For many years, at least since seminary, I have struggled with the question of evil in all its forms. Recently of course I have had ample opportunity to reflect again on the nature of horrendous suffering, both near and far. For many years, at least since seminary, I have struggled with the question of evil in all its forms. Technically, this topic is the question of “Theodicy” – reconciling the belief in a good, loving God and the rampant evil and horrendous suffering all around us. In fact, between 1996 and 2001 – while serving two parishes in active ministry – I published three articles in the Anglican Theological Review dealing with this very issue. These writings took up the questions of personal evil, suffering, and the death penalty and state-supported killing in all of our names. So this is a question that has troubled me for years. (See the lead photo of the stack of books on the topic that I just pulled off my shelf.)
Recently of course I have had ample opportunity to reflect again on the nature of horrendous suffering near and far, as Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria have in turn wiped out whole communities, causing untold human suffering and property damage in the lives of innocent citizens in our country. Then of course there were the Charlottesville demonstrations and murder by vehicle. And just yesterday, I woke up to the NPR reporting of the Sunday night massacre in Las Vegas – the deaths of 58 innocent concertgoers enjoying an evening out to the sound of music. They apparently were mowed down by a madman who, over the course of several days, carted multiple weapons up to his room on the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay hotel (see photo below) where he was staying. Some of the rifles apparently had been fitted with a device that turned them from semi-automatic to automatic weapons. He apparently planned to use all of this weaponry to spray bullets on folks gathered below, causing maximum carnage in the process … before he shot himself dead.
So I’ve started to muse again about the nature of evil and where God fits into the picture of human suffering. In fact I have an easier time understanding the Charlottesville murder and the Las Vegas slaughter of multiple innocents … and the Sandy Hook Elementary School killing of children, Timothy McVeigh’s actions, the Virginia Tech murders and so on and on … than I can reconcile God’s goodness with hurricanes, tsunamis, the wasting away from disease – in short, what is termed “natural evil.” I understand human-initiated evil, or as some would term it, sin, because I do believe that we are created with what is referred to as “conditioned” freedom. That is, we are not perfectly free, because we are shaped by genes and circumstance – both nature and nurture – but ultimately we are free enough to be responsible for our acts. And sometimes, alas, we choose evil over good – for whatever perverted reason. So whatever Mr. Paddock’s motives were in that 32nd floor room, he apparently chose to pull the triggers that murdered the innocents gathered below.
But natural evil is harder to explain away. Oh, I understand the arguments about climate change and how humans do contribute to the changing weather patterns that are emerging, the violent storms that move over the face of the oceans, gathering category 4 and 5 strength as they go. But why did God create nature to be so unforgiving in the end? Why is the human body finally subject to breakdown? Why horrendous suffering that befalls most of us one way or another – unless, as someone noted, you’re lucky enough to be hit by a Mack truck somewhere along the way?
Well, sorry this is such a dark topic, but it’s out there, and growing darker by the day. And so I have been musing; I have been praying; I have been asking God why? And then I received in an email attachment a meditation from my great, good friend, John de Gruchy – the South African writer and theologian. The title of his piece was “God’s Mysterious Ways” – John’s own reflection on the problem of evil and the struggle to make some human sense of such suffering. I’m going to take the liberty of quoting from my own email back to him, before turning to a current resource that has fallen into my life as I write this. In my email, after affirming how difficult it is for me to come to grips with natural evil – tornadoes, floods, earthquakes, and accidents of all kinds, including genes that go awry – I ask:
How does this all fit into our understanding of a loving God and His intention for all creation? Well, one understanding that occurred to me was God’s answer to Job’s suffering. God is almighty and we are not. And our running up against natural calamity underscores our neediness, our utter dependence on God’s sustaining us through the horrors and then into the Beyond of God’s promise.
But your answer in the meditation struck me as an additional, and quite beautiful, comforting piece of this mysterious puzzle. That such calamities also pull forth the very best in human beings, our self-sacrifice and our willingness to suffer inconvenience and trials in helping another in need. Allowing humans to transcend the evil that is occurring on the face of the earth to extend God’s care through them for one another.
Shortly after I wrote this email to John, I ran across The Book of Joy (2016) written by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, along with Douglas Abrams. (See the cover displayed below.) The book is actually a report and sort-of transcription of a meeting the Dalai Lama and the Archbishop had in 2015 at the Dalai Lama’s home in Dharamsala, India. And the topic obviously was finding joy in life amidst all the trouble that comes our way. I’m about halfway through reading it, but I think the conversation between these two old friends is so fitting to our topic that I’m going to quote a bit from this work to close out our discussion. At one meeting, the Archbishop is reflecting on the importance of sadness in our lives because sadness (versus despair or depression) prompts us to reach out to one another. He says “we don’t really get close to others if our relationship is made up of unending hunky-dory-ness. It is the hard times, the painful times, the sadness and the grief that knit us more closely together.” And thinking of times of sadness in my own life and in the lives of my friends, his observation has a deep ring of truth to it.
Echoing my friend John’s thoughts (by the way, he and the Archbishop are close friends, going all the way back to the days of fighting Apartheid), Tutu reflects on the selflessness and generosity of responders in times of crisis, such as Doctors Without Borders who place themselves in peril to aid victims of disasters. (Think about all those who quickly came to the aid of Houston flood victims, putting their boats and lives into polluted waters to carry stranded strangers to safety.)
Finally, the Archbishop and His Holiness turn to the topic of hope – that does spring eternal and sustains us all. Tutu responds:
To choose hope is to step firmly forward into the howling wind, baring one’s chest to the elements, knowing that, in time, the storm will pass. … Yet hope requires faith, even if that faith is in nothing more than human nature or the very persistence of life to find a way. Hope is also nurtured by relationship, by community, whether that community is a literal one or one fashioned from the long memory of human striving whose membership includes Gandhi, King, Mandela, and countless others. Despair turns us inward. Hope sends us into the arms of others.
So in the end, faith, hope, and charity – or by another name, love – sustain us. But the greatest of these is love. And trials, suffering, and calamities in our lives can still work to bind us to one another, pulling us out of ourselves into loving community. “A gesture of kindness is never wasted.” As an ancient sage and early Christian wrote, “That which is done for love becomes wholly fruitful.” We are dependent on God and we are dependent on each other; suffering from without and suffering from within can pull us toward our better selves.