No doubt there’s nothing cosmic, or even important (except to me), about it, but I can’t help but be struck by the fact that within the last two weeks, and especially the last two days, I’ve needed to reckon with questions of God, evil, and death (on an individual and mass scale) – all closely related of course.
One of the mass-scale deaths obviously is last night’s Las Vegas shooting, about which so little is known for sure that any analysis is wildly premature – and frankly irresponsible. Not that that’s stopped the hateful partisans on all sides.
To be sure, there are details that seem significant, but they add up to nothing coherent yet. For example, shooter Stephen Paddock clearly planned this atrocity in great detail, but no reliable information has emerged yet about any political or other cause-related agenda he might have had. Similarly, no evidence of affiliation with any non-state actors has been found. For those reasons, it looks like the term “terrorism” doesn’t apply.
So are we dealing with a case of derangement? Nothing known yet warrants that conclusion, either – including the statements from his brother. And as has become so depressingly typical, he was taken utterly by surprise by this act of mass murder.
Moreover, I’ve balked at viewing these kinds of mass shootings as reasons to tighten greatly gun control laws, for reasons explained here and here. Today I’m not inclined to revisit this issue, but it does seem worth noting that audio of the violence seems to reveal that an automatic weapon of some kind was used, and that its capacities added greatly to the fatalities. So is it too much to hope that Las Vegas will lead to some meaningful improvements in gun control that fully respect legitimate gun-ownership rights?
But of all the reactions I’ve heard and read till now, the most moving for me came from a Twitter contact, producer Sylvia Hall of Fox Business News: “Worlds changed for families of 50 people without warning or reason.” For me, nothing has better described the shock – and the maddening senselessness – from the standpoint of the victims and their loved ones.
I strongly suspect her words affected me so deeply because just yesterday I learned that a good friend had passed away over the weekend. He had experienced some major health problems in recent years, but his death was jolting, and seems senseless, for at least two reasons. He seemed to be recovering from his syndrome. And before falling ill he was young for his age physically and in some ways in personality (in the best sense).
And I’ll be grieving actively for longer than usual, I’m convinced, both because it’s the first such loss I’ve experienced of a peer, and more important, because I have no doubt we could have been even better and closer friends. We’d been separated by geography for most of the time we’d known each other, but practically from the first it was clear we were on nearly all of the same wave-lengths. So I’m mourning a genuinely good soul and a relationship that ended long, and senselessly, before their time – along with a marriage that inspired and delighted everyone who knew him and his now devastated wife (also a good friend).
The other mass-scale death I unexpectedly encountered recently is the Holocaust – in the form of a lengthy conversation I (unexpectedly) had with a Christian clergyman during a train ride from New York City back to DC. He was Middle Eastern in origin, and therefore well acquainted with violence of all kinds, especially by dint of work with refugees, as well as very compassionate and learned both in theology (including of my own Judaism) and history.
Normally, I don’t broach metaphysical subjects right away with strangers, even if their business is metaphysics. But the ride would be a few hours long, I was curious about him and his beliefs, he seemed curious about me and mine, and it was only a matter of time before the subject of arguably the ultimate example of senseless (by any standards I at least regard as remotely ethical) mass violence came up.
My position is full of uncertainty. My late father, as mentioned here, witnessed the Holocaust’s effects first-hand, as part of a team of Yiddish translators sent to Dachau shortly after that death camp’s liberation. He told me that he was never able fully to square a belief in God with witnessing that sight. I have great sympathy for that view, though my faith remains more intact.
My interlocutor was much more certain – of the opposite. His position seemed an attempt to imbue this slaughter of innocents with sense. As I understood it, he argued that during the run-up, God became so dissatisfied with His creation, and apparently so despairing that faith was wanting, that He “absented” Himself from His role in and influence over human affairs.
I didn’t for a moment take him a claiming that the Holocaust’s victims in any sense deserved their fate, but my questions tumbled out anyway. Did the victims themselves displease God? What sins, on anyone’s part, could possibly justify such retribution? Why was the loss of faith (apparently the decisive sin) so important? Isn’t God’s top priority to foster loving hearts and behavior? Shouldn’t “results” like this count for more than theological allegiances? What of proportionality? Why so utterly indiscriminate? And since there’s so much evidence of a continued shortage of faith ever since, didn’t this divine decision fail to achieve its objective? Unless He’s still absent?
I can’t do the answers justice in this space. They were coherent and sophisticated and reasoned. They were also deeply humane. Yet I found them completely incapable of making sense of this abomination – a term I use in both the secular and Biblical sense – let alone strengthening the case for faith.
Still, a critical mass of my faith has continued through a sad weekend and a tragic day. I hope the reasons aren’t becoming increasingly senseless.