Sacred Paths – Faith, Suffering and AIDS

What is a sacred response to the suffering and death of the first generation of AIDS victims and the continuing threat to life and dignity from what was first called “the gay disease”?
Several responses are now well-known. First, mourn and honor those lost. We are deprived of dear friends, wonderfully talented souls and those who did much good for others. It is right always to remember.
Second, we extend comfort and care, work toward a cure for the disease for those surviving, and help them flourish. Whether it is participating in the AIDS Walk raising money or in some other personal or professional way, we respond with action.
Third, we use dreadful occasions to help those caught in society’s homophobia to affirm the beauty of people who love people of their own sex.
These are genuine faith responses, regardless of your religion. They arise from a universal spiritual capacity called compassion and from the universal spiritual command to seek healing.
But sometimes people offer another response to manage the theological pain of affliction. That is to say: “It is God’s will.” If this is meaningful to you, read no further, because I will challenge that view and I do not want to take from anyone the solace one may find in such a perspective.
If you are still reading, we will explore the problem of evil, the question of unmerited suffering, solutions for which are technically called “theodicy.”
For Christians and many others, the problem is this: If God is all-good, all-powerful and all-loving, how can God permit bad things to befall good people? If God can create a universe, why can’t he end AIDS, prevent terrorism and save a 3-year-old from being raped by her father?
As the poet Archibald MacLeish put it in his play J.B., when his upright character is afflicted, “If God is God He is not good; if God is good He is not God.”
A traditional response is that, because of Adam’s sin, we all deserve eternal misery, but God, to show His mercy, blesses some, while the damned, in this life or the next, show His justice.
I don’t buy it. Why does God need the rape of a 3-year-old to manifest His glory?
Nor does this theory explain why the universe was designed in such a way that many animals eat by eating others, sometimes ferociously, inflicting pain, tearing the body of the victim apart. The amount of suffering in the food chain is so staggering, such a God should be reported to the SPCA. Would it not have been more loving to design a universe with necessary nutrients, say, dissolved in accessible pond water?
Another explanation says that the price of free will is the possibility of choosing error and consequent suffering. But this argument also fails. An all-powerful God could have created a world where choices would be between two or more good things, such as peaches, apples and mangos. I don’t need the possibility of choosing a poisonous mushroom in order to exercise free will.
Another answer is that God afflicts us to help our souls grow. If that is so, then I can justify being very nasty to you to help you grow your soul. It is true that folks can grow through adversity, and we admire that; but folks can grow through happy opportunities as well.
Among the most pernicious answers is that we always create our own problems. While subconscious desires may affect us, it is hard to hold babies burned in the Holocaust responsible for their misery, or to think they in some way chose their fate.
These answers and others offered throughout the ages are useless when we face undeserved suffering in ourselves or those about us.
The world is fallible and we are fragile; in this universe, our sacred response is not to roll up the mystery of life into a rationale, but rather to strengthen and enlarge the realm of love. Better than extending an explanation is extending love and finding joy in the relief we can offer, in the good that we each can do.
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The Rev Vern Barnet, DMn., does consulting, teaching and writing for religious and educational organizations here. His Kansas City Star column appears each Wednesday.

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