Sunday, December 16, 2012

A Counter-Question In The Face Of Evil

So yesterday, I was on my way home from my very long day.  Weekend All Things Considered was on the radio, and the host was interviewing Eugene Peterson.  The first question asked is the one that, to me, seems to come most often from people who have not been brought up within any religious tradition: How do you maintain your faith in the face of an event like this?  This particular question is really nothing more than a kissing cousin to the classic expression of theodicy: How is it possible for evil to exist in a world governed by an all powerful, loving God?

It's been forty-eight hours or so since we became aware that, as horrible as things might be in Newtown, the reality was far worse.  If your Facebook feed (I don't hang out on Twitter, but I guess it's probably as bad there) is like mine, the only real topic of conversation is what happened on Friday.  We are, all of us, grieving.  Some of us, perhaps many, feel helpless in the face of mass death that is simultaneously so close yet so far away.  Some of us, perhaps many, are enraged without finding a proper target for our anger.  Many people are taking refuge in the comforting words and images that salve their wounded hearts.  To be honest, with the exception of the terrorist attacks of 2001, I cannot remember an event that has so gripped the emotional and spiritual lives of the nation the way the Newtown mass killing has.

And always, of course, is the search for meaning.  I know I'm rare in that I long ago stopped looking for "meaning" in events, good or bad.  What happened, happened.  In this case, what would meaning look like, beyond perhaps a reminder that evil comes in many guises, including great, huge walloping blows about our souls and hearts, leaving us gasping for air.

The theodicy question is, I suppose, fair enough.  For folks, whether within the Church or not, the claims of Divine sovereignty and overflowing love can ring particularly hollow in the silence that follows horror of such enormity.  And we should be fair enough to remind ourselves it isn't just Newtown, either, lest we privilege too much our own grief in the face of loss.  At this moment, perhaps, we should remind ourselves of the terrible loss of life in Haiti due to an earthquake, an event that was followed by a terrible plague; the death toll from the earthquake alone was astronomical.  The plague continued to kill those left behind, and the people of that land are still waiting for anything resembling a normal life.  Even as I write this, a Pacific typhoon bears down on Fiji having wreaked havoc through Somoa.  The cry of those who suffer, whether that suffering is the result of a planet that seems apathetic to human life or the result of human action, is one to which we should give heed.

Giving an ear, however, does not mean to privilege that cry.  For all those who demand from God a resolution of pain, whether from heedless nature or the evil, murderous intent of our fellow human beings, I do believe the answer from God is a simple counter-question: Why do you permit it?

God isn't a magician.  God isn't a wizard, able to wave a wand and cure the evil that lurks within all of us.  God doesn't have a button to push to help people get safely out of the way of dangerous weather or other natural phenomena.  While the earthquake that struck Haiti was little different than earthquakes that hit places as varied as Turkey, Japan, the United States, and Chile.  Haiti, however, is a land ravaged by other, all too human evils, leaving the people with fewer resources to protect themselves from the ravages of nature.  It isn't too hard to figure out that the very first Republic governed by people of African descent in the Western Hemisphere would face obstacles no other country would face - not only neo-colonial exploitation that stripped much of the natural beauty and resources from a once-beautiful and rich land, but the added burden of white supremacy that, by turns, withheld help or forced alien-supported rulers who stole and pillaged while others turned deaf ears to the suffering of the people.  Why does Haiti suffer, God asks us, when we all have the power to relieve that suffering and prevent any repeat in the future?  Don't blame me, God might well say, when all of you have done far too little to help Haiti and the Haitian people mitigate the terrors from a world that runs on its on scale.

As with Haiti, so, too, with Newtown.  How could God let this happen?  Well, says God, how could you let it happen?  This event isn't some odd, random occurrence, outside any human experience.  On the contrary, while certainly the scale of the horror is far greater than our usual experience, it isn't like we have never gone through anything like this.  And we keep going through them, offering prayers to God in the names of the families of those lost, thinking we have fulfilled our spiritual duties this way.  We cry and we hug and then we shake our heads and we move on with our lives until there is yet another multiple shooting, as there was in Alabama on Saturday.  Which doesn't include the singular events of gun violence, events that push that body count higher each day.

We have the temerity to ask God how such evil occurs, when we have the power, should we so choose, perhaps not to eliminate but certainly to drastically reduce the possibility any such event can ever occur again.  What happened in Connecticut isn't some oddity, outside anyone's ability either to comprehend or explain.  On the contrary, it is all too human for all the horror it contains, or perhaps precisely because of all the horror it contains.  At the end of the day, while certainly understandable, perhaps even a necessary part of the grieving process, sitting around and getting mad at God is little more than refusing to take a share of the responsibility.  God didn't let this happen.

We did.

Virtual Tin Cup

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