Bad (Christian) Theology

In the wake of the unspeakable tragedy that befell Newtown, CT last Friday, people are attempting to make sense of what happened, offer some solace and comfort to the grieving, and reassure themselves of the central tenets of their beliefs. I imagine that this is being done by people of all convictional beliefs, not just Christians. However, as this country’s dominant voice of religion and meaning making, Christian theology is taking center stage. You wouldn’t know it from the media, but not all those who died claimed Christianity and people of other faiths have also mourned and spoke out of the truths of their beliefs to comfort, make sense, and recall the tenets of their faiths. For example, at this past Sunday’s interfaith vigil, voices representing the Muslim and Jewish communities were also present.

In the face of such unspeakable tragedies, what we really believe about G-d (by whatever name we call the Divine; click here for what spelling G-d this way signifies) is often revealed through our words and actions. In the midst of truly beautiful messages of solace and empathy, I’ve seen people speak of the G-d of Christianity in ways that I can only call idolatrous because I do not believe them to represent the truth of what is revealed about G-d in the Bible or in my own experience and that of others I know. I call these idolatrous representations of G-d “bad theology” and I’ve seen them all over my social media feeds (by people either laying claim to them or as the objects of derision). I have even heard them uttered by the POTUS himself at the end of what was otherwise a powerful and moving speech.

These idolatrous views of G-d pain me, not only because they don’t reflect the G-d I serve despite claiming to do so, but also because they drive people away from faith and belief. I have seen people respond to this bad theology with comments like, “that’s why I stopped going to church” and “this just makes Christians look worse than they already do.” I have no problems with those who choose other doors toward faith and meaning making. However, I am deeply pained by someone rejecting a door because it has been misrepresented.

So, here are 5 images of G-d that I’ve heard in the last week since the lives of 28 people were lost (yes, 28 – I’ll get to that in a moment) in Newtown, CT. I offer my understanding of how I see G-d and why I see these images as problematic and reflecting “bad theology.” I’m not a theologian, nor am I a priest or a bishop. However, I have walked with G-d long enough to have learned a thing or two about how She operates and how I believe She wants to be known in and through my life. Maybe something here will help somebody else (at least that’s what my fiancée told me when she said I needed to share with others what I shared with her a few days ago).

1. G-d as The Grand Puppet Master.

I keep hearing people try to make sense of this tragedy by saying “it must have been G-d’s will” or “G-d allowed this to happen” or “G-d used this to achieve His will.” I’ve seen people try to walk this tightrope of explaining the difference between G-d’s “permissive will” and G-d’s “perfect will.” Like academics whose jargon ostracizes the general public, language like this from Christians just makes other folks confused and frustrated with our inability to make sense. In the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples, there is a line that asks for “Thy will to be done on earth as it is in heaven.” It doesn’t say that G-d’s will IS done on earth as it is in heaven. Moreover, the instruments of G-d’s will are US. WE are G-d’s hands, feet, voice; WE are Her instruments of peace, mercy, justice, love, etc. If WE don’t act in those ways, then G-d’s will – which is for justice, mercy, and peace (see Micah 6:8) – is not performed in the earth. What we witnessed last Friday was humanity – represented by Adam Lanza – usurping the will of G-d to assert his own will in the earth. G-d is not a grand puppet master, manipulating us in keeping with some grand design that is only known by Him. That would violate our free will. I believe that She wants certain things for our lives that have been made known (justice, peace, love, mercy) and has equipped us with everything we need to manifest those outcomes in our lives. I believe that the Lord has called each of us to fulfill certain purposes in our lives. I also believe that those purposes can be disrupted, cut off, and derailed – sometimes permanently, other times temporarily – by our actions or the actions of others. We can’t look backwards on someone’s life and decide that the purpose of their life was ultimately fulfilled by the time they were violently snatched from this earth. What kind of G-d would determine that upon a person fulfilling their purpose on this earth that they should die in a hail of bullets at school one day anyway? That just doesn’t square with G-d being compassionate and full of mercy.

2. G-d as Vengeful Quid Pro Quo Arbiter 

There’s a meme going around Facebook of someone asking why would G-d let something like this happen and “G-d” responding with “you wouldn’t let me in your schools.” Other versions of this say that we since we kicked G-d out of our schools (by not requiring everybody in the school to pray to a G-d in whom they may or may not believe in a manner that may or may not resonate with them), we shouldn’t be surprised that this kind of violence has stepped in to fill the void. I think this falls into the category of “His thoughts are not our thoughts and His ways are not our ways” (Isaiah 55:8). I don’t believe in and would not serve a G-d who played a tit-for-tat game with humanity. What do we think G-d is saying here, “Well, you wouldn’t force me on other people, so I’m gonna take your children?” No. Just no. Hell, no, in fact. This makes G-d look like some kind of petulant toddler (no offense to toddlers), who throws a temper tantrum because he didn’t get his way. Never mind the fact that forcing people to believe a certain way or to pray a certain way isn’t very G-d like in the first place. And never mind the fact that this very thing could have happened in a religious school and has happened in places where G-d was very much present (e.g., Sikh temple massacre in Wisconsin this year; the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham in 1963). For more on how this happens, I direct you back to #1.

