Oh, miserable mortals! Oh wretched earth!
Oh, dreadful assembly of all mankind!
Eternal sermon of useless sufferings!
Deluded philosophers who cry, "All is well,"
Hasten, contemplate these frightful ruins,
This wreck, these shreds, these wretched ashes of the dead;
These women and children heaped on one another,
These scattered members under broken marble...
In answer to the half-formed cries of their dying voices,
At the frightful sight of their smoking ashes,
Will you say: "This is result of eternal laws
Directing the acts of a free and good God!"
Will you say, in seeing this mass of victims:
"God is revenged, their death is the price for their crimes?"
What crime, what error did these children,
Crushed and bloody on their mothers' breasts, commit?
- Voltaire, Poem on the Lisbon Disaster
The words of the French philosopher strike a deep chord within me as I witness the Oklahoma disaster. This is the second time this year that I have been reduced to literal tears as the images of devastation play across the screen and, worse yet, I imagine what happened in those terrible moments of fear and death as so many people - so many children! - suffered.
The first time that I recalled Voltaire's words this year was as I saw the massacre at Sandy Hook unfold on screen and play in my head. In that moment and in my weeping (I mean weeping - bawling as I've not in years) I was at least comforted with the thought that here was an evil man doing evil things. I could source blame in a person and then spend time trying to suss out how this evil man was able to do such an evil act so quickly and so completely.
Not so with this natural disaster. Who do we blame for a mile-wide sweep of natural vengeance leveling entire neighborhoods? Who do we hold accountable for this unfathomable force crushing not one but two elementary schools? Here there is no trigger man, no insane freak to kill. We've no one to blame here save the earth and God Himself, do we?
We do not even have the minor comfort we might have found in the face of, say, an earthquake or a tsunami where we can blame the victim (or his/her parents) for living in a dangerous area - on a fault line or on the shore - and inviting destruction.
Tornadoes do not play favorites. Yes, Oklahoma invites them more than most states, but then again a tornado leveled homes not one mile from mine (in North Carolina) just last year. Few states have been untouched by the wrecking power of tornadoes in some form through the years.
A tornado truly is senseless, random, abhorrent natural violence wrecked on the unsuspecting and undeserving.
What do we do with this violence, as Christians? How do we respond? Do we recall the oft-quoted platitude in Romans 8:28 that "all things work to the good of those who love Him?" Doesn't that verse, when used in that way, suggest that the death of children in Sandy Hook and Moore somehow benefits me or Christendom in general? Insert what happened and realize how abhorrent that verse becomes, when used as a platitude: "the deaths of twenty children crushed in a hurricane work to the good of those who love Him." Does that sentence not make you, at the very least, a bit squeamish? To me it implies a kind of grand-scheme divine utilitarianism, as though God needs the deaths of all of these children to accomplish his purposes on earth and that he is willing (even happy, some would suggest) to accept these deaths as part of his grander scheme.
I cannot believe that God is a utilitarian of any stripe or that these deaths were necessary for the divine plan. I cannot fathom how Christendom benefits from the leveling of two schools and numerous neighborhoods by a massive tornado.
What, then, do I believe about God in the midst of this mindless destruction?
Firstly, that some things that happen on this earth will remain outside of my understanding. Is this not the ultimate message of the book of Job? "Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?" God asks. In other words, he says "I am almighty and this is sufficient for you." He does not say "here is why I killed your family, Job. Here is why I destroyed your life." He does not seek to explain Himself, only to call to attention his infinite creative power and knowledge. A great number of events in my life will occur without my understanding how or why they occurred. What, after all, is Job's response in the end?
“I know that you can do all things,
and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.
‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’
Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.
