I’m one of those people who actually thinks that Lee Harvey Oswald killed President John Kennedy and acted alone. There are a great many people who feel otherwise and who believe that a vast conspiracy, perhaps the CIA, perhaps the Russians, perhaps the mob, or the Cubans, put together an operation to bring down the 35th president.
Conspiracy theories often circulate after major tragedies. The AIDS crisis. The Challenger explosion. The 9/11 attacks. The Sandy Hook shooting. The Notre Dame fire. You name it, there’s been a conspiracy theory designed to explain it.
No doubt you have heard conspiracy theories about the coronavirus involving the North Korean secret police or the Democratic Party. Every tragedy seems to bring out the conspiracy theories. Sometimes, they’re put out by people who are trying to exploit the tragedy to sow confusion. Sometimes they’re put out there by people trying to troll people for a reaction. But whatever the reason that they’re put out there, people often accept them because in the face of tragedy, people are looking for explanations.
How could it be that a disaffected loner could purchase a rifle through a mail-order catalog, climb up to an upper floor of a book depository, and kill a young and dynamic president? That can’t just happen. There had to be some deeper reason, some other explanation. Things like that don’t just happen.
How could a virus leap from bats to human beings and then spread throughout the world infecting hundreds of thousands? Surely, this was someone’s plan, right? Things like this don’t just happen.
Someone must be responsible. Someone must be at fault. Someone must be to blame for this tragedy.
It is a fact of life that tragedies take place. And it is a further fact of life that the occurrence of these tragedies has profound effects on our spiritual well-being. For either we struggle to find meaning and figure out why a particular tragedy happened the way it did or we spend a fair amount of our lives anxious about tragedies that might occur. Or both.
Tragedies overwhelm us. When they occur they occupy our thinking, they dominate our news coverage. They cause us to ask all kinds of questions. Some answerable, some unanswerable. But the question we ask most is: why? Why did this tragedy happen? Why did it happen to these people? Could it have happened to me? Why did it have to happen at all?
And often we comfort ourselves by telling ourselves that there was a reason—a divine plan, perhaps—that this all happened.
II. THE TEXT
This is not a new attitude. This attitude has been with us for a while.
Such an attitude is certainly on display in tonight’s Gospel lesson. As Jesus and his disciples are walking along, they come across a man blind from birth. The disciples ask Jesus: “Rabbi, who sinned so that he was born blind, this man or his parents?” Stop to think about that question for a moment. The disciples are asking whose fault the man’s blindness is. Who is responsible? Surely, congenital blindness must be somebody’s fault. It is a sign of a curse; surely it must be deserved.
This is, of course, the same logic that would blame a person born into any kind of disadvantaged state, especially with a physical disability. It was a long-standing prejudice. And has yet to be fully rooted out of our own culture, where our inclination would be to blame the parents’ diet, or vaccines, or environmental factors, or some other culprit to explain how such a condition might be deserved.
But Jesus rejects the entire notion that the man’s condition is somehow a punishment; instead it is an opportunity: “Neither he nor his parents. This happened so that God’s mighty works might be displayed in him.”
There is always a temptation to face tragedy and imagine that there is a cause, a reason, that makes sense. Why was this poor man born blind? He must have deserved it for some reason. Or maybe his parents brought it on themselves through their sin. Something that makes this rational, part of an ordered universe, not something part of a universe of random chance and happenstance.
III. WHERE IS GOD?
And so, we’re inclined to try to come up with answers.
Sometimes, our answers are downright unhelpful. I understand that people are simply attempting to make sense out of the senseless. But the theological consequences are galling when you take some of these statements to their logical conclusions.
A. The Tragedy is Okay Because of God
In the aftermath of the Newtown shooting, one person posted online:
“About 20 children are receiving the BEST CHRISTMAS PRESENT EVER….the presence of our God and our Lord Jesus Christ!”
