“Why, God?” Asked the American People, and Would Not Stay for an Answer

The number one column on the New York Times website right now is Maureen Dowd’s “Why, God?” It features counsel on the problem of evil, in the wake of the Newtown shootings, from a priest friend of hers, Rev. Kevin O’Neil.

Amid his admirably kind, gentle, and humble remarks on the evils of our time, and every time, is this key admission: “I believe differently now than 30 years ago. First, I do not expect to have all the answers, nor do I believe that people are really looking for them.”

Nor do I believe that people are really looking for them.

I don’t think most people are really looking for them, either. A few straws in the wind:

Has Prof. Alvin Plantinga of the University of Notre Dame, arguably the most important thinker about the problem of evil in our lifetime, been prominent in the news media, on all the talk shows, in all the bien-pensant columns? I haven’t seen a trace of him.

My cousin Kent Annan, who helps to run the worthy Haiti Partners organization (which my wife and I support), has spoken to sold-out rooms at the Urbana Missionary Conference on this question the last couple of days, so clearly people are interested in the issue in some respect or another. But, as Kent himself would be the first to say, he is not a theologian or a philosopher, and his wonderful book, After Shock, is much more a cri de coeur than anything approaching a theodicy. That’s what IVCF/IFES decided to put before their searching university students.

When a Christian church in Newtown did bring in a resource person to speak to the issue, they brought in…not an answer-giver, but another reassurer, popular author Philip Yancey–another good man who trades in fellow-feeling much more than he offers substantial constructive reflection.

And, yes, I’ve written a book on the question that has sold fairly well over a decade, and my phone has been completely silent. No one–no one locally, no one regionally, no one nationally–wanted to discuss the issue with one of the few Canadians who has written a reputable volume on the issue of God and evil.

I wonder if our lack of substantive engagement with the problem of evil is due to our tacit realization, which perhaps Brother O’Neil recognizes, that if we did ask God a serious question about why the shooting happened—or why, now, two separate innocents have been pushed in front of NYC subway trains—God might return to us a serious answer:

Don’t look at me.

I didn’t replace a horrible system of dungeon-like mental health hospitals with the opposite disaster of ‘mainstreaming’ clearly deranged people into the general population. I didn’t release people in obvious need of high-quality treatment into the care of incompetent or even abusive relatives or friends, nor did I grossly underfund the attempts of decent caregivers to cope with the vast problems they heroically undertook.

I didn’t spread 300 million guns—yes, just think about that number for a moment, if you dare—throughout American society, with such lax laws that all sorts of people (and I do mean ALL sorts of people) could get their hands on them.

I didn’t decide not to pay for adequate policing, security screening, emergency training and equipment, and other means by which such nightmares could be reduced.

I had literally nothing to do with Newtown, or those poor victims in the New York subway. So why ask me?

No wonder we don’t ask God, not seriously, not extensively: not pulling up a chair, not reading a good book (or the Good Book), not listening to a qualified speaker, and not giving The Question of Questions the attention it deserves.

Even when violence erupts unavoidably in front of us, we refuse to think hard about what is actually happening, in an appropriately broad frame of reference, and what it all tells us—about ourselves, about how we have run things, about God, and about how God runs things.

We certainly don’t want to look any harder than easy, quick, simple solutions, whether more rigorous gun registration (Jeffrey Goldberg mounts a brave, scary attack on that idea from the left) or putting an armed security guard in every school (the NRA’s “answer”).

We don’t want to look at our own stinginess, our systemic disregard for the mentally ill and their caregivers, or our reflexive (and therefore too easy) recourse or resistance to the state.

We certainly don’t want to look at what it might mean theologically for God to allow us to do so much harm to ourselves and others: What possible agenda could God have that is so huge and so important that it could warrant such a program of dangerous freedom? What would it mean for us to live our lives in the light of that agenda?

Nah. Let’s just be there for each other. Let’s just do that One Thing That Will Solve the Problem. And then we can just get back to business as usual. Like Pilate so badly wanted to do.



