Holding God Accountable: Faith and Disaster

For we who believe in an active God who cares about what happens in this world, how do we make sense of wide-scale catastrophe? We hold God accountable.
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"Will you really sweep away the righteous with the wicked ... ?" Genesis, 18:23

These words echoed in my spirit as I watched the images of the tsunami strike in Japan, and as the situation continues to unfold it evokes profound spiritual anxiety in me. How do we make sense of such enormous tragedy within the context of our faith? For we who believe in an active God who cares about what happens in this world, how do we make sense of wide-scale catastrophe? How do we respond when horrible things happen to innocent people?

We hold God accountable.

But before we do that, let's examine other possibilities for a person of faith. One response is to fall into the temptation of presuming to understands God's will. There are some religious folks who take to "explaining" the suffering of hundreds of thousands of human beings by forcing literal readings of ancient narratives onto current events. We've heard these explanations from fundamentalists of all religions: rabbis, imams, monks and priests who have the arrogance to think they are privy to God's will in the world. This hurricane was because of abortion. That earthquake because of homosexuality. That kind of profound spiritual arrogance would be laughable if it wasn't so hurtful and offensive.

"I don't have God's phone number, the way some others seem to have," said Rabbi Aaron Lichtenstein, a leading orthodox rabbi in Israel in response to rabbis who claim to know why God acts the way God acts. "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways," declares the Lord [Isaiah 55:8].

Another response is acceptance: resigning ourselves to a world that doesn't make sense and praying we are spared too much suffering. This approach has its strengths: it instills gratefulness for what we have, a certain calmness in the face of tragedy perhaps, but also some deep weaknesses. Accepting the suffering of others dulls our sense of responsibility and mission to help. A life of acceptance also doesn't always give us the tools or ambition to confront deep suffering when it happens to us.

What might holding God accountable look like? Let's look at the second half of that verse from Genesis. "Will you really sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Shall the Judge of the earth not do Justice?"

These are Abraham's words of spiritual indignation in the face of God's plan to destroy Sodom and Gommorah. How could a merciful God, a lover of righteousness and justice, allow such indiscriminate destruction and suffering? The Hebrew bible uses the word "vayigash," a verb that means "to draw intimately close", when Abraham offers up this audacious challenge. Challenging God is a way of drawing close to God. In fact the Talmud, in tractate Brachot 26b, states that morning prayers were instituted by Abraham in that very spot of prayerful protest. As demonstrated by Abraham, holding God accountable to confront human suffering is not heretical or anti-religious; challenging God can be an authentic and profound religious act.

Moses provides us with another example of challenging God in the face of the suffering of others. Moses challenges, argues, and convinces God to stop the destruction of the Children of Israel after the error of the Golden Calf. His audacious prayer/challenge is seen by many as the turning point in Moses' spiritual development.

Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev (1740-1810), one of the most beloved chassidic rabbis, was known as the melitz yosher, the righteous advocate. Hassidic tales abound of him advocating, cajoling God, demanding the end of the suffering of others in Levi Yitzchak's community. Rabbi Israel Salanter, the founder of the Jewish mussar, said that "the material needs of another are my spiritual concern."

There is one important ingredient in this kind of spiritually audacious encounter we must remember: humility. Abraham, in the midst of his back forth with God, offers perhaps the most profound statement of human humility: "I am but dust and ashes (Genesis 18:27)." This humility comes from honesty and self-awareness. It requires understanding that our challenge comes from a very human place, and that we ultimately don't call the shots. Moses is called the most humble person to ever walk the earth, and Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev was known for the great lengths he would go for anyone who needed his help. As we see with these heroes though, humility does not mean meekness and passivity in the face of the suffering of others.

As we enter new and difficult times ahead, may we follow the examples of these spiritual heroes. May we refuse to accept the sufferings of others as God's plan, and may we never let ourselves fall into spiritual nihilism. Through protest and prayer, may we humbly but boldly draw close and offer that ancient challenge: Shall the Judge of the earth not do Justice?

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