Monday, July 24, 2017

Worth the Risk

The scriptures referred to are Romans 8:12-25 and Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43.

I try to get to every unit in our jail each week, including sickbay and our lockdown unit, where the inmates are in their cells for 23 out of every 24 hours. I have to crouch or squat to talk through the meal tray flap with those guys, although lately the officers have been bringing me a chair. And this one inmate always seems to be wrestling with matters of faith and asking me questions about things like why Jesus went to the cross and whether there is a God, given that bad things happen like babies dying. In other words the problem of evil. If God is good and all powerful, why is there evil?

Before we get to the why, I just want to point out that the existence of evil is not an argument against the existence of God. In fact, if you take away God, you do not eliminate the things you think are evil. Babies still die. People still do awful things. You have simply taken away any coherent way to use the word “evil.” Take away an ultimate authority on what is moral and terms like good and evil get defined by humans. And usually evil devolves to “what I don't like” or “what our group or culture doesn't like.” And while most people would define things like murder, theft and deception as evil, groups tend to add the qualifier “except when we do it.” We won't tolerate it when an outsider kills one of our own, but when we kill members of an outside group, we argue that “That's different.” When Native Americans killed colonists it was evil. It pretty much says so in the Declaration of Independence. But when the U.S. government killed Native Americans, that was policy. If people are the arbiters of what is good and evil, they will always skew it to favor themselves. A moral standard needs to be something to which all people are subject.

When you take away God, you also take away any kind of objective meaning to evil acts or events or their victims. Yes, the loss of a loved one has meaning to you but not to an indifferent universe. It won't even have meaning to most other people. Those who know you or that person, sure. But ask yourself this: when you hear in the news of a hundred people dying in a natural disaster in some foreign country halfway around the world, does that affect you as much as when you hear of a hundred people dying in this country? Or in your state? Or in your city? The dearest person in your life dying means little to someone who doesn't know you. And if there is no God, who created that person and loves him or her, their death is truly meaningless. Without God, cosmically the death of thousands of human beings would be no more significant than the death of a bunch of ants.

More importantly, without God, people's deaths are irreversible. When they die, they cease to exist except as physical materials that will break down. They have no future in this world or the next. And if they died at the hand of another and that person got away with it, there is no justice, either. But if they died in any fashion, there is no way to undo that. Without God, death is “Game Over.” Except that even in video games, you can resurrect a character. But without God, there is no chance to live again. The dead stay dead.

I'm afraid that erasing God from the equation doesn't erase the problem of evil. Take away God and you still have to deal with evil. You've just taken away any chance for meaning, for an objective definition of evil. Mostly for any real justice in the universe. Only with the existence of God can you even wonder about why bad things happen to good people.

Metaphysically, even scientists can't answer why babies die. They do know to a limited extent how. They know a bit about certain causes, like birth defects. But they don't know that as well as they'd like. They used to think they might find a gene or two that caused each defect. But they are beginning to realize that each genetic disease may be the result of hundreds or thousands of genes, all going wrong in specific ways. Genetic diseases are looking more and more like freak accidents, the unfortunate combination of a multiplicity of factors. A human is an incredibly complex being, having about 20,000 protein-encoding genes and around 3 billion DNA base pairs. Looking at it that way, it is a miracle when everything comes together just right and a functional human being is born. And it comes together just right hundreds of millions of times more often than it goes drastically wrong. According to the March of Dimes, just 6% of children are born with a serious birth defect of genetic or partially genetic origin. Less than half of those die from the defect. The mindbogglingly complicated yet automatic process of creating a new human being works right 94% of the time.

The more common causes of children's deaths are largely preventable, like prematurity and pneumonia. And we are working to prevent them. As we are working to prevent genetic diseases, no matter how daunting the task. And to me that is a bigger question than why children die. Why do we do try to prevent these deaths? The world has no shortage of people. It's actually getting overpopulated. The more people that die, the more resources like food, water, and land are left for the rest of us. If we are the product of mindless evolution, why should we labor to save those unfit for survival? Yet we do. We feel that to let people die is immoral, even if they are sick or disabled. Why?