17 Responses to ““Why, God?” Asked the American People, and Would Not Stay for an Answer”

  1. Gun Control 2… « "As I mused, the fire burned"

    […] Prof John Stackhouse has produced a post on the questions not being asked in the USA concerning violence. I find myself in violent agreement with his words.  He points out that we really don’t want to hear God’s answer to the question ‘why does evil happen?’ because it would turn the pointing finger right back on the asker:  […]

  2. Matthew Oliver

    Thanks for this compelling thought, brother. I’ve been struck by the lack of reason in many of the articles coming out of the US, and a failure to grapple with their own use of violence as a policy of government (drone strikes, torture of terrorists). In my thought on the question, I am also convinced at the root is our unwillingness to engage the question of our culpability in the cycle of violence.

    Ron Sider’s comments on the willingness to allow other’s sons and daughters to serve in the military, while keeping your children safe as pacifists, is also an appropriate reflection (Sider proposed the creation of Christian Peacekeeper Teams…who might die by the 1,000’s between warring forces, but would be a powerful witness against violence).

    We fear discovering that the source of evil in the natural world is our brokeness, for then we might be required to do something about it. What are we willing to pay personally for an end to violence?

    • Josue

      I’d say the first thing is learning to accept that in a free society there will be the possibility of violence. For a place that has (gasp) 300 million guns, the proportion of guns to outbreaks of freakish violence is low. Certainly a safer place than the alternatives, otherwise people wouldn’t stay/come here.

      If eliminating violence among society members, and not Freedom, is top priority, look to the 20th century: There were more PEOPLE DYING in Soviet gulags and Mao’s “cultural revolution” than there are guns in America now (Gasp!). Didn’t have much gun violence in those places — all the guns were in the government’s hands! Apparently government leaders, especially Obama, sure do think that the NRA’s “answer” to the Newtown tragedy (of putting armed officers at every school) is a good one: They surround themselves with fortresses of men with guns, don’t they? For this reason any leader crusading to take away guns is immediately suspect.

      Whatever violence we do see, certainly isnt because the NRA models the behavior: No, there’s a direct relationship, not between guns and violence, but between selfish wannabe rock-star revenge-fantasies modeled by the entertainment industry, and violence. There were plenty of guns here in the past – certainly it was a more “conservative” country in the past, right? – and yet there weren’t as many heinous outbreaks of violence. Must not be the conservatives’/NRA’s fault, then, huh? In the 50s an 60s, TV and movie producers cowered when they even considered putting a man and a woman in the same bed because the public at the time, they knew, would put their butts out of business for doing something like that. But we live in a different day now, in which the TV, movies, games, internet, and media don’t have that threat (because we’re immoral and wimpy, two things which go hand-in-hand), to the point that they’ve started dictating us, rather than vice versa.

      Do I therefore think art is to blame, and should be censored? No, I think its a family’s responsibility to teach raise decent children who will put the Tarantinos out of business by not going to see their movies. Hard to do that in a society that takes fathers away from their children; that is so concerned with “cultural diversity” yet doesn’t teach a thing about ethics or religion in the school system; that institutes division by giving preferential treatment based on color and sex and so forth.

      • Tyler Harper

        Wow Josue.

        I think you missed the boat. Your appeals to Mao and Soviet gulags is utterly misplaced. Under your logic the recent Iraq war was a success for the U.S. because less Americans died than in the Second World War.

        Look to other parts of the world. The states has the highest levels of gun ownership in the developed world. It also has levels of gun crime (in aggregate to the population) higher than any developed country in the world.

        Guns don’t kill people, people with guns kill people.

        Just look at Canada (as Paul Ryan used to suggest in other areas).

        As a nation, your Northern neighbours still enjoy the outdoors, hunt and fish. But our rate of gun ownership is drastically lower and not surprisingly, so is our rate of gun violence. And many of the guns that are used in crimes are sourced in the United States and smuggled into this country. All in a setting with fewer police and security checks (which I am guessing in your terminology means “freedom), just try our airports.