There are so many things wrong with this sentiment that I don’t even know where to begin. Perhaps I’ll start with the notion that ideas like this make Christians look like unfeeling, out-of-touch idiots. And to think, those children were initially only going to get to spend their holidays with their parents and families. How fortunate for them that they got an upgrade! Everything’s okay because now the children are with God and all they had to do to get there was get brutally murdered with high-capacity firearms! It’s what everyone would want for their child. You know, folks, I am more convinced than ever that the enemy of faithful Christianity is not atheism or Islam or secularism: it’s Stupid Christianity, and this sentiment is proof of that.
But even more than the base obnoxiousness of such a statement (how must it feel to non-Christians, by the way, to be comforted by such a sentiment?), think of the implications of such a ridiculous statement: they get the “present” of the “presence of our God and our Lord Jesus Christ”. Does that mean that God was not present with the school children before they were brutally murdered? Why not?
This platitude that seeks to bring comfort actually brings the most discomfort of all, for it suggests that God is distant and removed, only encountered after death. The idea that everything is okay because the victims of a tragedy are with God now does nothing to address the question of where God was in the midst of the tragedy. Saying that the victims of tragedy are comforted after death does not answer this fundamental question of theodicy, of the justice of God. Would it not have been better for God to have been present beforehand?
B. God Caused the Tragedy
And so, in response to the question of why God was seemingly absent in tragedy, people will sometimes assume that we’ll feel more comforted by knowing that God has a purpose for everything that happens. It’s that idea that led one failed political candidate to muse that “Even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that is something that God intended to happen.” Perhaps there is someone who might be comforted by knowing that God intended for something horrific to happen, but I can’t think of many who wouldn’t rather that God instead come up with some alternate means by which the intended good could have been accomplished.
Now, very often, the insistence that tragedy must in some way be the will of God comes from a deep-seated belief in God’s sovereignty and a desire to defend that sovereignty. If things happen that God did not want to happen, the thinking goes, then that says that God is not ultimately powerful. It is unconscionable to imagine that God could not have prevented some tragedy, therefore, if God didn’t prevent it then it must be because of the divine plan.
C. The Tragedy is a Consequence of God
The corollary of this idea is that the tragedies we experience are the result of our own faithlessness (or at least their version of it). This is the school of thought that led such religious pillars as Jerry Falwell, Sr. and Pat Robertson to opine in the wake of the September 11th attacks that the lack of prayer in the public schools, abortion, feminism, gays and lesbians, the ACLU, and People for the American Way were all responsible for God withdrawing divine protection from the United States. 
In short, God allowed this to happen as a punishment for not adhering to a particular belief system. If that is the case, then God’s punishment seems arbitrary—was there a higher percentage of such infidels among the thousands who died that day? When Jesus was asked once about the guilt of the people who died in collapse of the tower at Siloam, he answered that they were no more guilty than anyone else. If a given tragedy is like that of the Galileans and those who died in Siloam, then we cannot maintain that the dead were any guiltier than anyone else. If that is the case, then it is God who is capricious and arbitrary in whom God chooses to punish for the sins of others.
Similarly, a “Christian” radio host argued that God allowed the Newtown shooting to happen because we’d taken prayer out of school. In his words, God does not go “where he is not wanted.” That’s an astonishing claim. It suggests that local school boards have the power to evict God from any particular place. That’s quite a power to possess. And think about the image of God that that creates: a petulant, petty deity who won’t protect innocent children out of spite for something their parents’ elected representatives might have done. More Stupid Christianity, my friends.
But whether it is through the operation of some mysterious divine plan or the collective punishment consequences of rebellion against God, this idea and its corollaries basically teach that tragedies happen because God causes them to.
It’s all part of the divine plan. God wanted those children to be killed in a school shooting. God wanted this virus to wreak havoc on the globe. God wanted that tower to fall in Siloam. God wanted this poor man to be born blind.
