Where was God?

Three hundred souls blown from the sky over Eastern Ukraine. Five Guatemalan children dismembered and put on display as a warning to others who refuse to sell drugs for local gangs. A family of five executed by an estranged former family member. If there is a God, why does He allow such violence on the innocent?

While interviewing a retired police officer, the topic of God and religion somehow came up, and in a very detached, professional voice, he described horrors normally reserved for the battle field. His nauseating narrative of humanity’s inhumanity made the Nazis’ look tame. Add that many of the victims were children, and I understood his anguish and disappointment when he all but spat, “where was God then? How could God let that happen? Why should I worship such a being?”

Great questions, probably rhetorical, but certainly ones that had been asked before, and ones I wanted to answer. I wanted the wisdom of Abraham, Solomon and Jesus to flow from my mouth. But all I was coming up with were meaningless, canned answers: We live in a broken world. God was crying while they were hurting. They are in a better place now. I was guilty of spouting religious rhetoric in my youth, and I loathe it today as much as my victims must have then. I am only wise enough now to know that I am not wise enough to know. So I kept my mouth shut. But I was frustrated. After a lifetime of personal theological introspection, I couldn’t come up with any answer better than empty clichés.

The quandary festered for weeks before it occurred to me that there wasn’t an easy, one-line answer. There couldn’t be. Humans are complex beings with complex emotions. The world is a complex place, and if God created both, He, too, must be complex.

I hypothesized: perhaps the answer is layered like a mathematical proof. If true, we must agree on a fundamental truth – a common ground. Mathematicians must agree that one plus one equals two, and in order to answer this question, we must agree that there in a god. Otherwise, the entire point of this argument is moot: evil exists in the world and that’s just life. But if God exists, perhaps the best place to begin our proof is with evil. Why does evil exist? Why would a loving God, assuming He is a loving god, create evil in the first place?

Allegedly, Albert Einstein once argued that evil was not the creation of God, but rather the absence of Him. Like cold (which scientifically speaking is the absence of heat) and darkness (which similarly is the absence of light), Einstein argued that evil occurs when God is absent from people’s hearts. Whether or not Albert actually debated such a proof, I agree with his logic – as egocentric as I may be, I’m not one to argue with Einstein.

Evil exits because people choose to turn away from God. Perhaps a more secular statement might be that evil exists when people choose to ignore common decency. To paraphrase Rev. Charles F. Aked, the only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing.

By coincidence, I was reading an article by Stuart Kestenbaum in The Writer Magazine that had nothing to do with this topic or religion in any way. He wrote, “The beautiful bowl is not an act of the potter’s will, but a give and take, a dialogue among the hand and the clay and the kiln”. This reminded me of line from a hymn that says, “You are the Potter, I am the clay.” It’s based on Isaiah 64:8. “But now, O LORD, You are our Father, we are the clay, and You our potter; and all of us are the work of Your hand.” The point is, God doesn’t force us; he molds us. He lets us choose. God wants us to love Him (and each other), but love under duress is an oxymoron, so He gave us freewill. But free will is choice, and that comes with the ability to do horrible things to ourselves and each other. “Ah hah!” you say. “So why doesn’t God jump in and stop people from doing horrible things, especially when innocent children are involved?”

If you are suggesting that he wave His hand and come to their rescue, I suppose He could, but that would be interfering with free will. You can’t have it both ways. Pardon the cliché, but you don’t get an up without a down, a left without a right, and so on. Besides, jumping in and stopping something horrific today may cost us something good later. Consider the advances in medicine, communication, transportation, and physics that grew from war.

The carnage of WWI led to the development of prosthetics which have developed into the nearly invisible artificial limbs that exists today. Space travel, cell phones, the internet, and nuclear power all trace their roots back to WWII. Trauma centers grew from the Vietnam conflict. Are those things worth 1.6 million military casualties? Of course not, but because we cannot change the past, it is up to us to honor the cost… to turn it into something lasting and valuable.

On a smaller scale, consider parents, especially those of teens. There are probably hundreds of times when parents could jump in and save their teen from making mistakes. But they don’t. Why? Because we learn from our mistakes. Hopefully, the lessons don’t include horrible accidents or deaths, but sometimes they do. We progress though life accumulating battle scars and figuring out that our actions have an impact on others. Perhaps that is part of what makes us empathetic.

So what good comes from slaughtered innocents? I don’t know. There is no way I, or anyone else could ask the parent of a murdered child to look for the good in their loss. But suppose Adolf Hitler had been killed as a child. Or the great grand-parents of Osama Bin Laden had been killed as children. What if someone on flight 17 out of Amsterdam was the great-great-great grandfather of the next Saddam Hussein? We don’t know God’s bigger plan. Therein lies the cry, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” Luke 22:42.

I once asked my father-in-law if we shouldn’t appreciate what Judas had done. After all, had he not betrayed Christ, we wouldn’t be where we are today. He told me that God used the evil that was in Judas’ heart to fulfill His purpose, and had Judas changed his mind, God would have found someone else with evil. The point is God has a bigger plan. He can use evil for good. We commit evil and saddle Him to make something good of it.

So after the grief, after the anger, after the sleepless nights, after months of eating only to sustain life… what do you do now? You have a choice. You can seek vengeance, or you can seek justice. Few would fault the father of a slain child from seeking revenge, but outside of a John Grisham novel he’d likely end up in prison…or worse. But there are examples of those who took the next step, those who found it within themselves to achieve something greater than themselves and their loss.

Consider the partner in a hotel management company whose son was abducted and murdered. Who would have blamed him for his anguish? Who would have blamed him for revenge? Instead, John Walsh and Americas Most Wanted are responsible for 1,154 arrests including the indictment of Walsh’s son’s murderer, and the Code Adam program that is in force in malls across the country. How about the parents of nine-year old Amber Hagerman abducted and murdered in Texas? Because of their loss, we have the Amber Alert program today. And consider the proposed Kelly Alert which would alert law enforcement about recurring domestic violence. Another example of one family turning their personal tragedy and violence into a lasting and valuable violence prevention program for others.

If we accept that God has created a world in which we can choose, then perhaps we need to accept that God also chooses to intervene in more subtle, and for us, more impactful ways. Perhaps God is in the hearts of people like my friend and all those who run toward the gun shots and the screams, into the fires and the carnage. God is in the hearts of those who find it within themselves to seek justice above vengeance. Perhaps they are the blessed who have Him in their hearts every morning, motivating them to go do it again and again, for little pay, little appreciation, and a many sleepless nights. If we are hoping for angels to swoop in and save lives, do they not fit the bill? They give us hope. They fight for the powerless, they protect the weak, and they weep for the nameless.

Why don’t angels swoop in? They do. All the time. Every time.

Where was God, Richie? He was, and is, in you.

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