When Not To Act on Behalf of God

Cover of L'Indépendant

Cover of L’Indépendant – 08 Jan 2015
SRC: Huffington Post

People are dead because a few idiots thought that a particular god was offended by their actions.  Unfortunately, this is not a novel occurrence in human history.  On a scale from the denial of basic civil rights to genocide, the list of atrocities committed in the name of God is endless.  For as long as humans have anthropomorphized our understanding of the metaphysical world, some of us have used the ostensible will of our particularity deity or deities to rationalize behavior that would otherwise be completely indefensible.

The problem with this “logic” is that reprehensible behavior, even if justified by a perceived divine command, is still inexcusable.  Here are three reasons why.

We Do Not Hear Directly from God

Whatever specific claims a religion might make about their deity, all religions claim some level of supernatural ability for their god(s).  My own faith, Christianity, claims omnipotence.  We believe in one God, who can do anything God wants to do.  Curiously, however, neither our God nor anyone else’s uses this supernatural power to communicate with us in obvious, incontrovertible ways.

Considering the claims some make about how strongly their particular god feels about things, this is a little surprising.  If, for instance, the bark on every single tree read “Give to the poor or I will be angry,” charitable giving might go up considerably.  If the words “Keep the Sabbath holy” hung in fiery letters in the sky every Friday evening at sundown, Shabbat meals would be the norm all over the world.  I shudder to think of the impact of creating us with warnings against promiscuity pre-inscribed on certain parts of our bodies.

Yet this is not how God communicates.  We do not have obvious proclamations that are unquestionably of divine origin.  What we have is tradition, the history of the members of our community of faith constantly seeking to know the will of God and recording that very human effort in scripture and liturgy.  Human writings created by human hands using human language and mediated by human teachers, that is all that we have.

Some members of some traditions claim otherwise.  They assert that their scriptures were actually composed, or dictated, or directly and verbatim inspired, by God.  This assertion is fine for comforting and reassuring the faithful, and for guiding adherents in the management of their interior life of faith.  If, however, a person wants to act in a way that restricts the rights of another person, harms another person, or – God forbid – kills another person, an unsubstantiated claim of divine authorship for a religion’s teachings is not good enough.  If an all-powerful God, or even a moderately powerful hedge deity, really wants you to oppress or kill someone, then God had better make it abundantly clear in some supernatural and indisputable way.  Holding up a piece of paper and claiming “God wrote this” is simply not adequate justification for harming another human being.

People of Faith Constantly Reinterpret Their Teachings

Besides the obvious reason to question the sanity of committing murder based on unproven claims of divine authority, there is justification for caution from within our faith traditions as well.  Even the religions that make the most strident claims about the immutability of their scriptures have modified their interpretation of those Scriptures over time.  The Roman Catholic Church now recognizes that the Sun is the center of our solar system.  The Southern Baptist Convention, despite being founded solely for the purpose of defending slavery, has repudiated both slavery and racism.  Even the most doctrinaire of faiths change their normative interpretations over time.

Beyond the proven history of reinterpretation, there is also the matter of a lack of consensus even (or especially) among the most devout.  Gather any three Orthodox Jews together and ask them about halakah and the use of electricity on the Sabbath, and be prepared for three different answers – all based on the Torah.  Ask a Sunni  scholar and a Shi’a scholar about taqiyya in times of oppression, and their Koranic interpretations will likely take very different directions.  Try getting the aforementioned Roman Catholics and Southern Baptists to come to a biblical consensus on the Eucharist.

Even if one were to concede the unprovable assertion that a faiths’s scriptures and/or traditions were divinely authored, there remains the inarguable fact that the contents of those scriptures and traditions are sufficiently ambiguous that even the most devout cannot agree on what they mean.  This is fine if the topic at hand is whether or not to flip a light switch on Saturday morning.  It is problematic, however, when the topic is murder.  Simply put, if the purported claims of a deity are not so abundantly clear that every single person who encounters them agrees on exactly what they mean, then those claims are not clear enough to justify oppression, violence, or murder.