D. The Inclination Towards Answering
Whenever I think of this issue, I think of the story of William Sloan Coffin, one of the great preachers and theologians of the Twentieth Century. Coffin lost his son to a tragic automobile accident in which his son lost control of his car and drove off the road into a lake. In a sermon reflecting on that tragedy he said the following:
When a person dies, there are many things that can be said, and there is at least one thing that should never be said. The night after Alex died I was sitting in the living room of my sister’s house outside of Boston, when the front door opened and in came a nice-looking, middle-aged woman, carrying about eighteen quiches. When she saw me, she shook her head, then headed for the kitchen, saying sadly over her shoulder, “I just don’t understand the will of God.” Instantly I was up and in hot pursuit, swarming all over her. “I’ll say you don’t, lady!” I said.
“For some reason, nothing so infuriates me as the incapacity of seemingly intelligent people to get it through their heads that God doesn’t go around this world with his fingers on triggers, his fists around knives, his hands on steering wheels. God is dead set against all unnatural deaths. And Christ spent an inordinate amount of time delivering people from paralysis, insanity, leprosy, and muteness. …. But violent deaths, such as the one Alex died — to understand those is a piece of cake. As his younger brother put it simply, standing at the head of the casket at the Boston funeral, “You blew it, buddy. You blew it.” The one thing that should never be said when someone dies is “It is the will of God.” Never do we know enough to say that. My own consolation lies in knowing that it was not the will of God that Alex die; that when the waves closed over the sinking car, God’s heart was the first of all our hearts to break.” 
Never do we know enough. And coming up with easy explanations or trite rationales soothed over with trite sentiment or easy answers.
IV. WHERE GOD IS
God’s ways are mysterious, to be sure, but God has been revealed to us in the person of Jesus. And what we know about God through Jesus does not at all comport with a callous, indifferent God. I often think those visions of God have more to do with the people espousing them than with God’s own nature.
And that leads us to an important truth. We may never know why tragedies happen. We may never understand why some die tragically, why others are born with congenital defects. Why there is suffering. We may never be able to answer why.
But we can answer what: what can we do about it? We can figure out what our response will be. This is what Jesus does. Why the man was born blind is irrelevant. That he was born blind is an opportunity for him to bring healing and wholeness. Jesus’ response is to be that light to the world whatever the cause of the darkness.
And this, then, is the model we follow in the wake of tragedy. Why do people die tragically in an earthquake? We may not know, but we can offer relief and ensure that homes are built in a way that is sturdier. Why does a hitherto unknown virus get unleashed on the world causing suffering and death? We may not know, but we can offer relief and comfort, we can engage in social distancing, and we can insure that people have access to the resources they need and the help they deserve. And we can support those institutions that promote public health such that a situation like this never repeat itself.
See, at the end of the day, when we try to answer the question of why we do two things: (1) we focus on questions we cannot answer instead of answering the ones that we can; and (2) we wind up creating a cold, callous, indifferent God who is removed from our sufferings.
The God we know through Jesus is a God present with us. That is what the Incarnation is all about: Christ is the Word made flesh, the Immanuel, God-is-with-us. This is not a God who is removed from our experience, but who is present in the midst of it. That’s why a statement that God was not in Newtown because he’d been disinvited is patently absurd and downright heretical. God goes where God wills and God wills to be with us.
The God we encounter in Jesus is also a God who suffers. The cross demonstrates the willingness of God to suffer our sufferings even to the point of death upon a cross. The cross, one of the cruelest forms of torture and execution that we human beings have ever come up with, represents the depths to which God is willing to go to be in solidarity with us.
The cross itself is tragedy. It is injustice. It is violence. It is death. It is an innocent life cut down in its prime. And where is God? Right in the middle of it. On the cross. Where is God in the times when our lives are upon the cross, when our lives are lives of tragedy and pain? Right there with us, in the tragedy, in the suffering.
In the days after September 11, I remember seeing one illustration that showed Jesus standing over the towers scooping up all the souls of those who had died. It was a sentimental picture akin to the idea that the Newtown children were at least getting to spend Christmas with Jesus. But even more than its sentimentality, it completely misses the point of who Jesus is. When the towers fell, Christ is not floating above the towers, Christ was in the towers. In the firemen rushing up those stairs at all odds. With the crying and weeping hundreds trapped above the burning floors, facing with fear their own deaths.
