A Few More Thoughts on Evil & Suffering

Bad stuff happens – cancer, war, floods, fires, racism, betrayal, poverty …

Two questions are often intertwined in the problem of evil. 

Why is there evil? 

Why doesn’t God do something about it?

The first is answerable. There is a kind of freedom in all of creation. Humans (and, according to the Bible, angelic beings) have the ability to consciously make choices. We (and they) at times make bad choices. Some bad choices are malicious, like invading a peaceful country, designing red-lining laws, or separating children from their immigrant parents. 

Other decisions inadvertently cause harm. George Washington’s physicians honestly thought they were helping by bleeding him regularly. Some missionaries sincerely thought they were doing God’s will by replacing indigenous culture with occidental ideals. 

Whether accidental or intentional, we humans have created quite a mess. We destroy the environment, produce disease-producing processed foods, oppress women and people of color, alter the climate, create wars, and build injustice into our systems of government, education, and commerce. 

In another realm, some angelic beings chose to become forces of evil, the powers and principalities that lie behind much of the greed, selfishness, and hatred in the world.

There is also a form of unconscious freedom built into nature. Viruses are not living – they have no ability to reproduce on their own – but they are life forms that mutate in astonishingly complex ways. Most viruses are beneficial – without them bacteria would take over all life – but others cause pandemics and kill millions. They are not sentient, but make choices to survive. 

Why is there evil? Why is there suffering? Choice. Freewill. Evolutionary freedom.

The deeper question concerns God. If God is omnipotent and omnibenevolent, all powerful and all loving, why doesn’t God step in and keep babies from getting cancer, send some rain to put out the forest fire, or stop the Hitlers, Stalins, and Pol Pots?

That question came to prominence in the 17th century. The Enlightenment brought Deism, the belief that while God exists, God does not intervene. Deists propose an absent God. God created everything like a watchmaker creates a watch, then left it to run on its own. 

Enlightenment philosophy maintains that that the Creator has left humans in charge. It is our responsibility to make a better world. The most influential founding fathers of the United States were deists heavily influenced by the Enlightenment. 

Deism cuts Jesus out of the picture. Thomas Jefferson took a scissors to the Bible and created his own version, sans anything miraculous. For a deist, Jesus becomes a wise teacher, on the level of Socrates or Confucius, but nothing more. Without realizing it, most Americans operate in an Enlightenment-Deistic mindset. We tend to be steeped in individualism, all about the freedom to do whatever we want to do, and trusting in human advancement to solve problems. Our common view of God is of a God who is “up there,” or “out there” someplace. We pray to a distant deity to zap our loved ones well. Then God can go back to God’s business.

I do not disparage the Enlightenment – it gave us science, medicine, information technology, a deeper understanding of human nature, universal education, and liberal democracy. But it also pushed Jesus aside.

A biblical worldview puts Jesus and the Cross at the center. Everything in the cosmos changed on Good Friday. God in human flesh absorbed all evil into himself. Evil imploded and killed him. In the process, evil destroyed itself, death died, and Jesus rose from the dead. He subsequently poured out the Holy Spirit on all humanity. 

By that Spirit, God lives among us, with us, in us. God is here now. Emmanuel. God is not distant, off sitting on a throne in a remote place called heaven. God is with us, which means God is suffering with us. 

Where is God when the hospitalized child or the elderly nursing home resident cries in pain? Where is God when the floods sweep away houses and people? Where is God when a powerful nation invades its neighbor? 

The answer is that God is right there crying with the one in pain, drowning with the flood victim, grieving with the bereft, sheltering in the subway with the bombed. When we are in pain, God feels it. When we suffer, God suffers. One day, as I was standing at my son’s graveside sobbing, I felt the divine presence. With his arm figuratively around my shoulder, Jesus wept with me. Elliott’s death hurt Jesus as much (perhaps more) than it hurt me.

Jesus is the perfect reflection of God. “If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father. I and the Father are one.” If you want to know what God is like, look at Jesus. God weeps with those who weep, is incarcerated with the prisoner, sleeps under the bridge with the homeless, wails with the bereaved parent, feels the same pains as the patient, aches with the hungry. “If you’ve done it unto the least of these, you’ve done it unto me.”

