Is God Guilty?

Is God Guilty? August 30, 2016

shutterstock_418202680By Ryan Patrick McLaughlin

In a previous blog, I noted how the structure of our cosmos—including the dance between its law-like structure and chance—renders certain horrendous harms an inevitable outcome.  For example, if evolution depends in part upon random genetic mutations, some of these mutations will inevitably be harmful (e.g, cancer). It was in this vein that I wrote:

“[I]f the universe is finely-tuned, it is not simply so for life. It’s also finely-tuned for violence, extinction, and disease. Even more potently: Ours is a universe well-designed for the suffering and death of children.”

Recently, I was sitting with my three-year-old son. He was squeezing my hands and chatting with me in the sweetest of manners. I felt an experience that I can only describe as happiness—an end in itself.  Then a terrible thought interrupted my happiness. There are some people—people who have known devastation beyond what I can bear to imagine—who would give anything to have this experience. What parent who lost his or her child wouldn’t give virtually anything to feel the embrace of that child?

But in a world such as ours, life, love, and happiness all come at a price. It is, after all, the very processes that make harms inevitable that also make happiness possible. As Darwin noted, it is from the violence of nature that burgeon “endless forms most beautiful.” There’s an inevitable price.  

But it’s not a price we all bear evenly. Life is a strange lottery. Some pay much more than others. Some pay with everything they have. Others enjoy a disproportionate amount of happiness. The beautiful moment with my son is made possible by an order in which others inevitably bear the brunt of ugliness.   

Why? It’s really just bad luck. I’m here reminded of when Andy Dufresne, the wrongly accused and incarcerated prisoner in Stephen King’s Shawshank Redemption, discusses the tragedy of imprisonment. He says, “It [bad luck] floats around. Has to land on somebody. Say a storm comes through. Some folks sit in their living rooms and enjoy the rain. The house next door gets torn out of the ground and smashed flat. It was my turn, that’s all. I was in the path of the tornado.”

It doesn’t seem fair, this callous disregard for the individual that is played out in evolution’s stumbling narrative. The unfairness is intensified for any monotheistic religion that maintains that (1) God created or facilitated (or designed!) the general contours of our cosmos (e.g., its law-like structure) and (2) God is good. If God facilitated the structure of our universe, the God has created a world in which a seemingly infinite number of underserving, unwitting, and unwilling victims will torturously perish on the altar of life. God has created a world in which the happiness we experience is built upon the often invisible cemeteries of these victims.  

It follows that I can’t simply celebrate. I also lament. I lament the cost of my happiness, the cause of my celebration. Indeed, sometimes I wonder, would I accept my happiness—my life—if I knew it required a foundation of such intense suffering, a price born by so many others. Or, like Ivan Dostoyevsky, would I hasten to return my ticket—not to heaven, but to existence itself?

At any rate, like Ivan my thoughts here turn to God, whose innocence seems impossible. Christians must acknowledge this reality. If the accusation is that God has either created or facilitated the creation of a world for which certain (unlucky) individual creatures will inevitably, disproportionately, and undeservedly pay the price, then the verdict must be the same that Elie Wiesel reported from the Talmudic scholars who put God on trial at Auschwitz: Guilty.

Let me repeat that claim. God is guilty.

Lamentation thus becomes protest against God. In my opinion, such is the impossible tension a Christian must bear. But how often do Christians welcome this kind of thinking? Indeed, many would undoubtedly call it sacrilege.  

But should it be? I think not. Consider that the Hebrews Scriptures (“Old Testament”) contain many forms of lament and protest against God.  Psalm 44 is a powerful example:

You have made us the taunt of our neighbors,
the derision and scorn of those around us.

You have made us a byword among the nations,
a laughingstock among the peoples.

All day long my disgrace is before me,
and shame has covered my face
at the words of the taunters and revilers,
 at the sight of the enemy and the avenger.

All this has come upon us,
yet we have not forgotten you,
or been false to your covenant.

Our heart has not turned back,
nor have our steps departed from your way,
yet you have broken us in the haunt of jackals,
and covered us with deep darkness. (13-19; NRSV)

This lament is not an innocuous or half-hearted complaint. The author is accusing God of breaking covenantal faithfulness, which is perhaps the most serious of accusations one can make against God. The people have not been false to God’s covenant, and yet they bear consequences as if they were. The only conclusion: it is God’s faithfulness that has faltered. And so the author calls God to action:

Rouse yourself! Why do you sleep, O Lord?

Awake, do not cast us off forever!

Why do you hide your face?
Why do you forget our affliction and oppression? (23-24; NRSV)

But what does the text of Jews have to do with Christianity? Yes, that statement is meant to drip with sarcasm. Jesus, himself a Jew, bore out this lamentation and protest.  

On the cross, Jesus cried out what I consider to be some of the most powerful words he ever spoke: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34; Matthew 27:46). Jesus is quoting Psalm 22, which includes a paradoxical mixture of accusation and trust. But we should not, as some are prone to do in apologetical sermons, water down Jesus’s accusation. He is lamenting. He is protesting. He is accusing God of forsaking him. Even when Psalm 22 is read in its totality, the severity of Jesus’s cry remains, albeit in tension.

But we can say much more here if we account for creedal theology. Jesus is God the Son incarnate—true God in the flesh. And when God in the flesh faces this world, something amazing happens. God (the Son) accuses God (the Father). Even God is led to protest against God in the midst of the violence of this world. Of course, Jesus’s death was not natural. Even so, I am inclined to follow Jürgen Moltmann in thinking of Jesus as the victim par excellence of evolution—the one who dies the death of all the living.  

Working with the theological framework in which Jesus is God incarnate, three important outcomes follow from Jesus’s accusatory protest.  

First, one can live within the impossible (and perhaps foolish) tension of accusation against God and trust in God. Accusing God does not mean forsaking one’s religion. It is within the context of Jesus’s overall faithful that he accuses God.  Similarly, when Wiesel recalls the guilty verdict against God at Auschwitz, he also recalls the Talmudic scholars praying to God afterwards. Like these amazingly faithful Jews, Christians can recover lament, protest, and accusation without abandoning their faith.

Second, because God has accused God, accusation against God is now sanctified. It is now godly to accuse God. When humans, whether Christian or otherwise, protest against God, when they accuse God frankly, they are in the company of none other than God the Son. Because such is the case, to deny the place of lamentation, protest, and accusation in personal and corporate worship is to quell an expression of godliness and to ignore the very response of God to the horrors of our world.   

Third, as Moltmann notes, because God has experienced god-forsakenness, the God-forsaken places of the world are filled with divine presence. God is not merely in the suffering. God is in the protest of suffering—our accusations against God.

God inhabits our praise. I’ve heard Christians say this many times, drawing on Psalm 22:3. But as that very Psalm should remind us, especially when spoken by Jesus, God inhabits our protest.  

So again, God is guilty. I do not make this claim lightly. But I make it in the strength of the company of some of the most faithful people in history.  

Ryan Patrick McLaughlin, PhD, is an Assistant Professor at Siena College.

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