In the shadow of today’s tragic events in Newtown, CT: 27 people dead, 20 of them young children, I think many of us have clung to our families, especially our children just a little bit tighter. Myself, I picked Rena up into my arms at the bus stop and carried her all the way home. I played several rounds of Candy Land with her and Liam. We made hot chocolate and snuggled. I have wanted them close all day.
And I have prayed. In between tearful whispers and shouts of burning anger (while I was alone and Liam was napping) I have prayed: Who? How? What? and in concert with the Psalmist and Jesus, WHY!?!? My God my God why have you forsaken… me, them, us?
Yes, confusion, sorrow and indignation have sprung forth from my lips all day long. And yet I know my prayers could not come close to matching the intensity of the prayers beings prayed today (and in the days to come) by the families and friends of the victims in Newtown. And in the midst of this anguish I am thankful to be anchored in a tradition and a community that, as we look upon that ancient symbol of our faith, the cross, declare: Here, here is the God who suffers WITH US. Immanuel.
The God of long-suffering has heard it all before: Abraham’s skeptical laughter, Job’s demanding of his day in court, the psalmist’s relentless questioning and yes even Christ’s godforsaken cry. Sometime the folks in scripture even prayed some downright horrific things. The Author of Psalm 137 for instance, would seem to know nothing of turning the other cheek. Yes, the God of long-suffering has heard it all before and can withstand our toughest cries of lament.
So generally it is my rule of faith and my counsel to others as a pastor, friend and fellow traveler that we can pray anything. But today there are things I won’t pray. Today I am reminded, especially in the ever shrinking world of social media, that our public prayers can travel around the world and back again as quick as we can hit enter on facebook or twitter. And so I will not pray, thank God it was not my kids. I will not pray, thank God it was not our town. For such prayers always communicate to the victims of such tragedies: I am thankful that my God spared me of such calamity; but I will pray for you in your suffering.
So yes, there are some prayers I will not pray. But at the end of the day, when I am done praying: Why anyone’s children? Why anybody’s town? I will simply pray: How long oh Lord? How Long?
Come Lord Jesus, come. Come and bring good news to the oppressed. Come and bind up the broken-hearted. Come proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners. Come and proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
A number of years ago I read Eastern Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart’s “The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami?” I need to read it again sometime soon. It is hands down the best thing I have ever read exploring the question of theodicy. The following is an excerpt from an a 2005 essay in First Things that became the seedling for that book. You can read the article in full here and read more about the book here. I hope Dr. Hart’s words are a blessing to you today:
I do not believe we Christians are obliged — or even allowed — to look upon the devastation visited upon the coasts of the Indian Ocean and to console ourselves with vacuous cant about the mysterious course taken by God’s goodness in this world, or to assure others that some ultimate meaning or purpose resides in so much misery. Ours is, after all, a religion of salvation; our faith is in a God who has come to rescue His creation from the absurdity of sin and the emptiness of death, and so we are permitted to hate these things with a perfect hatred. For while Christ takes the suffering of his creatures up into his own, it is not because he or they had need of suffering, but because he would not abandon his creatures to the grave. And while we know that the victory over evil and death has been won, we know also that it is a victory yet to come, and that creation therefore, as Paul says, groans in expectation of the glory that will one day be revealed. Until then, the world remains a place of struggle between light and darkness, truth and falsehood, life and death; and, in such a world, our portion is charity.
As for comfort, when we seek it, I can imagine none greater than the happy knowledge that when I see the death of a child I do not see the face of God, but the face of His enemy. It is not a faith that would necessarily satisfy Ivan Karamazov, but neither is it one that his arguments can defeat: for it has set us free from optimism, and taught us hope instead. We can rejoice that we are saved not through the immanent mechanisms of history and nature, but by grace; that God will not unite all of history’s many strands in one great synthesis, but will judge much of history false and damnable; that He will not simply reveal the sublime logic of fallen nature, but will strike off the fetters in which creation languishes; and that, rather than showing us how the tears of a small girl suffering in the dark were necessary for the building of the Kingdom, He will instead raise her up and wipe away all tears from her eyes — and there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying, nor any more pain, for the former things will have passed away, and He that sits upon the throne will say, “Behold, I make all things new.”
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.
“I don’t believe in karma,
I don’t believe in luck
I’m sad as hell in this place
but don’t believe I’m stuck
I’m running out of energy
but I don’t believe I’m running out of time
I’m running on caffeine and anger
and I don’t believe in holding it inside
There’s a time for everything
and everything will be okay in time”
“I once believed that God became flesh in order to destroy flesh that I might escape flesh on the day God destroys all creation. I now believe God became flesh in order to test flesh by death and make flesh new by resurrection that I too might be resurrected on the day God restores all creation. If it’s not a completely different gospel, it’s certainly better news.”
