I have been miserable for weeks. Too much tragedy striking close to home. First there was the Humboldt Broncos bus accident that killed sixteen people connected to that team. Then, barely two weeks later, the murder of ten people on Yonge St.
Why does God, if God is in control, allow such tragedies? Why do some Christians believe that no matter how bad things seem, God is nevertheless in control, and if only we pray, God might fix it? Or bless me? Or heal my aunt? Or get me that job I want? Or snap his fingers and bring peace to the Middle East? I mean, there is no shortage of prayers going up asking for exactly this—and the Middle East is God’s own backyard, too. Why not clean up your own backyard? What gives?
Is God really in control? No.
God is not in control, and one of the great tasks of modern Christianity is to come to grips with this truth. The God of control is dead, long crucified on Golgotha.Toronto gathers to mourn the Yonge St. murders. The picture above is Mel Lastman Square, Sunday, April 30.
The bus accident and the Yonge Street murders—and the riots and killings on Gaza and Israel’s border this week, none of it is God’s plan. This stuff is not God’s idea and not something God has control over. God is not omnipotent, not a puppet master, pulling us and our neighbours' strings, making things work according to some good and inscrutable plan that we have to trust in spite of all appearances.
Nor are we humans, in turn, puppet masters who can make God dance, if only we pray with enough conviction, or enough times, or with enough people in what is sometimes now called a “concert of prayer.” (It’s all in the technique, apparently, so long as the technique is not to use a closet!)
No. God is not omnipotent. God does not cause or allow bus accidents or murders or global warming or poverty or crime. God is not an eerie undivided substance in three persons who sometimes answers prayers but usually not. Thinking so is just a fancy religious way of getting us off the hook for these things.
The truth is we humans are mostly responsible for the tragedies that get reported on the nightly news, as well as the good things that usually go unreported.
So, what does God do, if God doesn’t snap his or her fingers to make things come out peachy keen for us? Well, taking a hint from John Caputo, I like to think that God that comes to us not in fire or earthquakes and implausible answers to impossible prayers, but as with Elijah on Mount Horeb—read it in 1 Kings 19—God comes to us in a gentle but insistent whisper. As Jesus says of his own words, “What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops.”
God is not a monarch in the mold of a King David or a Pharaoh Thutmose, only divine. God is not a grotesque projection of our own worst rulers. God is, rather, in a strand of scripture that speaks to my experience, a gentle persuader, a mysterious cosmic susurration for shalom. God invites us to find him (or her) in the good we do rather than in the impossible things we ask for. God is the main event in all good, washing over us, inspiring us, calling us to be good.
God whispers. God’s haunts us with dreams of peace in wartime, with hunger for shalom where there is chaos, and with the desire to embrace and love where there is grief. God whispers that it is the least and the last, those unable to advocate for themselves that ought to be our number one concern.
Responding to this whispered plea, to this event both as grand and as silent as the cosmos, is called “following Jesus.”
When things are at their worst, God whispers to us, in scripture, encouraging us to love our neighbours as Jesus loved his, and to imitate people like Terry Fox or Martin Luther King or Malala Yousafzai. We will, perhaps, never achieve their kind of world-changing stature, but we can imitate them in a way that makes a difference for the ones we are with.
After Humboldt, I remembered that hope in the face of tragedy is a discipline we embrace so that whatever we touch becomes more of what it is supposed to be.
And this week, in response to the murders Alek Minassian is charged with, Toronto’s citizens did did exactly that, embraced the discipline of hope, and in so doing made our city, province, and nation more of what we are supposed to be.
Last Monday bystanders who escaped death held the hands of the injured and dying. First responders on the scene saved lives. There was no panic. Hospital nurses and doctors did their job. Not only did people of all races suffer the tragedy, but together, people of all races and religions helped us deal with it. The police force has operated in this city, since its use of excessive force at the G-20 meetings in Sammy Yatin’s murder, under a cloud, for good reason. But the police officer who arrested the suspect acted in a most exemplary manner, and that gives me great hope that we can resolve some of the systemic issues we’re facing on the police front.
The American press was incredulous. According to CNN, “Politicians of all stripes were calm. The media was careful. The police were disciplined. And the people were unfazed. Instead of hysteria, accusation and anger, there were sorrow and sympathy. No xenophobic calls for vigilantism or limits on freedom. It was an extraordinary exercise in restraint -- a particularly Canadian response.” We are building something very special in this country—a multiethnic, caring, just society. Canada is no utopia, of course. This country is not perfect. Canada is also not—as some Americans believe about themselves—God’s one special nation. No, here in Canada we continue to struggle with things both profound—environment and racism; and mundane—infrastructure and traffic congestion, among a host of other issues. We have not arrived.
But Canada’s response to tragedy gives me hope that we can tackle such issues not merely for personal or political or corporate gain, but for the good of all Canadians. Just as we took on the tragedy without asking questions about religion or party affiliation or rank or wealth, we need to take on our every neighbours’ needs and injustices, struggles and dreams, as if they were ours.
This is human faith taking responsibility for itself rather than waiting for God to pull strings. This is hope embracing discipline. This is the Canada I love and want, and the Canada this world both needs—and already has.
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