The question is not, “Why doesn’t God fix this?” The question is, “Will we join God in making all things new?” Evil in the world is our invitation to do something about it. It is our call to activism, to justice. 

That activism can take many forms. I think of the sacrifices of Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy HeightMalcom X, Gandhi, Cesar Chavez, Nelson Mandela, Bishop Tutu, Joan Baez, Bayard Rustin, and Mary McLeod Bethune. I think of Jimmy Carter building houses with Habitat for Humanity and Shane Clayborne forging weapons into garden tools. But I also think of James Baldwin and Thomas Merton. We can join God in many ways. We can enter solidarity with those who are suffering by using our individual gifts and talents. Prayer and writing fit me better than marches and vigils, although I applaud both.

Rather than cutting Jesus out of the picture and wondering why an all-power distant God doesn’t fix stuff, we’re invited to enter into solidarity with the suffering and use our personalities and abilities to stand on the side of peace and righteousness against injustice. 

Evil is our invitation to do good.

LRT

23 August 2022

Following Jesus into the Broken Heart of God. An audio teaching on Acts 17:24-21:16

Challenging the Stats Quo: An Audio Teaching on Acts 16-18

Liminality

“Liminal” comes from the Latin for “threshold,” so a liminal space is the threshold separating one space from another. There are liminal physical spaces, emotional liminal spaces, and liminal spiritual spaces.  Liminality describes those times in life when we’re in transition.

Airports are physical liminal spaces, in-between destinations. If you have one foot in this room and the other foot in that one, you’re in the liminal space between the two rooms. 

Graduations, marriages, divorces, new careers, relocating, births and deaths of loved ones are emotional liminal spaces. The COVID-19 pandemic was and is a liminal space between life as it was and life as it is. A rush back to life as it was is a reaction to the discomfort of liminality. 

When I was a hospice chaplain, it was not uncommon to witness a person in an interim state between life and death. It’s like they have one foot in each world, neither dead nor alive, neither here with us nor there with God. 

Sometimes, we find ourselves between two seemingly contradictory ideas. God is good, yet God allows us to suffer. 

The biblical Garden of Eden was a liminal space – part heaven, part earth where heavenly beings and earthly beings could interact. 

Physical and emotional liminality are usually temporary – we settle into the new relationship or the new place. But, in spiritual matters there is often permanent (at least in this life) liminality. 

Psychologically, we are uncomfortable with liminality. Our brains crave homeostasis. 

We desire certainty, a world we can understand and control. That’s why fundamentalism is so popular in religion and politics. Both offer simplistic certainty in times of uncertainty and insecurity. 

We imagine a nonexistent time when all was clearly defined. Too many of us absorb beliefs by peer osmosis then look for support of our preconceptions. Our thinking is dualistic, black and white, right and wrong, good and evil, good guys and bad guys, us and them. We sink into the delusion that our world is understandable and therefore manageable. It is neither. The cosmos is complex, filled with wonder and mystery; it contains things that seem contradictory. 

Despotism, fascism, totalitarianism advances by offering people simple explanations and dualistic certainty. The authoritarian invites the endorsement of religion, which gives the former an imagined divine legitimacy. Church becomes chaplain of Empire; Empire becomes protector of Church. Civil religion, AKA Christian nationalism, is Christian in name only, embracing things diametrically opposite of the teachings of Jesus – things like white supremacy, antisemitism, misogyny, xenophobia, consumerism, militarism, environmental destruction, capital punishment, armed resistance, and conspiratorial lies. Christian nationalists have supported some of the cruelest dictators in history. 

Followers of Jesus live in the liminal space of here but not yet. We live in the space between God’s world and this world. The Kingdom is here and now; it is yet to come. Jesus’ teaching insists on liminality. The poor are blessed, the weak are strong, overcome violence with nonresistance, love your enemies, defeat death by dying, the way up is down, the greatest is the servant of all. Embrace uncertainty. Jettison dualistic thinking and simplistic solutions. Welcome liminality. Live in the mystery of the faith.

What is a Christian?

Some think of a Christian as someone who believes the right things. The virgin birth of Christ, the deity of Christ, Christ crucified for our sins, and raised from the dead, for example. The more fundamentalist a person is, the longer the list of absolute essentials.

Some think of a Christian as someone who does certain things, like supporting missions, working in a soup kitchen, going to church, and taking communion.

