Now a refugee in Italy, Sayid is running away from his past. He fled his Middle-Eastern home when charged with blasphemy – a sentence which carries a death penalty in his country – after he confronted an Iman who often abused sexually a boy. As part of a religious minority, Sayid faced unnumbered little indignities and persecutions, but one looms large in his past: he witnessed his wife been raped and killed in front of his eyes. What struck me hardest when I heard Sayid’s story is how, as a Christian, he makes sense of the violence he has suffered. He believes all that took place was God’s will, and that his wife’s rape was some kind of punishment for his own sins.
One can understand how Sayid’s polarized context contributed to his strange conclusion. When part of a besieged, suffering minority, people feel the need to have quick, solid answers. In a context of insecurity and suffering, we need all our defences up – social, psychological, theological. There can’t be room for doubt or ambiguity. There is also the social pressure to conform, or at least respond, to the outside context: if Allah’s defining characteristic is his strength, and one sees displays of Allah’s strength in mosques and burkas and music and uniformed police everywhere, one feels the need to have the Christian God to be just as strong and unquestionable, even if his other characteristics as a good, gracious God have to be disfigured. One one ends with a strong God, a mirror of Allah.
To be clear, Sayid’s conclusion is obviously out of sync with the Bible. The book of Job – forty-two chapters of complex poetry – is entirely dedicated to refute the idea that the suffering we experience is a punishment for sins committed. In another instance, when a blind man was brought to Jesus, and people asked, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”, Jesus answer was: “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.” And Jesus healed the guy and made him see. For Jesus the point was not the origin of his blindness, but the good that could come out if it.
But if the rape and murder of Sayid’s wife were not the result of his sin, how are we to make sense of this atrocious act? Why did God allow it? I guess one could answer Sayid in a number of ways. We could say that God did not intend that act, but that it was instead an act performed by wicked people, who need to be confronted and judged. We could encourage Sayid by saying that God brings good out of evil, pointing for example that the abused boy’s suffering was stopped thanks to Sayid’s courage to confront sexual violence. We could express that God abhors evil, to the point of almost destroying the world when he flooded it in the time of Noah, and that he subjected himself to unspeakable suffering on our behalf, when Jesus died on the cross.
But why did God allow this specific act, this rape? As weird as this would sound to Sayid’s Middle-Eastern ears, and as weak as it sounds to Western skepticism, I would say: I don’t know. The Bible is filled with examples of people ranting at God, clueless about their suffering, expressing the full breadth of their distress and rage and doubt. Jesus himself screamed just before dying, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Why did God allow this evil act? I don’t know. But if God suffers with us to forge a perfect paradise out of this mess, offering his life to save undeserving people, and we have experienced all the breadth of his care for us, and feel in our guts that he is not cruel – no, not at all – but pervasively good, I guess it is ok not to know.