Today 38 year old Mother, Rachelle Grimmer shot her two children Ramie (age 12) and Timothy (age 10) and then herself. This happened at a Texas Health and Human services office after a stand off with police. It all began with Grimmer revealing a gun to a caseworker after being unable to get food stamps. As of story time the children have survived but are in critical condition. Rachelle Grimmer did not survive.
In Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov, after listing a horrific litany of violent transgressions against children by adults (including one child beaten and forced to eat excrement and another seized and torn apart by dogs in front of his mother), Ivan Karamazov offers this extended reflection:
Listen! I took the case of children only to make my case clearer. Of the other tears of humanity with which the earth is soaked from its crust to its centre, I will say nothing. I have narrowed my subject on purpose. I am a bug, and I recognise in all humility that I cannot understand why the world is arranged as it is. Men are themselves to blame, I suppose; they were given paradise, they wanted freedom, and stole fire from heaven, though they knew they would become unhappy, so there is no need to pity them. With my pitiful, earthly, Euclidian understanding, all I know is that there is suffering and that there are none guilty; that cause follows effect, simply and directly; that everything flows and finds its level — but that’s only Euclidian nonsense, I know that, and I can’t consent to live by it! What comfort is it to me that there are none guilty and that cause follows effect simply and directly, and that I know it? — I must have justice, or I will destroy myself. And not justice in some remote infinite time and space, but here on earth, and that I could see myself. I have believed in it. I want to see it, and if I am dead by then, let me rise again, for if it all happens without me, it will be too unfair. Surely I haven’t suffered simply that I, my crimes and my sufferings, may manure the soil of the future harmony for somebody else. I want to see with my own eyes the hind lie down with the lion and the victim rise up and embrace his murderer. I want to be there when everyone suddenly understands what it has all been for. All the religions of the world are built on this longing, and I am a believer. But then there are the children, and what am I to do about them? That’s a question I can’t answer. For the hundredth time I repeat, there are numbers of questions, but I’ve only taken the children, because in their case what I mean is so unanswerably clear. Listen! If all must suffer to pay for the eternal harmony, what have children to do with it, tell me, please? It’s beyond all comprehension why they should suffer, and why they should pay for the harmony. Why should they, too, furnish material to enrich the soil for the harmony of the future? I understand solidarity in sin among men. I understand solidarity in retribution, too; but there can be no such solidarity with children. And if it is really true that they must share responsibility for all their fathers’ crimes, such a truth is not of this world and is beyond my comprehension. Some jester will say, perhaps, that the child would have grown up and have sinned, but you see he didn’t grow up, he was torn to pieces by the dogs, at eight years old. Oh, Alyosha, I am not blaspheming! I understand, of course, what an upheaval of the universe it will be when everything in heaven and earth blends in one hymn of praise and everything that lives and has lived cries aloud: ‘Thou art just, O Lord, for Thy ways are revealed.’ When the mother embraces the fiend who threw her child to the dogs, and all three cry aloud with tears, ‘Thou art just, O Lord!’ then, of course, the crown of knowledge will be reached and all will be made clear. But what pulls me up here is that I can’t accept that harmony. And while I am on earth, I make haste to take my own measures. You see, Alyosha, perhaps it really may happen that if I live to that moment, or rise again to see it, I, too, perhaps, may cry aloud with the rest, looking at the mother embracing the child’s torturer, ‘Thou art just, O Lord!’ but I don’t want to cry aloud then. While there is still time, I hasten to protect myself, and so I renounce the higher harmony altogether. It’s not worth the tears of that one tortured child who beat itself on the breast with its little fist and prayed in its stinking outhouse, with its unexpiated tears to ‘dear, kind God’! It’s not worth it, because those tears are unatoned for. They must be atoned for, or there can be no harmony. But how? How are you going to atone for them? Is it possible? By their being avenged? But what do I care for avenging them? What do I care for a hell for oppressors? What good can hell do, since those children have already been tortured? And what becomes of harmony, if there is hell? I want to forgive. I want to embrace. I don’t want more suffering. And if the sufferings of children go to swell the sum of sufferings which was necessary to pay for truth, then I protest that the truth is not worth such a price. I don’t want the mother to embrace the oppressor who threw her son to the dogs! She dare not forgive him! Let her forgive him for herself, if she will, let her forgive the torturer for the immeasurable suffering of her mother’s heart. But the sufferings of her tortured child she has no right to forgive; she dare not forgive the torturer, even if the child were to forgive him! And if that is so, if they dare not forgive, what becomes of harmony? Is there in the whole world a being who would have the right to forgive and could forgive? I don’t want harmony. From love for humanity I don’t want it. I would rather be left with the unavenged suffering. I would rather remain with my unavenged suffering and unsatisfied indignation, even if I were wrong. Besides, too high a price is asked for harmony; it’s beyond our means to pay so much to enter on it. And so I hasten to give back my entrance ticket, and if I am an honest man I am bound to give it back as soon as possible. And that I am doing. It’s not God that I don’t accept, Alyosha, only I most respectfully return him the ticket.
