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.