Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Haiti's Angry God?

Fr. John Breck has completed his reworking of his below reply to Fr. Steven, and posted this on his "Life In Christ" series on the OCA website. Highly recommended.


Dear Parish Faithful and Friends in Christ,

I would like to share a recent correspondence of mine with Fr. John Breck. I had emailed him a New York Times Op-Ed entitled "Haiti's Angry God," after we had spoken on the phone about the "theological implications" of the devastating earthquake there. That editorial may have been heartfelt, but I found it rather unsatisfying for a variety of reasons. Fr. John sent me the following response upon reading the editorial. If you would like to read this in its proper sequence, you may then want to click on the link above, or scroll down to the editorial below, and then read Fr. John's response. As usual from Fr. John, it is a profound meditation that is thoroughly Christocentric. He initially wrote this as an initial reaction to this article, and said that he will rework it as a new meditation for his "Life in Christ" series on the OCA website. So this will end up being something of a draft of an even more carefully written piece. But I thought to share this with everyone, as it has an immediacy about it as the earthquake continues to draw our attention.

If you are tired or puzzled of hearing from the likes of Pat Robertson and the "wrath of God" coming down on all of these sinful people - which I believe goes a long way in discrediting Christianity - then Fr. John's approach which reveals a deep sympathy for human suffering, and a deep faith in Christ, is a good place to begin.

- Fr. Steven

Webmaster's note: The closing paragraph from the NYTimes.com Opinion piece reads as follows:
Why, then, turn to a God who seems to be absent at best and vindictive at worst? Haitians don’t have other options. The country has a long legacy of repression and exploitation; international peacekeepers come and go; the earth no longer provides food; jobs almost don’t exist. Perhaps a God who hides is better than nothing.


Dear Fr Steven,

The idea that this event in Haiti is "divine retribution" is a relic of very bad Roman Catholic, then right-wing Protestant, theology. I cannot believe that God inflicts punishment of any kind for "sin," other than, as a German prof. of mine once put it, "to let us shtoo in our own choos!"

The world needs desperately to hear an Orthodox response to this kind of thing. If I understand at all what that is, it means basically this. We can never know the reason for innocent suffering; that's what makes it "suffering" and not merely pain. It's the unfathomable nature of such things, the problem of theodicy, that poses the problem for us. We usually begin with the idea that "God is all powerful," therefore if He wanted to, He could have prevented this tragedy. He did not prevent it; therefore He is either (1) not all-powerful, or (2) not essentially good.

This is the wrong way to approach the issue. We have to begin with the Cross. That momentous and glorious/tragic event does not explain innocent suffering. But it does tell us what is essential: that "If I make my bed in Sheol, Thou are there" (Ps 38/39). All we can say about tragedies such as this one in Haiti, or the tsunami of a couple of years ago, or the death of a little child on the highway, is that Christ is there with us. He descends again and again into the depths of our hell, to reach out His hands and to grasp ours. He shares our pain and suffering with us to the bitter end. Sometimes we live, sometimes we die, even in agony. Yet the Risen Christ shares that agony with us ("Christ is in agony until the end of the world," Pascal said). He goes through it with everyone who bears it, in order, finally, to raise us up (in the image of our Paschal icon) and to give us a full share in His victory over death and in His eternal glory.

This, I think, is all we can say about the matter. But this is all that needs to be said. If we begin with the Cross, and not with some abstract notion of divine omnipotence, then we can see that God and we are still engaged in a massive cosmic struggle. The Cross and Resurrection ended the sovereignty of Satan over the world and over our individual destinies. But the struggle continues, sin continues, natural disasters continue, and will continue until Christ comes again in glory. But once more, there is profound significance in the fact that at the Empty Tomb the angel speaks of Christ not as "the Risen One," but as "the Crucified One" (Matt & Mk). Christ remains "the Crucified One" in the life and experience of every one of us, even of those who cry out to Him from under the rubble.

This is the only thing that makes sense to me, Father Steven. Sadly, the (Western) world has adopted a different perspective, one that wholly distorts the biblical understanding of redemption. If God is the vindictive overlord who punishes sinners (why particularly in Haiti?) with such tragedies, then I'm not interested. If He is the Suffering Servant, who journeys with us and for us, to bear our sin and its consequence of mortality, then He is indeed what Scripture declares Him to be: the self-emptying God of love, who gives Himself wholly, for the life of the world.

Thanks for sending this. It's always good to talk with you. Warm greetings to your family and our love in Christ to all of you.
- Fr John

-----Original Message-----
From: steven.k@zoomtown.com
Sent: Jan 14, 2010 10:14 AM
To: jrbreck
Subject: NYTimes.com: Haiti's Angry God

Fr. John, Please let me know if you get this article. If you have a quick comment or two, that would also be great. As always, thanks for time on the phone. Fr. Steven

OPINION | January 14, 2010
Op-Ed Contributor: Haiti's Angry God
On the earthquake-rubbled streets of Port-au-Prince, survivors weep, pray and ask for redemption...

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