The first quote I guess you could say is a note from my 23 year old self. It is from lyrics to a song I wrote back when I was trying to be a rock star. The song was called “Sometime Somewhere.” It seems somewhat applicable today despite me being in a drastically different place in life than I was 12 years ago. The second quote is a note to self from the not too distant past. Back in May, my final question during my denominational exams before the Classis of Holland in the Reformed Church of America was this: “Describe one way you have changed or matured in your faith journey during seminary?” The above quotation about flesh and resurrection was my answer.
I don’t like to quote myself often. But I these two seemingly disconnected fragments were running through my head this morning in conjunction with each other and with the 1965 protest song “Eve of Destruction.” For me I suppose this is all serving as a reminder that my current lot in life is but one small speck in a vast cosmos, in a human drama that predates me and will likely continue after me (unless you know something I don’t know). In this I am neither insignificant nor omni-important. I am trying to do my part to make the world a better place. But no matter how fantastic or shitty life seems at the moment, all things are in God’s hands.
I know this seems a counter-intuitive claim when times are tough for us personally. Times have indeed been tough for me lately. I graduated from seminary in May. I have been looking for a church for the past six months. Despite several interviews all I have to show so far is tried and tested patience and tenacity and a stack of rejection letters. I have also been looking for any part time job in the meantime to supplement my wife’s income. But despite 20 or so job applications or resumes sent out, 11 years experience in retail, and a couple of degrees under my belt I still have not found work. Like many others – especially in Michigan – my family is feeling the sting of these tough economic times.
Recently my daughter has been experiencing hindering muscle contortions in her arms and legs. Yesterday we received a tentative, preliminary diagnosis of Torsion Dystonia. I have a form of this called Cervical Dystonia which manifests itself with odd postures, some discomfort and contortions mostly in my neck (which makes job interviews all the more interesting). With my diagnoses and a history of tremors and spasms on my father’s side of the family, her condition is quite possibly genetic in origin. We are still in the midst of much testing and waiting to find out if this is indeed what has been bothering her. While now I am hoping and praying she does not have to be treated with deep muscle botox injections someday (as I know how painful it is to receive them), I am nonetheless very happy and relieved to be moving towards some clarity and potential treatment for our baby girl. But it does not always feel like this too is in God’s hands.
My faith informs me that God has a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in Christ, things in heaven and things on earth. But in the face of true tragic and evil occurrences in the world this claim often seems absurd. Take recent headlines in Uganda for instance. So many men, women and especially children are suffering there. For some time the “Lord’s Resistance Army” has been abducting children, killing or forcing the children to kill their own families and then training the boys to fight wars and forcing girls into horrible forms of slavery (an estimated 66,000 children have been abducted). For several years there has been an ongoing outcry in Uganda and around the world against a still pending proposed anti-homosexual bill supported by some prominent American “evangelicals.” If passed it would demand the death penalty for homosexuals and jail time for people “protecting homosexuals.” And most recently reports are surfacing that child sacrifices have resurfaced in Uganda over the past several years to appeal to deities for wealth. God is in control? God is making all things new?
While many people in Uganda and around the world cry out with the Psalmist, ‘How long O’ Lord,’ I too often repeat another cry of the Psalmist – the one repeated by Jesus on the cross – ‘My God! Have you forsaken us?’ And it seems like all of creation groans with us like a woman crying out from labor pangs. In the midst of personal crisis or natural disasters we may question the strength of our faith or God’s Character. But in the face of war, atrocity, injustice and violence – especially when acted out in the name of God – many question the validity of faith in general or the existence of God altogether. I am one of those who question. My personal conviction is that Christians ought to take more seriously than anybody else the Marxist critique that religion is a tool of the upper-class to prevent people from protesting their present sufferings. In the face of so much abuse of religion I would probably have agree if it were not for a couple of often forgotten, perhaps absurd, yet indispensable tenets of the Christian faith:
1) Contrary to much popular belief my faith does not inform me to roll over and play dead. Yes all things are in God’s hands and at the end of the day it is God who makes all things new. But the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are full of prophetic laments and protests against the systems of injustice in this world. They are full of instructions to take care of the orphan and the widow. They also contain the assertion that in Christ all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. And while the powers that be at present may kick and scream and rage against it, God is reconciling himself all things in Christ. We are invited to be part of a counter protest movement, daily declaring to these powerful systems that their days of corruption and abuse of power are numbered.
Of course, these systems sometimes raise their ugly head even within the scriptures themselves in the form of patriarchy, slavery or other institutionalized transgressions against humanity. Unfortunately this is the kind of thing that does often become a tool in the hand of the powerful, claiming the Bible and religion in general to be in on the sanctioning of oppression. And this all becomes fuel for the fire of righteous indignation –in the believer as well as in the nonbeliever – against the misuse and abuse of religion. One of my theological heroes Jürgen Moltmann has addressed this quite eloquently:
Observations about cultural history of this kind have little to say about the content of the narratives and testimonies about God in the Old and New Testaments… The fact that the Bible grew up in the world of patriarchy and slavery still does not tell us anything about the presence of eternity at that time or about the future in its past… No one reads the Bible in order to take over a world picture that is past and gone. No one has to adopt the social concepts and the patriarchal sexual hierarchies of the Bible. If that were so, for biblical reasons we should have to reintroduce slavery into Christianity, revert to absolute monarchy instead of democracy and so forth.