Because, the Christian would say, we are created in the image of God and God is love. God wants us to love and take care of each other. Indeed, of the 6 foundations that psychologists say make up morality, most people rate caring higher than fairness, loyalty, authority, purity and liberty. So this raises the question of why do some people harm others? Why do we torture? Why do we murder? Why do we wage war?

Paul has been dealing with such questions in our readings from Romans for the last few weeks. Two Sundays ago, we read a passage in which Paul confesses to struggling with sinful impulses himself. Last Sunday and this one, Paul is talking about the difference between those ruled by the flesh, that is, by our earthly human nature, and those ruled by the Spirit. In Galatians 5:19-21, Paul enumerates the products of fallen human nature, divorced from the spiritual: “sexual immorality, impurity, depravity, idolatry, sorcery, hostilities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish rivalries, divisions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing” and more. These are all things that harm a person or fracture relationships.

By the way, the Greek word for sorcery is pharmakeia, from which we get the word “pharmacy.” It literally means “drugs or potions.” Oracles and seers often took drugs to help them see visions. The famous Oracle of Delphi or Pythia is said to have inhaled vapors from a fissure in the earth, which caused her to hallucinate, have seizures and babble incoherently. Such utterances would be interpreted by priests as prophesies. So Paul's list could also be seen as condemning taking drugs, not for medicinal reasons, but to induce altered states of mind. We've seen the death toll of such drug use.

When you look at things from a strictly earthly perspective, you can justify any of those things. Say, you want to have sex with someone married to someone else, or under age, or who is a close blood relative. Why should you refrain simply because of an immaterial rule says that sex with certain categories of people is wrong? And if someone is stopping you from taking or achieving what you want, why can't you get it by fighting or cheating? And if you want to ingest a substance that imparts pleasure as it impairs your mind and body, why shouldn't you? It's your body, isn't it?

That's what Paul is talking about when he's talking about the flesh. He's not talking about our physical needs but rather a shortsighted materialistic view of life, driven by the desires and fears of our animal nature. Those living outside the Spirit are slaves to their baser instincts. But, as Paul says, “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption.” (Rom. 8:14-15a) Scripture teaches that we are not automatically children of God. We are his creatures. But if we respond to his Spirit and follow Jesus we become God's children. He adopts us and we therefore have the same rights as any natural born child: “...we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ...” (Rom. 8:16b-17a) We will be like Christ in God's eyes. And indeed that is what the Spirit is doing in our lives, making us more Christlike day by day—if we let him.

Humans have been trying to deal with the evil that arises in human nature for as long as we've been alive. We have tried to eliminate it through laws, punishment, education, and even war. It is too deeply embedded in us. What we need is transformation. We need to become new creations in Christ. That is what God is in the process of doing.

Paul speaks of how we and all of creation are groaning inwardly, for the day when God's new creation will be born, when it will at last become what he intended it to be all along. And note that Paul is not talking about some disembodied afterlife. We are waiting for “the redemption of our bodies.” God always intended us to be both physical and spiritual beings. Indeed his supreme revelation of himself was through the Incarnate Christ. In Jesus, God becomes one of us. In Jesus we see both what God is like and what we can be. And Jesus does pass the torch to us. We are to be the body of Christ on earth. We are incorporated into his body through the waters of baptism and nourished through the bread and wine he declares to be his body and blood. The physical gives the spiritual form. The spiritual gives the physical meaning.

Just so, our bodies and what we do with them can make concrete the love of God for humanity. By researching diseases, caring for the sick, working to eradicate poverty and its effects, feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, helping prisoners change their lives, giving refuge to those fleeing persecution and war, exposing and redressing injustice, confronting prejudice, and treating everyone as we would like to be treated, we are manifesting the kingdom of heaven on earth. And in doing these things, we are giving form to the spiritual and meaning to the physical.

