In other words, “If there is a God, and S(he) is benevolent, why has S(he) allowed me to suffer?” “… why did S(he) not intervene, when I was vulnerable?” “… why did S(he) allow me to go through the pain of that experience, and the mental, psychological, and/or physical trauma that resulted?” The stories of three people cross my mind as I ask this question.
The first is of Susan Brison, the philosopher who – while visiting France and out on a morning jog – was brutally raped, beaten, and left for dead. Brison began writing about her traumatic experience ten years after it occurred, and her thoughts culminated into the moving book Aftermath: Violence and the Remaking of a Self. Below is an excerpt from the text:
“After I was rescued and taken to the Grenoble hospital, I was told repeatedly how ‘lucky’ I was to be alive, and for a short while I even believed this myself. At the time I did not yet know how trauma not only haunts the conscious and unconscious mind, but also remains in the body, in each of the senses, ready to resurface whenever something triggers a reliving of the traumatic event. I didn’t know that the worst – the unimaginably painful aftermath of violence – was yet to come.” (x)
The second person that comes to mind, when I contemplate the question of evil and a benevolent God, is Jean Améry (née Hans Mayer). His story was recounted by Diane Enns in her book The Violence of Victimhood, who notes that he “was imprisoned and tortured in a concentration camp in Belgium for his participation in the resistance movement, and was then sent to Auschwitz, Buchenwald, and finally Bergen-Belsen, where he was released when the camp was liberated in 1945.” (77) Améry began writing about torture two decades after his release, and committed suicide “thirty-three years after his liberation from the camp.” (79)
The final person that comes to mind is Shaka Senghor (née James White), who recalls his time as a drug dealer-turned-killer-rehabilitated in his memoir Writing My Wrongs: Life, Death, and Redemption in an American Prison. Senghor describes himself and the men he got to know while incarcerated as “… wounded boys, all of us, and our emotional scars ran deep. Most of us came from homes where ass whoppings were the norm and vile words were tossed out like candy to trick-or-treaters on Halloween. We weren’t bad people, but we had made some very bad decisions that were shaped by the bad things we experienced… what we were was a mixture of failure, neglect, promise, and purpose.” (61) He was physically abused by his mother so left home when he was fourteen, and while homeless (and on the streets of Detroit at the height of the “Crack Era”) was able to get a job selling drugs. The rest, is history.
The examples above are meant to illustrate the fact that, when I ask the question of “how could a benevolent God exist when there is evil in the world?”, I have specific cases in mind. Yet while much of the suffering in the world results from inter-personal relationships and human decisions, much of it is the result of natural causes. Why did God allow Hurricane Katrina to ravish already impoverished communities, and that earthquake to hit Haiti? What about the 2008 Tsunami that killed hundreds of thousands? Or diseases such as HIV/AIDs and cancer to exist, that have taken the lives of too many to count? This earth engenders much suffering. But people still go in droves to church on Sunday, and somehow find faith to believe not only in a God, but in one that cares about us and has our best interest at heart. Why would such a God allow such evil – whether it be natural or man-made – to ravage the lives of the creatures S(he) created, and presumably loves?
Philosophers have ventured many answers in response to this question, but I will answer it as I see fit, focusing on the problem of man-made suffering. To do so, I will by-pass questions of free will, determinism, and causation (i.e., Can we truly choose between “option A” or “option B”, or are we fated to choose one over the other? If there is no free will and we are just puppets on a stage, living our lives for the entertainment of some Higher Being pulling the strings, then we are not responsible for the things we do. Which would make the answer to the question, “Why is there evil in the world if there is a benevolent God?” relatively easy. God is not benevolent. S(he) enjoys our suffering and pain, and in fact, orchestrates it for Her is His amusement. But if we do have free will, how could a benevolent God create evil?… etc.).
Instead of going the free will/determinism route, a path well-tread, I propose we answer the question by looking at the nature of the human experience. My answer to this question has been prompted by DMX’s song “Slippin’” (great song, by the way), which I was listening to just a few days ago. What he said in the introduction to the song strikes me as true:
To live, is to suffer. To survive, well. That’s to find meaning, in the suffering.
Maybe asking that age-old question that I began with at the beginning of this reflection is the wrong one to ask. Instead of asking “If there is a God, and S(he) is benevolent, why is there evil?” maybe we should ask, “Since we are here, what are we to do with the time we have left?” To X’s point, life is nothing but a slow, slow death. This is a fact that we cannot deny. We are mortal, this is the nature of humanity. And maybe because our DNA stops reproducing at some point and our organs eventually begin shutting down, our morality (or, rather, lack there of) is merely a reflection of this degeneration. Degeneration of the body, degeneration of the mind, degeneration of principles we have the capacity to conceive of as ideals but not quite reach. Think of the most noble, admirable human being you know… and look a little closer. Even Gandhi’s life was tainted by his humanity.
Some of us spend our time doing wrong and others punishing wrongdoers. Many more dedicate our lives to what we think of as noble pursuits – saving the whales, protesting police violence, volunteering for after-school programs, becoming full-time mothers and fathers. We are all caught up in history, thousands of years of human “progress,” with its stubborn social ills and intensifying feelings of disillusionment as the population grows larger and our world, as a result of media and technology, smaller. Maybe we won’t make it. Maybe we will ruin everything and each other in the process, prematurely and permanently. I have heard it said that humans are like a cancer on this planet, destroying everything in its path… and sometimes I am inclined to believe it.
The answer that came to mind when I began contemplating this question of God and evil, years ago, was relatively simple: there are politico-ideological forces at work that are bigger than you and affect many more people than you think, and you must keep this in mind. You were born a woman, and black. Therefore, many of the things you have experienced you have experienced not because there is no God, or because God is sadistic or evil, but because of your social location. In other words, human agency is to blame for much of it. So, if you are going to fight and be resentful, fight and resent the system that makes certain evils possible. That is why so many are insistent on fighting against systemic injustices and take up projects that are much bigger than themselves: they want to burn the whole house down – forget about patching up the walls.
For now, let me try to end on a positive note (to offset the somber mood of this reflection). Whatever moves you (and is good), move in that direction. We do not all have the same purpose, but if we could all just find something (positive!) that we can invest in, well, that might just make life worth living. I agree with X that suffering is an inevitable part of the human experience. But I also believe that many more of us, than we even think, were put on this earth to help relieve some of that suffering. And so we should.
Why not end with some James Baldwin?
Since this society is created by man, it can be remade by men. The price, for this transformation, is high. White people will have to ask themselves, why they found it necessary to invent a Nigger. Because they invented him for reasons, out of necessity, of their own. And every white citizen of this country, will have to accept the fact, that he is not innocent, because those dogs and those hoses, those crimes… Are being committed in your name.
T. M. G.
Baldwin, James. “Free and Brave, A Speech by James Baldwin 1963,” thepostarchive YouTube Channel. Starts at 40:25. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EMYgOfcgMaI&t=2842s
Brison, Susan J. Aftermath: Violence and the Remaking of a Self. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002.
Enns, Diane. The Violence of Victimhood. University Park: Pennsylvania University Press, 2012. (Kindle Edition)
Senghor, Shaka. Writing My Wrongs: Life, Death, and Redemption in an American Prison. New York: Penguin Random House, LLC, 2013. (Kindle Edition)