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By Julia Duin
A woman takes part in a prayer vigil in response to Saturday’s shooting of U.S Representative Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) among others at a Safeway in Tucson, Arizona January 9, 2011. REUTERS/Eric Thayer
Last Saturday’s shooting tragedy at a Tucson, Ariz., supermarket is stunning in its randomness. A little girl who wanted to meet a real politician ended up meeting her Maker. A federal judge who thought he was coming by to say hello to Rep. Gabrielle Giffords never made it. Three retirees and a congressional aide who was simply doing his job never got to finish out the morning.
Whenever these awful tragedies: Columbine, September 11, Virginia Tech and others, happen, there comes the theodicy question. Why did God allow this evil to happen to innocent people? Why did perfectly innocent bystanders at a Tucson supermarket on a Saturday morning find themselves at the wrong place at the wrong time?
I call this the Bridge of San Luis Rey question, after the famous 1927 novel by Thornton Wilder about five people who died in Peru when an Inca rope fiber suspension bridge suddenly collapsed. A Franciscan monk who sees the horrifying accident – but who missed being on the bridge himself – investigates the lives of the victims and whether there was anything happening in their lives that made sense for them to die that July afternoon in 1714.
The book – which does not answer the question as to why some people accidentally suffer while others escape – won the Pulitzer prize for fiction in 1928 and constantly gets brought up when the senseless happens. Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair quoted from it at a September 11 memorial service. It was also mentioned by media commentators in 2007 at the time of the interstate bridge collapse in Minneapolis to answer the question that everyone was asking: Was there any divine design to who was on the bridge at the moment it chose to collapse?
Lead Pastor Glen Elliott leads the congregation in prayer for the victims of Saturday’s shooting in Tucson, at the Pantano Christian Church in East Tucson, Arizona January 9, 2011. The pastor also prayed for the shooter in the case. REUTERS/Rick Wilking
Along with all the stories of who died on September 11, I also heard narratives from people who were supposed to be in the twin towers that morning but got held up for inexplicable or accidental reasons. And last Saturday, surely there were people who had planned to be at that shopping center that fateful morning but for some reason were not.
As Wilder writes: “Either we live by accident and die by accident, or we live by plan and die by plan. Some say that we shall never know and that to the gods we are like the flies that the boys kill on a summer day, and some say, on the contrary, that the very sparrows do not lose a feather that has not been brushed away by the finger of God.” Like Brother Juniper in Wilder’s book, we all want to make sense of these catastrophes, trying to see life’s great weaving from its underside in our efforts to distill a pattern or sense in it all.
No doubt the Most Rev. Gerald F. Kicanis, Catholic bishop for the Diocese of Tucson, is struggling over this exact question as he plans to celebrate a healing mass tonight at St. Odilia’s Catholic Church, where nine-year-old shooting victim Christina Green just celebrated her First Communion.
In a letter to his diocese from Jerusalem, where he was on a business trip when the shootings happened, he said he could not sleep after hearing the news. He added that random and senseless acts occur all the time in the Holy Land “where violence is feared and expected.” That is, people don’t like violent death any more than we do but they face it far more often. There, it’s a given. Here, it’s an accident.
Yesterday, I scanned Twitter, that great marketplace of ideas and current thought, to see what the grassroots are saying. “Stay focused,” one person wrote. “No matter wht comes ur way; opinions, doubt, fear, anxieties, etc. God is in control. Trust .”
Trust is very hard. Then I stumbled across a blog by Orthodox Rabbi Shmuley Boteach (on an unrelated topic) where he asks why some children are abandoned in this world and others are not; why evil falls in one place but not another. Like the rest of us, he doesn’t know.
“The Creator chooses, for reasons unknown to us,” he writes, “to hide behind the veil of nature and it is we humans who must fill in the seemingly empty spaces.”
Do you think God plans for evil to happen as well as good?
Members of Congress and other Capitol Hill staffers observe a moment of silence on the steps of the U.S. Capitol for Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in Washington January 10, 2011. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque