Why do we suffer? Must we suffer?
Two thoughtful teenagers and I wrestled with that question last week.
Both boys had seen suffering of a magnitude that was hard to fathom. They were shaken by news stories: Tens of thousands dead; 100,000 dead. Perhaps 200,000.
"I know God didn't cause the earthquake," one said.
But he wondered: Why did some survive? Was there a divine reason? In all that destruction, what could be called a miracle?
He had heard people thanking God for their survival. He understood they were grateful to be alive. But he was troubled.
"Would God choose who survives and who doesn't?" I asked. "This baby dies; the other lives?"
"I don't think so," he answered. "Maybe God can't help everyone," he said.
"You mean, it's not in God's power to make everything all right, or God chooses to stand back?" I asked.
"Maybe God wants us to take care of it," his study partner put in.
"Maybe," I said. "But how could we take care of the fact of an earthquake or a tsunami? Even with modern technology, can we warn everyone of all natural disasters?"
We wanted to know: Is God just an observer?
That didn't feel right to either student. At the same time, they thought, God isn't a puppeteer, either, and bad things can and will happen.
The world can hardly fathom the pain Haitians are experiencing. Those who say God saved them can be forgiven for implying that others around them, innocent children and good-hearted adults, were somehow not worthy of God's attention.
Because in the world that is Haiti now, it would be easy to go mad. Who could expect people to think about the implications of what they say? Right now, what is more important than how to get the next meal?
Still, I dream. My teenage students dreamed with me.
We began to imagine an alternate reality. In that world, people in dangerous areas lived in buildings built to withstand earthquakes. It would have infrastructure to respond immediately to disaster. No one would go without food, water or shelter; no one was desperate and vulnerable.
Perhaps God hopes humanity can learn that it is our obligation to redeem the world. Every human act that is in true harmony with God's intentions should, as Irving Greenberg writes, "favor order over chaos ... be for life against death."
The boys decided God's compassion and understanding were with the people of Haiti, with all who suffers.
They also decided they had to work toward creating a world that could lessen and prevent suffering.
We could thank God for giving us that task.