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Posts Tagged "The problem of pain and evil":

Sandy Hook and the Christian Vocation: Taylor Carey

We turn to God when we are sorely pressed;

we pray for help, and ask for peace and bread;

we seek release from illness, guilt, and death:

all people do, in faith or unbelief.

 

We turn to God when he is sorely pressed,

and find him poor, scorned, without roof and bread,

bowed under weight of weakness, sin, and death:

faith stands by God in his dark hour of grief.

 

God turns to us when we are sorely pressed,

and feeds our souls and bodies with his bread;

for one and all Christ gives himself in death:

through his forgiveness sin will find relief.

 

 

 

Any attempt at a ‘theological’ reflection on the appalling events of last Friday in Newton, Connecticut, carries with it a terrible risk of glib domesticity. How can we speak of love, healing and reconciliation when we – thankfully – have no idea of the chaos engulfing the families of victims and survivors alike? What could it possibly mean to speak of a loving God and solidarity of prayer, amidst the reeling shock, horror and haemorrhage that have been visited on a few ordinary families? And what perspective can we possibly bring to a tragedy so deep and all-consuming that is not simply an irrelevant failure to grasp the true horror of reality?

 

There are times when we are confronted by evil so grotesquely profound that all of our settled assumptions, our comfortable realities and our convenient truths simply crumble before us. We are left amidst the ruins of our optimism, robbed of our faith in our fellow human beings and bereft of a foundation upon which to rebuild our worldview. September 11th, 2001 was one such time; from Beslan to Virginia Tech there have been far too many others. After each occurrence, the sickening revelations of evil leave us feeling as if our trust has been plundered, sapped and destroyed. Though few would dare say they know how the parents of the twenty murdered schoolchildren feel, each of us does sense the loss in some small but deeply sorrowful way. The bonds of humanity are perilously weak; yet in the darkest hours of grief, we feel, if just for a moment, a sense of common assault.

 

This Dietrich Bonhoeffer knew. From his death cell in a Nazi prison, he penned some of the most profound and haunting works of Christian spirituality ever written. How can we even begin to understand the unimaginable bleakness, the desolation and the isolation he must have felt? How can we ever grasp the full force of his language, his thoughts and his spiritual journey, which endured month after month of withering hope, and, of course, ended with a hangman’s noose? In a similar way, how do we go about absorbing the sheer depth and density of the diaries of Etty Hillesum, a courageous young woman who recorded her own spiritual growth even amidst the appalling suffering of Jews in Amsterdam during the Second World War? And how much do we really comprehend when we turn over that last page of her recollections, marking the beginning of her own squalid passion, culminating not at Calvary but in the gas chambers at Auschwitz?  Our own domesticity hangs around our necks like a condemning placard. For most of us, our theologising remains inadequate and outmoded.

 

All of this is to say that any reflection on the tragic events at Sandy Hook elementary school last Friday must begin with humility. We simply cannot think here of offering ‘solutions’ or somehow neatly repairing the torn fabric of broken humanity. The injury is too real, too complex and too deep for that, as it is in any situation where innocent children – the joy of all our lives – are brutally killed, and we realise that we can no longer make the basic assumption that school is a safe place. Mapping out a Christian perspective in these circumstances begins with the rejection of a neat theodicy, just as it begins with the acceptance and embrace of the reality of pain and grief. In this sense, we really do have a ‘vocation’, a calling to be and to do, rather than to theorise and account for, circumscribe and explain away.

 

Moments of disaster unsettle our categories. The trappings of conceptual security with which we daily surround ourselves are cast away, leaving us vulnerable and naked. But if this has the capacity to weaken and destroy, it also has the capacity – however indescribable in its pain and sorrow – to reveal and ‘make anew’. This is no trite process of ‘justification’ or ‘acceptance’; nothing justifies the deaths of twenty children, nothing makes that acceptable. Rather, this process is a slow realisation of God’s presence at the very heart, the absolute centre, of human activity. As Bonhoeffer and Hillesum bear witness to, it is the realisation of a God who grieves and mourns with us, and whose promise to abide among us is one, at base, which we can trust. There is no simple solution to the gut-wrenching chasm in our thinking which the presence of evil opens up for us each time it strikes; but the Christian commitment, properly understood, is to live through tragedy, accepting the shocking pain and torment it brings, whilst still, somehow, remaining attuned to a world charged with the divine creativity of a vulnerable, grieving God.

 

‘Theology’ in this sense is not a neat system of abstract ideas, but rather what happens in embodied lives of faith. It finds its home in the authentically lived Christian life, which maintains a commitment to seeing every aspect of our existence as a space in which God’s creative work might bear fruit. Grief and sorrow form an equally important part of this schema as joy and jubilation; so it is that we find ourselves very much pursuing the theological vocation as we bear witness to the pain and tragedy in Connecticut, amidst the ongoing political chaos and emotional tumult. Central to this witness is a reflection on our received assumptions and entitlements, and a sober analysis of the contingencies of human justice and societal functionality in a broken and fallen world. Certainly, there are political practicalities to realise – Congress desperately needs to attend to long-overdue reform in the areas of gun control and mental healthcare provision – but the basic Christian commitment to be there for the neighbour and bear witness to an undefeatable love in times as grave as these cannot be forgotten. The legacies of Bonhoeffer and Hillesum attest to the importance – and the essential coherence – of such a task.

 

As the Archbishop of Canterbury said on BBC Radio 4’s ‘Thought for the Day’, in a society where fear remains a common denominator of social interaction, and communities are weaker and more atomised than ever, new laws and regulations are long overdue. But the distinctly Christian vocation in times such as these continues to be found in self-giving and neighbourliness, manifested in a radicalism which dares to proclaim and act upon a love so gratuitous, that it endures even the fiercest storm of a chaotic – and often tragic – world.

 

The opening poem is from ‘Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), Letters and Papers in Prison’ (SCM Press, 1953). Translated Church Hymnatry, 4th edition (Canterbury Press, 2005).
The illustration is Abstract by: Jo Fagan via Seed Resources.com
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