Forgiving God

I just read Forgiving God, written by John Boyle and one of my dear friends (and inspirations), Jeanne Bishop.

Each of the authors has had good reason to think about the question of whether we need to forgive God for permitting evil. As a young American soldier in World War II, Boyle was among those who helped liberate Dachau. “The sights and smells that engulfed [him] upon entering the camp initially stunned [him] into a stupor of disbelief that anything so horrible, so brutal, so obscene could have happened at all, much less have been perpetrated by human beings upon other human beings. Corpses of inmates of the camp lay strewn on the ground, in railroad boxcars, and stacked helter-skelter in piles. Before [him] in a panoramic display of carnage was bitter proof of the end result of anger, prejudice and hatred, when pushed to their logical conclusion.” Having been profoundly disturbed by my visit to Dachau this past summer, it is hard to imagine what it must have been like to see what Boyle saw when he walked in there in 1945.

Jeanne Bishop’s encounter was a more personal one. In 1990, her 25 year-old sister (then three months pregnant) and her husband were murdered. The murdered was waiting for them when they returned home after a family gathering. Jeanne’s brother-in-law was killed first, leaving Jeanne to “imagine [her] sister seeing the horror before her eyes: her husband’s body slumping to the floor, her dream of having children together and growing old dying with him. Then, seeing the gun turned on her. The killer fired into her body twice, in her abdomen and side, and fled.”

Each of the authors describes their experience in greater detail than I have done here in the course of sharing how they have grown and how they have grappled with their pain and anger. There is much in both of their narratives that is worth reflecting on and this is a book I would encourage anyone to read. (I was going to write “anyone who has grappled with the subject of God and evil – but I suspect that is most, if not all, of us at one point or another.)

Let me here just share one of the things each of them writes. John Boyle writes in talking about why even understandable outrage over injustice can become dangerous:

If my outrage or my anger is the only thing I have, am I in danger of becoming the embodiment of the only thing I have? Does it not then become the “god” around which I organize my life? And do we not ultimately become what functionally we worship?

I share it because there are so many circumstances where we persuade ourselves that our anger is justified, allowing us to feed it. I’m not saying anger is never an appropriate response, but anger easily moves from something that can lead to positive action to something that spirals out of control. And many who have endured tremendous suffering (especially at the hand of another) use their anger as a way of coping with their pain. They run great risks in doing so.

Jeanne Bishop shares the first step in getting past her anger with God, what she describes as her starting point. She writes

But all the time I was shaking my fist at God, questioning, I knew three things: first, that God existed; second, that God loved me, loved Nancy and Richard and their baby; and third, that they were somehow safe with God. That was my square one, my starting point.

If that is our starting point, we will be able to get past our anger and do what Jeanne was ultimately able to do: unclench our fists, uncurl our fingers and reach our hands into the “strong, loving hand of God.”


Where Was God Yesterday?

Yesterday’s violence in Connecticut was horrific. Was anyone not in tears as the news poured in that so many young children had been shot? It was almost too difficult to imagine – a young man walking into a school building and opening fire on children between the ages of five and ten.

People ask a lot of questions when events like this occur. Some of them have to do with our country’s refusal to limit the kinds of guns people can buy. Others have to do with our failure to provide adequate mental health treatment to so many in our society. (And both of those are important issues that should be discussed)

And at some point, the question gets asked, as it does in any tragedy, Where was God? What kind of God allows young children to be massacred? As one of my friends puts it every time an event like this happens: If God is omniscient and omnipotent, how could God foresee this and do nothing to prevent it?

The problem of evil in the world has been discussed by theologians across the centuries, and I’m certainly not the best person to provide any church’s “official” teaching on the matter. So all I can offer are some (not particularly sophisticated) thoughts that reflect how I answer questions such as those posed above for myself.

I’ve come to believe that free will is one of the greatest gifts God gave us as humans. (I say “come to believe” because this is an issue I struggled mightily with when I did the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius.) We are created by God to live in perfect union with God, in loving relationship with God. That is the very reason for our existence.

But God does not force us to accept the end for which we were created. Instead, God gives us the choice whether to live as we were intended. We get to say yes or no. Yes, I accept who I am, who I was created to be. Or no, I choose to assign a different meaning to my existence. God wants our yes, but will never force it.

Giving us free will is not costless. It means that there will be some who say no to life with God. Some who will choice evil over good, the infliction of pain over love. That means people will do horrendous things to others, without God stepping in to prevent it. But the alternative would be meaningless – a forced love is no love at all.

The existence of free will means there will be suffering. But I am also convinced that we do not face those sufferings alone; that God is there in that suffering. The suffering and death of Jesus are a reminder to us that there is no suffering we face that God does not face along with us.

And Jesus’ resurrection tells us that the suffering is not the end of the story. That after suffering and death comes resurrection.

Where was God yesterday? Weeping along with the rest of us. Where was God yesterday? Holding fast to those children and adults who were killed? Holding them close to God’s heart.

The Beheading of John the Baptist

Today’s Gospel from St. Mark is one that I have prayed with often – the death of John the Baptist at the hands of King Herod. Pleased by a dance performed for him and his guests by the daughter of Herodias, Herod promises the girl to grant to her whatever she wishes, swearing that anything she asks will be granted. Consulting her mother, the girl asks for “the head of John the Baptist.” Unwilling to reneg on his promise and look bad in front of his friends (and the girl), Herod “promptly dispatched an executioner with orders to bring back [John’s] head,” which the executioner does.

One of the contemplations that is part of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius is the Two Standards, in which we contemplate the standard of Christ and that of Satan. When I visualize the standard of Satan, and how we are tempted into sin, the scene from today’s Gospel is one that easily comes to mind.