That is a lengthy quote. Ivan expresses a wide range of emotions: from a desire to see punishment for those who would perpetrate such a heinous crime against a child to a hope for all things – even the vilest offenders – to be brought into reconciliation with God but finally he comes to a rejection of God. Essentially for Ivan, no ultimate ends justify the means. Eternal punishment perpetuates suffering. Universal salvation for Ivan makes a mockery of the offense and our desire for justice. Even if every last vile offense is forgiven, all are reconciled to God and each other and all created things are in harmony for Ivan it does not justify the suffering of one child beaten and forced to eat excrement or another torn apart by dogs.
At the end of the day I hope with all I have that Ivan is missing something, some piece, something only God in God’s infinite wisdom can understand and that somehow someday harmony will come, and all will say of the God revealed in Christ, “Thou art just, O Lord!” And somehow in someway that we cannot really envision right now God will be all in all.
But when we read stories like this one, we ought to feel Ivan’s sorrow and his rage, as only a person who really believes in a God said to be at once all powerful and benevolent can rage (and Ivan does believe – he just rejects the God he believes in). If we can’t feel deeply Ivan’s sorrow for the suffering of children and sympathize with his anger, then perhaps we don’t really believe in this God we claim to believe in.
In fact from Job to Christ himself on the cross and many places in between the Old and New Testament scriptures provide ample example of those who express their sorrow and indignation to God. This space in the tradition to express lament and frustration – culminating in God crying out to God ‘Have you forsaken me?’ – is perhaps the main reason I am Christian.
This is probably the hardest Mothers Day for me since the first one after my mom died in September of 2004. My siblings and I are the first in our family on either side to go to college. Last year at this time we celebrated my little brother finishing a BA in graphic design. My baby sister is currently working on a degree in education. I am so proud of them both. Tomorrow I graduate from Seminary. Mom would be proud of us all.
The final step of completing my M.Div was writing an autobiographical statement of faith called “Credo.” For me this turned out to be a 57 page document in 5 chapters (to put things into perspective that is a little over 20,000 words or about 80 pages in a typical non-fiction book at 250 words/page). The following is an excerpt from my first chapter. Happy mothers day Mom:
My mother modeled a deep faith for me most of my life. She was raised Roman Catholic but quit the church for a number of years. In my early childhood she began taking me and my younger brother and sister to worship every Sunday, whether my father went or not. It was a decisive breaking with her Catholic upbringing. We attended a variety of congregations, but always in a Protestant and decidedly revivalist tradition. My mom taught Sunday school, worked in the church nursery and attended Bible studies. She also suffered from depression and traumatic memories. She wrestled with God every day; sometimes just waking up was a struggle. I didn’t know it growing up but I actually come from a long line of folks who have wrestled with God.
I am part of a deep and wide family of faith that encompasses the Roman Catholic Church that my mother rejected as well as the revivalists and evangelical communities from which I have inherited my piecemeal faith. This faith family traces their lineage all the way back to the Patriarch Abraham of the Hebrew scriptures. At our worst this family is like any family at their worst – like my family of origin, like Abraham’s family – full of discord and rife with infighting. At our best we find ourselves – like Abraham’s descendent Jacob at the river Jabbok- wrestling, with no one less than the God of the universe in a front-headlock and the divine hand on our hip socket. We find ourselves pleading, “I will not let you go until you bless me.” In that process we like Jacob, come away limping. But, with a blessing and our identities altered, we limp towards a better future.
I am not a monster. Neither are you. Religion that is good and true will proclaim to you and I that we indeed are fragile and broken people who are in desperate need of repentance and forgiveness. We do horrible things to each other you and I. Oh my, we can be ignorant, blind and sometimes vicious. It becomes easy to deny God in a world where God’s mirrors are so cracked and broken. And oh how we add to our need for a savior.
But we are not refuse. We are not garbage. We are not hated. Maybe this language is sometimes needed. Hyperbole abounds with the greatest of teachers. Jesus said to cut off hands, gouge out eyes and hate mothers and fathers. But violence and hate were anything but central to his message. If it offends your sensibilities when I say that God does not hate you then perhaps you do not yet know the unsearchable love of God. Maybe your heart is too full of pride or resentment or fear to accept that God might actually love us. To accept that God loves you. It is not too late, repent, for God is near.
It is difficult because “worm theology” is intertwined with the best of our sacred texts and sacred songs. My favorite hymn: “Amazing grace that saved a wretch like me.” And it is true. But it is certainly not the end or beginning of truth. We are fearfully and wonderfully made. And we are loved.
Unfortunately it is hard for me to hear anyone say I love you. And sometimes I have to force the words out of myself to others. Because somewhere deep inside my whole life I have believed that I am just trash. And I have so closely aligned this feeling with the truth that we are broken, fragile, yes sinful people in need of rescuing. I really thought God wanted me to hate myself. I have confused the self hatred that is a product of our brokenness with the disposition of God towards me. This is a tragic distortion of what is good and beautiful and true.
When I hear my wife, my daughter, my brother or my best friend say I love you, I tremble. I have trouble believing it could be true. And I am not alone. Day time talk show hosts produce confession after confession of self loathing. Our popular films are filled with story lines of people who struggle to love others because they can’t love themselves. The words of popular music are full of confessions of self doubt and fear of being unlovable. “How could somebody love something like me?”
I have been listening to this song on repeat all night. It is an earnest and beautiful confession of self doubt. And I have been reminding myself I am not a monster. Neither are you.