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It's our response to evil that matters.

It has been over a month since the tragic and shocking massacre at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo. By now all of the likely explanations have been presented and debated. People have mentioned parental neglect, a breakdown of societal morality, the easy availability of assault weapons, the lack of metal detectors, the perverse influence of violently graphic video games and films, of certain kinds of music and of material on the Internet.

While almost all of the attention was on the complexities of human behavior, a few did raise the centuries-old question regarding divine behavior: How could a good and loving God allow this tragedy to happen?

Three classic answers emerged. The first was that the tragedy in Littleton raised again the possibility, even the likelihood, that a good and loving God simply does not exist. The incident -- regrettably -- only reinforces the validity of atheism or at least of agnosticism.

According to the second answer, the tragedy in Colorado (and similar tragedies elsewhere) has to be seen as part of a larger divine plan. God has a purpose of which we are presently unaware and will somehow bring good out of evil.

For the third, the infliction of a new evil is God's way of punishing a prior evil. When some portion of the human community loses its moral compass and perpetrates terrible offenses against the divine law, God takes revenge in order to "right" the wrong.

Indeed, that was the thinking that motivated the young men who carried out the massacre in Colorado. They felt aggrieved because of the perceived "evils" inflicted upon them by the "preps" and the "jocks" at Columbine High School, so they punished their "tormenters" with an even greater evil -- just like God supposedly does.

Many people, however, do not accept any of these three explanations of divine behavior or non-behavior.

Atheism leaves too many questions unanswered. How explain the created world? How explain the goodness and beauty in it? How explain, for example, the countless self-sacrificial acts of so many people over the course of human history, in literally laying down their lives for others? And how explain the deep-seated conviction of so many ordinary people -- educated and uneducated alike -- that there is more to life than meets the eye?

Although the second explanation has more takers than the first, many people also reject that view, namely, that tragedies of this sort are simply part of God's larger plan. God does not cause evil but only permits it to happen. Ordinary people, however, believe that there has to be a better way for God to advance the divine plan than by allowing the slaughter of innocent young men and women in the prime of life.

Moreover, in allowing such terrible evils to occur, God becomes no different from the bystander who sees a vicious crime about to be committed and makes no effort to stop it or to notify the police. In some jurisdictions, such a failure is itself a criminal act.

The objection that many people raise against the third answer, that God punishes evil with evil, is that it cannot explain why God would punish the innocent along with the guilty -- just as the young killers in Littleton murdered innocent students and a teacher along with their designated targets, the preps and the jocks. God is supposed to bring good out of evil, not add to the evil.

None of the greatest minds of human history and not even the church itself have devised a comprehensive and compelling answer to the problem of evil. What they have pointed out is that, while the source and rationale of evil are beyond our ken, our response to evil is within our power to shape.

We can rebel and revolt against evil, shaking an angry fist at God in the style of Feodor Dostoevsky's Ivan Karamazov. Or we can bear up under it stoically, accepting what we can neither understand nor change. Or we can stand with Job, placing our complete trust in God even in the face of the incomprehensible, and with Jesus himself, from whom we have received the good news that God wishes to deliver us from all evil and that suffering is redemptive.

Although we cannot grasp the meaning of suffering induced by evil, suffering can acquire meaning by the way we freely respond to it. We can learn from it or close our eyes and minds to its lessons. We can be ennobled by it or become embittered. We can grow through it or regress because of it.

In the Christian vision of reality, resurrection follows the cross.

Fr. Richard McBrien teaches theology at Notre Dame University.
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Author:MCBRIEN, Richard P.
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Brief Article
Date:Jun 4, 1999
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