“Where were you….”
Aside from readings from the book of Job being prescribed in the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) this fall, I have been thinking a lot about Job. And how we get it wrong to assume it is all about us and “the problem of evil.”
There is a euphemism if there ever was one. “The problem of evil.” As if it can be solved like a quadratic equation. The book of Job opens with this exchange, “The Lord said to Satan,
“Where have you come from?” Satan answered the Lord, “From going to and fro
on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.”
And so evil is personified and recognized as “going to and fro upon the earth.” There are those who would make fun of such a personification. “Satan” is a silly, old-fashioned, no longer serviceable “idea” for those who cannot get with the modern (?), post-modern (?) gestalt and world view. How can evil be understood to be “walking up and down” on the earth?
Just ask Malala Yousufzai and her classmates in Pakistan’s Swat Valley where the Taliban had forbidden young women from getting an education. Malala, 14, had been blogging on a BBC website for several years as an advocate for education for girls. The Taliban had blown up all the schools in her region of the Swat Valley to prevent such a thing from happening. Malala and other girls were brave enough to start a new school, where they opened each day with the prescribed Muslim prayers. One day last week, Taliban gunmen stopped her school van on its way home from school and shot Malala in the head and neck. She is in intensive care after extensive surgery to remove the bullet lodged in her neck. And a few days later she was taken by air-ambulance, provided by the United Arab Emirates, to a hospital in Great Britain for continued care and therapy. The extent of her injuries remains uncertain. What is certain is that evil walked right up to her and shot her in the head.
As one who has recently dedicated my life’s work to educate young women I have come to believe that women will be and are the future of humanity. Evidently evil, Satan walking to and fro upon this earth, thinks so too. Why else would one identify as one’s greatest enemy a fourteen year-old girl? The Taliban must recognize that once women are educated it is game over. Why else would they take such direct and morally reprehensible action? And spend the days following the incident not only accepting responsibility for the attack, but defending their actions with such outlandish allegations as, “She was really fifteen, and therefore no longer a child,” or that “She is an agent of a US governmental intelligence agency.” As if it is morally defensible to shoot a fifteen year-old girl.
Job is right – Satan is walking to and fro upon the earth, day after day after day after day. Go ahead and make fun of the concept of Satan all you want. Satan remains a perfectly serviceable construct to describe what happens every day. We all know what “Satan” means, whether as a metaphor, a personification, or simple reality. Call it what you will, evil walks this earth.
This story cuts awfully close to my heart and opens the big black hole in the belly of my soul even wider and deeper. I have the privilege of teaching girls from that part of the world every day – fourteen year-old girls from Afghanistan, Iran, China, Egypt and 15 other countries around the world, many of whom pursue an education at great risk to themselves and their families. I witness their courage to do so, and some, like Malala, to blog about it – to bear witness to what it means for girls like them to get an education so they might one day return to their respective countries and make a difference. Each one of them gives me hope – hope that one day we will, as a people, transcend the kinds of evil that walk to and fro upon this earth day after day after day.
The anti-religion crowd must be having a field day. See, they must be saying, this is why religion itself is inherently evil. This is why we must turn to some sort of secular humanism, or Randian Objectivism, or Science to lead us out of our moral depravity. As if some sort, any sort, of human centered moral compass can direct us beyond such unacceptable and barbaric behavior.
It cannot be denied that Religion can and does among certain adherents turn evil – see Charles Kimball, When Religion Becomes Evil. In this book, Kimball lists the Five Warning Signs to look for when religion becomes evil:
- Absolute Truth Claims
- Blind Obedience
- Establishing the "Ideal" Time
- The End Justifies Any Means
- Declaring Holy War
Kimball is right – and every world religion has committed atrocities when allowed to be focused on these five dangerous areas. Does that mean that every religion deserves to be condemned? Should all men be condemned because of the actions of one Charles Manson, or one Adolf Hitler, or one Joseph Stalin?
One privilege of teaching young women every day is that I must be learning with them every day as well. I spend much of my time learning about the world’s great religious traditions. And what I have learned is that the Quran, that monument of Islamic revelation, categorically condemns such action as that perpetrated by the Taliban on the young women of the Swat Valley, and specifically against Malala. The Quran repeatedly states that even in time of battle, in time of war – which is always carefully delineated along the lines of Christian Just War Theory (whether or not this is an oxymoron will be left for another day) – that women and children are not to be harmed or held captive under any circumstances whatsoever. Only an uneducated public will accept as true any of the justifications from groups like the Taliban to justify their actions with any of the Prophet’s recitation (The Quran), or any of his recorded judgments on how to be a Muslim. The Taliban does not represent Islamic culture and beliefs any more than Adolf Hitler represented the pinnacle of Western European culture. The Taliban, despite all claims to the contrary, are nothing more than an armed, political insurgency – not a religious sect, and most certainly not “Islamic.”
Our temptation to condemn religion at moments like these is most often an attempt to absolve ourselves of responsibility to act or react. When we abstain from action, whether out of fear, out of moral paralysis, or some feigned assertion of “neutrality,” we allow evil to continue to walk to and fro. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu said at the height of the fight against the evil of Apartheid, “If an elephant is about to step on a mouse, and you know it is happening, and you claim to be neutral or detached from the mouse’s problem, the mouse is not at all impressed with your neutrality.”
This week, finally, God answers Job out of the whirlwind in chapter 38. God asks, “Where were you…..” Where were you? That would be the question for all of us. Where are we? Do we allow ourselves to be manipulated into hating religion, or hating Islam, based upon the flimsiest assertions, bigotry, propaganda and misinformation? Do we allow ourselves to be neutralized by thinking that this problem or that problem of evil is too big for me to get involved and make a difference?
People, religious and non-religious people, allowed themselves to believe that slavery could not be ended because “the economy” depended upon it. And yet, one man, William Wilberforce in Great Britain, and one woman, Harriet Beecher Stowe in America, dared to get involved and made a difference. They refused to give into moral paralysis. They refused to sit on the sidelines. They jumped in with both feet no matter what the consequences. Ruby Nell Bridges dared to go to school in 1960 in the name of civil rights for African-Americans. And Malala Yousufzai dares to go to school and write about it for all to see in the Swat Valley so that young women like her can get an education and make a difference themselves.
God asks Job, “Where were you….” It is a question for all of us, for all of us are Job. All of us are Ruby Bridges. All of us are Malala Yousufzai. Some days it is hard to look out at the world and maintain any sense of Hope. And most days it is challenging to hear God ask, “Where were you….” But every day would be impoverished without God wanting to know. It echoes the first question in the Garden when the man and the woman are hiding from God, and God cries out, “Where are you?” It is one of the most basic human needs to know that someone cares – that someone wants to know where we are. Satan is walking to and fro upon this earth. God and millions of others want to know, “Where are we?” The future of Hope and the future of humankind depend upon how we answer this most important question. Malala and her sisters worldwide need us to be with them right now. Amen.