Wednesday, December 26, 2012

God Is Not My Mom or Dad

So much has been said in the wake of the terrible shootings of children, teachers, and firefighters that have lately filled the news (I want to mention, too, the hundreds of Chicago children who have been the victims of gun violence this year). One theme has been cropping up that I finally felt I must address. I keep hearing commentators from NPR and the New York Times to Facebook memes asking, "Where is God?" Sometimes the questioner is sincere, and sometimes snarky, but the God-concept underlying the question is always the same: that God's role is to prevent evil, to protect humanity from itself and clean up its messes. The implication is that God is some sort of cosmic parent, and while that image is certainly prevalent in many faiths, like any analogy, it doesn't give you the whole picture.

Any parent will tell you the heartbreaking truth: no matter how much you want to protect your children, sometimes all you can do is suffer alongside them. In addition, the older they get, the less able you are to intervene directly in their choices and to pick them up, dust them off, and set them right again when they fall, because the situations facing them are more complex, and because they understandably want to live their own lives. So anyone who evokes God as a parent should do so recognizing that this role has its limits, perhaps even necessary ones, if children are ever to become adults.

This brings me to what I think is the even more important point: that asking God to act as a protecting parent is tantamount to asking to be infantilized. Comforting as that might seem in the short term, that state doesn't push us to claim our full role and responsibility as active agents in the world in which we live. Jewish tradition claims that human beings are b'tzelem elohim, created in the image of God, charged with the mission to choose life and increase holiness, to act as God's partner in perfecting creation. To me, this means that we should not retreat from the challenges posed by human evil, beseeching God to sort it out for us. Instead, we should shoulder that burden ourselves, with humility and resolve, and hear God's answers in the actions that we take. Any mature understanding of faith should teach us this.

Surely we can cry out in grief and seek comfort in the wake of horrific tragedies. I can only imagine how those personally affected by them must feel consumed by pain. But those bystanders who are appalled by these events should take responsibility for spreading healing and pushing back against the darkness. As the posters created after the 1989 shooting of 14 women at the University of Montreal stated, "First, mourn. Then work for change." Yes, let's have nuanced, intelligent discussions about the accessibility of high-powered weaponry and effective mental health care, and about our society's fascination with virtual violence and the vicarious thrills it can bring -- and take action based on those deliberations. Let's also recognize that every day brings with it the challenges of living with a mindful commitment to one another, and to the earth which we share for the short time we are here. Like Rabbi Menachem Mendel said, God dwells wherever we let God in. This is our source of hope to keep going and our goad to do better. At least, that is what I keep reminding myself.