How could God allow 26 pilgrims to die in a crash?
By CHRISTOPHER JAMISON, TIMES ONLINE
Added: Tue, 24 Jul 2007 23:00:00 UTC
Thanks to Linda Ward Selbie for the link.
In the film Bruce Almighty Jim Carrey is allowed by God to run the world for a day. He's a nice guy and says yes to all prayers. Both he and the world quickly spiral into chaos. While the film reminds us that this is God's world and not some human invention, trying to see how we are in fact better off with God can be bewildering in the face of unforeseen death.
Now and the hour of our death; these two moments in life are inevitably drawing closer together. For the 26 Polish pilgrims killed so tragically in a coach crash in France on their way home, the two moments unexpectedly became the same moment. The knowledge that they had been visiting the shrine dedicated to the Virgin Mary at La Salette only underlined the poignancy of this sudden, unmerited death.
They will have recited the Hail Mary many times on their pilgrimage and maybe they were reciting it at the moment their coach crashed through the safety barriers; perhaps its concluding phrase was on their lips in their final agony: "Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death." The image of good and devout people saying that prayer just before they died will be a comfort to their relatives. But in the many stages of grief their families may also experience anger with the God who allowed this to happen.
When bad things happen to good people, it is hard to suppress our indignation: and because religious believers are sometimes tempted to see faith as keeping our side of a bargain with God, we can be just as indignant. Why does God allow it?
It is scant consolation to the relatives of the Polish pilgrims that some kind of brake failure or driver error may have been the cause of the crash. Even if human fallibility had a hand in causing the tragedy, we can still ask God: why then, why pilgrims, why? The same question is asked of moral evils such as murder and war: why does God not protect the innocent? And we can ask the question even more forcefully when facing natural evil such as earthquakes, where there are no human agents — only human victims.
Our first response to such tragedies is the same for atheist and theist alike: we want to help. The Boxing Day tsunami in 2004 that killed 200,000 people evoked a tidal wave of generosity. The deluges currently striking our own country are not on that scale but they too evoke waves of loving kindness: the passer-by who swam to haul a driver to safety through the car's sun roof; people whose own homes were flooded piling sand bags to save other people's houses; a hotel opening its doors to the elderly.
But the question still nags. How can God either allow or, even worse, cause such suffering? For the atheist, the answer is: God does not allow or cause such suffering because God does not exist. The agnostic may want to believe in God but simply cannot see how evil and God can coexist. For the indifferent, Cardinal Newman's words may apply: "To them, the difficulty is only so much gain, for it gives them an apparent reason, a sort of excuse, for not going with God's rule, for deciding in their own way." Yet atheists, agnostics and the indifferent are unable to dislodge the persistence of faith in others.
Which leaves the believer affirming that since God is all-knowing, all-loving and all-powerful, God must have made the best Universe that it is possible to make. The interplay between human freedom, the laws of nature and the love of God is the right mix. Sometimes personal pain and suffering may eclipse the vision of God but the faithful wait for the light to return; this holding on to faith is the virtue of hope. And if we want a role model for hope, then we need look no further than Job.
The Book of Job tells the story of the archetypal just man who perseveres in hope. When he experiences the sudden loss of his wealth and his children, he still prays: "God has given and God has taken away, blessed be God." When he loses his own health and sits in the ash pit scraping the pus from his sores, even his wife tells him it's time to curse God. But he refuses. He cries out to God and demands to know why he is suffering. His comforters insist he must have done something wrong and that he is being punished for it. But Job has a clean conscience and refuses to accept that there is any link between his suffering and moral wrongdoing. Job simply does not understand what is happening to him, yet he refuses to let go of faith in God. When God finally addresses Job it is to affirm that faith: God is the all-powerful creator of the Universe, whose plans cannot be understood by human beings; so Job falls silent in the face of God's overwhelming wisdom.
For reasons known only to God, the world is as it is. We are invited to join in God's creative act of world-making which we now know is not a seven-day wonder but a continuous bringing to birth. To hold on to this vision in the face of injustices and natural disasters is the very act of faith; it is to believe that caring for victims and striving for a just society are the very heart of life.
A classic image of Mary in art is that of her cradling the corpse of her son, Jesus. Amid the floods and the coach crashes, faith invites us all to join Mary in cradling the living and even the dead, knowing that these acts of faith and love are filled with hope, now and at the hour of our death.
Christopher Jamison is the Abbot of Worth and author of Finding Sanctuary: Monastic Steps for Everyday Life
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