I am reminded of these words often as I attempt add my small voice to the chorus that cries out against patriarchy, sexism, homophobia, racism, classism and other forms of injustice. And as I confess and try to expunge such sickness of heart when it crops up in me.
2) Also contrary to popular belief, the rules or Karma and perhaps Deuteronomy, my faith does not inform me that everyone gets just exactly what they deserve. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God by loving God, walking in God’s ways, and observing the commandments of God, then you shall live and become numerous, and God will bless you in the land says the deuteronomic historian. But God calls Abram and blesses him based on nothing he has done. And God declares Abram righteous not because of the good things he has done, certainly not for the lack of trust and respect Abram sometimes showed in God’s presence. Rather God blessed Abraham because of God’s claim on Abrahams life: God declared “All peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” And in this Abraham places his faith. This blessing of the whole earth has and always will be the reason God calls a worshiping community into existence. Jesus told Nicodemus that God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.
The church too exists for the sake of the world and not for its condemnation. In the meantime as Jesus reminds in the sermon on the mount we should pray for those we perceive as our enemies and remember that God for whatever reason causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.
When a deuteronomic or karmic faith is our lens for viewing the Christ event it can indeed quickly become aid to the powerful systems of injustice currently in place in our world. I think there is an ever present temptation for Christians especially to develop an attitude of ‘let’s just grin and bear our present suffering. Someday it will be over and the good people like us will bask in glory and the bad people will burn.’ But when we view God as entering into our suffering with us – for our sake and the sake of making the whole world new it radically changes everything!
I again turn to the German theologian Moltmann who in World War II became a prisoner of war to the British, during which time he was given his first Bible, and in his language he was ‘sought and found by Jesus.’ After surviving a few years of war and witnessing several deaths, including a friend who died in his arms, Moltmann became a POW on February 15, 1945. It was in the camp Moltmann was confronted with “a feeling of profound shame at having to share in shouldering the disgrace of one’s own people.” This made him all the more surprised and forever changed by the kind and loving ways of the Scottish men who worked at the camps and their families. They treated him and the other prisoners with dignity and respect. This, together with a Bible given to him by a Chaplain at the camp turned Moltmann’s despair into a new hope for life. He writes about his discovery of Jesus in the gospel of Mark,
Then I read Mark’s gospel as a whole and came to the story of the passion; when I heard Jesus’ death cry, ‘My God, why have you forsaken me?’ I felt growing within me the conviction: this is someone who understands you completely, who is with you in your cry to God and who has felt the same forsakenness you are living in now. I began to understand the assailed, forsaken Christ because I knew that he understood me. The divine brother in need, the companion on the way, who goes with you through this ‘valley of the shadow of death,’ the fellow-sufferer who carries you, with your suffering. I summoned up the courage to live again, and I was slowly but surely seized by the great hope of the resurrection into God’s wide ‘wide space where there is no more cramping’
The rest of Moltmann’s life could be aptly characterized by the title of his first book, “a theology of hope.” This hope led him to seriously consider and participate in various liberation theologies, to speak up for women, to lend his white European voice to the endorsement of American Black theology in the 60’s and to be an early voice in articulating an environmental theology of creation care and not dominion. Despite personal sufferings greater than I have known and an up close view of some of the greatest atrocities humanity has known, Motlmann refused to believe we were on the eve of destruction. He refused to believe this because of his profound sense that God is with us in our suffering and gives us voice to cry out against suffering! We cry out against the oppressor. And we cry out with Jesus to God, ‘Have you forsaken us?’ God is big enough to handle or complaints. Our complaints are a sign of faith not doubt, even though they might express confusion as to God’s timing and even seeming lack of presence at times.
God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself. This is the gospel or in Greek εὐαγγέλιον (euangelion). It is indeed good news! This good news gives me comfort in times of personal crisis. It also gives me a prophetic voice to speak out against injustice in the world and to admit and submit before God the evil that crops up in me. And it gives me a vision of hope to offer a hurting world. I have gone through some pretty difficult times lately. I too am saddened and outraged at the evil in the world. And in myself. Life can be fantastic and life can be quite shitty at times. The world is full of captivating beauty and at times overwhelming ugliness. When life is great I am learning to accept this as a gift from God and refuse to believe I have done anything or believed anything or said anything “right” in order to deserve it. And when life is painful and headlines are tragic, I too refuse to believe that we are on the eve of destruction.