Several years ago, Terence Fretheim, the Elva Β. Lovell Professor of Old Testament at Luther Seminary, Saint Paul, Minnesota, wrote an essay in which he discussed what happened on 9/11 and the problem of evil. Fretheim’s article, “‘Evil’ after 9/11: A Consequence of Human Freedom,” was published in Word and Way 24 (2004): 205, 207.
On this day, the sixteenth year of the events that affected the American psyche, Fretheim’s article can help us gain a new perspective on the problem of evil, even when the proper understanding of the problem of evil remains elusive.
“Evil” after 9/11: A Consequence of Human Freedom
I’ll always remember that 9/11 was a Tuesday. So also will some sixty students and my colleague Paul Sponheim as we met at 10:40 AM that day for our “God, Evil, and Suffering” class. One week into the course, and we had a test case on our hands. Lecture notes were set aside and questions filled the air. As the titles of numerous books, documentaries, and sermons would also show, the primary question was some version of: “Where in the world was God?” Or, truer to the lament form: “Where in the world were you, God, when all that hell broke loose?” In the face of such questions the Christian is not reduced to silence, not least because the Bible forthrightly speaks about evil and God’s relationship to it. While neither Bible nor tradition provides an “explanation” of these realities, many helpful things can be said and done, and many unhelpful things left unsaid and undone.
For one thing, we can bring perspective. In the long history of evil and its ill effects, many events have occurred that we could name “evil.” As Peter Steinfels put it in the New York Times (August 31,2002): “Where was God, after all, on Sept. 10—when tens of thousands of parents, as on every day, watched their malnourished infants expire,…when in Africa, as on every day, more people died of AIDS than were killed in the twin towers, and when traitorous arteries and rebellious brain cells, as on every day, stifled vibrant personalities into silence and stupor?” Moral evil and natural evil are certainly different (and we focus here on the former), but both are descriptive of life in a world full of creatures (human and nonhuman) given freedom by God to be themselves, wherein interrelated individual choices and random events often have devastating consequences. One might fault God for creating creatures with such possibilities, but a world of divine puppetry would deny a genuine relationship between creature and God.
And so we can speak of relationships. We live in an increasingly interconnected world, one effect of which is that any evil act will more immediately and intensively reverberate and affect everyone physically and psychically (witness our increased anxiety). That nineteen men can so deeply continue to affect the life of us all is testimony to just such a world. Among other things, interrelatedness teaches us that 9/11 cannot simply be laid at the feet of those hijackers. Their characters had been formed by their education and life experience, and words and deeds having their roots in American life helped shape the individuals they had become. In such an interrelated world, we have increasingly good reason to speak of multiple causes for such events, and each of us in our own way will have made contributions to this reality. At the least, this means that, in such events, we are not simply victims, and we ought not speak and act as individuals or communities in ways that would nurture a sense of victimhood.
Because God will honor commitments made to the creation, this faithfulness will entail constraint and restraint in any related divine action. This divine self-limitation, necessary for the genuine freedom of creatures within the relationship, is a key factor in understanding evil. The world’s long story of resistance to the will of God has had deeply evil effects on every aspect of life, and the resultant reality complicates God’s working possibilities in the world. Because of God’s committed relationship to the world, no resolution will be simple, no “quick fix” available, even for God. One might wish that God would force compliance and stop evil in its tracks, but for the sake of a genuine relationship God has chosen not to micromanage life. Rather, God chooses to immerse the divine life into evil’s very heart, supremely in Jesus Christ, and overcome it from within rather than overpower it from without.
We can also help sort out the complex and elusive notion of evil. As in English, the word “evil” in Hebrew (ra’ah) can refer to both the wicked deed and its ill effects, which may be named the judgment of God, mediating the effects intrinsic to the deed (ra’ah leads to ra’ah). Such evil effects may be due to one’s own sin or to the reverberating sins of others in an interrelated world (witness Israel in Egypt). In addition, we must speak of evil as more than individual acts and their effects: evil has become systemic, built up over time into the infrastructure of life, whether we personalize it or not (as, e.g., Satan). Yet, we are not so permeated with evil that we cannot name it or act against it. The temptation of an overly dualistic perspective is that we will be reduced to passivity in the wake of a cosmic battle or claim that “the devil made me do it.” We have responsibilities to speak and act against evil in individual and community life, and we confess that God has entered deeply into our lives to enable that work to be and to bring good.
On this day of remembrance, let us remember and pray for the families of those who died on September 11, 2001.
Claude F. Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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