Speaking as a member of the clergy who has also served as a soldier, this seems like an obvious minimum standard.  If a military order came down about a building, and three different officers read the order and came up with three different interpretations –  attack the building, leave the building alone, and protect the troops inside the building – moving forward with an attack would be unjustifiable.  The same is true with any act of violence or oppression committed in the name of God.

God Does Not Need Our Help

This is even more evident in view of what it means to be God in the first place.  Assuming that a deity is worthy of worship, they must have some level of power over the world in which we live.  In decades of studying religion, I have yet to encounter any group that burned incense to Bernard the Ineffectual, God of Weakness and Passivity.  For a being to be worthy of our worship, they must have power.  We seek the divine because we want to draw closer to the metaphysical power of creation, to our own Creator, to the guiding forces of the universe.  We only worship gods who have power.

If a being with that level of power finds something offensive, then – by definition – they have the ability to do something about it.  If God thinks blasphemers should be struck dead, then God, who has the power of life and death, has the option of doing so.  If God thinks those who dress in revealing ways should suffer excruciating pain, God has the ability to make that happen instantly and incurably.  If God is the one who is offended, God has the power to act.  God has no need of us taking offense and acting of our own accord.  Besides, even our best efforts would pale compared to the power of divine wrath, assuming that’s what God really wants.  Any god incapable of divine retribution for blasphemy – and who therefore relies on puny humans to do the dirty work – is a weak and impotent god in the first place, one unworthy of worship or sacrifice.

People of faith might recognize a flaw in this argument.  Presumably the power of any god worth worshiping is not just limited to divine retribution.  Such a god is also capable of performing miraculous deeds of beneficence, curing all illnesses, feeding all who hunger, and protecting all who are in need.  If God wants these things done, shouldn’t we also leave them to God?  If we are not expected to emulate or embody God’s wrath, why should it be necessary for us to act as instruments of God’s benevolence?

As a person of faith myself, I would like to propose a simple way to resolve this inconsistency.  Recognizing the previous points about the inherent ambiguity of religious tradition, the only instances in which we should act towards others on behalf of God are those times when those same people ask us to do so.  If we believe God wants everyone to be fed, and someone asks us for food, we should feed them.  If we believe God values mercy, and someone comes to us seeking a second chance, we should offer it.  If we believe God is a God of hope, then our words and our actions should restore those who come to us because they feel hopeless.

Setting this simple distinction, that it our duty to act on the will of God only when it does not impose violence on another person, or act in some other way against their wishes, allows us to continue to have a living faith that requires us to act, but prevents us from allowing our flawed human intellect from bringing more evil and cruelty into the world.  If everything our respective religions have taught us about God is true, then that’s a line God would never want us to cross in the first place.

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Pondering the Legacy of Truett Cathy

Truett Cathy

S. Truett Cathy –  source: Wikimedia Commons

In reading the reflections of my fellow Berry College alumni on the passing of Truett Cathy, I am reminded of the complexity in examining the life and legacy of an influential figure.

Mr. Cathy was a gracious man, unpretentious in every way, who always displayed kindness and compassion to the individuals he encountered. Most of my friends have said the same of him, although I must admit that other folks I know have mentioned past negative interactions with Mr. Cathy. I can only speak from my own encounters, which might have been influenced by the fact that as a southern, white, cis, male there would have been no reason for him not to be gracious to me.  Nevertheless, I think on the balance it is fair to describe him as a man who is widely praised for being exceedingly kind to strangers and who had a good heart.

On the other hand, he endowed a massive scholarship program at our college, and the recipients of that scholarship were required to live in accordance with Cathy’s fundamentalist values and participate in weekly sessions meant to inculcate and reinforce those values. The scholarship program itself, in its promotional materials, explicitly opposes “pluralism” – one of the fundamental values that Berry – or any college – should actively work to nurture.

From an alum’s perspective, I was there when the anti-LGBT language and the anti-sex language was put into the Viking Code. I saw the harm that it did, and I am fully aware of the destructive force those policies, and the others for which he advocated, are in the world.  The pro-LGBT group we tried to form on campus was rejected by the Board of Trustees (as a result, we were told, of the Cathy family’s influence); and it took many years for the group to finally receive official recognition.

The program founded by Mr. Cathy continues to advocate for the same extremist ignorance, bigotry, and anti-intellectualism that I saw regularly in the “theology” of the WinShape program back in my day at Berry.  His family, his company, and his church all appear to do the same. I am horrified by the fact that the man used his money and my alma mater as a way of reinforcing – rather than eliminating – the religious bigotries and ignorance of Berry College students. Who knows how many hundreds of people are out there now, continuing to harm countless others because they think their prejudices and ignorance are “biblical.” 

This is exactly why I (along with many others who study religion) identify fundamentalism as, by any functional definition, a force for evil in the world – however much good it may appear to accomplish along the way. In examining the legacy of Mr. Cathy, it is worth pondering how the pernicious and deceptive nature of fundamentalism – which hides behind the mask of biblical fidelity and morality – allows a good person with a kind heart and good intentions to do harm in the name of their god(s).

We are faced with the same enigma that arises when we consider the “good” people of the nineteen fifties who were also passionate segregationists. Likewise, we have the history of our nation’s founders who were simultaneously slaveholders. That fundamentalism – like slavery, racism, or misogyny – is evil is, I think, beyond debate for educated people. What we should ponder is how someone with good intentions and – according to all accounts – a good heart, could further promulgate evil to such an extent.

My intent is not to ridicule Mr. Cathy.  I have dear friends who loved and respected him greatly.  Some of them tell impassioned stories about how he changed their lives for the better. By all appearances, he wanted to be a force for good in the world. Nevertheless, if we are to be honest about Mr. Cathy’s life, we must grapple with the conundrum of the identity of a kind man who meant well and did a lot of good while also doing a lot of harm. By doing so, we can not only offer a more honest eulogy, we also can make some headway into confronting the dangers of fundamentalism.

If history is any indicator, the legacies of people like Truett Cathy grow more tarnished with time, as society moves farther and farther from the superstitions and bigotries of past generations. Digging past the corrupting influences of religious fundamentalism might be the only way to preserve his legacy. At the very least, it might allow his life to be a cautionary tale for those of us who do not want to find ourselves on the wrong side of history.


As a PostScript, here is my response to the colleague from Berry who resented my characterization of fundamentalism as ignorant and evil:

Fundamentalism is – fundamentally – anti-intellectual. It rejects science and biblical scholarship in favor of a bizarre approach to selective biblical literalism that is based solely on its self-serving agenda. Fundamentalism has no place in an academic environment.

Fundamentalism is also a force for evil. It allows people to promulgate ignorance and bigotry under the smokescreen of belief. When the Church persecuted the scientists who argued (based on their literal interpretation of Scripture) that the Sun went around the Earth, the Church was doing evil work. When Christians used their literal interpretation of Scripture to defend slavery, they labored for evil in God’s name. When fundamentalists today fight against science or rights for women or LGBT persons, they are doing evil work.

Not all beliefs are equally valid or deserve equal “tolerance.” Just because someone believes something does not mean it should be exempt from critical analysis or logical inquiry. Fundamentalism holds up to neither. It is ignorance shielding itself with religious rhetoric to avoid exposure to the light of day.

Fundamentalism is not simply one belief system among many.  Fundamentalism is a separate approach to belief, one that ignores critical thinking in favor of dogma.  It deserves a place at the same table where all irrational and destructive behaviors are consigned, but it does not deserve a place at the table with healthy, mature approaches to faith.

