From: ON FAITH Newsweek.
By: Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite
President, Chicago Theological Seminary The Rev. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, is the 11th President of Chicago Theological Seminary. She has been a Professor of Theology at the seminary for 20 years and director of its graduate degree center for five years. Her area of expertise is contextual theologies of liberation, specializing in issues of violence and violation.
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"Oh, My God!"
How many of us have cried “Oh, My God” in the last six years as we have seen horrific events unfold? The attacks of 9/11 and the destruction and aftermath of Katrina are certainly two times many of us have had that reaction. Both of these events were genuine tragedies; both were tragedies that involved an enormous helping of human callousness and downright evil.
Both times I have asked myself (and been asked), “Where do we begin as religious leaders to help people make sense of the senseless?”
Lament is one way. The cry from the heart helps us express the anger and outragethat are there in each of us. After 9/11, we at CTS read the Psalms each day in chapel at noon. We began with Psalm 22, changing the pronouns to reflect our corporate response: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken us? Why are you so far from helping us, from the words of our groaning?” Where are you, God? How could you let this happen? Where could God possibly be in acts so vile?”
Where is God when people who were too poor to leave New Orleans drown from a massive hurricane? Where was God in the response that was too little too late?
Several theological themes can help us reflect out of our pain and frustration.
Divine Providence:Immediately after 9/11, the Chicago Tribune quoted a woman who said, “It is hard to know what God’s intends in these acts.” This woman apparently meant that somehow God intended the attacks of 9/11. People ask the same question about disasters like Katrina.
When great tragedy strikes, people will try to make theological sense of it. When they don’t have any good theology to use, they will use bad theology, but they will somehow try to make religious sense out the event.
One of the first themes I offer for reflection is that God didn’t do this. God did not will the deaths of thousands of people in 9/11 or in Katrina. The Bible testifies over and over again that God wills life and not death for the whole creation. Divine providence does not mean that God authors each and every act in the world. That would leave no room for the rebellion against God’s will that we call sin and evil.
One of our graduates from 1902, G. Campbell Morgan, named one of the ten greatestpreachers of the twentieth century, held his pastorate in London during his long career. He gave a sermon following the sinking of the Titanic. He noted that he had heard people in London saying that God sunk the Titanic because those on board must have been very bad. Morgan rejected that kind of simplistic view of God’s providence, arguing for a God who is present to humanity in tragedy, but who does not author tragedy.
But how is God present? Kwok, Pui Lan, a Chinese theologian, writing at the otherend of the twentieth century, asks the same question when Chinese baby girls are smothered because their parents, under a one child policy, want a boy. Where is God when a baby girl is smothered? “God weeps with our pain,” wrote Kwok.
God hates senseless, stupid acts of violence that hurt and destroy more than we do.What is more, the divine compassion embraces each and every one of us, the destroyed and the destroyers.
In the immediate aftermath of both 9/11 or the massive incompetence of the FEMA response to Katrina, that is more than people could hear. But eventually, we have to hear it if we are not to allow evil to perpetrate more evil in revenge and enemy stereotyping. Good and Evil:One way to help people find an alternative doctrine of God other than the simplistic“God wills everything” is to show that even in the midst of great evil, good is not absent.
Certainly there is no greater good than those who give their lives for others. The New York firefighters and police who died in the first rescue attempts and then struggled in those scenes from Dante’s lower reaches of hell embody human good at its fullest. Passengers on the flight that crashed in Pennsylvania attempted to resist the highjackers when they realized that they would be used to kill others. They died for their attempts, but their plane killed no one else. The outpouring of blood, surely the most vivid declaration of human solidarity with the suffering is another example. While the government response was pathetic following Katrina, millions of dollars in direct aid was immediately given by fellow citizens. Trucks and convoys of supplies and volunteers converged on the Gulf. And around the country people were sheltered and re-located by untold (and unnamed) individuals, religious organizations and others.
Evil is not justified because good results, but evil does not have the last word on who the human being is and can be.
But evil breeds evil in its very nature. The calls for revenge and the rise in prejudice against Muslim Americans and Muslims around the world have provided a rich soil for germinating the violence of revenge. We attacked Iraq out of misplaced revenge and that war is tearing that country and this one apart. The evils of racism and greed that made the Katrina disaster so much worse have festered since the storm, generating heat without light as the underlying issues are not addressed forthrightly.
Terrorism or racism does not stop with the act itself, but with the rending of the fabric of human community in the making of enemies, of the engendering of suspicion, of the lie that peace is not possible.
As we look back at the inauspicious beginning of the 21st century, we do need to ask, “Will the seeds of hatred be allowed to grow or will other crops yet be planted and harvested?”