Letter from America
Haiti: what evangelicals say
It wasn’t long after the current crisis in Haiti broke that I was sent the following YouTube clip of Pat Robertson ascribing the devastation of Haiti to the work of the devil, indeed a pact of the devil (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=59NCduEhkBM). Cue usual snorts of derision from non-Christians (and many Christians no doubt too), and cue usual despair that the rather more sophisticated — it’s not hard to be rather more sophisticated — apologists are not given the same airtime.
Then there was also the link I was sent of some former evangelical professor who seemed to suggest that the ‘clever ones’ (or some such phrase) offering an attempted theodicy would be trying to so do by saying it was all a ‘mystery’.
The best we can do?
I’ve no doubt at some level it is a mystery, in some sense; after all Job is not given an answer for all his suffering (talk about a ‘pact with the devil’), but simply presented with the awesome God and brought to his knees in worship. That is an answer of a sort, but, in an intellectual, philosophical sense (rather than a strict New Testament theological sense), it could be fitted within some broad category of a mystery. But when someone says it’s more clever to say it’s simply a ‘mystery’, they seem to be suggesting that the best — and it’s not very good — that Christians can do in face of such devastation is to throw up our hands and say, ‘Who knows? We certainly don’t. Let’s hope God does’.
Problem of suffering
Which is not what the Bible says, of course. In fact, Jesus gives a very specific answer when he is asked about the problem of suffering, and it is so familiar and well known it beggars belief to me that it is not more commonly used as the default text to turn to when presented with such difficult ‘theodocies’. Don’t get me wrong; we don’t want to present suffering people with simple, however sophisticated, answers alone without presenting them also with real help. I’ll take that as read. We must do something and not merely talk about it, but respond we should in a theodicy too, as Jesus did.
When Jesus was asked about why it was that certain people had been killed by Pilate — a famous event in his day — he responded this way, also referencing a well-known devastating disaster at the time of the falling of the Tower of Siloam. ‘Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them — do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will perish”‘ (Luke 13.2-5).
Need for repentance
Jesus is refreshingly void of cant. What he is saying is that this suffering and death is not a sign that the people who experienced it are any worse than the rest of us; rather, a particular piece of suffering is a sign that all of us are in a terrible state and we’d better all, therefore, repent. C.S. Lewis’s famous comment that ‘suffering is God’s megaphone to a deaf world’ is exactly right. Look at it this way: say you get cancer. You have lung cancer. Do you look at your cancer area and say, ‘Bad lung! Bad cancer area! You’re ill, the rest of me is fine’? When people in Haiti die terribly it is a sign of the real, terrible condition of all of humanity. It is a sign of our need of repentance. It is a sign of the coming wrath of God, yet more terrible. It is not a sign that the people in Haiti are necessarily any more wicked than anyone else. When we watch images of the towers fallen down in Haiti it should cause us to repent. That’s what Jesus is saying. Watch out, this is coming! You’d better get right with God.
Of course, C.S. Lewis, for instance, in his writings on suffering was far more confident in his The Problem of Pain than in the later A Grief Observed where he was actually dealing with his own personal suffering. So, in that sense there are all sorts of important distinctions. Pastorally, a person in suffering is not — almost always — in a position to receive an ‘answer’. They are in a position to receive help. That’s the Christian response. Love, compassion, getting our hands dirty: doing something. When we are in the storm that is when the foundation that we have been building our lives upon is shown for its merit. The time to consider suffering is when we are not. The sort of sermon of ‘repent’ that should be preached is exactly to those who are not, according to Jesus, directly related to the tower falling, but to those who know about it and wonder about it. In other words to most of us.
Put that in your pipe and smoke it. Or rather, get that in your head and repent.
And, far from incidentally, my guess is that, once again (as at the terrible tragedy of Katrina), evangelical Christians will be shown to be at the forefront of providing aid and sending help to the victims. Don’t confuse sophisticated talk with actually doing something. But be assured that Jesus has an answer to the problem of suffering.
In fact, he is the answer. Ultimately, we worship a God who hung and suffered there. As at the graveside, there is no safer place for the Christian because Christ rose again from the dead, so at the place of suffering there is no surer place for the Christian because our Lord is the crucified one, whose scars are his victory, who suffered as we do, and, indeed, suffered in our place that one day every tear would be wiped away. That’s a God I can believe in. A God I’m grateful for. And one I worship. How about you?