(My colleague questioned whether or not this view is consistent with his strawman construction of the “liberal value of tolerance.” As a social liberal, I have never argued that tolerance is, in and of itself, a positive value. As I state above, not all ideas are equally valid, and there is no reason to tolerate ideas that are rooted in ignorance, superstition, or bigotry. If an idea can be substantiated with logical consistency, then it has earned the opportunity for tolerance.)


And a second PostScript

One thing that I want to make very clear is that the purpose of that post is NOT to advance any political agenda. (I’m not really sure that opposing fundamentalism is even a political issue outside the South any more.) I was trying to reconcile the two sharply contrasting portraits of Truett Cathy that I have noted in my friends’ recollections of him. To some he is a benevolent mentor. To others he is the embodiment of evil. I wanted to wrestle with how someone could be both.

I suppose, to some extent, I did, because my friends who liked the man think I was too hard on him, and my friends who despised him think I was too generous. He is a public figure, and the question of his legacy is a relevant and timely one; and I think it is particularly important to reflect on these questions now so that we can look at them again some day through the lens of history.

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How I Can Be a Christian

Origen of Alexandria

Origen of Alexandria (source: wikisource.org)

How can you be a Christian?  How can you be a pastor?

I suppose, as a socially progressive, academic clergyperson who lives in the Deep South, it is hardly surprising that I get asked these questions…a lot.  When someone learns that I teach that the Christian Scriptures are a collection of documents written and edited over centuries, and that those writers and editors were influenced by political and social forces as well as theological ones, they are often surprised to learn that I read the Bible and pray every day – even while knowing that not everything contained therein actually happened.  When they learn that I have a long history of advocating for same-sex marriage and reproductive freedom (including access to abortion) they are surprised to learn that I also believe and preach the gospel of Jesus Christ.

The question comes from both sides.  Christian fundamentalists (or “evangelicals” as they prefer to be called to avoid confusion with people who hold identical social beliefs but attribute them to a different collection of scriptures) often believe that their interpretation of Christianity is the only authentic one.  For them, failing to hold to the beliefs they impose on the tradition is a rejection of the tradition as a whole.

Interestingly, non-Christians seem to be under the same impression.  Presumably their understanding of what Christians believe is based upon the portrayal of Christians on TV and in movies, and upon the representation of Christians on the news.  From that limited perspective, Christians are people who cling to a quaint, “traditional” understanding of society and a “literal” interpretation of the Bible.

So, from the perspective of the left and the right, those of us who take a more thoughtful, historically-conscious approach to our faith must not be “real” Christians.  Here are some reasons why that view is short-sighted:

1. Fundamentalists aren’t really that “Fundamental”

Fundamentalists of every stripe like to portray themselves as biblical literalists who cling to the “timeless” truths of their tradition.  This is very far from true.  The beliefs and  practices of twenty-first century evangelicals would be viewed as permissive and libertine by their nineteenth-century predecessors, and would be almost unrecognizable from the perspective of the Early Church.  Since most people lack the historical perspective to recognize any changes that go back more than a century, modern evangelicals get away with calling themselves “traditionalists” when it’s really just that their innovations are slightly less recent than those of “progressives.”

They also are no more “literal” in their treatment of the Christian Scriptures than anyone else.  I have already dealt with that here, here, and here.  I do not feel the need to rehash all of those points in this essay, so I will limit myself to the observation that fundamentalists only treat texts literally when it supports their social agenda.  Those texts that run contrary to that agenda, or which undermine their claims about the Bible’s divine authorship or historical accuracy, are interpreted allegorically – often with astonishingly convoluted logic.

Consequently, I see no reason that non-fundamentalists should be held to a standard that the fundamentalists themselves do not keep.  Perhaps if fundamentalist Christians become pacifists who hold no property, fast multiple times a week, gather to stand for worship services that last an entire day, and require years of study before a person can become a convert – then I might find their argument more compelling.

