WHERE IS GOD? Earthquake, terrorism, barbarity, and hope

by
02 November 2006

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THIS  is a book for our times. Beginning with the earthquakes that struck El Salvador in January and February 2001, and which have been largely forgotten in the wake of the 11 September attack on the World Trade Center, and the 7 October bombing of Afghanistan, Sobrino asks questions about the significance of such events for believers.

It is not an easy book. It poses uncomfortable questions about the dehumanisation of our world and the predominance of empire, which Sobrino sees as marking the significance of times and dates in determining human priorities. “The calendar is not given equally to everyone as a way of marking the journey through history. 9/11 is a historical benchmark, but 10/7 [7 October 2001] and 3/30 [30 March 2003] — when the bombings of Afghanistan and Iraq began — are not. Those dates don’t even exist. There is 3/30 for the train attacks in Madrid but — I say this without irony”, Sobrino comments, “and with immense compassion for the victims — that happened within the imperial orbit.” His conclusion is that “Time is real when we say it is.”

Describing empire as embracing the “culture of Dives and Lazarus” as “the normal way of life”, Sobrino reflects: “The values of brother-hood, compassion and service to the weak are ‘treated as cultural by products tolerated but not promoted’.” Sobrino believes that pax Americana has supplanted the Kingdom of God. He concludes that the message of empire is that “human beings today should consider themselves lucky to live in this world, whose defense and extension are the divine mission of empire.”

Sobrino is not a tidy or easy writer to read, in many ways. His analysis of the earthquakes and other natural tragedies from a Christian perspective make thoughtful and helpful reading, requiring the reader to ask continually, “Where is God?” and “Who do we understand God to be in this situation?” His conclusions are both orthodox and biblical, while being profoundly thought-provoking.  He calls for an honesty towards reality; and holds that “the need to let suffering speak is a condition of all truth and theology.”

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Unsurprisingly, Sobrino returns to the familiar themes of “the crucified people” in respect of the poor and oppressed, observing, in the words of his fellow Jesuit Ignacio Ellacuria, martyred in El Salvador in 1988: “The form of crucifixion changes, but the crucifixion goes on.”

Contemporary Christianity, he says, has caused Christians to focus upon God as primarily being concerned to “save sinners”. He provocatively draws attention to the focus of the Gospels as offering a soteriology centred on the suffering of human beings. By being over-sensitive to sin, Christianity has lost its sensitivity to suffering, focusing, rather, on blameworthiness.

If the focus had been on Jesus’s concern for the suffering of others, he argues, then the biblical vision of God’s justice, which can satisfy all hunger and thirst, could be met. Far from diminishing the place of sin, Sobrino sees such a reordering of salvation priorities as opening the possibility of addressing the things that cause victims to suffer, especially the sin of oppression.

The final chapter of this book addresses head-on: “Where is God and what is God doing in the tragedies?” In one sense, the conclusion is unsurprising: redemption is ultimately justified by God — God as creator, shaper of the world, present in Jesus’s life and ministry. But God “is also present, suffering on the cross. This God was present in a victim, the crucified Jesus, redeeming and eradicating sin from the world.”

What, perhaps, Sobrino challenges us most strongly over is our response to such a God and his saving activity. “What is left when [the world] is redeemed?” he asks; and he replies: “What is left is humanness, beauty, justice, and brotherhood. What is left is love for one another. What is left is a shared table.”

His closing remarks are from Isaiah 65.17-25. Here, Sobrino sees a vision of the fulfilment of Jesus’s proclamation of the Kingdom of God — “on earth, as in heaven”.

Like it or loathe it, this is a book that speaks to our time, and for our time. It deserves a place on the bookshelves of thoughtful readers.

The Rt Revd Peter B. Price is Bishop of Bath &Wells.

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