Following on from last week:
What of "the problem of suffering" in response to the suffering of recent devastation in our land?
This post is in two parts: part 1, my summary as succinct as I can make it of what might be said in response to the question; part 2, my long "working" which lies behind the summary.
We should listen to those who suffer, hold their hand (literally or metaphorically), be slow to speak, quick to offer practical, active love (while not being a burden on communities and households with limited power, food and accommodation), refrain from blame while embracing change that is needed in our communities and across the world so that to the extent to which humans can mitigate against further disaster, we do, all the while confident that God is present and active in our world in order to yet bring the fulfilment of God's kingdom, a new heaven and a new earth in which there are no more tears.
Small update: This article, reflecting on the suffering in the war in Ukraine, is worth reading to the last line.
(1) The Old Testament and the problem of suffering
While this is not the time for a coffee house discussion in a region far from recent destruction (e.g. my own) which lacks the sharp edge of the coffee drinkers actually faced with damaged livelihoods, lost lives and destroyed homes, there is nevertheless always an occasion for saying something about suffering in a world the Good God made and declared to be "good" since those on the pastoral front line are likely to be asked, "How can God permit this?" or "Where is God in this tragic mess?"
So, on the one hand, I want to attempt to avoid that approach which focuses on reading books to resolve such issues. "You must read the best theology of suffering in the 21st century by J. Theologian who, you know, resurrects a brilliant but long forgotten argument from the fourth century when St Simeon Apologia tackled a question raised by the Synod of Querula." As though a quick trip to the library or order from Amazon is the appropriate pastoral response.
On the other hand, there is a book, the book, the Bible which speaks God's Word into all human situations. I don't think we can avoid discussing some things it has to say.
The Old Testament, relevantly, is a collection of Israelite writings driven by suffering for the most part. When David's and Solomon's glorious, expanding, victorious Israel broke first into two divided kingdoms, Israel/Samaria and Judah, and then each in turn was subject to conquest and exile, the former at the hand of Assyria, 721 BC, and the latter at the hand of Babylon, 587 BC, with the double blow of the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple, there was a theological crisis.
How could Israel be cast from the Promised Land, and how could there be no successor to David on the throne in Jerusalem? Had God not promised precisely the opposite? How then to explain the absence of God's support to prevent calamity to Israel?
Much of Israel's scriptures, the collection we know as the Old Testament, has been shaped by the theological crisis of the Babylonian Exile - shaped via editing of existing stories, laws and wisdom, or by writing in direct response to this calamity (for example Isaiah 40-66), or by taking care to preserve prophetic literature which conveyed the warning proclamations of the prophets of Israel before its exile and the prophets of Judah before its exile - literature which recorded the attempt of God to speak to the hardened hearts of his people in order that destruction would be avoided.
One of the significant results of the Babylonian Exile was the hammering into final shape of the Pentateuch and the so called Deuteronomistic History (i.e. the line of writings from Deuteronomy through Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings), so that one response - the majority response of the theologians of Judah - was to explain the suffering of Israel in terms of its disobedience to God's law. It had been warned and warned again to obey God's commandments and that there would be consequences for disobedience.
It was a foolishness to understand God's covenant with David as a guarantee that no matter what Israel/Judah did, there would be security for God's people around the throne and temple in Jerusalem. This in many ways was the point of Jeremiah (e.g. Jeremiah 7:4 where God through Jeremiah says to the people (I paraphrase), 'Do not say "We have the temple of the Lord, everything will be all right".' Rather, the people need to amend their ways and start genuinely obeying the Law of Moses (Jeremiah 7:1-7)
This approach - the people are responsible for the suffering they have brought on themselves - is mostly not pastorally appropriate in today's world. Yet, if we refuse to follow the Deuteronomist in respect applying the conclusion drawn in the Deuteronomistic History to the people bearing the present suffering in the North Island, might we not recognise that there is another set of people, namely all the rest of us, who need to recognise our role in climate change? Repentance for how we have been treating God's world is a fair message to the whole world right now.
By way of illustrating something which is not quite my precise point here, I noticed this on Twitter (as I am writing this post):
But, the Deuteronomist is not the only voice in respect of suffering in the Old Testament.
An alternative history of Israel, told by the Chronicler in 1 and 2 Chronicles (with supporting voices in Nehemiah-Ezra) beginning with Adam in 1 Chronicles 1:1 and ending with the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem (2 Chronicles 36:23).