2. Knowledge Moves Forward

The reality of the history of Christianity, however, is that beliefs about doctrine, Scripture, worship, and the nature of Christian obligation change dramatically from century to century.  Every religious tradition does this.  If they did not, those traditions would quickly fade into irrelevance.

Studying the evolution of those changes, and the process that produced the Christian Scriptures, often poses a dilemma for young seminary students.  They essentially have three choices.  They can reject what they learn in seminary, and persist in a more simple understanding of the faith.  They can reject Christianity, believing that if the understanding of Christianity they had in Sunday School is not true, they cannot be Christians any more.  Or, they can find a way to participate in the tradition that is honest about biblical and historical scholarship.

I have chosen the latter option.  In every area of knowledge, our understanding of how to interpret observable phenomena changes as new information emerges.  We do not consider physicians “liberals” or “heretics” because they do not think a fever comes from an imbalance of the “humours of the body” or because they do not treat it with bleeding.  Nor do we claim that fevers did not exist in the eighteenth century because physicians of that era described them imprecisely and did not understand their cause.

The practice and study of faith should not be exempt from this process.  The Bible is the record of several generations’ encounters with the presence of God.  Those encounters were interpreted through their cultural beliefs, political concerns, prejudices, and superstitions.  Subsequent generations then re-interpreted those writings through the lenses of their own assumptions and limitations, as our generation does as well.  Being honest about that reality does not minimize or contradict the reality of those original encounters with God.  Nor does it impugn the honesty and sincerity of the faith journey of subsequent generations.

3.  Accountability

So should we just believe whatever we want and call ourselves “Christians?”  Nothing could be farther from my point.  To continue the example above, if a physician said, “Well, if fevers aren’t caused by a humour imbalance then I might as well believe they are caused by aliens” one would question the legitimacy of their medical training.  Likewise, recognizing that biblical and theological scholarship calls into question the assumptions of past generations does not mean that we should all run willy-nilly into whatever theological trend or ludicrous spiritualism seems appealing.

Through seminary training and graduate school, the ordination process, and continuing, prayerful study of both scholarship and Scripture, I hold myself accountable to the history of the tradition and the perspective of my colleagues.  This is an important element to Christian practice – it is not an expression of individual belief.  Christianity is about living in community.  Recognizing that the history of the tradition reveals drastic sea changes in belief does not mean abandoning accountability to the community that is rooted in that history.

4. Comfort with Ambiguity

Yet, as we have discussed, very few of the members of that community agree on everything.  Even limiting the boundaries to mainline Christianity, there is considerable diversity in belief and practice.  The obvious reality is that we cannot all be right, and – based on the long history of changes in Christian assumptions about “incontrovertible” truths, the Church has likely been wrong more often than it has been right.  An honest assessment of the truth of the Christian tradition means comfort with ambiguity; far fewer truths are as certain as we would like them to be.  Christianity is about a journey toward truth, not an affirmation of it.

5. Reality

Finally, I am a Christian pastor because – for me – the Christian tradition helps me understand the world as I have experienced it, and because Christian worship draws me closer to the metaphysical world I have glimpsed from afar.  There have been times when the presence of God has been a real and sustaining force in my life.  Prayer has brought me peace and focus, and I believe – along with Martha Berry and my Great Grandmother – that “Prayer Changes Things.”

I would not presume to claim that Christianity fully encompasses the depth and complexity of a transcendent God, but it draws me closer to that God whom my own experiences have convinced me is real.

Concluding Thoughts

A famous seventeenth-century quote by Rupertus Meldenius, but often attributed to St. Augustine, can be translated: “In essentials, unity; in uncertain things, liberty; and in all things charity.”  This logic is at the heart of why I am comfortable as a Christian and a member of the clergy.  Our essentials come from the broad consensus of the tradition, yet an honest appraisal of the history of Christianity reveals that – beyond those essentials – there is far more uncertainty than some might wish or claim.  Ultimately, if the gospel is to be “good news,” we must seek it – charitably – together as a shared question, not a settled answer, and my life is the richer for that journey.

