Rape is not God’s will

On October 23, 2012 at Indiana University Southeast in New Albany, candidate for US Senate Richard Mourdock suggested that pregnancies resulting from rape are “something that God intended to happen”:  video here.

One may insist that this assertion is outrageous, inflammatory, distorted by the media, taken out of context, or adequately amended by follow-up comments, but that is not my concern in this post.

What is most provocative is how this comment reveals a troubling and dangerous conception imbedded many people’s theological construct, which should be addressed and dispelled.  Namely, that God wills bad things to happen to good people.  Whatever Mr. Mourdock of Indiana meant by his comment, and perhaps he didn’t mean what he said, people do wrestle with the question of how God could allow suffering, including rape, to happen.  After the tragic car accident killing his son Alex, the Rev. William Sloane Coffin, Jr. delivered a moving and frequently cited eulogy addressing this issue of theodicy (reconciling an omnipotent and omnibenevolent God with evil and suffering in the world):

For some reason, nothing so infuriates me as the incapacity of seemingly intelligent people to get it through their heads that God doesn’t go around this world with his fingers on triggers, his fists around knives, his hands on steering wheels. God is dead set against all unnatural deaths. And Christ spent an inordinate amount of time delivering people from paralysis, insanity, leprosy, and muteness.

So what accounts for suffering?  If God is all good and all powerful, then how could God possibly allow for suffering of innocent people?  How could a loving God allow the Holocaust to happen?  Why does God permit children to suffer unspeakable horrors?  What accounts for torture, rape, murder and genocide?  What is the reason for tragic accidents that steal away loved ones, inflicting pain even on those left behind?

Like any honest person, I don’t claim to know.  The answers to these questions are not available to us.  They are, at least for this time, shrouded from our understanding by mystery.  But it is critically important to discern the difference between mystery and “God’s will.”  Simply because something is not known, it doesn’t necessarily follow that it must be the will of the Divine.  And for those of us who proclaim that it is God who heals, comforts, restores and strengthens us in the face of tragedy, it seems to me to be theologically inconsistent or lazy to also say that it is also God who inflicts such suffering.

I admit that insofar as I am a creature of ration and reason, an explanation of suffering that defers to mystery seems unsatisfying.  But I think that if we strive to be instruments of God in a world wrought with suffering, if we are to be the hands and feet of a Christ that comforts and heals, if we are to be a force for change and justice in a world of rottenness and sin, then we serve the people better by insisting that what we know for sure about God is that God opposes suffering.  On this point we must clear, so as not to dilute the culpability of oppressors.  On this point we must be insistent, so as not to divert people from engaging the grace, peace and justice of God.  If we misidentify God as the source of violence, then we block ourselves off from the full liberating power of God who delivers us from violence and will ultimately defeat it.

For those of us who follow Christ and see the narrative of Jesus of Nazareth, persecuted and executed by the Empire, as the story which reveals God, there is something uniquely life affirming that we can say to those (and as those) who suffer:  God unequivocally stands on the side of the oppressed and the abused.  God has endured the absurdity and cruelty of a human life strangled by sin.  The God incarnate knows existential terror of being forsaken by one’s creator, and that God is dragged even into death.  But nevertheless, despite the overwhelming power of oppression and death, God’s love subverts that power in the end.

I am not interested in declaring that Richard Mourdock’s words were foolish, abusive, or misinterpreted.  I am, however, interested in proclaiming to those who walk the treacherous path that it is not God who terrorizes us, but rather God who is terrorized with us, and who wills into creation the Kingdom of peace, justice and love.  We can be assured that God hears our cries, understands our cries in the way that only one who has experienced our tribulations can, and will have the last word.

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3 thoughts on “Rape is not God’s will

  1. A Well written article Joe! I am with you 99%. The only part that I could not fully identify with (not that I claim to have any authority on the matter other than what I believe to be the voice of my conscience) is: “…all we know for sure is that God opposes suffering”.

    How do we know this for sure? Is it not possible that there are times in our lives (I’m not saying all times but some) when suffering can be a trial of purification? I would not necessarily assert that God causes suffering, but I do believe that it is possible for us to suffer at the hands of our own erroneous thoughts, habits, actions etc. In such circumstances, it is the suffering that knocks at our door continuously until we find ourselves in a state of mind to pursue our own transformation.

    I do feel as though God wants us to be happy and to work through our suffering in order to evolve spiritually, but I also feel as though God must allow us to suffer so that we can learn how to seek healing.

    Perhaps that’s what you meant when you said that God opposes suffering…

    Anyways, that’s what your essay caused me to ponder, and I thank you for that my friend!

