The Rev. C.T. Vivian, who was central to the achievements of the civil rights movement of the 60s, said in an interview with me this week that the evil perpetrated at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., was “the best thing that could have happened.”
Not the deaths of the innocent people, he says, but the evil act that was carried out in a house of worship made way for critical action that might not otherwise have happened. “It came out even better than anybody would have thought,” he said, “because we not only got the flag down, but more than that, we got rid of the great Southern symbols. If we handle it right, we have a good chance of getting a whole lot done more than we thought. Black ministers have to go to white ministers and say this is the day that we've been waiting for, the day when the public is really ready to have the war of yesterday forgotten.”
Vivian may well be right, but the incident made this writer wonder, yet again, about the whereabouts of God in the presence of oppression. Earlier this year in the Philippines, a weeping 12-year-old child asked Pope Francis why God would and does allow poor children to suffer, why God allows children to become prostitutes. This child had once been homeless, but had had to struggle for existence and survival on the streets. Nobody seemed to care. The children, she explained, were abandoned by their parents and were forced to engage in prostitution and drugs in order to survive.
“Why does God allow these things to happen to us?” she asked. “The children have not done anything.”
That question, about the whereabouts of God in times of trouble is not a new question, and it certainly is not asked only by the oppressed, the poor and the downtrodden. But as the oppressed endure their suffering, they hold on to the notion of a good God who sees and hears their pain, and will eventually redeem them. It is probably the only thought that keeps them going.
The question arises: why did God make so many different races if only one race was deemed “the one” to have a privileged life? Why does the good God to whom the oppressed hold on to allow hatred, oppression, discrimination, and worse … to flourish and survive? Why doesn’t God, asked my daughter some years ago, just “swoop down” and fix things?
In the minds of many, a “good God” doesn’t allow bad things to happen. Rabbi Harold Kushner’s book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, led to discussion but really did not answer “the question,” no more so than does the Book of Job, which attempts to explain undeserved suffering. Left with the resources we have, many struggle to hold onto the notion of God as “good,” or at least struggle with what “good” means. To be honest, the God we all worship seems biased toward white people in general, and more so white, wealthy people. The white culture, worldwide, has created a God who is like them, who is on their side …who apparently made some serious mistakes when he/she created poor people, brown and black people, and even people of different religions.
Where was God in Charleston that evening? Why in the world would a “good God” allow the massacre of innocent people?
The events of the past several years, beginning with the murder of Trayvon Martin, have unleashed a movement. The young people spearheading it are not so interested in God, it seems; a good God would have intervened by now. And yet, older people who have lived under the thumb of racial, sexual, and class oppression can see good in the most heinous situations. They see progress. They see movement. They see possibilities that, they say, could only have been orchestrated by God. This God, they say, is good.
Was God present in the civil rights movement of the 60s? In the midst of the bombings and lynching and beatings and miscarriages of justice in the courts — was God even there? And if God was, what was the evidence of God’s goodness?
I suspect that different generations will answer those questions differently. A good God, though, seems to be in the eye of the beholder when it comes to these types of questions. While some celebrated the coming down of the Confederate flag in Charleston, others reminded us that the cancer called racial discrimination is far from being close to being “fixed.” The younger people squirm and wrestle with the notion of what “good God” means, while the older veterans of life, who have seen good come out of bad situations, simply nod their heads and hold onto what they know to be God’s goodness.
Rev. Vivian is resolute in his belief in the goodness of God. Others may need a tutorial on what “God’s goodness” really means. Perhaps we have all gotten it wrong. Maybe a new definition of God’s goodness will help the participants and leaders of this emerging movement to understand what many have simply stopped believing.
What Dylann Roof meant for evil, God meant for good. People who believe in God have to hold onto that belief or else, it seems, perish under the pressure of trying to understand what simply seems to have no satisfactory answer.