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Regarding Ender’s Game

Ender's Game Movie Poster

Ender’s Game Movie Poster

The topic of boycotting the new Ender’s Game movie is generating considerable debate in the speculative fiction community right now, especially after Orson Scott Card’s recent plea for “tolerance” of his past intolerance.

1. Homosexuality in general – This comes up any time its germane even tangentially to the topic at hand. Bigotry against people in same-sex relationships is sufficiently destructive that you cannot avoid talking about its consequences when addressing related issues. As Card, and other religious fundamentalists apparently realize, the issue is settled and they are on the losing end of history on this one (as the segregationists were a couple of generations ago). This one is done, but it is still important that we don’t forget the injustices that gay, lesbian, and transgender people have endured in the past.

2. Enjoying the art of someone whose views we dislike/detest – This one, I think, is not absolute. Would I hang a picture on my wall painted by someone who worked for Monsanto? Probably not, but possibly. Would I hang a painting on my wall that was painted by Hitler? No. Would I hang a picture on my wall painted by someone who smokes cigarettes? Sure.  Distance in time and place make a difference. I’m sure that there are a lot of things in Sumerian culture I would find horrifying – but I still read Gilgamesh.

3. Financially supporting someone whose views we dislike/detest – This is somewhat different, especially when the person actively uses their fame or wealth to influence those issues which we hold dear. Personally, I try not to give money to people or organizations that use those profits for causes I oppose. Because of the incestuous nature of our corporate culture, and the fact that many corporations act in despicable ways, this is sometimes hard to avoid – but I don’t think it’s an unreasonable, general rule.

4. What happens when something becomes a cause celebre? – Sometimes how we spend our money becomes a political statement over and above its inherent value. This happened with Chik-fil-A, and is now happening with Orson Scott Card. At that point, sometimes there is value in simply joining your voice with the chorus making the public statement that some behaviors/ideas are despicable, and we repudiate them.

5. Orson Scott Card himself – In my interactions with him (only by correspondence) he has always been gracious and thoughtful. Perhaps in the echo chamber of religious fundamentalism he did not realize just how offensive his statements really are, or how out of step with mainstream Western culture (religious and secular) he has become. Perhaps also he did not realize that the SF community – likely because of the level of education of its members and the nature of the genre – has increasingly become even more welcoming and affirming than the general culture. I understand why some folks defend him (for who he is as a whole), and I understand why others vilify him (for the reprehensible things he has said). As with any kind of bigot, the question is “How do we love the sinner and hate the sin?”

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Bryan Fischer Does Not Speak for Christianity


Bryan Fischer makes an idiot of himself

Screenshot from YouTube video (links to the video itself)

I haven’t written anything about yesterday’s horrendous events in Newtown, Connecticut because a number of writers with far more skill and wisdom than I continue to produce outstanding, thoughtful, compassionate commentary that I think will be invaluable in guiding our citizens as we grieve.  As a general rule, I try not to write an opinion piece unless I think I have something original to add to the dialogue.  Sometimes, however, when someone says something egregiously stupid, dangerous, or damaging, I feel compelled to respond.

Thanks to Bryan Fischer, Director of Issues Analysis for the despicable American Family Association (the public policy arm of the notorious hate group Focus on the Family), I now have something to say.

Fischer used a little of his broadcast time after the massacre in Connecticut to address the fundamental theological question of theodicy – how do we reconcile the presence of evil with the power of a benevolent God?  There’s nothing wrong with that.  Religious leaders all over the country will be doing the same.  As evidenced by the number of possible answers theologians and philosophers have offered to this question, any honest Christian approach to the topic must begin and end with the limits of human knowledge and experience.  We don’t know why there is evil in the world.