In this history less attention is paid to moral behaviour (e.g. David's offence against Bathsheba is not mentioned; Manasseh, unrepentant according to the Deuteronomist, is repentant according to the Chronicler, cf. 2 Kings 21:10-15; 23:26-27; 24:3-4, and 2 Chronicles 33:12-13) and much more to "attitude to the Temple". The final straw which brings God's wrath on Jerusalem is that the last king, Zedekiah, in collaboration with "leading priests and the people" were "unfaithful, following all the abominations of the nations and they polluted the house of the Lord that he had consecrated in Jersualem" (2 Chronicles 36:14).
Here, of course, the people of Israel bring their painful exile on themselves, but, interestingly, the Chronicler doesn't labour any need for repentance. The people serve their time in exile (36:20-21) and then God takes the initiative, via Cyrus, to institute the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem. For the Chronicler the suffering of exile is not in need of any great explanation which shapes a long connection between the Law and the history of Israel such as the Deuteronomist gives, rather it is a blip in the story of what matters in the relationship between heaven and earth, the temple in Jerusalem which is the house of the Lord.
Perhaps the relevance of the Chronicler to our question is this: suffering is terrible but it is never the end of the story of humanity. Potentially this is a comforting message to those of us merely observing the suffering - is it of comfort to those experiencing pain, dislocation, loss, grief and despair?
Thirdly, while looking at the Old Testament, we must attend to Job! I like to first read Job in comparison to other "wisdom literature" such as Proverbs. The latter is somewhat sunny and optimistic: be wise, live wisely and all will go well with you - you'll avoid calamity and prosper. Job is a counterpoint: what if, like Job, you are wise and live wisely and calamity comes upon you and destroys your prosperity? In short, between Job and Proverbs we encounter human experience - most of us do not experience calamity, but some of us do, so what is true wisdom - great theology - which enables us to meet the good times and the bad times in life?
Job's friends seem to be readers of the Deuteronomist. They persist in telling Job that he must have sinned to have earned such destructiveness on his life and on his family's lives. Job is resolute: not true! But what is Job's (and God's) own response to the "problem of suffering"? Through the last chapters the answer appears to be God being God can do what God wills and that will should not be questioned, nor should those who suffer under that will be blamed (because they may like Job be innocent); rather the awesome power of God calls for praise and wonder in response.
Are any of these proposals from the Old Testament entirely satisfactory?
(For reasons of time I need to by pass New Testament considerations altogether.)
(2) Andrew Shepherd, University of Otago theology lecturer writes on "Cyclone Gabrielle will have been apocalytpic if it inspires change". This is also a biblical response to suffering: whatever else we have to say, Andrew implies, suffering through devastation is a call to collective action to not have a repeat of the suffering. Some of the thinking within the "Wairua" section of our national church response to the Cyclone is along these lines, seeking to integrate our love for one another with our centres of collective work such as marae and church.
(3) A comment from B Walton to the post below:
"...inevitable questions about how and why a good, kind, loving God presides over a world..."
YHWH is not a Victorian liberal gentleman. And offhand, I cannot remember meeting any believer who staked the major decisions of his or her life on Dr Pangloss's idea that everything is for the best in this best of all possible worlds. Becoming a disciple is, after all, leaving such fables behind to learn Christianity.
So these "inevitable questions" sound empty, something that moderns know one can ask to fill the awkward silence after life is disrupted but cannot track back to credal faith in the Crucified God. Of course, one might still have to reply to them, even if one refuses to answer them.
Last week, I wandered through an active shooter event. Nine casualties, including the gunman who shot himself around the corner from here. So I have anyway been surrounded by mass grief counseling and thinking about what I was taught about evil when I was the age of the students who died.
In the 1970s, the predominant voice here up yonder was that of Simone Weil: "The greatness of Christianity is that it offers, not a supernatural explanation for suffering, but a supernatural use for it." Bad for modern chaplaincy, but good for postmodern spirituality.
Weil's books were read alongside all the others from her wartime French milieu. But Robert Coles, who was then conducting his research on the moral and spiritual lives of children, turned the mainline here away from glib *explanatory religion* and toward the notion that coping with disruption and evil is spiritual work that requires biblical resources.
Are the storefront chapels across the street from the crime scene helping that spiritual work? This generation's Christians seem to be anxious to show that, notwithstanding a reputation for moralism, they can be competent grief counselors. They do not preach; they do listen; they sometimes pray.
Karen Kilby's book God, Evil, and the Limits of Theology is current. So is Suffering and the Christian Life, a volume she edited with Rachel Davies.
Theology down under is in rude good health. But between the lines of ADU, I sometimes detect an adamant public down under that will not let + Peter and his readers represent anyone but that Victorian liberal gentleman who so famously died a dozen theological deaths in the last century. They may not actually believe in the old chaplaincy, but they still expect churches to supply it and somebody somewhere to be entitled to it.