Secondly, my faith and allegiance to God cannot be dependent on my understanding of world events or God's plans. Nowhere in Scripture is man called to believe in God because God has explained everything. Indeed, the Bible seems to indicate the opposite: faith is not at all predicated on understanding. Faith is a response to the goodness and grace of God. Understanding follows faith, but not in complete measure. "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom," says the psalmist and the teacher. "Follow me and I will make you fishers of men," said the Messiah, the following being the first thing Jesus wanted, not the last. Our status of disciple is not predicated by our understanding the master. A child does not love or listen to his parents because he understands them. Understanding comes as the child grows under the authority of the parents.
Thirdly, that senseless violence and natural destruction ought to be marked by mankind with repentance and a renewed acknowledgement of the ephemeral nature of life. Christ himself encountered senseless destruction in his lifetime. Indeed, his very birth was the cause of the deaths of dozens (if not hundreds) of children his age, the result of a mad king's effort to prevent his prophesied usurper's life. How did Christ respond to these events? Did he explain them in his divine wisdom? No. Hear the words of our savior:
There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.
So, too, does Job call for repentance in the face of disaster. When all is said in the book of Job, his final words are as follows:
‘Hear, and I will speak;
I will question you, and you make it known to me.’
I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear,
but now my eye sees you;
therefore I despise myself,
and repent in dust and ashes.
Consider: if tornado tore through a tiny town, pop. 1, and killed that one person, would this be a tragedy? What if that one person was also 98 years old and his death was quick. Would that be a tragedy?
We humans have established for ourselves some amazing expectations for our lives: that they will be long, comfortable, enjoyable, and free from pain. Even the most superficial glance at human history reveals that human life is in fact most often quite painful, miserable, and short, in physical terms. Tragedies like Oklahoma ought to bring us to the realization that our lives really are dust in the wind, that all our individual striving is meaningless in itself, and that the only peace, joy, hope, love, and meaning we will ever find is in God Himself.
So we ought to repent, as Christ said: repent of our sins, of our pride in our flesh, in our confidence in our ability to live long, healthy, meaningful lives outside of the grace of God. Repent and believe the good news that no matter when we die (for we all will die), we can have hope of resurrection - second life - in Jesus.
Fourthly, the only true peace available to anyone - victim, observer, rescuer, whoever - affected by this tragedy is God's peace. Note that this is not an intellectual peace achieved through complete understanding. My first point stands: platitudes are meaningless in the face of this kind of tragedy. We cannot comfort ourselves by thinking that we know why something like the Oklahoma tornado happened. We can, however, ask for and receive the fruit of the Spirit called peace. Christ called the Spirit his "comforter" who is with us. The comforter's comfort is not dependent on our intellectual understanding of why. He comforts the soul in the midst of tragedy and in the face of pain without explaining it away.
Finally, we can take intellectual, emotional, and spiritual comfort in the ultimate renewal of the world by God. This is the real message of Romans 8: not that God needs the deaths of children to accomplish his purposes, but because of the evil that caused disaster (and all disasters), He will supernaturally renew the world in time.
For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
Our hope in the wake of tragedy is not in our understanding the tragedy, for we will never understand why groups of children die or entire towns are laid waste. These things are the results of a sin-sick, broken world, a system that does not work right. We cannot understand brokenness. What we can understand and seek is a world where such suffering cannot and will not happen, where there will be no tear to moisten the cheek of a father whose daughter's body is crushed under the weight of a fallen roof. Where nations no longer mourn as madmen wreck havoc with weapons of war. Where there is only peace. Our hope is in that future glory, in that future grace.
So we return to the words of Voltaire that started this little essay. Another French philosopher Rousseau, responded to Voltaire in a letter whose closing words have offered me significant comfort through the years as I have witnessed tragedy after tragedy. I first confronted Voltaire and Rousseau in the days after 9/11 while I was in college, and the words I resonated with then I still resonate with today:
...I have suffered too much in this life not to look forward to another. No metaphysical subtleties cause me to doubt a time of immortality for the soul and a beneficent providence. I sense it, I believe it, I wish it, I hope for it, I will uphold it until my last gasp...
Our hope is not in our present grasp of why; it is in our ever-growing longing for what will be.