We don’t know why there is evil in the world.  Anyone who offers any other answer as final and absolute is, quite simply, a liar and a charlatan.  Christianity is not about explaining the existence of evil, it is about proclaiming the gracious good news that God is present with us despite the horrifying and sometimes-overwhelming presence of malice, selfishness, violence, and destruction in the world.  Any member of the clergy who answers the question “Why did this child die?” with any answer besides, “I don’t know” should find a new line of work, preferably one where they are never again allowed to talk to people.

Which brings us to Bryan Fischer.  In offering his answer to the question “Where was God when all this went down?” Fischer offered the following:

“Here’s the bottom line.  God is not going to go where He is not wanted.  Now we have spent since 1962, we’re fifty years into this now, we have spent fifty years telling God to get lost, telling God we do not want You in our schools, we don’t want to pray to you in our schools…in 1962 we kicked prayer out of the schools, in 1963 we kicked the Word of God out of the schools…we’ve kicked God out of our public school system.  And I think God would say to us, ‘Hey, I’ll be glad to protect your children but you gotta invite me into your world first.  I am not going to go where I am not wanted.  I am a gentleman.‘”

So where to begin?  Let’s start here – any god who needs a request before he or she will intervene to prevent the massacre of children is not worth worshiping.  If that is genuinely the way the world works, I would rather be damned to Hell along with all those who believe in compassion and empathy than fawn in Heaven alongside those comfortable bowing before an egomaniacal sociopath, no matter how “divine.”  I don’t know for which god Fischer presumes to speak, but it is not the Christian one.  Jesus, when asked about a massacre, clearly says in Luke 13 that death by violence or disaster is not a consequence of sin or rebellion.

Fischer has apparently confused God with the vampires of movies and television, who cannot enter a home unless invited.  (I like Vampire Diaries a lot, but Fischer of all people should look elsewhere for his theological guidance.)  For just a moment, though, let us assume that this absurd claim makes sense.  God – like Dracula or Caroline Forbes – needs an invitation.

With that bizarre rule in mind, I am willing to bet that when the deranged mass-murderer opened fire, someone in that school said a prayer to God for help.  What an opportunity for Fischer’s “gentlemanly” God.  A school full of young, impressionable “atheists” have finally invited Him in – at their time of dire need.  What a great opportunity for an act of divine intervention, one that would almost certainly convert all of those pitiable “atheists” into true believers.  One tiny answer to a whispered invitation, and God suddenly wins over hundreds of previously-unreachable “non-believers” and “heretics” who had previously denied Him access.  If Fischer is right, God was just waiting for a word that almost certainly came.  In Fischer’s bizarre scheme of arbitrary restrictions on God, this was the perfect time for a miracle.

As we know, whatever miracles took place that day, dozens of young lives were still lost, and God (the real one, not Fischer’s) stood weeping alongside the grieving parents and teachers.

Perhaps, though, what Fischer wanted to imply was that – by taking prayer and Christian Bible readings out of public schools – we have removed the influence that would have kept a troubled man from turning into a homicidal maniac.  This claim is almost as stupid as the one Fischer explicitly stated.  If you need state-sponsored, institutional prayers to be told not to shoot a child – your problem is not a lack of religious influence, your problem is that you are a sociopath in need of mental health care.

This is painfully obvious to anyone who has stopped to think about this tragedy, yet common sense and common decency have never been barriers to the AFA, Fischer, and those of their ilk pushing their anti-social agenda.  The things they believe are so ridiculous that the only way they can persuade impressionable people to agree with them is to convince the general public that groups like the AFA are speaking for God.  This means they have to use every opportunity to impose a kind of mindless, irrational pseudo-piety on the general public when people are at their most vulnerable.  Fischer’s comments are one more pathetic attempt to reach out from the outer darkness of irrelevance where his hate speech belongs and grasp at any opportunity to sway a few people to his agenda.