What is so powerful for me about the passage is that it is clear that Herod knows full well that what he is doing is wrong. Herod knew John was a righteous and holy man and, although he was “perplexed” by John, “he liked to listn to him.” When the daughter of Herodius asks for John’s head, Herod was “deeply distressed.” Nonetheless, the power of the evil spirit was strong enough to cause Herod to kill John.

This is a good story to keep in mind. It reminds us that the power of evil is real and is strong. We need God’s grace to make good choices when confronted with the temptation to sin. Few of our temptations are to a sin as horrible as the one committed by Herod, yet we all face temptations to, in Paul’s words in Romans, “do not do what I want, but…what I hate.” Let us pray for the grace to walk always under the standard of Christ.

Original Sin

As I mentioned in a previous post, I’m currently reading St. Paul, a compilation of Pope Benedict’s cycle of catechesis on St. Paul given during a number of his general audiences in 2008-09. One of the subjects Benedict here addresses is original sin, providing a lucid and helpful explanation of a doctrine that many find difficult. Benedict believes the the topic to be important, recognizing both that many people today think there is no room for a doctrine of original sin in light of the history of evolution and that if there is no “first sin” that permeates all of human history, there is no foundation for “the matter of Redemption and of the Redeemer.”

Benedict suggests that in order to respond to the question whether original sin exists, it is necessary to distinguish two aspects of the doctrine: the empirical aspect that is tangible to all and the ontological foundation of the empirical reality. He explains, “The empirical fact is that a contradiction exists in our being. On the one hand, every person knows that he must do good and inwardly wants to do it. Yet at the same time he also feels the other impulse to do the contrary, to follow the path of selfishness and violence, to do only what pleases him, while also knowing that in this way he is acting against the good, against God and against his neighbors.” He reminds us of St. Paul’s lament in Romans that “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but I do the evil I do not want.” Benedict observes that this inner contradiction is something we experience every day; is it not a theory, it is a fact.

Given the “undeniable fact” of the existence of the power of evil in the human heart, the question is: how can this evil be explained? The Christian explanation, as elucidated by Benedict is that “there exist two mysteries, one of light and one of night, which is, however, enveloped by the mysteries of light. The first mystery of light is this: faith tells us that there are not two principle, one good and one evil, but there is only one single principle, God the Creator, and this principle is good, only good, without a shadow of evil; being as such is good, and therefore it is good to be, it is good to live. That is the good news of the faith: only one good source exists, the Creator. Therefore living is good, it is a good thing to be a man or a woman, life is good. Then follows a mystery of darkness, or night. Evil does not come from the source of being itself, it is not equally primal. Evil comes from a freedom created, from a freedom abused.”

Benedict suggests that there is no clear explanation for how it was possible for this to happen. The obscurity exists because “[e]vil is not logical. Only God and good are logical, are light. Evil remains mysterious. It is presented as such in great images, as it is in chapter 3 of Genesis with that scene of the two trees, of the serpent, of sinful man: a great image that makes us guess but cannot explain what is itself illogical. We may guess, not explain; nor may we recount it as one fact beside another, because it is a deeper reality. It remains a mystery of darkness, or night.”

This mystery of darkness is, happily for us, not the end. In contrast to alternate dualist visions, which view evil to be a force on the same level as good, and which therefore “cannot say that man is curable,” from Christian perspective, “[e]vil comes from a subordinate source. God with his light is stronger. And therefore evil can be overcome.” Thus, we can be healed.

King Herod and Doing What We Know is not Right

Today’s Gospel passage is one I have written about before – St. Mark’s account of the beheading of John the Baptist.  Coincidentally, this passage came up in discussion earlier this week during the group session of a program I’m giving at an Episcopal church, since this passage was one the participants had prayed with. 

Several people commented at how disturbed they were at the passage, a disturbance I experience whenever I pray with this passage.  Herod “liked to listen” to John and he feared him, “knowing him to be a righteous and holy man.”  Nonetheless Herod was conscious of his position as King and Herod loved the attention, adulation and respect of the people around him.  The prospect of looking bad in front of them was not an appealing one to Herod.  And so, having promised Herodias’ daughter that he would give her anything she asked for as a reward for her having pleased him and his guests with her dancing, when she asks for he head of John the Baptist on a platter,  “he promptly dispatched an executioner with orders to bring back the head.”

Doubtless none of us have beheaded another person, knowing it was the wrong thing to do.  But, as one person commented during our discussion, the passage causes us to reflect on the fact that we are capable of doing what we know is not right, that there are temptations and influences of various kinds that can cause us to act against our better judgment.  There are times when we can all say, as Paul does in Romans, “What I do, I do not understand.  For I do not do what I want, but I do what I hate.” 

As we grow in our relationship with God, we become strengthened in our ability to meet those tempations and influences.  Herod is a sober reminder of how strong those influences can be…and how great is our need for God.

Herod and John the Baptist

Today’s Gospel is Mark’s account of the martyrdom of St. John the Baptist and it is a reading that has always disturbed me. What disturbs me about it is the strength of the seductiveness of sin, the power of the temptation to turn away from God, that is illustrates.

Herod knew John to be “a righteous and holy man.” Although he was perplexed by much of what John said, “he liked to listen to him.” He clearly was intrigued by John. And so when he is asked by Herodias’ daughter for the head of the Baptist, he is “deeply distressed.” When I pray with this passage, I can feel Herod’s conflict when he hears her request. Nevertheless, he gives the girl what she asks for.

Herod knew full well that killing John was wrong…but he did it anyway. Lust for the girl, the need to look good in front of his guests, pride – all combine into too large a temptation for Herod to avoid the evil act. The story is a good reminder of the power of the forces that tempt people away from the path of light and love.