Isaac Choitner of The New Republic flagged this unfortunate quote from a survivor of Monday’s horrific Oakland college shooting:
“I heard a pop, pop, pop sound and then girls screaming.” Ms. Lee said she believed that the shooting had occurred in the same building as her classroom. She was frightened, she said, but added, “I’m a Christian, and I believe God protects me.”
Which is cold comfort, as Isaac notes, for the families of the seven people who weren’t so lucky. Apparently, they just weren’t good enough Christians for God to protect.
I can’t say I blame Deborah Lee for that absurdly insensitive remark. It’s infused deeply within our Christian culture. I think of the Amy Grant song “Angels,” which opens with the story of angels springing Peter from prison and then, in the second stanza, arguing:
God only knows the times my life was threatened just today.
A reckless car ran out of gas before it ran my way.
Near misses all around me, accidents unknown,
Though I never see with human eyes the hands that lead me home.
God, I know they’re all around me all day and through the night.
When the enemy is closing in, I know sometimes they fight
To keep my feet from falling – I’ll never turn away.
If you’re asking what’s protecting me, then you’re gonna hear me say:
Got his angels watching over me every move I make –
Angels watching over me!
Angels watching over me every step I take –
Angels watching over me!
You want to know what the basic strands of evangelical Christian thought have been? Listen to anything Amy Grant sang through about 1986. Along with Grant and her producer, Brown Bannister, that 1984 song was cowritten by Grant’s then-husband, Gary Chapman, a successful musician in his own right, and Michael W. Smith, of whom you might have heard.
But this notion that God is sending angels to steer cars away from us – or keep crazy gunmen from mowing us down in class – is a difficult one. On the one hand, we are not deists. We believe God is actively at work in the world, and that he could rescue us from any unfortunate circumstance if he wanted. On the other hand, how do we explain when he chooses not to rescue others? The usual explanations all ring hollow because they all – unintentionally, I’m sure – cast aspersions on those unlucky enough not to make it. For example, “God has a special plan for you.” But doesn’t he for everyone? Was that other guy expendable?
But my biggest problem with the mentality that God is helping me, a privileged middle-class white American man whose biggest fear is going to the dentist, in my mundane life while he is not helping the millions of people across the world – especially children – who hope they can find food today, or escape slavery today, or don’t get raped and beaten today, or aren’t forced to kill anyone today.
As Rachel Held Evans put it when she came to town in September: “I question my faith when my best friend thanks God for helping her find a good parking space at Walmart and 25,000 children died today from preventable diseases.”
Sometimes it feels like the deists have this one right. It’s hard to look at the problems of this world and see God in them. The heavens may declare his glory – but sometimes it feels little else does. It’s that theodicy problem again, and I don’t feel any closer to figuring it out.
Which is probably why, more and more, I find hope and solace in the words of Romans 8:
I believe that the present suffering is nothing compared to the coming glory that is going to be revealed to us. The whole creation waits breathless with anticipation for the revelation of God’s sons and daughters. Creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice—it was the choice of the one who subjected it—but in the hope that the creation itself will be set free from slavery to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of God’s children. We know that the whole creation is groaning together and suffering labor pains up until now. And it’s not only the creation. We ourselves who have the Spirit as the first crop of the harvest also groan inside as we wait to be adopted and for our bodies to be set free. We were saved in hope. If we see what we hope for, that isn’t hope. Who hopes for what they already see? But if we hope for what we don’t see, we wait for it with patience.
That doesn’t make for a great pop song or pithy newspaper quote, but it’s all I’ve got today.