Still cleaning up after evil and trying to reverse its effects are a lot of work. Why doesn't God just eradicate evil? Jesus gives part of the answer in the parable of the weeds and the wheat: the lives of those who do good and those who do evil are entwined. We find both in our families. For instance, should God have killed Hitler? That would have caused a lot of suffering to his mother, a sweet, hardworking, devout Roman Catholic who had already lost 3 children in their infancy. Maybe God should have killed Adolph's father, Alois, a womanizer who married his pregnant 16 year old first cousin, Adolph's mother, and who reportedly beat his family, once putting Adolph into a coma. But when should God have done that? Before that beating? Before Adolph was born? But that would mean his youngest sister was never born.

Should God kill all bad fathers? A recent scientific study shows that the loss of a father, through death, separation, divorce or incarceration, actually has a negative effect on the the telomeres, the protective “caps” on the end of the chromosomes of their children and thus their health. “No man is an island,” as poet John Donne wrote. We are all connected. Pulling up the weeds, or bad people, will inevitably uproot some of the wheat, or good people. It is God's mercy to the good, who cannot choose their parents or brothers or sisters, that he doesn't just pick off people who are bad.

But to return to Paul, another reason God refrains from killing off bad people is that folk's fates are not fixed. They can change. They can turn their lives around by opening themselves to God's love and forgiveness, accepting his grace, and, through the power of the Spirit, following Jesus. 

Joshua Milton Blahyi was a budding Adolph Hitler. A tribal priest, Blahyi believed so strongly in magic that he would go into battle clad only in shoes and carrying a gun, so that he became known as General Butt Naked. He also believed in human sacrifice and would routinely sacrifice a small child before going into battle. Under Liberian warload Roosevelt Johnson, he commanded a mercenary unit, that included many child soldiers, who killed thousands in the First Liberian Civil War. But then he says, on a battlefield, Jesus appeared to him in a blinding light. He repented, confessed his sins in church, and went before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Liberia. Today he is a preacher of the gospel and runs an NGO that helps former child soldiers and drug addicts change their lives and learn farming and construction.

Jesus' chosen metaphor doesn't allow for the weeds to turn into wheat but his parable of the prodigal son is about a kid who spends half his father's fortune on wild living before repenting and returning to his loving dad. Jesus said that as a doctor doesn't go to the healthy but the sick, his mission was to bring God's transforming power to sinners. When Jesus encountered Zacchaeus, who became rich taxing his fellow Jews for the Roman empire, the man volunteered to give half of his wealth to the poor and reimburse any he cheated 4 times the amount. Jesus preached repentance, which simply means changing your mind and turning your life around.

The world thinks the way to deal with bad people is to get rid of them by killing or imprisoning them. Jesus' way of getting rid of bad people is to make them into good people. It's more risky, as is God's idea to create people with minds of their own so they could chose how to respond to God and to others and therefore be able to truly trust and really love. Of course, they could also choose not to trust and love God or others. But God thought that rather than create a bunch of puppets or robots, it was worth the risk to give us free will. It was worth the risk to give us the possibility of loving.

None of us has ever created a universe, and so it is easy for us to criticize God for not creating a world where all actions have only good consequences and no bad ones. I don't think it's physically possible to make a world where you can give someone a good hug but not use that same strength to strangle someone. For the same reason I don't think it's possible to create fire that only gives off light and cooks food and heats homes but can't burn a person or a house. God pronounced his creation good. Evil is not inherent in this world but is created whenever we misuse God's good gifts. Things that are good in some contexts are evil in others. A cane can be used to beat and cripple a person or to help someone walk. It's all in how we choose to use it.

I don't know why children die. But I don't believe that is the end of the matter. I don't believe God gives up on either the living or the dead. I believe that God is love, that we see that love in Jesus and that his love can change people. I believe that as God raised Jesus from the dead, so he will raise us, to be new creations in his new creation. I put my hope in this because I believe that God is love, love is worth the risk and love wins in the end.

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