The evil of this world challenges the possibility of a faith in a God who cares. How can we have faith when big corporations make decisions which turn our back yards into toxic waste dumps; when we have to worry about whether the water we drink, the air we breathe or the clothes we wear might carry some cancer-inducing agent?
We are imminently threatened by the danger of nuclear destruction. A few people, with arbitrary motives, can press buttons and put an end to life as we know it.
Oil-producing nations can and have blackmailed whole countries into political alliances. Terrorism has become a common device to obtain demands.” Evil people using power in evil ways seem able to dominate the world in which we live. How can a good God possibly be a reality in the face of all this?
The present day examples mentioned pale before the one event in recent history that has epitomized the nature of evil: the Holocaust. Many do not realize that Nazism was more than a political philosophy. It was in fact a religion of idolatry which could be called “ethnolatry.” Rather than worshiping wooden idols, the Nazis venerated a people and a tradition as ends in themselves. The purity and dominance of the Aryan race became the life force of the Nazi’s values and actions. Upon the altar of idolatry of the human ego, men, women and children became the sacrificial victims.
Like all religions, Nazi ethnolatry had its own rituals. The first step was denial of the validity of personhood by singling out Jews for subhuman identification. Next came deprivation and torture. Then Jews were subjected to degradation by being forced to select other Jews to die. Desecration formed another part of the ritual: Torah scrolls were cut up for coat linings. The last—and least—step was death. Because they had been dehumanized, the sacrificial victims lost the will to live. To live was daily agony; to die was release. In that way the sacrificial ritual was consummated. Nazi worshipers chanted, “Heil Hitler, Heil Hitler.”
It is no wonder that evil led some to abandon their faith. As one survivor put it, “I lost my faith and stopped believing in God when I saw the Nazis take pious Jews out to the courtyard and butcher and slaughter them…” (Faith and Doubt of Holocaust Survivors, p. 114). A deluge of books in recent years has treated the theme of the possibility and meaning of faith in light of the Holocaust.
And yet, through even the Holocaust, faith survived. On the way to death camps, men and women who marched out of the Warsaw Ghetto recited the Twelfth Article of Maimonides’ affirmation of faith: “And Ma’amin be-emunah shelemah, I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the Messiah.”
Survivors of the death camps were asked by researchers at Yad Va-Shem how they could believe in God after Auschwitz. Some said that they had entered the camp as religious Jews, and that nothing had changed their beliefs. Their faith survived.
Further back in time, the history of the Crusades, the Inquisitions, and the pogroms shows how vehemently some held fast to belief and trust in God in spite of the persecution and suffering. Their faith, too, survived.
A recent bestseller written by Rabbi Harold Kushner is When Bad Things Happen to Good People. The occasion of the book was the death of the rabbi’s son. His non-traditional conclusion is that God is good and weeps along with us. But He is not all-powerful. Rabbi Kushner’s way of maintaining faith is to “remake” God so as to make faith easier and tragedy more bearable.
Indeed, the rabbi might well have asked a related question: why do good things happen to bad people? The world seems mad, and some ask whether faith isn’t irrelevant in some circumstances. Others see faith as an armor to deflect the painful realities of life, a cushion against the shock of tragedy.
But faith need not be irrelevant, nor need it be merely a defense against life’s misfortunes. Rather, faith in God is the source of strength which enables people who are immersed in adversity to overcome it. Paradoxically, the nature of true faith is to afflict the comfortable and to comfort the afflicted.
The faith that we are talking about is not primarily a belief that God exists. More than that, it is a personal trust in God and in His character, which includes trusting in an all-powerful God even through tragedy.…
When we study the heroes of Biblical tradition. we can see this faith in action. Trust in God is expressed in both words and in deeds. The psalmist cries:
“Vindicate me, O Lord, for I have walked in my integrity; and I have trusted in the Lord without wavering.” (Psalm 26:1)
Indeed, the liturgy of the synagogue also echoes this trust in God. Adon Olam, the hymn sung in synagogues around the world since the 14th century, reads:
“Then in His hand myself I lay
And trusting, sleep; and wake with cheer;
My soul and body are His care;
The Lord doth guard, I have no fear.”
But Biblical faith is much more than words. It is orienting one’s lifestyle and attitudes based on trust in God.
Abraham, for instance, was actuated by faith to become a pioneer. He is the prototype of true faith afflicting the comfortable. Abraham was born and raised in the cosmopolitan civilization of Mesopotamia, as rich in culture, sophistication and comfort as any city today. But God called him from that country:
Now the Lord said to Abraham: “Go forth from your country, and from your relatives and from your father’s house, to the land which I will show you…” (Genesis 12:1)
Trustingly—in faith—Abraham obeyed God’s command and set out on the hard journey to Canaan, exchanging the urban life of Ur for a nomadic existence in an unfamiliar and hostile land. The supreme test of Abraham’s faith, though, was evidenced in the story of the binding of Isaac, the Akedah. After false starts and years of waiting, Abraham finally had a son by Sarah. Yet God commanded that he offer up Isaac as a sacrifice. Again, Abraham obeyed, although at the final moment God substituted a ram for the lad.
Abraham didn’t have to leave Ur. He didn’t have to prepare to sacrifice his promised son as a burnt offering. But he did so trusting that God knew what He was doing, even if it meant greater affliction for the time being. And what was God’s response?
By Myself I have sworn, declares the Lord, because you have done this thing, and have not withheld your son, your only son, indeed I will greatly bless you, and I will greatly multiply your seed as the stars of the heavens, and as the sand which is on the seashore; and your seed shall possess the gate of their enemies. (Genesis 22:16-17)
Abraham’s faith, which for a large part of his life was one of affliction, later on brought comfort and blessing as this faith was vindicated.
Joseph is another man who spent a good deal of his life in afflicting circumstances. He simply got caught in the middle of jealousies and rivalries. His early years consisted of alienation from his own brothers:
And his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers; and so they hated him and could not speak to him on friendly terms…and his brothers were jealous of him…and they plotted against him to put him to death. (Genesis 37:4, 11, 18)
So it came about, when Joseph reached his brothers, that they stripped Joseph of his tunic, the varicolored tunic that was on him; and they took him and threw him into the pit. (Genesis 37:23-24)
…and a virtual “kidnapping” arranged by the brothers:
Then some Midianite traders passed by, so they pulled him up and lifted Joseph out of the pit, and sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty shekels of silver. Thus they brought Joseph into Egypt. (Genesis 37:28)