Monday, May 30, 2011

No Bad Things

Some questions contain hidden assumptions or fallacies that render them nonsense, impossible to answer meaningfully. What color is yesterday? makes a category mistake; so too When is a square? What meaning would any answer offer?

My region of the country – the south and southeast – recently has experienced devastating storms, costly in property and, most tragically, in lives as well. In this we are not alone; the Midwest has suffered and is suffering still. More than once in the aftermath of these storms I have heard the age-old question, Why do bad things happen to good people? More lament than query, likely no answer is required, just prayer and compassion and assistance. That is just as well. The question as posed allows for no meaningful answer. Hidden assumptions and fallacies lie in wait for the unwary.

First, there is the notion of “good people.” This is a Romantic idea and perhaps an Enlightenment one. But, it is not a biblical notion. When hailed as “Good Teacher” by an apparently honest seeker, Jesus replied, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone” (Mk 10:18, NRSV). Following this line of assessment, Paul writes:

‘There is no one who is righteous, not even one;

there is no one who has understanding,

there is no one who seeks God.

All have turned aside, together they have become worthless;

there is no one who shows kindness,

there is not even one.’

‘Their throats are opened graves;

they use their tongues to deceive.’

‘The venom of vipers is under their lips.’

‘Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.’

‘Their feet are swift to shed blood;

ruin and misery are in their paths,

and the way of peace they have not known.’

There is no fear of God before their eyes’ (Rom 3:10-18, NRSV).

The Christian faith is not unduly pessimistic, just unflinchingly realistic about human nature. G. K. Chesterton once remarked – tongue-in-cheek but quite accurately nonetheless – that original sin is the only truly demonstrable Christian doctrine. Christians – at least those who look honestly into Scripture and into their own hearts – understand “good people” as a category mistake not unlike a blue yesterday or a 5 o’clock square. There simply is no category of people – even the best of the lot – that may be called good and thus may be granted immunity from the difficulties and tragedies of life. Those Christians well grounded in the ancient faith are much more likely to ask why good things happen to bad people rather than the other way round.

Second, there is the notion of “bad things.” It takes a bit more work to see this also as a category mistake, but I think it is worth the effort.

Things – by which we generally mean actions or events – certainly may be evil. Christians consider anything that opposes the will of God to be evil. Nor does one need be a Christian to recognize evil, though the lack of absolute referent may be problematic. Christian or not, humans consider such atrocities as the Holocaust evil; to refuse to apply the word “evil” to such things is to bring one’s own humanity into question. There is, then, clearly a category of things labeled evil, a category usually reserved for the actions of men. And it is legitimate to question why evil things happen – not to good people but to any people at all. The Christian story offers an answer, though one I am afraid is much out of favor presently: sin. Evil is the product of human choice – free choice, yes, but free choice which has been conditioned by all the errant choices of humanity that have shaped a world in which evil is most often the easiest of choices to make. An addict is free to refuse the next drink or pill, but his freedom is conditioned by all the previous choices to feed his addiction and by the culture of addiction in which he almost certainly lives. This is not to reduce personal responsibility, but to place it within a context of corporate responsibility, as well. We are individuals, but also corporate members of humanity and our choices matter not only to ourselves, but to all men.

In a separate category, things may be tragic. These are impersonal events which violate a sense of proper order, a sense of how things “ought” to be: the untimely death of a child or young adult; the devastation wrought by tsunami, tornados, floods – “natural” disasters; the hardships wrought by drought and famine, and the like. Unlike evil things, there apparently is no one to blame for tragic events – unless one seriously considers them “acts of God.” Such events are nondiscriminatory and random – they just happen – making no distinction between saint and sinner or prince and pauper. Yet again, the Christian story offers the same explanation for tragic events as for evil ones: sin. Human sin has disrupted the order of creation and has introduced entropy and corruption where once there was order and incorruption (cf Rom 8). Clearly human behavior impacts nature: oil spills, greenhouse emissions, deforestation, etc. The Christian story sees these specific examples as signs of a disease that infects man at a much more fundamental level. The world is out of sorts because man has failed to fulfill his vocation as steward of God’s creation. Creation suffers at our hands, and we, in turn, suffer at creation’s hands.

We could add other categories. Painful things come to mind – loss and hurt common to all men – like the dissolution of a marriage, the death of an aged parent, the financial collapse of a family business: things not unusual or unexpected, but hurtful nonetheless. But no matter how many categories we add, one will be missing: bad things. For by “bad things” I mean irredeemable events that separate one from the love and will of God; and these simply do not exist.

