Note: This is a long post so I broke it up between Part I here and Part II below.
The Benedictine liturgies of the Divine Office and the Anglican liturgies that are their spiritual heirs are fundamentally about the disciplined encounter with Scripture. In the Benedictine liturgies, the Psalms are prayed in their fullness every week and the Bible is read through in community every year. In the Anglican system, the Psalter is prayed every month and the Bible is read through—more or less—every year or two through the Office and daily Mass readings. Throughout this process, Scripture is constantly being re-examined through a process of contextualization. That is to say, Psalm 4 means one thing read on the morning of the first day of the month and other when it was read at Compline the night before. It means one thing to read the Passion of Christ on a somber Good Friday; it means something else to read it in an evening in the autumn. Neither of these contextualizations exhaust the meanings of the respective texts. Instead, the contextualizations bring their own meanings, deepen, and fill out certain parts of the text.
Vespers as read from the ’79 BCP has an odd piece missing. On a “normal” day, three readings are prescribed. Yet there are two slots for readings at Matins, and two at Vespers. The empty slot is filled in with a variety of options according to local practice. At Smokey Mary’s, we are finishing a continuous reading of the book of Job as the locally determined first reading. Here, in September of 2005, a special context has been provided for the reading of this book. Job sounds different—Job reads different this week—in the face of Hurricane Katrina and in this Sunday’s commemoration of September 11th here in New York City. With this context in mind, I shall offer some reflections on the end of Job in September, 2005.
Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind:
“Gird up your loins like a man;
I will question you, and you declare to me.
Will you even put me in the wrong?
Will you condemn me that you may be justified?
Job is a difficult book. A long poem with a prose beginning and ending, many interpreters have sought to understand its lessons about God, humanity, and the issue of suffering while grappling with questions and teachings about a good God who cares for humanity and who answers prayer. Some have found solace; others, have found only more questions. Some have even been disgusted with what they found there and have left having found a god there whom they can no longer worship. Katrina and 9/11 ask for answers. Some look to Job—but some do so with trepidation, fear what they might find—or never find.
Glossing the first many chapters quickly, Job sits and debates with his friends. They start off strong: “And they sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great” (Job 2:13), but then everybody starts talking and things go down-hill in a hurry. There are some great speeches tucked in here (4:1-5:27 is a favorite of mine though I won’t agree with everything in there). To over-generalize and caricature, the speakers in Job operate out of the perspective found in Hebrew wisdom literature and, indeed, in wisdom literature from across the globe. Essentially, the argument boils down to a few key points. The main one, and one that you will find throughout the wisdom literature of the Bible (especially Proverbs, certain Psalms and Ecclesiasticus/Wisdom of Jesus Ben Sirach), is that actions have consequences.
The way that this concept shakes out is that good things happen to good people; bad things happen to bad people. As Proverbs envisions it, God is not necessarily directly involved. Instead, the world itself has retribution built into it. Treat people like crap and you’ll receive it in spades. Common laments in the Psalms recommend that the evil who have dug pits and laid traps might fall into their own snares (Pss 9:16, 35:8, 69:22, etc.). Many of the short, pithy wisdom sayings in Proverbs state that the wicked will face punishment for their bad deeds, the righteous will receive rewards for their good deeds. This is the worldview that both Job and his friends are trying to reconcile. His friends say, “Look—your world’s gone to hell; you must have done something wrong.” Note Job’s response. His argument is, “No! I haven’t done anything wrong and this shouldn’t be happening to me!” Both camps are working from the same paradigm, they’re both just arguing different sides of it. Essentially—they’re both trying to put God into the same box. They’re both using the same mechanistic understand of how God and the world act. And, as it turns out, they’re both wrong.
The problem is—there’s quite a lot to recommend this line of thought. Overall, this basic concept of good will receive good and bad will receive bad actually has a lot going for it. We can think of numerous examples where this is the case. The wicked get what they deserve, the good are exonerated. Or even, the wicked live with turmoil and distress, the good in quietness and peace. This view isn’t always wrong. The problem, however, as 9/11 and Katrina point out, it leaves an awful lot unexplained. My take on it is this: overall, this wisdom way of thinking is a good way to live and a good way to pattern one’s life. Do good, hope for good. Learn to love the good and do it. Avoid the bad, don’t be jealous of their ill-gotten gains (Prov 11:3-4, 28; 22:1, etc.). While it provides a good pattern for life and morals, it does not ultimately answer the question of theodicy—why bad things happen to good people.
The best way that I have found to think through this is to return to the thought above: actions have consequences. This is in the same line as good=good/bad=bad but it doesn’t go nearly as far and it doesn’t make promises. Instead, it means that both good and evil actions have consequences many—perhaps most—of which are not immediately comprehensible to the actor. What do I mean by this? A stock, rather facile, example might clarify things. Let’s say we have a drug dealer. He’s a bad dude. As part of his way of making a living he kills some folks. These folks, in turn have living friends with guns. As the drug dealer hangs out on a street corner one night, the living friends come by and shoot him dead. So far, so good, right? Actions have consequences. He made choices and committed actions. The inevitable result of these choices visited themselves upon him. In one sense, then, this validates the wisdom notion of bad=bad.