Mr. Fischer, since you felt so comfortable speaking for God, I feel compelled to do the same.  For fifteen years now I have been entrusted with the Scriptures and Tradition of the Church and the obligation to proclaim the gospel.  With all the authority of that call and ordination, let me say very clearly, “You, Bryan Fischer, are a fucking idiot!  You do not speak for God.  You do not speak for the Church.  You do not speak for Christianity or Christians.  You have proclaimed a false gospel of ignorance and hate.  If you wish to continue to teach in the name of this cruel, capricious god – please have the integrity to admit that it is not the God who – incarnate in Jesus – “died for us while we were yet sinners.”

For those of you who came here for more than an excoriation of Bryan Fischer’s heinous heresy – perhaps looking for something to make sense of the tragedy in Connecticut – I hope I provided ample warning early on that I do not have that to offer.  Christianity does not have all the answers, we are just an extended and diverse family of people united in seeking meaning in the ancient teachings of Judaism and the Early Church.  We have come up with many possible explanations for the presence of evil, but on some level they all eventually fall apart.

Where they all collapse is at the foot of the cross, a place that is simultaneously the triumphant cornerstone and the greatest shame of our faith.  Ours is not a religion of a thundering god crashing through the world magically repairing all the brokenness of our lives.  Ours is a faith built on a God who – seeing the pain, fear, and grief inherent in the human condition – joined us on our journey, even though it ultimately meant torture and murder at the hands of the forces of greed and selfishness.

The message of the cross is that the miracle of God is not in saving our lives, the miracle of God is in the purity of a Creator’s love that is so powerful that God is willing to step down from the luxuries of Heaven and take on our suffering.  God did not save the lives of those children because – for whatever reason – the Universe does not work that way.  According to our Scriptures, Jesus begged God, his Father, to save him from being murdered – and God did not do that either.

It sucks.  It makes no sense.  And it causes us all to question why we should bother worshiping such a God in the first place.  If you are looking for a God like Fischer’s, one who can be propitiated to intervene violently in mortal affairs, I recommend Durga.  For better or for worse, the God of Christianity does not consistently act in such a fashion.

Unlike Fischer, I do believe God was present at Sandy Hook Elementary, and that God acted.  I believe that the presence of a God who understands heroism in the face of suffering inspired teachers to risk their lives for their pupils.  I believe that a God who was vulnerable and broken at the hands of vicious killers was there for every excruciating second of that horrible time, and that each one of those children entered into eternity gently cradled in the arms of a loving God who understood what they had endured.

Perhaps that’s not enough.  In the days to come, some of us in our grief and anger will turn away from a God who would not or could not intervene to save the lives of those children.   Others will turn to other faiths or philosophies for answers.  I don’t think God will begrudge us that, after all God knows what it’s like to be forsaken.

And so, for those of you hoping that I could replace an insipid and shameful answer to the “Why?” question with a useful and theologically sound one, I cannot.  I cannot even promise you that if you pray and study and give every second of your life to God you will be spared the grief of another tragedy like this one.  I can only offer you what I have been given, what I believe, that there is more to this world than what we can see and touch, and that beyond the boundaries of our senses is a loving Creator who connects us to each other and to that world of greater meaning in ways that ultimately inspire more questions than answers.

When we seek that Creator, we are seeking to be more than we can be as individuals.  We are seeking to be greater than our limitations, stronger than our brokenness, and more powerful than our flaws and vulnerabilities.  We are seeking to stand in the face of evil, not in the hopes of easy victory, but in the certain confidence that – even in our most shocking  defeats – love, compassion, and grace will ultimately triumph.

We have seen some of that in the aftermath of Newtown, and more examples will certainly be forthcoming as people respond to the acts of one man at his worst by showing what humanity can be at our best.  Even as we join our tears to God’s in memory of those we have lost too soon and too horribly, perhaps we can also see some glimpse of the miracle of a God who knows our struggle and draws us into a people who refuse to be overcome by evil, but who instead will – every time – overcome evil with good.

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