Others think of a Christian as simply a kind person.

Apparently, there are a fair number of people who think being a white American citizen makes you a Christian. They imagine some special divine approval of the United States that makes it superior to all other nations. They mistake their white privilege in a racialized society as indication of God’s favor. They are the heirs of their European ancestors who equated being a Christian with citizenship and birthright. 

The only legitimate definition of a Christian, however, is a person who follows Jesus. That involves accepting that what he said about himself as true. He is the way, truth and life. He and the Father, YHWH, the creator God of Israel, are one. It also involves doing what he said to do – forgiving and loving unconditionally (including enemies), living a simple life free of greed, radiating with generosity and hospitality, refusing to kill another human being under any circumstances, caring for the poor and marginalized, standing on the side of truth, justice, and peace, being willing to be the servant of all. 

“For everyone will be salted with fire.” (Mark 9:49)

The sky lit up with the streaking fiery tails of

Incoming missiles announcing the day we

All knew would come but chose to ignore.

A flash of blinding white light as the

Earth belched out rings of heat that

Caused eyes to melt and towns to 

Spontaneously combust.

We found ourselves standing in a

Crowd of people – Chinese, Russian, American – 

People of all ages, shapes and sizes, all naked,

All stunned, all in a strange place where

Shadows played against walls of granite

And a soft grey mist covered the land

As far as one could see. Millions of us, waiting

The searing white light that had transported us

Here appeared dull in our memories in 

Comparison to the colossal figure before us

That had only the ever-shifting form of fire.

He swung an incense burner with his left hand

It’s coals glowing red-hot, puffs of black smoke

Drifting over us. He reached into the firepot, 

Grasping a handful of coals, holding them for 

A moment or two as he looked out over the crowd.

Without flinching, he crumbled the coals with his

Bare hand, sowed them aloft, and blew 

The airborne embers over us.

It rained a torrent of tiny specks of fire, but,

As they landed on our naked bodies, the 

Resultant pain was more relief than 

Torture. We understood one another’s

Languages; no one was a stranger, we 

Suddenly knew and cared for each other, and,

As the embers faded, strange ethereal music

Rose to a crescendo, as the mist dissipated,

And all the world erupted in bird-song and flowers

And we danced together and laughed with

Animals that spoke and mountains that sang.

God removes hindrances to faith in Christ. An audio teaching on Acts 12-15

The Multiethnic Community of Faith: an audio teaching on Acts 9-11

Space for Grace

Space for Grace

Guest House

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

(Rumi, 13th century Persian Poet)

+++++++++

Every spelunker knows caverns are often places of exquisite beauty. Swirling colors, still pools inhabited by fish with no eyes, speleothems like flowstone, columns, stalactites and stalagmites glistening with minerals drawn from ancient rocks, smooth surreal shapes in cathedrals of permanent coolness – awe-inspiring to the non-claustrophobic adventurer. Like the canyons and grottos above, subterranean caves were patiently carved by water, both liquid and ice. Over eons, water widens and deepens the cavern, refines its beauty, and polishes its artwork. 

Born supple, our hearts gradually harden as we age. It is inevitable. Rejections, failures, let-downs, neglect, losses, the harsh realities of a broken world, childhood wounds combine to steel us against further pain. How can God, the Divine Source, Prime Mover, and Essence of Perfect Love penetrate our hardened inner selves? The water of life needs cracks to get in.

The pain and suffering we endure, whether inflicted upon us or vicariously experienced as the inevitable side effect of empathy, will, like water, slowly carve out deep places of expansive beauty within us, making room for our inner-most beings to be filled with the splendor of grace. Our capacity to love is proportional to our depth of suffering. It is the suffering that makes space for the love. If we allow it.

We may choose to fill the fissures of our souls with tons of debris and seal over our hearts with layers of concrete. This metaphorical debris and cement vary from person to person. Might, power, control, self-righteousness, egocentricity, political or religious dogma, consumerism, wealth, opulence, knowledge without wisdom, status, position, the eremacausis of slow-burning anger, judgementalism, and the riches and cares of life may pile together like demolition rubble to fill our hearts and spoil the beauty. Materialism, selfishness, close-mindedness, militarism, nationalism, and prejudice of all sorts block the waters from carving out spaces for grace. Many of us have become quite skilled at blocking out pain. Entertainment, sports, or a plethora of expensive toys anesthetize compassion.

