The Undoing of Theodicy

BillFrom Bill Wylie-Kellermann’s newest release Dying Well: The Resurrected Life of Jeanie Wylie-Kellermann:

…in the course of Jeanie’s illness and death, I’ve not really found myself angry with God. I never really raged against the locked doors of heaven, or demanded to know why the Divine should permit such bad things happening to one so good as she. I suspect a reason for this that is theological. I wager it has to do with our shared biblical view of the powers.

Getting the principalities, the fallen authorities and structures of power, onto the map of social ethics changes ones political view, as with the strike or nonviolent resistance. Getting them onto the pastoral map likewise modifies the formula for everything from prayer to, yes, grief. In prayer, it means that while God may hear the groans and yearnings of the heart, and wills to meet and answer those needs, there are other forces, powerful ones on the scene. As William Stringfellow says, the drama of history and our lives is played out not just between God and human beings, but also amidst the institutions and ideologies, authorities and structures which are the “powers that be.”

God may hear the cry of Iraqi innocents, and also our intercessions on their behalf, but that does not immediately halt the aggressions of empire, of the military technocratic complex, of oil companies and an array of corporate interests, of religious and political parties, just to begin a list. On behalf of children and civilians in Iraq (255,000 and counting, killed at this writing), I am indeed angry. My rage, however, goes not to God whose heart breaks, but to those persons and powers who sponsor wars of aggression, shred international law, and employ the terrors of administrative torture.

A similar inner alignment prevails with illness, death, and grief. Think of the hospital. More prayer per square foot is probably uttered there than anywhere else. But how many ailments are treated as personal tragic happenstances, rather than the work of the principalities?

Cancers and birth defects, allergies and immune deficiencies, which are the assault of toxins loosed upon our bodies and earth by industry and government. Addictions fostered in cold calculation by the powers of commercial greed. Corporate stress rupturing hearts. The hurry-up indifference to hazards of the workplace. All the grinding and chronic ailments of poverty. The epidemic of gunshot wounds pouring in the Emergency Room door, which can be traced back to the shipping docks of the domestic armaments industry. Hell, the economics of the insurance industry and government policy turning certain people away, gradually or finally, at those hospital doors. And this is just to name a few. Tribulation, distress, persecution, famine and sword—we are led, as St. Paul puts it, like lambs to be slaughtered.

Did I mention cancer? There’s no single cause, or generally not. I consider it the great imperial disease. The blowback of Hiroshima and nuclearism. The fruit of industrialized food with additives, pesticides, genetic modifications, and elaborate processing. A culture of the chemical solution.

Of course I’m talking about Jeanie’s tumor. The psalmist speaks of a moment “when evildoers came to eat my flesh.” Who? The disease, or the disease-makers?

The doctors waved off suggestions of environmental causes. But they do the same downwind of the Nevada nuclear test site, or adjacent to chemical facilities leaching the groundwater, and I’ve heard the testimonies and even know some of the families with multiple cancers drinking or breathing under such influences. In Southwest Detroit, where we live, just north of a surreal industrial landscape that includes the Ford Rouge Plant, assorted refineries, and steel mills, the rain dries in grey streaks on clapboard houses, or polkadots the backyard picnic table with the same gritty distillate. I can only wonder what breathing it does to us. Did to Jeanie.

This is say, it does make me angry, but targeting God strikes me as a theological displacement. I’m angry at the powers in the dehumanizing assault of their blithe indifference. This sort of anger is not something to “work through” or “get over” in moving on to the next step in the grieving process. It’s a political energy to draw upon in the work of social transformation.

My journal shows that this first dawned on me in a conversation with Lydia in which she was making first medical, then theological, inquiries. From her perspective, God had sent the tumor and could take it away with the snap of a divine finger, so must have some purpose in it. I thought this problematic and replied I didn’t believe God intended or desired this, but that it came from the toxics of corporation and culture. I said that God was with us in the struggle, that miracles were possible with God working through people and creation, and, yes, that God could use pretty much anything for good. The zinger came back my way when Lydia concluded that all this was fine, as long as I spoke more hopefully when discussing Mom’s situation.

When Jeanie was first diagnosed, we went as a family to Eucharist. The gospel reading must have concerned a healing, though it kindly escapes me now. The homilist, mindful of Jeanie’s news, attempted to address the spirituality involved (without blaming God, but also without the benefit of seeing the principalities in the mix).

The preacher’s take was that cancer expressed some inner dis-ease, and he actually employed the example of a tight-assed business executive coming down with colon cancer. Jeanie, by implication, presumably had over-exercised her brain or otherwise thought just a little too hard, or some such. Blame the victim? Talk about anger. Jeanie was furious and unforgiving. Ironically, the homilist probably functioned as lightning rod for her own Kubler-Ross anger awaiting a ready target on which to focus.

Now, just to run this theological conundrum to its den, the preacher’s point is not entirely vacuous. I say that by no means to affirm a “blame the victim” syndrome, but to allow for taking our share of personal responsibility. Recognizing the role of the powers may keep us from displacing anger at God, but it doesn’t let us off the hook personally. We are more than victims.

Much like an addict is not merely the victim of a chemical substance, or an aggressive street-marketing apparatus, or a dysfunctional family system, or even the social mechanisms of addiction—but a person making choices for his or her own bondage—so we have some complicity in the assaults of the powers. We can’t seal ourselves off hermetically from a toxic culture of death, but neither do we have to indulge it. We don’t have to consume it or passively endure it.

Our lives and our appetites can choose against it. People of privilege may have more freedom than the poor in this regard, but often end up in the deepest bondage. Anyway, the theological footnote here is that an appreciation of the powers may accurately redirect our anger, but it doesn’t obviate our sin.

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