On CNN last week I was asked by Ashleigh Banfield to respond to the comments of Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association who suggested that Americans were to blame for the tragic shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, because they had abandoned God.
“The fact is that is the ultimate statement of heresy,” I said. “This is not a religious man… Not only is he [Bryan Fischer] wrong that we kicked God out of our lives, the United States and the American people are the most righteous people in the world. We have spent endless blood and treasure to defend complete strangers, women from being beaten up by the Taliban. Our soldiers died for those people. God is on our money. We give more charity than any nation on earth. We deserve better. I am tired of people maligning the American people and saying we deserve to suffer. This is the most religious country in the Western world.”
The Raw Story reported this sentiment is becoming widespread. “Numerous figures on the Christian right, including James Dobson and Mike Huckabee, have linked the horrific mass killing of 20 young children to issues such as prayer in school, abortion and same sex marriage. They claim these issues prove the United States no longer respects God.”
A day later, Fischer struck back on his radio show, claiming I had ‘demonized’ God:“Shmuley Boteach, a Jewish Rabbi and [CNN] gives him ample air time to demonize both G-d and me! So he demonizes God, this whole thing is God’s fault. We need to defy God. We need to challenge God. We need to demand of God. We need to blame this on God. He’s all powerful, could have stopped it, and he didn’t do it, and its His fault.”
“It’s interesting,” Fischer continued in his attack, “that… the theology I’m drawing from is from the Old Testament… I wonder whether he has read his own bible.”Well, Mr. Fischer, I have read it. We don’t call it the Old Testament, as there is nothing old or outdated about it. We call it the Hebrew Bible and this is what it says: “The hidden things are for God to understand, but the revealed things are for us and our children.” Why God allows good people to suffer is a secret known to him. But we human beings ought to have no interest in knowing the secret. What we want, what we demand, is that the suffering stop completely so that God and humanity can finally be reconciled, after a long history of human travail and agony, in a bright and blessed future, bereft of suffering, absent of tragedy, and filled with blessing.
In the face of catastrophes there are always those who are trying to divine the mind of God when really their role as humans is to argue with God. That’s exactly what the name Israel means, He who wrestles with God. Isn’t that what Abraham does with the news of the impending destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, where he raises his fist to the heavens and proclaims, “Will the judge of the entire earth not Himself practice justice?” Would God really allow the righteous to die along with the wicked? Is this not also what Moses says to God after he is told that the Jews will be annihilated for the sin of the Golden calf? If you do so, says the great prophet, “then I beseech you, erase my name from the Torah You have written.”
And when God had earlier sent Moses to free the Jews from Egypt but Pharaoh had instead intensified their suffering and servitude, Moses, defiant, says to God, “Why have you behaved wickedly to this people, and why have you sent me… You have thus far not saved Your people.” And, in the New Testament, as I argue in Kosher Jesus, Jesus does the same thing. Dying on the cross, he cries out in agony, “My God, my God. Why have you forsaken me?” He is defiant against the death sentence imposed on him by the brutal and wicked Romans. He asks why God has not intervened to rescue him.
The role of human beings in the face of seeming divine miscarriages of justice is to hold God accountable and demand clemency for humanity. God is all powerful. He does not need a defense attorney. But humans are fragile and vulnerable and they need all the protection they can get. Our role as humans is not to understand G-d’s plan in the face of horror and tragedy, but to challenge God and demand that human life always be protected and preserved. Did I say demand? Yes, humanity has rights before God. We are His children. He commanded us to preserve and promote life always. “Choose life,” Moses orders. And the Creator abides by the same dictates He expects His creatures to.
What kind of warped morality and fraudulent religion would say that God allows the slaughter of children because there are no prayers in public schools? With this insipid argument, is Fischer offering a defense or an indictment of God? Would this make you want to pray to and worship a God who looks askance as children are blown away by an assault rifle as punishment, Fischer says, for the actions of their government? I have grown weary of those who say that suffering is somehow redemptive, that it carries with it a positive outcome. I do not deny that this is at times so. Those who suffer can sometimes emerge humbler, wiser, gentler. But there is nothing beneficial that comes from suffering that could have not been achieved far more effectively through a positive means. To the contrary, suffering leaves us broken and cynical, disbelieving and forlorn, miserable and depressed.
I visited Sandy Hook this week. As I got closer to the school, I felt in my bones a palpable sense of evil, that something monstrous had taken place there and it gave me the chills. Stop telling me that the American people are so wicked that they deserve this. Never again should we say that Israeli soldiers die because Kibbutznikim eat rabbit and other non-kosher meat, as a prominent Rabbi once suggested. And never again should we say that the Jews of the holocaust died because they wanted to cease being Jewish, choosing to be German instead. Because I am disgusted with this kind of thought, I wrote The Fed-Up Man of Faith: Challenging God in the Face of Tragedy and Suffering. But I could not have divined that more and more of my beloved Christian brothers and sisters would continue to say publicly that innocent children die because America is a sinful place.
Enough is enough. Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, “America’s Rabbi” whom the Washington Post calls “the most famous Rabbi in America,” is the international best-selling author of 29 books. On 9 January, 2013, he will publish The Fed-up Man of Faith: Challenging God in the Face of Tragedy and Suffering. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.