        For far too long Christianity in North American has had an idol of waring against culture, without grounding itself in a focus in the Person and Love of God.

        • Josue

          Hi Tyler. My personal experience in Vancouver’s airport has been terrible. Dunno bout the rest, as I’ve yet to visit any other Canadian cities.

          Regarding the alleged logical fallacy I made, I dont think you understood what my argument was, as I would never say the Iraq thing you said. I certainly wasn’t establishing some analogy, which apparently you think I was.

          Also, I know lots of people with guns, they dont kill people. Certainly the NRA, as I said in another post, advocates responsibility and abiding the law. See wikipedia. When Charlton Heston was the head of it, he many times was outspoken in how disgusted he was with, say, gangster rappers glorifying violence. See youtube.

          Unfortunately, there are a lot of people who have guns – illegally – who do kill people (usually, each other). The highest rates of crime in the US, I imagine, are in Detroit, Chicago, NY, LA. And, boy, there are lots of things we can say about the average people who commit crimes there other than the fact they happen to have a gun (again, illegally).

          By the way, do you think if Obama had his way and took away gun rights, that he would first send his troops in to clean out guns in places a) where people are committing crimes and have guns illegally, or b) in places where people have them legally and are generally law-abiding? I’m sure the latter would be the case, which I think is very telling.

          My northern neighbors, who I friggin love, enjoy what you say they enjoy in part because their population is more homogenous: There’s a lot of “diversity,” sure, but most of your immigrants are from structured, law-abiding cultures (from my experience in Vancouver, which obviously doesn’t represent all of Canada). Plus, you don’t have a lot of people inside Canada who simply hate Canada the way there are many people in America who simply hate America. America is a symbol, for better or worse.

          Finally, it isnt always easy to separate Christ and culture. See H. Richard Niebuhr.

  3. Josue

    Just to round out the list of what God didn’t do:

    It wasn’t God who forgot to list “Hollywood directors and video game creators who model unimaginable violence and misanthropy” among the possible reasons we then see unimaginable eruptions of violence and misanthropy actualized in society.

    Here’s a head scratcher: Why is it that we ask “Why God?” then we go out that same weekend and watch a bloodbath like Django Unchained? I recall our last conversation on theodicy took place when a guy dressed up as a gun, wait, as the Joker, went into an Aurora theater and started offing people.

    Harvey Weinstein, who made Time’s annual list of 100 most influential people in the world, and Quentin Tarantino are among Pres. Obama’s biggest fundraisers and, like him, are supposedly for gun control. Yet they make their fortunes precisely off of pumping images of gratuitous violence into society, fomenting anger, race baiting, and so forth. They get away with literally modeling the precise behavior that we later see actualized in tragedies like Newtown.

    …Then they turn around and give the proceeds to Pres. Obama for his campaign efforts so he can do things like…take guns away! Wha-wha-What?!

    Blatant hypocrisy, blood all over everybody’s hands, nobody cares…

    Just follow Obama – after all he’s the Philip Yancey of presidents isn’t he? – destroy the last remnants of the republican party and all will be well. That’s everybody’s “One Thing That Will Solve the Problem,” John.

    In the aftermath of Newtown or Aurora we didn’t see any gesture by the movie-makers acknowledging any measure of possible culpability. They didn’t, say, push the premiers back out of any respect for the victims of the recent tragedies. Heck, they appear miffed at even the slightest suggestion of responsibility.

    Yet for the past two weeks almost every time I’ve turned on the radio or TV I’ve seen criticism towards the NRA (who advocate responsibility), gun-owners being literally targeted by shoddy journalists, or something or another which inches us slightly closer to subverting the second amendment of the constitution of the country that is apparently so wrong-headed that most everybody else wishes to immigrate there.

    No wonder people are crazy. We’re giving up what has often been described as the “last best hope of earth.“

  4. sinned34

    Why bother asking God, “Why”?

    Other than what’s been written in a 2000+ year old book of legends, God has never done anything to fix any problems.

    Once again, we’re stuck trying to figure out a solution for ourselves. No magical savior is going to ride down from the sky on a white horse to eliminate gun violence.

