In a recent interview with the BBC, the archbishop of York, John Sentamu, responded pretty clumsily to the obvious question: how can you believe in an all powerful, all merciful God when you see the entirely unnecessary suffering in Haiti. While acknowledging his belief in an all-powerful and all-good God, his response was something along the lines of “God is there, ministering to the suffering, weeping with the bereaved” (he was wrong footed by the question, to be fair, so his response was much less eloquent, but I think that’s basically his point). Here’s a parable:
A man is alone, sitting outside an aging building: the main school for a small country village. It is a wooden building, raised off the ground, with a crawlspace underneath. As he sits there outside the school he notices that there is a blazing fire spreading quickly in the crawl space. The detritus of years has made it a tinderbox, and the fire is taking hold. He realizes that soon the school will be consumed with fire; many inside are likely to die and many others will have horrific injuries. He realizes that many families will loose their precious children, and beloved men and women of the teaching staff won’t be going home to their families. He thinks about the weeks of raw, desperate grief, the months of dark loneliness and the years of haunted memories.
Looking around he sees the entrance of the building, mere yards from where he is sitting. Just inside the door he spies a fire alarm. It would take just a few steps to reach it, smash the glass, and have the school evacuate before the fire breaks through the floor.
The man sits and watches. After ten minutes he starts to hear screams inside, then the first few people start to scramble out. Then gradually more and more, with increasingly horrible injuries.
The man gets to his feet. He feels no remorse for his inaction, but he is deeply moved by the suffering and pain he is seeing. He runs over to the building, smashes windows and helps a few petrified children to safety. He comforts those who are in pain. As the first parents arrive on the scene, altered by the smoke, he empathizes with their loss and trauma.
Is this man merciful? Is he good? Is he benevolent?
If this were a real situation, with a real person, all of us would want to see him punished.
The man didn’t light the fire, he didn’t store the flammable material under the school, he didn’t badly design the building, or cut corners on the fire inspections. But we’d rightly hold him responsible for the deaths of those children.
His actions were sociopathy of the worst kind. His sympathy and kindness are ghoulish and manipulative. Given his failure to act, they are deranged emotions, not honorable ones. They are worse, in some ways, than if he had simply left. Care and sympathy at this stage are mocking acts.
It seems to me that Sentamu’s god should be thought of in just the same terms. It seems to me a world in which Sentamu’s god was real would be a dark and malevolent place.