3. G-d as the Canaanite god, Molech. 

In the Hebrew scriptures, we see Jehovah warning the Israelites not to worship Molech, one of the divinities in the land of Canaan. Worshippers of Molech believed that their god required child sacrifice in order to be appeased. We see Abraham nearly sacrifice Isaac in this same way (being tested by G-d) and then be stopped by an angel of the Lord. I have heard this idol raised in the last week when people say things like “G-d sacrificed our children because of our disobedience.” Lifting up this idol usually involves blaming gays and lesbians for every natural disaster that comes along and it has been raised in the wake of the shootings in Newtown. Mike Huckabee, Westboro Baptist Church, and other folks have come out in the last week blaming marriage equality, abortion rights, and other “sins” for Adam Lanza using his mother’s guns to kill her, 26 innocents, and then himself. Yea, I see the connection there, no problem – NOT. Without even wasting my breath to debate whether marriage equality and a woman’s right to safely access means to terminate her pregnancy are actually “sins,” I will simply decry the characterization of G-d as a child killer to assuage his judgment. I know this simply because the Bible teaches that the death of Jesus Christ on the cross at Calvary was atonement “once for all time” (1 Peter 3:18, NLT). According to Christian doctrine, there is no more a need for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins (Hebrews 9:12, 10:4) and there was NEVER a call for child sacrifice even when the slaughter of animals was necessary. G-d didn’t take Abraham’s son Isaac and God didn’t take those Newtown sons and daughters or anybody else’s son or daughter who was claimed by violence or illness or starvation as a propitiation for sin. To say that G-d did is disgusting, unholy, and unChristian.

4. G-d as the Perpetually Cheerful, Slightly Addle-brained, Amusement Park/Cruise Ship Social Director

This is the image of G-d that pictures some grandfatherly guy with a big smile who joyfully greets all these children into a great big playground otherwise known as heaven. Another version of this says, as our POTUS did on Sunday, that “G-d called His children home,” as though the street lights had just come on and it was time for supper. This idol seems very innocuous. After all, it matches the image of G-d that many people grew up with – an old White guy with a long white beard and a great big smile whose got the whole world in His hand. But here’s the problem with that: G-d isn’t always happy and rejoicing at the death of one of His children (regardless their age). Jesus wept at the death of his friend Lazarus and I wholeheartedly believe that G-d wept bitterly at the death of those children and their teachers (and Nancy and Adam Lanza, but that comes next). Yes, I believe that G-d received them into Love, but not as though that was His perfect timing. The heart of G-d was broken last Friday, just like so many of our own hearts were broken. It was too soon, that was not G-d’s design or plan, and if His will actually had been done that day, they would be with their families right now being tucked into bed after the street lights came on. Owning this means recognizing that the full manifestation of the Kingdom of G-d on earth as righteousness, peace, and justice is largely about our own inability to get our acts together and surrender our wills and our egos.

5. G-d as Human.

This is the most insidious misrepresentation of G-d in some ways because it seems to make the most sense. I hear this idol being lifted up when people recite only 26 names of those who died last Friday and sometimes leave out Nancy Lanza and just about always leave out Adam Lanza. Only the names of the “innocents” are read aloud; only 26 candles are lit for the dead; when even the teachers are ignored and only the children are lifted up as worthy of remembering and mourning, as an impetus for calls to social action to address gun violence and mental illness (see my last blog post to address those issues). Perhaps Nancy Lanza is excluded because once it was discovered that she owned the gun licenses for the weapons used in the massacre, she lost her sympathy as the unsuspecting mother of a child who departed from the way she taught him to live. We don’t want to extend her sympathy or mourning because we believe, some of us, that she brought it on herself. It’s obvious perhaps why people leave Adam Lanza out. Of course we should not mourn his death; doing so would sully the memories of those he killed. Or would it? It is completely human to make determinations about who is more or less deserving of G-d’s grace and mercy. But it is just that – human, not Divine. If we believe in a G-d of mercy and compassion and that Jesus gave his life for all because we couldn’t deserve such grace and mercy, then we cannot believe that G-d is any less brokenhearted over Nancy and Adam as She is over the children, teachers, and school administrators who were killed. G-d mourns all those lives lost; we who claim to be followers of the Way should also and extend forgiveness to those responsible.

If you’re still reading this, G-d bless you and give you peace. In the end, what happened last Friday was unconscionable and incomprehensible. We will likely never know why Adam Lanza did what he did. And when faced with questions we cannot answer or whose answers seem to bring more confusion and pain than peace and comfort, we are best served by saying, honestly and openly: “I don’t know, but let’s pray for peace, for comfort, and for wisdom to know how to console those who are grieving, those whose faith has been shaken, those whose future is now dimly lit.” And then let us wait in silence, seeking and serving Christ in everyone we meet, for the answer to our prayer to come.