God and human suffering

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By LEONARDO BOFF*

Thoughts on an issue never resolved

The ecological catastrophe that occurred in Petrópolis in February 2022, with torrential rains, huge landslides on the slopes, flooding of entire regions, destruction of hundreds of houses, paths and streets and with almost 300 victims among dead and missing, poses political, ecological questions. , responsibility of the public authorities and consequences due to the new phase of the Earth under accelerated global warming.

There was irresponsibility of the public authorities for not taking care of the poor populations, pushed to the slopes of the city. There is the geophysical fact of the mountain with dense forests supported on rocks and soil soaked by the rains that cause landslides. There is the population itself that, for lack of anywhere else to go, has settled in dangerous places. There is the ecological-climatic alarm that unbalances the rainfall regime that manifested itself in several regions of the country and now in the Petrópolis mountain range, but in general throughout the planet, and other reasons that do not belong here. All these data deserve to be deepened and even point out culprits.

But together with this, an unavoidable existential and theological question emerges: Many ask themselves: Where was God in these dramatic moments in Petrópolis, causing so many victims, many of them innocent? Why didn't He intervene if, being God, He could have? The same question continues to resound: where was God when Christian colonizers committed barbaric genocides of indigenous people when occupying their lands in the Americas? Why was God silent in the face of the Shoah, the extermination of six million Jews sent to the gas chambers by the Nazis or those killed in the Soviet Gulags? Where he was?

This nagging question is not new. It has a long history, going back to the Greek philosopher Epicurus (341-327 BC) who first formulated it, called “the dilemma of Epicurus”. It is God's irrevocable relationship with evil. Epicurus thus argued: “Either God wants to eliminate evil and cannot, therefore, he is not omnipotent and ceases to be God. Or God can suppress evil and does not want it, so he is not good and ceases to be God ”.

In a Christian environment, it gained a similar formulation: Either God could have avoided the sin of Adam and Eve, the basis of our evil, and did not want it, so it is not good for us humans, or God could not have prevented it, so he did not want it, not being therefore omnipotent, and therefore not also good for us. In both cases he fails to appear as the true God. This dilemma remains open until today, without being adequately answered with the resources of human reason.

Eco-feminists rightly maintain that this vision of an omnipotent and absolute lord God is a representation of the patriarchal culture that is structured around categories of power. The eco-feminist reading is guided by another representation of a God-Mother, connected to life, in solidarity with human suffering and deeply merciful. He is always with the sufferer.

Regardless of this gender discussion, it must be said that the biblical God is not indifferent to human suffering. Faced with the oppression of the entire Hebrew people in Egypt, God heard the cry of the oppressed, left his transcendence, entered human history to set them free (Ex 3,7). The prophets who inaugurated a religion based on ethics, instead of cults and sacrifices, testify to the word of God: “I am tired and cannot bear your feasts… seek justice, correct the oppressor, judge the cause of the orphan and defend the widow” (Is 1, 14.17). I want mercy and not sacrifices!

On the basis of this biblical vision there were theologians like Bonhöfer and Moltman who spoke of “an impotent and weak God in the world”, of a “crucified God” and that only this God who takes on human suffering can help us. The greatest example would have been given to us by Jesus, the incarnate Son of God who allowed himself to be crucified and who, on the verge of despair, cried out: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” (Mk 15,34:XNUMX)?

This vision shows us that God never abandons us and that he participates in human passion. The believer can overcome the feeling of abandonment and helplessness and feel accompanied. Well, the terrible thing about suffering is not just suffering, but loneliness in suffering, when there is no one to say a word of consolation or give you a hug of solidarity. Then the suffering does not disappear, but becomes more bearable.

However, the question remains open: why does God have to suffer too, even establishing a deeply human bond with the sufferer, alleviating his pain? Why the suffering in the world and even in God?

Our questioning is not silenced by the realization that suffering belongs to life and that chaos is part of the structure of the universe itself (a galaxy swallowing another with an unimaginable destruction of celestial bodies).

What we can sensibly say is that suffering belongs to the order of the mystery of being. There is no answer to why it exists. If there was, it would disappear. But he continues like an open wound in whichever direction we look.

*Leonardo Boff he is a theologian. Author, among other books, of How to Preach the Cross Today in a World of the Crucified (Voices).

 

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