How do we respond to the kind of violence that we have witnessed in Paris? Perhaps the hardest question is not, strictly speaking, the problem of evil or “how can a loving God allow the existence of evil”? I think that the harder question is: how can human beings act in this way toward one another? What does this sort of violence say about us, about what it means to be human?
Such questions hit me hard with the events of 9/11. That violence was the first time that I had really encountered evil at that scale, despite my parents and grandparents being refugees from Latvia in WWII, a country where some of my relatives who stayed behind were packed into cattle cars and sent to Siberia to starve or died in acts of war. Certainly I was no stranger to the notion of war and violence growing up, with my whole family narrative based around trauma and survival, threat and escape. But when airplanes crashed into the World Trade Center, and my husband called me to let me know, I was a youngish mother. I watched as our then toddler son went on playing with wooden blocks, building his own innocent towers, oblivious to the events on screen. For me, his childhood games juxtaposed against the death and destruction produced such a vast gap between love and violence, innocence and cruelty, two aspects of human nature that felt so far apart as to be impossible to meet in one being. But that’s exactly the question: not so much, why does God allow it as: why do we? Who are we, that this is even possible?
Here we are, again.
I have no idea what the solution is to the worldwide political problem and am old enough to know that probably no one else alive knows for certain, either. When I was small, I imagined that one of the political candidates on tv had the “right” answer to political questions, and the difficulty was trying to understand, which one? Now I am fairly certain that the answer is almost certainly, “None of the above.”
Meanwhile, life continues and we have to figure out how to live in it. My consolation, or at least my strategy, is to pray and to keep looking for the love in the world. When the Boston Marathon bombings occurred, many people noted all the people who ran toward the destruction, and not away. They ran toward the smoke and the destruction, in order to tend to the wounded. We have seen again in France the strength of people who seek to aid and to comfort, to love in the midst of devastation.
Maybe the greater mystery is not, how can evil exist in the midst of good, but rather: in the midst of fear, violence and death, why do we still see love over and over again? How can we see love despite all reason not to love, and not know that we are witnessing grace?
That’s Jesus on the Cross, saying “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.” It’s Jesus giving Mary to John and John to Mary, taking care of his mother and also tending to two thieves. It’s Jesus, loving not just after the Resurrection, but loving right from the Cross. It’s Jesus in France, Jesus in Kenya.
There are no easy answers. Evil remains a mystery, and violent death remains an evil. But I take comfort that Jesus gave us a model for how to live in and with suffering, which is to look at evil, and after looking at it in the face, to love anyway, to reach out and to build up community in the midst of sadness, and to trust that God is somehow there, where we all are gathered.