In the same way, Christ is not in heaven, getting the party room ready for all the children of Newtown when they arrive. Christ is lying bleeding on the classroom floors of that school. Christ is in the teachers who sacrificed themselves to save the lives of their children. Christ is in the suffering families who long for justice and for safety.
I have a print of a Marc Chagall painting called “White Crucifixion” that portrays Jesus upon the cross, wrapped in a Jewish prayer shawl or tallith while all around him Jewish villages are ransacked, synagogues are burned, and people are terrorized. Chagall is a Jewish artist, but his statement is profoundly Christian: Christ’s sufferings are the sufferings of his people, not apart from them. Christ experiences upon the cross the sufferings of the world.
And in that is hope.
For we often find ourselves in the wilderness. And the wilderness of tragedy is a powerful and difficult wilderness. But our experience of God in Christ reminds us that God is with us in the wilderness. In the midst of tragedy, there, too is God. In the midst of suffering, there, too, is God. In the midst of sorrow, there, too, is God.
But we are also reminded of one other thing: Christ endured the tragedy of the cross, but was raised to new life in the Resurrection. Christ passed through the wilderness of tragedy and suffering and even through the wilderness of death but emerged into the Promised Land of eternal life.
It means that while we may not understand the reasons for the tragedies of the world, and while we grieve and mourn in the wilderness, and while we have no guarantees that we will not suffer in our lives, we have faith that the God who is with us in times of tragedy and sorrow will lead us into the Promised Land.
1 Samuel 16:1–13
The Lord said to Samuel, “How long will you grieve over Saul? I have rejected him from being king over Israel. Fill your horn with oil and set out; I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have provided for myself a king among his sons.” Samuel said, “How can I go? If Saul hears of it, he will kill me.” And the Lord said, “Take a heifer with you, and say, ‘I have come to sacrifice to the Lord.’ Invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what you shall do; and you shall anoint for me the one whom I name to you.” Samuel did what the Lord commanded, and came to Bethlehem. The elders of the city came to meet him trembling, and said, “Do you come peaceably?” He said, “Peaceably; I have come to sacrifice to the Lord; sanctify yourselves and come with me to the sacrifice.” And he sanctified Jesse and his sons and invited them to the sacrifice.
When they came, he looked on Eliab and thought, “Surely the LORD’S anointed is now before the Lord.” But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the LORD does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.” Then Jesse called Abinadab, and made him pass before Samuel. He said, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one.” Then Jesse made Shammah pass by. And he said, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one.” Jesse made seven of his sons pass before Samuel, and Samuel said to Jesse, “The Lord has not chosen any of these.” Samuel said to Jesse, “Are all your sons here?” And he said, “There remains yet the youngest, but he is keeping the sheep.” And Samuel said to Jesse, “Send and bring him; for we will not sit down until he comes here.” He sent and brought him in. Now he was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome. The Lord said, “Rise and anoint him; for this is the one.” Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the presence of his brothers; and the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward. Samuel then set out and went to Ramah.
As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see. The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?” Some were saying, “It is he.” Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.” He kept saying, “I am the man.” But they kept asking him, “Then how were your eyes opened?” He answered, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ Then I went and washed and received my sight.” They said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I do not know.”
They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, “He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.” Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.” But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” And they were divided. So they said again to the blind man, “What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.” He said, “He is a prophet.”
The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight and asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?” His parents answered, “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.” His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. Therefore his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.”
So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, “Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.” He answered, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?” Then they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.” The man answered, “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out.
Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him. Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.”
NOTES http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/2012/12/15/the-worst-thing-a-christian-could-say-following-yesterdays-tragedy/  http://www.snopes.com/rumors/falwell.asp  http://www.pbs.org/now/society/eulogy.html