But let’s say—as we occasionally hear—a stray bullet flies into a nearby house killing a child asleep in bed. How do we explain this? Because a bad thing happened, is it the result of the child’s sin? Some would say yes. Some would remind us that everyone sins, thus the child had sinned, thus he has received death which are the wages of sin. At which point I give them the look that says—you’re an idiot. I would explain it differently. I would reiterate that actions have consequences. The actions of the drug dealer had consequences that went far beyond what he could see or imagine. Yet these actions of ours have consequences, even—especially—ones that we cannot foresee or know.
Others might say, “Well, it was just his time to go,” or, “God just needed him more than we did” both of which are a variation of the “It’s all part of God’s plan” answer to tragedy. I suppose this answer works for some people—it must based on how frequently I hear it—but this view makes me furious. I simply don’t buy it. It is unworthy of the God that we worship because it presents a god who is insensitive and completely uncaring towards suffering on a massive scale. When this logic is taken to its logical conclusion than it requires that God be responsible for the Shoah (the heinous crime formerly known as the Holocaust), the genocide of the Armenians, and ethnic cleansing in various parts of the world all because—well, God felt that it was part of His plan. No. It wasn’t. They weren’t. I’ll tell you what they’re part of—human sin. Unadulterated, unalloyed human sin. 9/11 was not God’s plan but sin working itself out in fire, blood, and twisted steel.
Human sin has consequences far beyond what we can see. Some things in this world that appear to be impersonal forces are, in fact, the effects of human sin working themselves out on a grand scale. I, personally, have never poisoned a stream. But my participation within a system of economic production perpetuates slovenly and sometimes down-right evil behavior towards the environment. I have never raped or killed anyone. Yet, as an Anglo-Scandinavian, I am the product of a race that has elevated rape, pillage, murder and wars of conquest to an art form. My over-privileged, over-educated ass sits on the Upper East side in an apartment built on bones. Did I create a racist, oppressive system? No. Am I the beneficiary of one? Yes. These are the consequences of sin writ corporate and writ large, institutionalized into national ways of being contrary to God’s commands and God’s call on our lives.
Could God stop the tragedies of 9/11, the Shoah and a host of others besides? Is God powerful enough to halt them? Yes. But God doesn’t. God does not act in these circumstances—I believe—because He has chosen to impose limits on His own power in order to preserve human freedom. Freedom to do good—and also to do evil. I do not believe that God manipulates us like so many marionettes. God has created us and enabled us to be autonomous agents. We take that freedom and we mess it up and pervert it, but we have the choices. The upshot of this is that in order for human evil to be checked, other humans must act to check it. Some of these actions will be good but even some of these will be evil. But those are the breaks. This is because—as I understand it—humans are two things: first, we are willful and thus tend toward evil, and second, we are limited. The first is because of sin—but the second isn’t. God’s creation—including humanity—is good. But we are good—not perfect—and there’s a difference. Due to our material nature we are necessarily limited…it just comes with the embodied territory…but that created nature in and of itself is not evil.
To return to Job, at the end of the whirlwind speech (Job 38:1-41:34), Job speaks in repentance (42:2-6). Here Job realizes that his stance has been wrong and he backs off from blaming God. He repents of the rashness of his words but even here Job is not repenting of sin—nor should he! What he is doing is acknowledging the fact of his created limitations in the face of a God who is without limitations—except for those He has chosen to impose upon Himself.
So, to recap, Job and his friends were working with a model of God and God’s relationship with humanity that was incorrect because it was over-determined and mechanistic. While Job’s friends insisted on his guilt and he insisted on innocence they were all playing with a flawed construct of God. [This is a good point to note that Job is a fictional character. Yes, everybody sins, but the story is framed in such a way that Job is portrayed as thoroughly righteous. It is as if he did not sin—at least, nothing serious enough for God to consider a real sin. No it’s not realistic, it’s not supposed to be, that’s why the whole thing is set up as a folktale—especially the prose frames to the story.]
Instead of going that over-determining step, we can (and should) take a step back and affirm with Job and his friends that actions have consequences. But, we disagree with them by attempting to specify exactly what these are. Furthermore, not all consequences can be laid at the feet of God—many of them more properly belong at our own feet—but we’d rather have some one else to blame.
So—that answers part of the problem. For me, at least, that addresses the whole 9/11 issue. Why did bad things happen to the people on the planes and in the towers? Because of human sin. The primary cause, of course, is the sin of the hijackers and those directing them. Lurking in the background, of course, are the sins committed by governments, institutions, and people who place oil and the money it brings ahead of people. Were the civilian casualties on 9/11 responsible for these background sins? Well, no. Or, certainly no more than the rest of us. But what about Katrina? German Green Party members aside, I don’t think that human sin or environmental policies were responsible for the hurricane earlier this month or the tsunami late last year or any number of other natural disasters. So—what gives? Can Job help us with this one? I think so…