    Amor,
    Ross

  2. Ross,

    I definitely appreciate your comments. I think that the questions you raise are good ones, and I can only hope that those who journey on a spiritual path and seek a faithful relationship with the Divine would ask these particular questions and engage the struggle to find their answers, even if there is always an element of mystery that keeps us concealed from them.

    I have wrestled with these same questions to some degree, and my assertion that God unequivocally opposes suffering is certainly a bold one, contrary to other carefully considered theologies, but hard won and not proclaimed lightly.

    Narrowly in my post, I am talking about the undisputable varieties of suffering: rape, murder, genocide, tragic accidents, crimes of abuse against children, human slavery, etc. I think that is important to differentiate from, say, the disputable “suffering” I might endure when I take on too ambitious of a course load this semester and put a strain on my relationship with kids and wife, or lose needed sleep. The latter is a condition I choose to some degree (if we can set aside the discussion about whether following a call to seek higher education is free will for a moment – I have a little faith in free will, btw, but that’s another post for another time).

    Now, are the superlative extremes the only forms of suffering? Of course not. But I think that such realities put one’s theology to a rigorous test and are more instructive. When we consider the Holocaust or human slavery (and if we are serious about faith, we should), the only God that emerges from the fire (dare I say the “evil”) is a God greater than the suffering God’s children unjustly endure. So this is a God supremely powerful but also a God intimately concerned and involved in the actual suffering itself, so much so that God actually endures it herself. A God that is only supremely powerful might easily “will” the suffering of children because God is sovereign and will do what God wants. But a God that is also incarnate, a God that is nailed to the cross just as the children of Syria are pierced by snipers, that God makes a very clear statement. And the way that I interpret that statement is that God stands against suffering, oppression, violence and death. And this statement of the crucified and resurrected Christ, in turn, interprets the world. It allows me to take a stand against the atrocities of humanity for the sake of humanity. It prevents me from taking the easy (and absurd, in my opinion) way out, which is that “God wills us to suffer.”

    Now for your questions and considerate thoughts, which deserve response:

    1.) How do we know this for sure? The kind of knowledge that is “self-evident,” if it exists at all, is not that which I am interested in. I am interested in truth to be sure, but a putting a debate on ontology aside, I believe that the lived human experience is the kind of thing that we work through and grapple with. We engage our reason, experiences, encounters with the Divine, the scriptures of our faith tradition, and other disciplines of human inquiry and expression (visual and musical art, literary and historical criticism, anthropology, and the sciences) in order to construct a coherent faith narrative. This is not only how we makes sense of an erstwhile chaotic existence, but also how we discover who we really are and who God really is. So the short answer to your question is that we choose our theology, but it isn’t like we pick or make up whatever we want. We make choices in constructing our theology in a way that provides a whole and coherent narrative, which can still allow for mystery and the unknown, while affirming the goodness of God and the promise of a better world (the Kingdom, for me).

    2.) Is it not possible that there are times in our lives (I’m not saying all times but some) when suffering can be a trial of purification? Not based upon my working definition of suffering in this context. Do we endure tribulation (asceticism, for example) that purifies? Yes. But to the degree that actually suffering comes upon us, even in the pursuit of Godly aims, we are not encountering God’s will, but injustice or oppression. God is still present, but as one who endures with us and will ultimately provide our deliverance.

    3.) I would not necessarily assert that God causes suffering, but I do believe that it is possible for us to suffer at the hands of our own erroneous thoughts, habits, actions etc. In such circumstances, it is the suffering that knocks at our door continuously until we find ourselves in a state of mind to pursue our own transformation. I absolutely agree with you. I think this discussion falls into different parameters, which exclude the discussion of rape, genocide, etc, but you are correct.

    4.) I do feel as though God wants us to be happy and to work through our suffering in order to evolve spiritually, but I also feel as though God must allow us to suffer so that we can learn how to seek healing. The first part, I agree with. The latter part, about “allowing suffering” falls into mystery. That particular claim for me is in a part of the nature of God which I cannot know. I think that “God opposes suffering” and “God suffers with us” are evident in the Christ event, but the permission of suffering is a mystery that perhaps will only be understood in the Kingdom.

    Thank you so much!

    Shalom,

  3. “But if in the field the man finds the girl who is engaged, and the man forces her and lies with her, then only the man who lies with her shall die. 26″But you shall do nothing to the girl; there is no sin in the girl worthy of death, for just as a man rises against his neighbor and murders him, so is this case. 27″When he found her in the field, the engaged girl cried out, but there was no one to save her.” (Deut. 22:25-27).

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