The classic theological responses to tragedy have found a quick voice in the aftermath of the Aurora Colorado shootings: “It was God’s will. It is part of God’s plan. We cannot understand it, but God had a purpose in these deaths.” The inadequacy of these traditional answers warrants an alternative proposal. Here are the four theological points I take in to these type of situations ministerially. They were put together in a Providence seminar with Frank Tupper.
1. God permits [no, God tolerates] but does not purpose violence and murder. A broken and angry young man, not God, killed and injured the 71 victims in Aurora Colorado. Adolescent rejection, cultural violence, privileged narcissism, violence in culture, video games, sheer randomness – these provide partial but inadequate explanation of this monstrous mystery. However, the mysterious power of evil should not be confused with the gracious mystery of God. From the horrors of Auschwitz to the shock of Aurora evil involves human freedom and historical indeterminacy, which shape the specific context of God’s action and rule. The activity of God in all things does not mean God controls everything. That several victims experienced God’s presence in the massacre does not mean that God willed or predetermined it. The God of Jesus does not “send” evil to us; rather, God gives us strength in it, hope through it, and eternal promise beyond it. Jesus taught us to pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done” acknowledging that God’s will is not yet done on earth as it will be in heaven. The life, death and resurrection of Jesus constitutes the essential paradigm of Christian faith, but we should not superimpose the story of Jesus onto history’s bloody killing fields and glibly turn them into the inscrutable handiwork of God.
2. God “works in everything for Good,” bringing good out of evil, joy out of sorrow, life out of death; but the work of God “in everything” does not mean that God decreed this event from “before creation” as part of a great “plan” that we cannot fathom. Not everything that happens is the design and intention of God. To interpret violence and murder as part of an eternal divine plan does not honor God, and such an interpretation trivializes ghastly evil into some kind of ultimate good. The light that God brings out of this darkness does not negate its sinful character and origin, nor does God’s purpose in the aftermath of such senseless tragedy assume some preordained purpose in the evil itself. Jesus taught us that God is “Abba, Father,” “a Motherly Father,” “a Fatherly Mother,” One who surpasses the best of all parents, an identity which contradicts the assertion that God “wills” the death of any “little child.” God works for good in everything, but the good that God Accomplishes does not nullify the evil done or its devastating consequences.
3. The provision of God assures us of God’s presence but not God’s protection. The gift of life includes vulnerability to illness, accidents, randomness and violence. God’s action in Biblical history affirms our exposure to countless dangers in human existence. To say that God chose to protect the survivors wrongly implies that God refused to protect the victims. Life is oftentimes arbitrary, but the God of Jesus remains faithful: God preserves us whenever possible, and God is “with us” when deliverance proves unavailable. We do not trust God on the condition that God will always “deliver us from evil,” but we prayerfully trust God because this God loves each and all of us, personally and individually, as God’s own children. Jesus characterization of God as Abba suggests a powerful parental model of God’s relationship to the world, a model of joyful self-investment as well as risky self-limitation.
4. Following Jesus means commitment to the Jesus way of love, the life-style of God’s kingdom, Jesus’ Abba-vision of God. Jesus assures us: “God knows my name. God sees my face. God intends joy for my life.” We trust the Spirit’s leading in doing God’s will today, and we journey in the hope of resurrection into God’s eternal tomorrow. As the memory of the dead & living, innocent & guilty tells us, the wholeness of life available to us at any stage of life roots in our relationship to God – forgiveness and acceptance, guidance and responsibility; growth toward maturity through worship, meditation, prayer; the generosity of Jesus’ friendship extended to others. Whatever life’s circumstances, we find courage and meaning in the gracious mystery of this God, the One whom Jesus dared to call, “Abba.”