As one case in point Scripture offers the story of Joseph: sold into slavery by his brothers, falsely accused of attempted rape, wrongly imprisoned, and forgotten. And yet, when time came that Joseph could exact revenge on the very brothers who instigated these evil events he said instead:

“Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today” (Gen 50:19-20, NRSV).

This text does not deny that Joseph’s brothers intended evil. Nor does the entire story deny that evil resulted from their actions; slavery and false imprisonment are clearly evil acts. But the story will not allow any of these things to be called bad precisely because God redeemed them and used them not only for Joseph’s salvation, but for the salvation of many – and ultimately for the salvation of all through the preservation of Israel.

The story of Joseph is but one of many examples offered in Scripture. Paul draws all the specific examples together in a grand theological picture of the good things in the providence of God:

We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose (Rom 8:28, NRSV).

Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril or sword? No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom 8:35, 37-39, NRSV).

Evil things? Yes. Tragic things? Certainly. But bad things – things which are irredeemable by God, things which cannot be incorporated into his will for the salvation of man and the restoration of the cosmos? No. So, the Christian has no answer for the question of why bad things happen to good people because he knows it to be a meaningless question. Instead, the Christian would prefer to tell the story of a God who is even now through Christ putting all things to rights, who is even now drawing good from evil and tragic events alike. The Christian prefers to tell the final chapter of the story in which heaven and earth are joined, God’s will is done on earth as in heaven, and God is all in all – the final chapter:

God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away
(Rev 21:3b-4, NRSV).

This is more than semantics and sophistry; it is the Christian faith and hope that praise God as sovereign over his creation, that recognizes that our God is good and never stands helpless before his creation. It is the faith and hope that allow us to enter into the pain of the world in redemptive prayer and work, knowing that our God draws straight with crooked lines. He is, after all, the one who brought life for all from the death of his son – the greatest good from the worst evil. In light of the cross, there are no bad things – only things which God can and will use for good, for the life of the world.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

A Kingdom Response

The recent death of Osama bin Laden and the general reaction in the media and across our nation have again emphasized the inherent tension between citizenship in the nations of the world and citizenship in the Kingdom of God. It has verified for me that, indeed, “Christian Nation” is an oxymoron – even more, a category mistake. Individuals may be Christian, but nations are not in the category of things that can be Christian.

It seems to me entirely reasonable for the Commander-In-Chief of the United States to order the elimination of an enemy sworn to the destruction of our nation; I find no fault in a President acting in this manner. It is also not unexpected that citizens of the United States – as citizens of the United States – should feel a great sense of relief, and perhaps jubilation, that the enemy leader is no more. I can even – and perhaps especially – empathize with the families of the victims of 9/11 – victims themselves – in mixed feelings of justice and vengeance. The problem is that none of the actions or reactions is Christian. Our Lord, Commander-In-Chief of the Hosts of Heaven, commanded his followers to forego vengeance and retaliation, to pray for enemies, to show mercy toward them. He commanded us to forgive – seventy times seven. He commanded us to lay down the sword and to lay down our lives. I do not think a nation can do these things and survive. But Christians? We cannot ignore these things and survive. And therein lies the tension. We are simultaneously citizens of the United States and of the Kingdom of God, with conflicting values and demands imposed upon us. I am no better at reconciling these conflicts than anyone else. How do we start?

First, we must refuse to rejoice over the death of our enemy; we must, instead, mourn for the victory of Satan who so perverted an image-bearer of God that he could become our – or anyone’s – enemy. God desires not the death of a sinner; can we? And – Dare I say this? – we must pray for God’s mercy upon Osama bin Laden, that if possible, even now his heart may be turned to embrace our Lord and become our brother instead of our enemy.

Second, we must pray for our enemies who remain, that peace may rule their hearts and ours and that together we might worship our Lord.

Third, we must pray for ourselves – for the strength to follow our Lord and for forgiveness of the myriad of ways we are complicit in making enemies and adding to the burden of sin in the world.

Forth, we must continually re-evaluate our priorities and our loyalties. We are a kingdom and priests to serve the God and Father of our Lord Jesus. We cannot serve with bloody hands, unless that blood be our own, unless that blood be Christ’s.

I write these things, brothers and sisters, not to remove the speck from anyone’s eye, but rather humbly to acknowledge the log in my own. Of your mercy, please pray for this sinner.