spiritual meaning—just as they still light candles (symbolic burnt offerings) and lay flowers (to ensure rebirth), and offer the bereaved their “thoughts and prayers” (direct pleadings with God).

They are like someone who has lost a limb, but can’t help behaving, from old habit, as if it were still there.


P.S. See further discussions here and here.