“God has taken them home.”
So U.S. President Obama accounts for the wanton killing of grade schoolers in Newtown, CT. But does this view sit well with us? Does it ease our pain or explain the unthinkable? And does it present God in a way that encourages trust or hope?
My answer: e) None of the above.
Situations like Sandy Hook are so terrifying that it can be tempting to think that God must be pulling the strings. We want to believe that someone is in control and that somewhere there is good to be found in it. Yet ironically, by diminishing human agency and responsibility for evil we likewise strip ourselves of our agency and responsibility for good.
For if this is all God’s will, then really we can do nothing about it: who can resist God?
No. Far from rekindling hope or even allowing fuller expression of our grief, at best this view results in complacency. At worst, I reckon it results in despair.
Complacency because taking what is evil and “sanctifying” it (through ascribing it to God) subverts our most natural human responses: should we grieve or feel upset about God’s will? At best the implication is that our grief and rage are really misplaced—the result of being too limited (or if you theology is more heavy-handed, too sinful) to understand that this is all for some “greater good.” Ironically again, such a view has more in common with Buddhism than Christianity.
Despair because, faced with this perspective, we must necessarily understand our emotions, goals, and even our children as insignificant—unimportant before the lofty designs of God. For a god who “calls home” little children via such murderous and seemingly purposeless action is, like a maleficent version of Zeus, a fearful entity indeed. Before such a God we cannot but despair.
Many reject this god. And those that accept it? Well, is it any wonder that so much of evangelical Christianity seems based on fear and rule-following rather than on love and truth?
In reality Obama’s view denies us the very substance that the Psalmist would have us rely upon, both in coming to embrace God and as that which fosters and furthers right relationship with God: the created order, within which we are called to “taste and see” God’s goodness.
Now hear me rightly: I see no goodness in this situation. It is not something “in light of which” I believe in God but something “despite which” I still believe. But neither is this a situation where Christians should encourage complacency or despair. Rather, I think the first step is to recognize that the problem of evil is not simply an issue or even a big issue. To my mind it is the issue.
And if my personal experience with evil is any guide, the second step is for Christians to stand against it and—in evil’s overwhelming shadow—to tell our tales of how God has acted in our lives to heal and mend us.
And this, I think, is where goodness can possibly be found amid evil: not that God solves our issues or addresses all our concerns, but that in place of evil God offers Godself. Not through the historical work of Christ or theological explanation, important as these are. But rather as acts of healing and liberation within our everyday existence that convince our minds, inspire our imaginations, and win our hearts—acts of knowing us more truly than we know ourselves and loving us more deeply than we love ourselves.
So against the view that God’ goodness is invisible or, at best, unfathomable, Christians must not only claim with their words but demonstrate—and attest to how God has demonstrated—in their lived existence that God is good. And we do so not because of but despite the wanton evil that we are able (and clearly, all too wiling) to inflcit upon each other.