Where was God in Boston? Approaching the Question
Believers and non-believers alike are often forced to uncomfortably pose the question, “Where was God when…” Theodicy (the genre of Christian theology that attempts to give an account of suffering and evil) is the most commonly practiced of Christian apologetics, yet it is often where the least sophisticated un-nuanced answers are given. Some Christians (perhaps with a more fundamentalist impulse) frame it as God’s judgment. Yet most people would reject this. The God most people believe in wouldn't kill innocent people for the crimes of others.
So what answer can be given, particularly in the sensitive time immediately after a tragedy? Polite company usually sees fit to defer the question until heads have cooled and hearts have healed a bit. That suffices for philosophical matters, but what use is it for a pastoral perspective? There must be a response that can be useful for those who have suffered directly, and for those who suffered indirectly as compassionate members of a national community. It’s just such a response that I’d like to sketch in these few paragraphs.
Slowly over the course of a few days, I learned that the half dozen people I know in Boston were all safe and sound. Some friends and relatives were at the race but were gone by the time of the explosion. I was just another typical citizen feeling incensed by the tragedy and following the manhunt with a horrified curiosity.
Where God is
I don’t intend to develop a systematic account of evil. I only intend to offer one minor point that is central to my Christian understanding, and all the other pieces of an account could fall into place on its basis. It is something seemingly obvious to say, but is sometimes passed over by those preoccupied positing an airtight system that gets God off the hook. To the formulation, “Where was God when…” one must respond that God was with the suffering in the person of Jesus Christ. Whatever anguish, humiliation, pain, and ultimately death that one may suffer, God has participated in it in Christ. Or rather, our suffering is a participation in the passion of Christ.
This participatory angle is put nicely in Ron Hanson’s novel, Mariette in Ecstasy. Mariette, a novice nun who experiences the stigmata, is asked by her superiors how she endures the pain of her long, ascetically severe mystical experiences. She simply answers, “I think of the souls in purgatory.” One can find redemption and spiritual value in pain without diminishing that suffering, or pretending its not there. All we endure is a part of a bigger picture of God's salvation.
God is not an impersonal being that creates humans and then stands back like the “blind watchmaker” cliché. Rather, God intimately involves himself in all our pain, experiences it in its fullest, and then redeems it.
The fact that he fully redeems it is central (the events of the triduum can never be completely sundered and isolated from each other). Our suffering, called up into his, now has purpose. In this way, the Christian explanation is more satisfying then the nihilistic, secular one. Paradoxically, the atheist has a harder time explaining evil and suffering than the Christian. In Christ, the Christian has an account of suffering that sheds light on it: it is a form of self-giving that is a part of God’s self-giving love to the world, perfectly exemplified in the cross. The one who uses suffering to deny God invests the suffering with meaning and metaphysical significance that it wouldn't have without the cross. Why would our human pain be any different than the random violence found elsewhere in the natural world, if not for a loving God that invests in the human lot. This incarnational approach gives purpose without resorting to juvenile answers (“God needed another angel”). It’s really the only thing I can think of to say that isn’t insensitive (“God is displaying his wrath for some decision of your legislature”) or cold and useless (“allow me to refute the proposition that God cannot be fully good and fully just”).
This also charges with meaning the somewhat trite sounding sentiment that God is with the first responders and people helping. Wherever there is a self-giving love at work, there is Christ on his cross. Surely this is the son of God.
Pray for our enemies?
With all that on the table, we may now wish to invoke the Christian truism that we should love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. This is not immediately directed toward the victims (that part of the forgiveness process comes a little later on). But I was somewhat perturbed by newspaper photographs of people taunting and cheering a police car with the captured suspect. We correctly feel the impulse of joy and relief when such a dangerous person is apprehended. But is it more than that? Isn’t even primarily a satisfaction in “getting even” that we feel? And is this spiritually healthy for someone who identifies as a Christian? These are similar questions I asked at the time of Osama Bin Laden’s death.
Rowan Williams treats Acts 4:10 in his book on the resurrection to describe how Easter works toward our salvation. Here’s the verse:
“All of you...should know that it was in the name of Jesus Christ the Nazorean whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead; in his name this man stands before you healed.”
He emphasizes the “whom you crucified” to show how the risen Jesus confronts the very people that wounded him. This is the only way people are changed. They encounter the risen Jesus, with his wounds mysteriously present, and everything is transformed. This is the common thread in all the apparitions of Jesus.
Williams cites a Romanian novelist who pushes this need to see God in our enemies to its absolute limit. He describes a terrorist who felt anguish for his killing of innocents. He hanged himself in his cell. “And any criminal hanged in his cell is Jesus Christ on his cross. Our God, our God, why have you forsaken us?”
This is a tremendously provocative statement. But it’s very serious. Can we see God in our enemies, and not just the petty ones, but the ones that terrorize us and threaten us fundamentally? Can we do it in a way that holds out hope for all the lost, but does not expiate them of all responsibility or draw a false equivalency? I believe it is not just possible, but necessary to heal all God’s creation that is declared good from the beginning. It’s left to us to confront the world that causes us suffering, present the wounds of Christ, and transform it in the encounter. Lord, have mercy.
[By way of aside: I don’t wish to be political in this piece. But perhaps it’s worth dwelling on the contemporary failure to enact common-sense gun laws. On just about every other night in Chicago, as many people are killed by gun violence as died in the Boston bombings. One can distinguish the Boston events by calling them “acts of terror.” But neighborhoods on the West Side like Austin and Lawndale (where I work) as well as the South Side are terrorized by violence to the same degree. Some children I teach are practically locked in their houses by parents who are justly afraid to let them play anywhere outside. I am not naïve enough to think that gun regulations are going to solve the problem of violence in our society, but surely it’s a small piece of the puzzle that we can enact, right?]