Last Sunday Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, was being interviewed on the programme “Songs of Praise.” Asked about his reaction to the cold-blooded murder of 130 civilians in Paris earlier this month, he said “…as I was walking, I was praying and saying: ‘God, why – why is this happening?” “Where are you in all this?’ And then he said, “yes, I doubt.”
Archbishop Justin was, I am sure, speaking for many Christians who were shocked and appalled at the killings and who were trying to understand how such a thing could have happened. But the news was also in the Archbishop’s response, which was to express doubt in the existence of God. The events in Paris on 13th November had, he said, “put in a chink in his armour” of faith.
For the benefit of those who have asked me about this since, I would like to respond to Archbishop Justin’s words. Before I do that however, I want also to mention that two other world spiritual leaders spoke about the terrible events in Paris: Pope Francis and the Dalai Lama. The three men in their own way had something different to say, and it will be helpful for us to hear all three.
First, the Archbishop. Last June I and some of our congregation went to hear him speak at St Alban’s Abbey. Archbishop Justin came across well, gave sound spiritual teaching and did so with a self-effacing and gentle sense of humour. I thought then, and I do now, that we are blessed to have him as our Archbishop.
And so to his interview last Sunday; what are we to make of his doubting the existence of God? Let us recount what he said: he asked two specific questions: “Why is this happening?” and “Where are you in all this?” To answer these questions, it seems obvious to state that violence and war have always been with us and are an intrinsic part of our human story and have indeed shaped our history, for good or ill. At no time, except in the Garden of Eden, have we been free of war and violence. The devaluing of human life which is the consequence of war marks the human race as surely as Cain was marked for the murder of his brother Abel.
Yet although there is usually a reason for it, to kill and to resort to violence is perhaps the lowest expression of our human potential. We all know that this is not our true purpose in life and that we were made for better things. For this reason war should be avoided at all costs. Jesus does not encourage us to fight but to be peacemakers: “Blessed are the peacemakers”, he says in the Sermon on the Mount. In other words, those who seek after peace are blessed by God. Those who seek after war are not.
Seeing the killings in Paris, we may ask, why does God not intervene to prevent evil? The simple answer is that God has given us freedom, to choose either evil or good. He does not compel us to choose one over the other, at least not directly. Personally, I find the life and person of Jesus compels me to follow him as Lord and Master, and to choose good over evil. But not everyone thinks the same as I do.
As for a God who intervenes, (and I am certain that he does), this is always on his terms, not on ours. Yet for many people who see the misery and suffering in the world, that is not good enough. They want a God who intervenes more often, who stops the tsunami and the terrorist and the bomber. That sounds reasonable, doesn’t it, so let us consider a couple of examples of a world where God intervenes directly. Take, for example, the man who drives his car to the garage for repairs. Unfortunately, the mechanic is lazy and careless and during repairs forgets to fix a wheel back on properly. When out driving, the wheel comes off and the man crashes the car and ends up in hospital. Now imagine if God saw the wheel coming off and quickly tightened all the nuts so that the wheel stayed on. Wouldn’t that be preferable to the man crashing the car?
Another example: a man squanders all his money getting drunk, with the consequence that his wife and children have no money to spend on presents at Christmas. God then intervenes and hands a wad of cash to the mother so that she and the children can buy all the presents they need. Isn’t that better? Don’t you think God should be continually intervening in the world in this way? Well, let’s stop for a moment to consider what kind of world it would be.
It would be a world in which people no longer needed to fear the consequences of their actions. We could be as lazy, as selfish, as careless as we liked because in the back of our minds we would always know that, in the end, God would put things right. That to me sounds like a world that has never left the nursery, where God is nanny and all the people remain as children forever. It doesn’t sound so good when you put it like that. Personally, I don’t want to be a child all my life. God calls me to a mature faith, not a baby faith. For that reason I’ll keep faith in the world we’ve got.
What about the Archbishop’s other question: “Where are you in all this?” A similar question was asked during the second world war, in the Buna/Monowitz concentration camp, approximately 10 kilometers from Auschwitz. As a young boy was being hanged on a gallows, someone asked, “Where is God? Where is he?” To which came the answer, “he is hanging here on this gallows.” This answer makes me uncomfortable, because it could mean one of two things: that God himself is dead; or that God is present with the suffering and dying child.
As a Christian, I take the latter view. I believe that God is with us in our suffering and in our dying. The reason is before us: the cross. Jesus suffered and died on the cross. I’m not going to give you the theology of it, but I will say simply that God doesn’t explain our suffering – instead, he experiences it. He feels it. He knows it. And ultimately, he transcends it by his resurrection.
I could say a lot more but you get my drift. I hope I have gone a little way towards answering the Archbishop’s question. It is a question all of us will ask from time to time, regardless of how strong our faith may appear. It isn’t a weakness to experience doubt, and if it is, then weakness is a divine attribute. Faith is a gift from God: if you have it, give thanks for it; if not, ask for it.
I said earlier that there were another two responses to the killings in Paris from world religious leaders. A very human response came via Pope Francis, who said that “Today, Jesus weeps…because we have chosen the way of war, the way of hatred, the way of enmities. We are close to Christmas. There will be lights, there will be parties, bright trees, even Nativity scenes — all decked out — while the world continues to wage war…It’s all a charade.”
“Jesus weeps.” Those two words are from the gospel of John, when Jesus approached the tomb where his friend Lazarus lay dead. Pope Francis does not attempt to explain the suffering, but he rages against it. You and I and the Pope can be emotional and express our outrage, our sadness and our disappointment. Our disappointment is at our failure to be peacemakers, to have forsaken God’s blessing in favour of war and killing. The Pope was right to be angry. But then, when the anger has subsided, what are we to do?
I know what I have been doing a lot lately, which is to pray for peace, for the refugees, for the people of Syria. This is good but it is not enough. Our third spiritual leader provides the sharpest and most direct response. I’ll leave the last word to the Dalai Lama, spiritual leader of the Tibetan Buddhists, who said: “We cannot solve this problem only through prayers…I am a Buddhist and I believe in praying. But humans have created this problem, and now we are asking God to solve it. It is illogical. God would say, solve it yourself because you created it in the first place.”
Father David Beresford