Conversely, we may choose the Via Crucis, the way of the cross. To deliberately turn our backs on societal wealth, violence, control and achievements, and purposely embrace openness, inclusivity, teachableness and anti-racism is to allow the poor, the oppressed, the marginalized, the disenfranchised, the broken creation to affect us. As we are open up to new ideas, new kinds of people, new discoveries and new traditions, we let in the waters of life. This is what Jesus meant when he told us to deny ourselves, take up our crosses, and follow him.

As we face and embrace our own sufferings and losses, the hidden shadows of our being integrate with the light. As we empathize with nature’s groans and hear the cries of a choking planet with its rising tides, epic storms, polluted air, and plastic oceans, the mystical cosmic ice carves deeper fissures within us. 

As we identify with humankind’s distresses – the war-torn, the mentally and physically ill, the disabled, the refugee, the poor, the oppressed – we let in the rains that create cathedrals within. As we choose to take the side of justice, peace, and reconciliation, and walk in the way of forgiveness and love of enemies, we open up our own hearts to the inner workings of grace. 

We discover that the more suffering we allow in, the more expansive our hearts become. A wideness is created within us. We love more. We embrace all of creation. We become (ever so gradually as the waters drip) places of exquisite beauty and grace.

Don’t wall off your heart. Open the door. Let the pain of a broken world in. It won’t overwhelm you. It won’t make you depressed or miserable to live with. On the contrary, it will enable you to be filled with light.

There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in 
(Leonard Cohen, “Anthem”)

Things are in the saddle

Things are in the saddle / And ride mankind – Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Ode, Inscribed to William H. Channing”

Lately, I’ve been trying to hold onto a “live and let live” mentality. I understand that some folks like the look of manicured suburban lawns. I’ve even met people who say they enjoy all the mowing and trimming and edging. They say it gives them relief from corporate routine. I get that it can provide a good feeling of a job accomplished – something tangibly done, finished (for now).

And, I totally get gardening. My dad liked to garden. My wife is an avid gardener. It relaxes her and she creates beauty all around. Her flower beds are gorgeous and her vegetable garden provides sustenance (mostly for deer, rabbits, and birds, but also for us). 

So, no judgment. Each to his own. Personally, I hate the whole idea. Well, not the whole idea – I like the flowers and enjoy the vegetables as long as someone else tends them. But here in the burbs, we scrape away all the topsoil, plant non-native grasses, dump carcinogenic chemicals all over it, drench it with water during droughts (water that runs off taking the carcinogens with it into our lakes, streams and ground water), then slave over it weekly with machines that foul the air, ruin our hearing, use up fossil fuels, and break down on a regular basis. We work hard all week to buy stuff so we can cuss at it on weekends. In the process, we kill all the pollinators, destroy the habitat of the wildlife, and give ourselves heart attacks and heat stroke. Like I said, no judgment, but life’s too short.

Today, after mowing down all the clover and, in the process, killing a few honey bees and butterflies and scaring the bunnies and blue birds, I overheard a conversation between Peter Rabbit and his mother. I can’t quote precisely, but it went pretty much like this: 

“Mom! A horrible man and a crazy loud stinky machine chopped down all my clover!”

“I know, Peter. People are evil. They are destroying our earth. It’s so sad.”

“And, mom, I saw him kill a honey bee! A honey bee, mom! And a flutterby!”

“You mean a butterfly, Peter.”

“Yea. The evil man lives with a nice lady who planted a vegetable garden just for us to eat. She should get rid of him!”

“Now, now, Peter, Jesus wants us to love and pray for our enemies.”

“Even foxes?!?”

“One day, Peter, Jesus will make all things new and foxes and bunnies will cuddle up together. But, in the meantime, you run from foxes and stay away from people! Remember, Mrs. McGregor put your father in a pie!”

“Mom, people can’t be in the God’s kingdom, can they? I mean, they’re the ones destroying the earth.”

“Well, I can’t imagine the Kingdom of God with people in it. They’re so short-sighted, selfish, and greedy. It would take a miracle. I guess we have to leave that to God. Now run along and play; I have work to do.”

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