  5. September

    Good article. Good comment, Josue. The gratuitous violence is also prevalent on television programming. Not just the movie directors to blame. As for video games, it’s truly terrifying what children and young adults “play”.
    After a lot of years asking the why question myself, I’m coming to the conclusion that maybe a better question is: Will you help Lord? and/or How can I help, Lord?

    • sinned34

      What about other countries, though? Canada, Japan, and the Scandinavian countries all have entertainment filled with at least as much violence and sex as the American media, coupled with much lower (well, Canada isn’t much lower) participation in Christian churches.

      So why are the murder rates in the USA so much higher than those places?

      • Josue

        As I said elsewhere, those places are much more culturally homogenous than America in the sense that even the immigrants come from structured, law-abiding places. Plus I dont really put a lot of faith in statistics: There aren’t a lot of murders in Iraq or Iran – would you want to live there? haha Wanna go back in time to E. Germany? Plus there’s the issue of actually counting the numbers. Lots of places dont even care to count homicides for varying reasons – denial, embarrassment, tourism. Domestic violence in Japan is also well-known. Pockets of Canada are bad also, just as everywhere. In the US, the violence is so bad in places like Detroit and Chicago that it skews the stats. There are a lot of guns in, say, eastern Tennessee and virtually no homicides.

        • John

          Okay, guys. There are lots of other places to debate gun control. And we’ve already had the debate about bad movies producing bad behaviour. New points, please.

  6. Matthew Oliver

    It should not be a debate about gun control, or armed guards or video games or any other single issue, which is how the tragedy is being used for selfish political ends. The question turns back on us, to ask us how our state of sin has contributed, through the many paths that our Brother John outlined. In spite of the lower rate of violent crime up here, this is a Canadian issue too (I’m well aware that our Canadian stinginess had a similar impact on mental health programs north of the border)

    I’m infinitely hopeful, but I know the pattern will repeat until there is some serious individual repentance. It wasn’t that long ago that Philip Gourevitch recorded the discussion (about Rwanda) that ‘Genocide is a cheese sandwich’. We’re living that same cultural reality in the midst of these tragedies.

    The believer’s challenge is to ask how my sin has contributed, rather than pointing fingers to other, external (and non-personal) causes. Most of the time, faced with such evil, my sin is being satisfied that it didn’t happen at my daughter’s school, with suitable self-congratulation on how blessed I am. Christ calls me out to enter into something a bit more personal, and a bit more painful. Lord have mercy.

    • Jay

      I just started re-reading Stephen Mott’s “Biblical Ethics and Social Change” and Mott argues what Matthew Oliver stated in his last paragraph concerning our contribution. “One of the most challenging problems in ethics is to assign responsibility for the exploitation which goes on around us, which we participate in or fail to correct, yet fail to acknowledge. . . . The structures of social life contain both good and bad. Because of the hold of self interest we will tend to see only the good in those social forms which favor our interests unless we have a strong theology of sin” (p14).
      This should cause us to pause and reflect on what we justify in our lives, and make us prayerful that we would more appropriately bring about shalom where God has placed us, as Dr. Stackhouse argues in his magisterial “Making the Best of It”

  7. Carmen

    I wonder if another reason the “problem of evil pro’s” aren’t getting called or asked is a simple lack of faith/trust (by the general public) in theologian credential systems. People may read theologians who they deem to be too liberal or too conservative, and because many can only afford to read a small sampling of theological material, they brand the whole area of theological writings with a certain level of distrust. Then left with no way to answers they would trust, they may either try to figure things out for themselves, or just give up on the question. Though this is shameless self-projection, I suggest this could be a possible contributing mechanism that doesn’t just involve people not wanting to ask the hard questions, or face up to hard answers. That is, some people may not trust that opinions from what the theological community presents as “pro’s” are really good guidance. That wouldn’t explain why people tuned into scholarly research wouldn’t be asking, though. perhaps they just think the problem’s insoluble, and don’t feel they need another pro to tell them that.


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