Constantinople, Turkey. In 1095, at the Council of Clermont in Rome, Pope Urban II had urged Western Christians to offer military support to the Christian-controlled Byzantine Empire to prevent its takeover by encroaching Muslim Turks, promising partial remissions of sin (later to be interpreted as "indulgences") to all who answered the call. A packed cathedral responded with chants of "Deus vult! Deus vult! (God wills it! God wills it!)" This was the beginning of the First Crusade. Two centuries and three crusades later, after an unspeakable amount of atrocity and bloodshed had passed, crusaders came once again to the gates of Constantinople with the intent of passing through to Jerusalem, where they would reconquer the Holy Land from what they perceived to be Muslim occupation. Confused by the unwillingness of the people of Constantinople to let them into the city, they sent word back to Pope Innocent III, who, unwilling to pass up a chance to bring the Byzantine capital under Roman Catholic control, decreed that the hard welcome the crusaders had received was merely a test from God to prove their steadfastness to the crusade, but forbade them to attack. Soldiers were so heartened by this theological reassurance that they ignored the Pope's orders and besieged the very city their precursors had been sent to protect. After killing off its defenders, they raped and murdered their way through the city, defiling churches, slaughtering clergy, raping women (including nuns), and destroying priceless works of art. Their actions so weakened the Byzantine Empire that the Turks were finally able to conquer the Holy Land and bring it under Muslim control, secure in the moral high ground of having liberated it from these hypocritical, heartless, bloodthirsty crusaders (a stereotype of Christians that, to some extent, persists to the current era).
In response, Pope Innocent III "sharply rebuked" them for their behavior. But all was forgiven. Because, as we all know, Christ died so that we could shit in his wine and rape his children.
Lisbon, Portugal. An earthquake on All Saints' Day in 1755 caused unprecedented devastation in this piously Christian city, killing between 60,000 and 100,000 people. Dozens of churches, including some of the most beautiful and glorious ever built, were razed to the ground. Orphanages, hospitals, places of learning--nothing was spared from the devastation. Survivors fled to the open area of the harbor to escape falling debris, only to be obliterated by an enormous tsunami that took out a huge chunk of the rest of the city. What little was left was ravaged by raging fires, and the unfortunate few who managed to escape all that found themselves in the iron grip of the surviving members of the royal family, who tried to restore order to the city by executing anyone even remotely suspected of subversion. So much money and effort had to be devoted to rebuilding Lisbon (and other cities and towns nearby that had been destroyed by the earthquake) that Portuguese missions into the Americas had to be abandoned.
Less than fifty years prior, legendary mathematician and hopeless optimist Gottfried Leibniz theorized that since God is perfect, then the world God made is the best of all possible worlds, and any imperfection we perceive in His creation is simply due to the limits on our ability to recognize the perfection of God's justice. Some Christians, most of who have never read Voltaire, still firmly believe in this theology today.
Buchenwald, Germany. One of the largest concentration camps in Nazi Germany. 250,000 human beings were incarcerated here between 1937 and 1945. That tiny face cowering second row, 7th from left, is Elie Wiesel. Wiesel, along with 58,000 others, had been transferred there in a massive death march from Auschwitz just months ago, because the Nazis did not want to afford them the pleasure of being liberated by the Allies. Around 12,000-15,000 perished on the way. By the time American troops finally liberated the camp in April 1945, most of the Nazis had mostly evacuated the camp and the remainder had been overrun by desperate prisoners. There was no justice. There was no deliverance. There was no salvation.
