Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Holy Innocents

Last Sunday, the last Sunday of the calendar year, marked the Feast of the Holy Innocents. The day's readings are a strange mixture of the tragic and the hopeful. Isaiah speaks of Rachel mourning for her lost children, and the Gospel reading talks about the subject of the feast day, which fulfilled the prophecy made six hundred years earlier by Jeremiah: 'A voice is heard in Ramah, Lamentation and bitter weeping; Rachel crying for her children, and refusing to be consoled, for they are no more.' Rachel of course, had died outside Bethlehem, which makes this prophecy especially charged with meaning.

It marks the day of the killing of all children under two years of age in Bethlehem and the surrounding region, by order of the tetrarch Herod. In some inchoate and cloudy way, Herod had heard that 'the king of the Jews' was to be born in Bethlehem, and had heard of the date from the Magi, and he knew that in some way this king would be a threat to him. He thought, of course, of a political leader, a rival to his power: he couldn't conceive, any more than anyone else, of a very different sort of King. In between the reading from Jeremiah and the Gospel is a reading with a completely different tenor: the beautiful vision of the holy city Jerusalem, "prepared as a bride adorned for her husband."

The holy city, of course, represents the people of God: the "Church Invisible", made up of all people who truly seek to do the will of God as they understand it (or, if they haven't been blessed with the gift of faith, those who truly follow their conscience and the law of nature as they understand it.) The people of God are truly the "Bride of Christ", and husbands are commanded to love their wives "as Christ loved the church, who gave himself up for us." Beyond this, however, the vision in Revelation 21 paints a picture of a paradise beyond human comprehension. Our fallen and flawed minds and souls are incapable of envisioning that which is purely good: we can understand it only in negatives. The city of God is the city where "there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away." This is the city where everything old shall be made new, where everything corrupt shall be purified, everything ugly made beautiful, the exalted cast down and the humble raised up. In this passage, Christ tells us: "It is done. I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. I will give unto him that is athirst of the fountain of the water of life freely. He that overcometh shall inherit all things; and I will be his God, and he shall be my son."

This passage speaks to the heart of everyone who has ever suffered, and particularly to everyone that has experienced the death of a child, inasmuch as this is one of the cruellest tragedies we can endure. I knew quite a few such people in Madagascar, and I have known such people in this country as well. The suffering of children is probably the most stark example of evil we can perceive in the world, and the greatest challenge to believers in an God. Because children are, definitively, innocent, incapable either of deserving or understanding the evils they suffer. Ivan Karamazov could accept the orthodox explanations for the problem of evil: that evil is the price of human and angelic free will, and that a world in which no one could choose evil would be a world in which no one could choose good. But he couldn't accept it in the case of children. This is what he said:

'Do you understand that, friend and brother, you pious and humble novice? Do you understand why this infamy must be and is permitted? Without it, I am told, man could not have existed on earth, for he could not have known good and evil. Why should he know that diabolical good and evil when it costs so much? Why, the whole world of knowledge is not worth that child's prayer to dear, kind God'! I say nothing of the sufferings of grown-up people, they have eaten the apple, damn them, and the devil take them all! But these little ones! I am making you suffer, Alyosha, you are not yourself. I'll leave off if you like.'

Was it necessary that pure and innocent children suffer horrible deaths so that Herod, or Hitler, or any garden-variety child-rapist, could exercise their free will? Why couldn't God strike these scum dead in their chairs as they contemplated the act, instead of allowing them free rein to carry it out? In merciless and graphic detail, Ivan Karamazov recounts stories of horrendous abuses and atrocities done to children, that even more than a century later cause us to blanch with horror. A Russian couple who flog their daughter for sadistic pleasure, smear her face with excrement, and lock her up at night in an outhouse; an aristocratic general who is offended by one of his serfs, and who forces her five year old son to run before releasing the dogs after him and watching him be torn apart by the hounds; a regiment of Turkish soldiers in the Balkans who allow a baby to play with their guns before pulling the trigger and blowing the baby's smiling and laughing face away. These were real cases, ripped from the late 19th century headlines by Dostoyevsky, and carefully catalogued and preserved in order to make the most horrific case for human evil, and the most powerful case against the goodness and power of God. What makes them worse in a way, of course, is that for all Dostoyevsky's understanding of human evil, he couldn't begin to envision or imagine the scale of the horrors that would be suffered by children in the twentieth century: in the rubber plantations of the Belgian Congo, in the gulags of Stalin's Russia and the concentration camps of Nazi Germany, and in the shantytowns of India, Brazil, and South Africa.

Because Ivan's question, of course, is Dostoyevsky's question also, posed by this brilliant, flawed, tormented and conflicted believer. Let's leave aside the question of whether 'almighty' means there are really no limits to God's power- I don't think it does, but that isn't the point. If God has any power at all, then surely he must have power to destroy a Herod, a Hitler, or a Milton Blahyi. And if not, then why serve him at all? Ivan couldn't answer it, Dostoyevsky couldn't answer it, and neither can I.

What I can do, though, is to remember that whatever the solution to the problem of evil, and whatever adjustments it may require us to make to what 'omnipotence' really means, one thing remains true: while this problem has no solution, it will have a recompense. And while it has no intellectual answer, it does have an existential answer. Our Lord tells us "They have had their reward", and the corollary is that the others, those who suffer, shall in time have theirs. Whoever has lost someone they love to disease, poverty, despair, pain, torture, death, remember this: we have the promise of a world in which every bit of unjust suffering shall be recompensed, and in which all our sorrows will change to joy.

Ivan Karamazov intellectually denied God, but in his heart he knew that walking a quadrillion quadrillion miles through hell would be worth it in exchange for a mere two seconds of tasting the joys of heaven. "Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted." We have the glimpse and the promise of a world to come in which all our griefs shall be paid for, and all our needs met, and we have the obligation to live for the sake of that world, in the world here and now. "Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him." We can not know in which way God will recompense us for the suffering of innocent children, but we can and must believe that He shall. That is faith, its price and its reward.

It was believed, by the men of the Renaissance, that we were entering a new age of humanity, peace, and gentleness. There followed the black plague and the wars of religion. It was so believed, again, by the men of the Enlightenment. There followed American slavery, the butchery of the Native Americans, the Napoleonic wars and the black horrors of industrial capitalism in Europe. It was so believed yet again by Marx and his disciples (who were right about many things, and wrong about many others). There followed a century in which communist revolution vied with capitalist counterrevolution to see who could conquer the world through brute force and hard cruelty. Today lots of people (do we never seem to learn) believe that we are in some way more humane and more loving than our forefathers, and that the future is always more civilized than the past, and that progress, not simply technological but moral, is inevitable. But if the suffering of children is the clearest example of evil, then a world in which tainted milk is sold to Chinese infants, in which children in Madagascar and throughout Africa die of easily preventable diseases every day, in which many millions of children in shantytowns throughout Africa and Asia waste away and die for lack of milk and nutritious food, in which children suffer the most horrendous disease, hunger and privation while those of us in rich countries prefer to spend our money on luxuries, in which the killing of 40 million unborn American children happens each year, most of them _not_ on any grounds of medical necessity, in which Indian children are forced into debt bondage on plantations and in which Burmese children are forced into the brothels of Bangkok, in which children see their parents butchered in Congo and the Sudan, in which Liberian militias sacrifice children and eat their hearts, can under no conditions be considered a civilized or humane world. Our world is, in its way, as liable to evil as Herod's, and we are every bit as much in need of being turned from evil to good, and every much in need of repentance and change.

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: as it was in the beginning, is now, and shall ever be.

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