Amid the hundreds of email and Facebook messages I’ve received over the past few days in the wake of the All Saints’ Church bombing in Peshawar – all of them so encouraging with expressions of solidarity and prayer – there was one yesterday that prompted a particular course of reflection.
A former student now in a parish wrote to say that she and her congregation were holding the situation in prayer, then concluded with the question: “Lord, will we ever have peace?”
After thanking her for the prayer and care, I responded along the following lines: You ask, “Lord, will we ever have peace?” That’s a thought-provoking question. In the sense that God is beyond time and holds all time and times in one eternity, I suppose we could say that God knows the answer to that question. But “knowing” in the ordinary human sense has meaning in contrast to “not knowing,” or “doubting,” or “wondering,” or “yearning.”
If the Incarnation uniquely revealed God’s engagement with the human story, as I believe it did, then we find that God voluntarily submitted to the limitations of time, with their intrinsic constraints on knowledge. Just as Jesus was not omnipotent or omnipresent, Jesus was not omniscient. Sharing our humanity, he shared our limitations – which, by the way, is what makes his story so remarkable.
Though we believe God to be omniscient, whatever that may mean, I wonder whether in God’s ongoing engagement with the human story God continues in some form the voluntary limitation on knowledge of the future that God undertook in the Incarnation. Working alongside us, God may be just as uncertain about outcomes as we are. Which is to say, just as on tenterhooks, just as hopeful, just as disappointed, or whatever.
So in some sense God may not know the answer to your question. Indeed, God may be asking us the same question. It may be a question that we and God share together.
Like the question, “Why, God?” the question, “Lord, will we ever have peace?” seems to put the burden on God to work out whether we will have peace. The question as asked of God implies that peace – an eternal vision of God – is just waiting out there for God to implement it, to bring it down on us like a pleasant mist.
As a shared question, on the other hand, the burden is just as much on us. And deep down we do know that the issues of violence versus peace, community versus isolation, mutuality versus alienation – we know that all these issues are ours to work out. Deep down we know that being created in God’s image does put the burden on us, that, as the Episcopal Catechism says, being created in God’s image means that we are free to make choices: to love, to create, and to live in harmony with God and one another – or to do the opposite, which is what we often choose.
God’s self-limitation applies not only to what God may know of the future but, even more significantly, to the level, quality or intensity of God’s control in the present. I’m always uncomfortable with the adage, “God’s in control.” God may not be in control. In fact, God has given up control over a great deal. God has given control over much to the human family that is called to live out the image and vision of God in the world. (That’s the cosmic subtext to the dominion mandate in Genesis 1 and the naming exercise in Genesis 2.) Again, we see the dynamic of God’s self-abnegation in the Incarnation. Jesus was subject to the randomness of the created order and was subject, as well, to the calculated evil of the human heart. Hence the cross. Such relinquishment on God’s part is ongoing, and obviously it has been integral to the human story from the beginning.
God does work in human affairs, but in ways that are not only mysterious but collaborative, hence the efficacy – both real and inscrutable – of intercessory and petitionary prayer. Often God’s working is not apparent until after the fact. Meanwhile God may be asking us, “Dear humans, will we – you all and I – ever have peace? Will you bring us peace?” In Jesus the Christ, God made an ultimate offer of peace from God’s side – exposing God’s self to our envy, resentment, hatred, violence and its death-dealing consequence. God’s peace offer of reconciliation stands as an eternal invitation. In love and with a yearning for communion, God has set things up so that the rest is up to us.
The Peshawar bombing sets us back, as do innumerable other atrocities.
After the bombing a Muslim student who did volunteer work with women’s groups in Bamyan Province in Afghanistan asked me on email: “Sir, Please guide me in how I can help the families who are mourning for their loved ones and be a part of their pain in such a difficult and tragic time.” That student pulls us forward. The Edwardes community organizing today’s Peace Rally – which came off very well – pulls us forward.
Herein the ancient and cosmic struggle continues.