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Thanksgiving and Las Vegas, October 6, 2017

Thanksgiving and Las Vegas

Rev. Yme Woensdregt

Originally, I was planning to write this column about the upcoming Thanksgiving weekend and celebration. Then Las Vegas happened. It’s another horrific instance of the kind of ugliness we human beings perpetrate on one another. It seems to happen with increasing frequency.

How do we reconcile these two things? How can we give thanks in this kind of world?

After the massacre in Las Vegas, someone asked me, “How could God permit this kind of horrific thing? Why didn’t God stop the gunman?”

My answer is that God can’t stop it. Many Christians believe that God is omnipotent and all–powerful. For me, that belief no longer holds true. If God could stop this gunman, then why didn’t God do so? If God could stop the wildfires, or if God could stop hurricanes and earthquakes and tsunamis and floods, or if God could stop all the ugly ways in which we try to hurt one another—and then chose not to, for whatever reason, wouldn’t that make God a monster?

As an analogy, parents teach their young children that it is dangerous to touch a hot stove or that they shouldn’t put a fork or knife into an electrical outlet. If you simply stood back and watched as your toddler did either of those things without stopping them, you could be charged with child abuse.

Over the centuries, Christians have made many attempts to explain the existence of evil. Since they affirm a loving and powerful God, how could evil like this exist? How could natural disasters ruin the lives of so many people?

Many Christians do read the Bible as if it were a portrait of an all–powerful God. Such a God would have controlling power over human beings and also the forces of nature.

Along with many other Christians, I read the Bible differently. Theologian Thomas Jay Oord puts it this way: “Instead of thinking about God as having controlling power (which the Bible never explicitly supports), Christians should think God expresses uncontrolling love.”

The essence of love is that it doesn’t seek to control. If God is love, which the Bible explicitly asserts, then by definition God cannot control.

This way of reading the Bible makes so much more sense to me. Many will disagree with me. They rely on some of the classical arguments about why evil exists:

1) God does control what happens, and therefore God is responsible for both peace and pain.

2) Even though God could stop evil, God allows it. People who accept this argument will thank God for good and benevolent acts, but they blame free agents or natural forces for evil acts.

3) Atheists will claim that there is no God. There is no holy reality, either controlling or not. Giving thanks to God is simply a way of saying that life is not entirely within our control.

4) What I’m proposing is this quite new understanding which says that God always gives freedom to creation. We are free to act as we choose. And because God’s essential nature is love, God cannot override that freedom to act. But at the same time, God cannot and does not withdraw from us. God remains with us and interacts with our lives.

This way of reading things suggests to me that our loving Creator always empowers and inspires us to love, to reach out for what is best, to deal with each other in compassion, to seek reconciliation and grace. At the same time, this uncontrolling and loving God does not step into our lives to stop us from acting in ways contrary to God’s love. We can act in harmful and dangerous ways, but the responsibility for those actions and decisions are ours. God is not responsible for those ways of being. We are.

I don’t know what motivated the gunman in Las Vegas, or Omar Mateen to kill 49 people at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, or Adam Lanza to kill 20 children in Sandy Hook, or Eric Harris and Dylan Kiebold to murder 12 students and one teacher in Columbine. I don’t get it. I can’t put myself into that kind of place, that kind of darkness.

Neither do I know enough science to be able to explain climate change so that it makes enough sense to explain the wild weather our poor, fragile planet has been experiencing, from wildfires to hurricanes and earthquakes, tsunamis and floods.

But I do know this—God is not to be blamed for human actions. God is not to be blamed for  human inaction, in the case of climate change. Those are our choices.

And I also know that I trust this uncontrolling God. God’s uncontrolling love holds me close. Therefore, even in the aftermath of Las Vegas, I continue to thank God for being the source of good. I don’t hold God culpable for causing or allowing evil. I thank God for inspiring and empowering us all to act in love, peace and beauty.

This Thanksgiving, even after Las Vegas, I remain grateful.