The stories coming out of Aurora, Colorado are horrific. The victims included a catcher on his high school baseball team who wore a mullet and played in the school orchestra; a six year old learning to swim; and a U.S. Navy veteran who served three tours overseas only to come home and get gunned down in a movie theater. In all, twelve were killed and fifty eight others were injured. And God said nothing.
I don’t understand senseless tragedy. And I struggle with God’s role in these events. I am confident that God doesn’t cause tragedy; but I am bothered by his failure or unwillingness to prevent it. And I’m not alone. People have struggled with this issue for a long time and have posited many theories to help explain this vexing question about the nature of God’s role in tragedy.
One theory says that we simply must trust God –that tragedy must be part of God’s plan and that God’s ways are not our ways. The implication is that God has the ability to prevent tragedy but, for whatever reason, chooses not to. And while today we don’t understand why that is, someday we will. But for now, it is not our place to question God. This seems to be the “because I said so” message offered by God to Job in Job 40:1-5: “Will the one who contends with the Almighty correct him? Let him who accuses God answer Him!”
Some say that tragedy occurs because of original sin. Before the sin of Adam and Eve, all was good. There was no sin, no death and no tragedy. After the fall of man, there was death and disease and tragedy. The pain of childbirth, a woman’s fear of snakes and her subjugation to her husband, thorns and thistles in the garden, earthquakes in Haiti and violent rampages in Aurora, Colorado are all the result of original sin. Or so says the Genesis account.
Billy Joel offered a different theory. He told Virginia not to wait, because only the Good Die Young. This theory says that God takes the good among us –his loyal and faithful servants — early while they’re young and before they are polluted by the world.
But still others say the exact opposite. These folks opine that it’s actually the bad that die young. They would say that tragedy in the world is the result of personal sin and that God takes the sinful out as punishment for the sinful and protection for the rest of us. Perhaps that’s what Pat Robertson meant when he commented on the tragedy in Haiti and said the following:
Something happened long ago in Haiti and people may not want to talk about it but they were under the heal of the French and they got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said, “we will serve you if you will set us free from the French.” And the devil said, “It’s a deal”. And they have been cursed by one thing or another ever since.
Or maybe that’s what Jerry Falwell meant when he said:
I really believe that the pagans, the abortionists, the feminists, the gays, the lesbians who are trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, all of them have tried to secularize America. I point the finger in their faces and say “you helped this happen.” The abortionists have got to bear some burden for this because God will not be mocked.
And maybe that’s what we’re to take from Exodus 20:12 which says “Honor your father and mother so you will live long” — I suppose the corollary to that is that if you don’t honor your father and mother, God will take you out early. Or maybe that’s what Job’s wife was trying to tell him when she said: “[If you] curse God, [you will] die.” (Job 2:9)
Peter had his own theory. He said that we suffer grief in trials of all sorts so that we can “prove the genuineness of our faith” and that will result in “praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.” (I Peter 1:6-7)
Some would suggest that tragedies happen because there is no God. Shit happens. Tragedies happen. God is dead. God doesn’t cause tragedy. God doesn’t stop tragedy. Because God doesn’t exist. One need only look at the comments to the CNN articles on the tragedy in Haiti and elsewhere to understand the prevalence of this particular theory. Like this one, for instance:
It’s cute how religious people are so quick to point out supposed miracles when it suits them and supports their irrational beliefs but the lack of those same miracles doesn’t seem to matter to them. Just keep praying to your sky fairies and drinking your kool-aid while the rest of us rational people actually do something that will help these people.
Deism, I suppose, is the belief that God created the world and set it in motion but then God left and hasn’t been seen or heard from since. God doesn’t cause tragedy or prevent it because He is unaware that it has occurred.
Still others believe that God exists but is changing, learning and evolving. This God doesn’t coerce and doesn’t intrude in human affairs nor does He violate the laws of nature. This God gently persuades with a vision of a better future but allows His children to deviate from that vision at their choosing. And sometimes when they do, tragedies happen.
I suppose each of these theories have their appeal. But I think the most interesting discussion I have seen on this topic comes from a man forced to grapple with his own unthinkable tragedy: the death of his son. Rabbi Harold Kushner said that before his son died unexpectedly, he had believed that God was omnibenevolent — His love for his children was complete and without limitation; and that God was omnipotent — His power was likewise unlimited and included the power to alter the forces of nature and the course of human events; and that God was omniscient — that God knew of events before they occurred and even before they were conceived in the minds of men.
After his son died, Rabbi Kushner chose to believe that God can not be all of these things — two of three perhaps — but not all three. Kushner chose to believe that God was all knowing and all loving but not all powerful — that he knew of the unspeakable tragedy of Kushner losing his child and that he loved Kushner enough to prevent that from happening, but he lacked the power to prevent it. As Kushner said in an interview with Time Magazine:
Given the unfairness that strikes so many people in life, I would rather believe in a God of limited power and unlimited love and justice rather than the other way around. Why do we worship power? Why do we assume total power is the most wonderful thing we could ascribe to God even if it means compromising His fairness and His love? I believe God is totally moral but nature, one of God’s creatures, is not moral. Floods, hurricanes, earthquakes and disease are all equal opportunity offenders. They have no way of knowing whether it is a good person or a bad person in their path. Some feel obliged to defend God’s omnipotence even if that means holding God responsible for every retarded child, every flood, every earthquake and plague. They have to twist themselves into theological pretzels to explain why God is good. I do not.
I’m not sure about all this, but I think I fall closest to Rabbi Kushner. Unfair and inaccurate as it may be, I like to put skin on God and make Him look a little bit like me (sans the white flowing beard and cloud like body habitus). That makes Him a bit easier to comprehend. I can then make Him a Father (albeit a heavenly one) like me. I can then imagine that He loves His children like I love mine. Actually, with some effort, I can even imagine that He is capable of loving His children even more than I love mine. That allows me to consider how I would deal with tragedy affecting my children. In that regard, I try my best to allow my children to make their own decisions — really I do. But I will not allow them to make choices that will imperil their lives or the lives of others. And if I can protect them from the catastrophically bad choices of others, I will.
But I don’t always have that power. Maybe God doesn’t either. Or maybe the God that spoke the universe into being does have that power, but God is not omniscient, and therefore can’t act prophylactically to prevent tragedy. I don’t know. Perhaps “because I said so” or “His ways are not our ways” will have to do for me. As unsatisfying as that may be in the wake of the senseless tragedy in Aurora.
Care to weigh in?