Friday, August 22, 2014

ISIS and the Purposes of God

"It's all part of God's plan," we like to say.

"It all works together for good," we say, part of the mysterious plan of God's providence.  This was something, frankly, that I used to believe myself.  We just let go, and let God, and all will be well.  All we have to do is trust that it'll all work for the good.

But as my faith has evolved and grown over the decades, I no longer believe that to be so.  Most particularly, I no longer believe that every action of every human being is part of the divine intent.

The recent actions of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria seem an agonizing case in point.  As they butcher their way across that troubled region, murdering and enslaving and raping, all of the bloody and difficult work to rebuild Iraq seems close to unraveling.  Whether we should ever have poured the lives of our citizen soldiers into that misbegotten quagmire in the first place is another, painful matter altogether.

Right now, though, that mess seems only to be deteriorating, spinning down into the dark chaos of ignorance, violence, and tribalism.

From that mess, the release of a video in which ISIS beheaded American journalist James Foley really did strike home.  As the son of a journalist who spent time in that troubled region, I feel the anguish of his family and friends strongly.  How would you watch as your loved one is forced to speak words he does not believe, and then is butchered like meat?  What a monstrous thing.

More significantly, how does a human being do such a thing to another?  And not just to one man, but to many, many others.

It is that latter reality, the actions of the ISIS members, that I cannot claim as part of some broader overarching divine plan.  Nor, frankly, would I ever tell someone that the murder of their loved one was a necessary part of God's plan for our lives.

It is not.

I believe this, oddly enough, because I will not allow myself to deny the humanity of the individuals responsible for this horrific act.  It would be easier to write them off as monsters, because they act as monsters.  That would make it easier to cope with them, and far easier to kill them.  Dehumanizing the Other always makes it easier to kill them.

But they are sentient beings, albeit ones who have chosen to live under the thrall of a monstrous ideology.  They are still free to choose their actions.  It is what makes them culpable, ultimately.

If God had structured creation as one single linear narrative, in which there was only one beginning and only one end, then this would not be true.  The members of ISIS would just be part of that story, and the blood and the suffering they inflict would have always have been their purpose.  God's purpose.

And if it is God's purpose, then they are not to blame for their actions, not in any meaningful sense.  If there is no freedom, there can be no sin.

I no longer believe, because it does not seem to be so, that there is only one way things can happen.  That's just not how God made things.

And if creation is not just one story, if we are indeed free to choose to move down other potential paths, then our choices count.  The Creator has laid out, clear as crystal, what it means to live rightly and in peace with one another.  If we choose the hateful path of bloodshed and sorrow, then God will allow us to shape our time and space into that dark thing.

Is that God's gracious desire for us?  No.  Neither is it necessary for us to choose that path.

Turn away, God says.  Turn away, because you don't need to live as you are living.  If only more of us realized that.