Nyamata Church, Rwanda. 2,500 Christian members of the Tutsi ethnic minority group fled here in 1994, seeking sanctuary from the brutal and systematic slaughter of their people by the majority Hutus. In some churches, the Hutus bolted the doors and burned the churches to the ground. In this one the occupants were merely lined up and shot. Some Tutsis who survived the genocide joined a counter-genocide group who brutally murdered an unknown number of Tutsis, which in turn propagated more violence. Meanwhile, the United Nations sat on their hands and twiddled their thumbs, stymied largely by the United States, who feared the effects of going into Africa again so soon after Somalia, and France, who responded by giving the Hutus weapons (for reasons no one, least of all France, seems to know or understand). Only Canada and Belgium answered the call, and Belgium pulled out when its tiny contingent of troops was brutally slaughtered by Hutu genocide groups while trying to protect a group of Tutsis. Forced to stand by helplessly as anywhere from 500,000 to a million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were slaughtered before his eyes, U.N. task force general Roméo Dallaire would be found six years later on a park bench in his native Canada, piss drunk and severely overdosed on antidepressants in what may or may not have been an attempted suicide. Nearby, another church contains 500 more unburied skulls. Yet another, 5000. Yet another...
God watches over His children.
If it weren't obvious, I've been having a bit of a theological crisis of late. We Christians believe in a just God because the Bible tells us that God is just. But how can we believe this in the face of what seems to be overwhelming evidence to the contrary? We've been fighting this question since Job, and even Job doesn't give any real answers--God's response could very well be interpreted as "shut up, I invented justice, I'm bigger than you." Which is not an answer, just a threat. And a reminder that we do not have the moral authority to judge Him--which is still not an answer, just an avoidance of the question. Job's questions still resonate in my ears. How can I believe that God protects the righteous and punishes the wicked when I see counterexamples every day? How can I believe that God cares for and protects His chosen people when He let them go nearly extinct in Poland? (To say Jews are important to God is a bit of an understatement. He's intervened, sometimes with terrifying force, for far lesser infractions against His chosen people.) That a God who would rain down His wrath on Sodom and Gomorrah would let the Byzantine Crusaders go free, yet bring down a catastrophe of similar proportions on innocent Christian orphans in Lisbon. It's hard enough to believe in God. It's virtually impossible, for all but the wisest and the most naive, to believe in a just God. It's like believing that trees never die. It makes sense, but where do all these rotten trunks come from?
In the beginning, God made the world, and the world was good. Well, I'm not seeing the goodness, God. All I see is pointless, causeless, endless tragedy. Some of it we can blame on human nature. Some of it, like the Crusades and September 11, is born from the perversion of Your ways, and the sinfulness of man. But where does the rest come in? What was Lisbon all about? Or New Orleans? Or the lone Jew in Buchenwald praying day in and day out for deliverance, only to be martyred in the gas chamber? It's not a question of why there is so much evil in the world. That much I understand. It's a question of why God intervened and guided and interpreted and reprimanded His people through the difficult times of the Old and New Testament, and why His hand has been so subtle for the even more difficult times His people go through now. Mind you, I do see God's grace on a day-to-day basis--sometimes copiously, for the blessed and the naive. But I can't reconcile the fact that Christians no one will ever hear about are being tortured to death in China, with no one to hear their screams but God, with the news that Lisa got an interview at DreamWorks.
And yet, some things do bring sprout to that nagging seed of faith. Like the Righteous Among the Nations--non-Jews that Israel honors because they risked or gave their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust. In Poland, where the punishment for harboring Jews was the slaughter of everyone in the household--or, worse yet, a group ticket with your Jewish buddies on the next train to Auschwitz--there were over six thousand Righteous Among the Nations. Six thousand. That pales in comparison to the three million Polish Jews (of a total population of 3.3 million) who were killed in the Holocaust, but in the face of those consequences it's remarkable that the number of folk who helped them out was over thirty. Maybe, in His own little way, He was and is still looking out for them.
It's strange. It was the big things that turned me to atheism, and the little things that turned me to Christ. You know how they say there are no atheists in foxholes? It's not the fear of death that brings folk to God, or the unending cycle of boredom and violence, or your miraculous rescue by allied reinforcements (which, if I read my war stories right, happens about as often as an actual miracle). It's the tiny lick of water you get from dew-wet grass as you lie abandoned in a ditch, your leg shot off at the knee and your comrades miles away. A far cry from parted rivers and infinite fish, but I'll gladly accept whatever I can get.