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I’m so troubled by all that is happening in our world. The forest fires this summer, the airplanes being lost or shot down, the fighting in Gaza. Where has God gone?
Roughly halfway through, “Night,” Elie Wiesel’s account of surviving the Holocaust, Wiesel tells the story of an execution. Wiesel and his fellow prisoners were assembled to watch three people hanged, two men and a boy. When the chairs were kicked over and the ropes bit into their necks, the men died fast. But the boy was too light. And so his dying lasted more than half an hour. As Wiesel and the other prisoners watched this child’s torturous end, he writes that he heard a man behind him in the crowd ask:
“For God’s sake, where is God?”
And from within me, I heard a voice answer:
“Where He is? This is where – hanging here from this gallows…”
Theology is nowhere more incomplete, its struggles nowhere more pronounced, than when it comes to the question of suffering. And you know what? I find that incompleteness and those struggles reassuring. That’s because theological efforts to make suffering into something simple, into something easily understood, and maybe even into something noble, do little except to made theology look absurd and God look cruel.
I reject the notion that my 6-year-old neighbor, a boy with a generous smile and a wild imagination, ran out between parked cars and died under the wheels of a passing truck because “God needed him more than we did.” I reject the notion that there is consolation after the abrupt and untimely death of my friend and mentor Christopher, a man to whom I looked for comfort and wisdom, because “God doesn’t give us more than we can handle.” I reject the notion we might look upon forest fires or downed planes or the violence in Israel and Palestine and reassure ourselves that “God has a plan.”
What I do hold onto is the promise that God is with us in all of this suffering, is with us in all of this injustice, is with us in all of this loss. This promise of God’s presence is echoed across Scripture; think of God standing with the slaves in Egypt, think of God going with Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego as he is pushed into the furnace, think of God following Joseph into exile. Think of God nailed to the cross outside of Jerusalem’s walls.
God’s promise to be with us no matter how great our pain may be is what Wiesel remembered as he stood before the gallows some 70 years ago. That assurance is what I remember today. Where is God as the forests burn? God is in the shoes of those whose homes and farms sit in the path of the flames. Where is God as the plane is shot down? God is in Aisle 7, Seat B. Where is God in Israel and Palestine? God is in the house upon which the missiles fall. Where is God as still another young black man lies dying in our streets? God is bleeding in the gutter.
In case that sounds too bleak, Flora, know that God’s presence in all of these places means that resurrection is there, too. Resurrection doesn’t mean that our suffering will evaporate, that our pain is no big deal; remember that the wounds remain on Jesus’ body as he walks forth from the tomb. Rather, resurrection means that, in this gloriously broken world, loss and love are rarely far apart. It means that hatred and hope are rarely far apart. It means that death and new life are rarely far apart.
We caught a glimpse of resurrection this summer. As the fires burned and the planes fell, thousands of people heard the call to love their neighbors: they cooked meals for the grieved and the displaced, they volunteered to fight fires, they held the lost in the light. As my friend Chris died, he reminded the scores of people who loved him what friendship and generosity and bravery are like; in a way that I can’t entirely name, he made his death into a blessing. As the bombs fell in Gaza, millions of people around the world found renewed energy to work towards a just peace.
God is with us in the deepest of darkness, Flora. God is with us in our endings. And God is with us as well as we take our first halting steps out of the tomb and into a new beginning, as we take our first steps toward resurrection.