Rev.Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps
Texts: Job 40: 1-14; Luke 13: 1-9
In the Jewish tradition of arguing with God, a group of Jewish prisoners at Auschwitz decide to put God on trial for letting the Holocaust happen. For many years people believed that this was an apocryphal story, but Elie Wiesel startled an audience in 2006 when he proclaimed, “I was there that night when we put God on trial.”
In 2008, the BBC produced a film of the story called “God on Trial.” It is thoughtful, provocative and has in a very special Jewish way, touches of humor, the kind that makes you laugh and then cry. Where is God in the midst of a horror so unimaginable that Job dares to answer God, even though he is of “small account,” even though he cannot contend with the Almighty coming out of the whirlwind?
Where is God when an earthquake happens? That was Voltaire’s question, of course, when a devastating earthquake possibly a 9 point one on the Richter scale, devastated Lisbon and the Portuguese coast, causing a tsunami that wiped out almost all remnants of life as far west as the Azores and tidal waves in the Baltic sea flooding southern Finland. So much for the best of all possible worlds.
In his novel Night, based on his own experiences there, Elie Wiesel describes the hanging of a child in Auschwitz: It took the child half an hour to die; the prisoners were forced to look at him in the face as he died. Wiesel asked, “Where is God?” and heard a voice saying, “He is there, hanging here on these gallows.”
Dostoevsky, another writer who struggled with these questions, once wrote that even the death of a single child made God unacceptable. We can, of course, separate out the evil that people do to each other from the disasters of nature. With our modern scientific thinking, we can explain away the earthquakes, hurricanes, and tornados by pointing to fault lines and weather patterns, but the question still remains with us: Where is God?
This is the question that Jesus asks in our reading this morning. Although there is no external evidence from writers such as Josephus or Philo that Pilate mingled the blood of Jews with Roman sacrifice, it would not have been beyond him. Contrary to the image presented in Scripture of Pilate as a thoughtful man not wanting to put Jesus to death, he was a brutal representative of Rome’s rule.
Little is actually known about him except that he was actually a Prefect of Judea not the Procurator, a title that was not given until more than ten years after Jesus’ crucifixion. The Gospel writers either were following the more recent title or they confused the title as did the Roman historian Tacitus. He ruled from 26 to 36 and was removed because he was so brutal that even Rome recognized that his rule was causing an even greater revolt in Judea.
His functions were supposed to be military ones -- keeping order -- and collecting taxes; prefects had some limited judicial functions, but not holding public trials as imaged in the Gospels. But Pilate overstepped his limits all the time; for instance, where previous prefects had respected Jewish custom and sensitivities on images, Pilate allowed his soldiers to bring in effigies of Tiberias into Jerusalem and then killed the protesters.
Okay, we say, that was Pilate and, yes, there was Hitler, and, yes, the Rwandan massacres where Hutu priests joined in the slaughter. And we can’t forget the wars of religion in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that probably killed half of Central Europe, but God made us with free will. After all, didn’t Cain kill his own brother? We humans are really good at that: killing our brothers and sisters.
So if God has all those qualities delineated by Aquinas, you know: Omniscience, omnipresence, omnipotence, why is it we suffer? Job’s question, of course. And God’s answer is simply: Where were you when I created the world? Will you, (you miserable creature), condemn me (God), that you may be justified? Gird up your loins like a man -- or a woman, God declares. Get your act together. In other words, we, we the miserable human race, we are responsible for ourselves and our actions. Theodicy as such means nothing, nothing, nothing at all.
What does this say to us as people of faith? What kind of a Creator do we actually believe in? What kind of Divine Power do we actually experience? What kind of God is this who answers us with a “Pick yourselves up and brush yourselves off?” The problem is that we have been taught to believe in a Sunday School God who is in charge of everything and that we have internalized this kind of God so deeply that it is difficult to get to another place in our lives of faith.
I know that in spite of what my head, my intellect tells me, that when I hear stories of horror -- not so much earthquake, Pat Robertson’s idiocy notwithstanding -- but of the violence inflicted by people on each other that I really wonder like the Jews in Auschwitz, where is God?
Yes, yes, I know we are created with free will but does it have to be so free? Or as Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof says parenthetically to God, “I know we are your chosen people, but for once can’t you choose someone else?” A new approach to faith in God does not mean making God nothing more than a philosophical abstraction but it does mean that we have to take responsibility for our actions in a way that most of us find chilling.
We have to acknowledge the evil that we are all capable of inflicting on others whether it is a small evil, such as slighting someone because of some perceived quality or a large evil such as societal discrimination or war. And we, yes, we have to take full responsibility instead of looking to God as the source of our faults.
The Holocaust destroyed traditional Jewish theodicy. For a people who saw themselves as chosen and believing in a God who acts in history, it was devastating. As Christians, we carry a remnant of that belief. We have been raised to believe in a God who acts in history, who shapes us and our events by some design.
Our Calvinist ancestors found themselves in a trap wherein because God was omniscient and totally omnipotent, each of us was foreordained to be either saved or condemned. Now the Baptist strain in us broke free from that trap because of a belief in free will. We still struggle with those two strains in each of us, whether we are Calvinists or not.
Our faith in and our faithfulness to God, the force in our lives that feeds our hope so we do not despair, grounds us, centers us, cements us to each other as children of the same Creator. We may express that faith in different ways; we may experience God in different ways, but what we do know is that God is the Power that surpasses death and gives us life so that we may live it more abundantly in hope and in love.
As the Jews who put God on trial said, “God owes us something,” and then they went to pray. And in memory of all who have suffered at the hands of others, let us pray silently for a moment and allow God’s Spirit of hope and love enter our hearts.