“Do things happen for a reason?”

One of the funniest scenes in Blazing Saddles is one that nobody gets.

At least I’ve never met anybody who gets it.

It’s the scene where the black sheriff is remembering his family’s drive out West in a covered wagon.  They were all alone — just one wagon — when descending upon them were Indians wearing war paint.

There’s a close-up of the native Americans, and the chief is none other than Mel Brooks.

He speaks to the others in his group, and the language that he speaks is — Yiddish!

Yiddish is a mixture of German and Hebrew.  Here’s an Indian, a native American, speaking Yiddish!

The chief looks at the three blacks in the covered wagon and exclaims, “Shvartses!” [“Blacks!’]

A member of the war party raises his tomahawk.

The chief tells him to refrain.  “No, no, zayt nisht meshuge!” [“Don’t be crazy!”]

The chief proclaims, “Loz im geyn!” [“Let him go!”]

I’ve never met anybody who gets this.

The scene requires background.  In the Bible, a thousand years before Jesus, the 12 tribes of the Hebrew people united to form the Kingdom of Israel under David and then his son Solomon.  But then the kingdom broke up into civil war.  As with our Civil War, the nation divided North vs. South.

Of the 12 tribes, two formed the kingdom in the south — they were the tribes of Judah and Benjamin.  The nation took its name from “Judah.”  (Judah is also the origin of how we get the words Judaism and Jew.)  The remaining 10 tribes formed the kingdom in the north.  The northern kingdom retained the name Israel.

Around 700 years before Jesus, the northern kingdom was invaded.  Its neighbor to the east was the Empire of Assyria.   The Assyrians conquered Israel.  From that time, the Ten Tribes disappear from history.  They became known as “The Lost Tribes of Israel.”

What happened to them?  Well, one nutty theory goes:  The Lost Tribes of Israel somehow got free from captivity, they migrated all the way from the Middle East to Siberia, they crossed the land bridge where now exists the Bering Strait, and they came here — to America!  In other words, the theory is that the Lost Tribes of Israel settled in America, and their descendants are native Americans!

It’s an absurd theory.  But Mel Brooks picks up on it — he has native Americans speaking Yiddish!

Nobody gets it.

Indeed, even the Ten Tribes didn’t get it — (the invasion, that is).  Here they were — the Chosen People — favored by God — and yet they get invaded and conquered.

The question that they had was inevitable:  If we’re favored by God, how in the world did we wind up getting invaded?  And not just getting invaded, getting conquered!  We LOST!

The idea that God wasn’t strong enough to protect them was not something they could stomach.  So the writers of the Scriptures put it like this:  The invasion of the Chosen People didn’t mean that God couldn’t protect them.  Indeed, the invasion was God’s doing!  God arranged the invasion — in order to punish the people for their lack of faith.  The tragedy happened for a reason.

A couple centuries later, around five centuries before Jesus, the same thing happened to the kingdom in the south.  Judah was invaded by the Empire of Babylonia.  The Jewish people were carried into exile.

Again, people wondered — if we are favored by God, how could WE be the ones who wind up in chains?

The writers came up with the same answer:  It happened for a reason.  God was punishing the people.

In fact, this explanation became the opening aria in Handel’s Messiah.  The tenor opens the oratorio by singing these words from the writings of the prophet Isaiah:

Comfort ye, comfort ye, my people, saith your God.  Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned. [Isaiah 40:1-2]

“…her iniquity is pardoned.”  Her sins are forgiven.  The nation has been punished sufficiently.  The invasion was God’s doing.  Things happened for a reason.

Even today, people think they’re being faithful to the truths in the Bible by subscribing to what the writers wrote thousands of years ago:  Whatever happens, things happen for a reason.  God is working out some divine plan.

Four BIG problems, however, arise.

One, people fail to recognize the pagan influence in the Scriptures.  The pages of the Bible were written not in some splendid isolation between God and the Hebrew people, as though God spoke to them directly — with no interference or “static” blurring the messages.

Of course, those who believe that God directly told the writers what to write, and that the Scriptures therefore are inerrant and inspired — even the parts about God ordering the killing of babies in Egypt, and women being impure if they have a menstrual period, and the Earth being created in six days — people who believe that all of this is directly, divinely communicated by God are off in their own world, well beyond reasoning with.

For the rest of us, we can see that the writers of the Scriptures worked in an environment in which they were surrounded by patriarchy and polygamy, and these influences colored the way they portrayed God and God’s ordering of their male-dominated society.

Especially influencing the characterization of God is one of the most common, universal ideas that people had about gods in those days:  The gods were engineering the incidents in people’s lives.  Whatever happens, it happens for a reason.

Fully eight centuries before Jesus, this way of thinking about the gods was already being mocked in The Odyssey.  Ulysses, returning to Greece from the war with Troy, is shipwrecked.  Everybody drowns — except Ulysses.  He is hanging onto a piece of driftwood when — way up on Mount Olympus — the king of all the gods, Zeus, observes what has happened.  Zeus says to the other gods, “You watch — they’re going to blame this on us.”

The way Zeus says it is, “My word, how mortals take the gods to task.  All their afflictions come from us, we hear.”

This concept so permeates the Bible that people think they’re being faithful when they adopt this ancient, barbaric way of thinking — whatever happens, there must be a reason for it.  After 9/11, televangelist Pat Robertson maintained that the tragedy happened because America was permitting abortion.  God had removed a shield protecting the nation because of our sinfulness.

In 2011, an earthquake rattled the East Coast.  A prominent rabbi in Brooklyn concluded that the earthquake was God’s warning to America about gay marriage.

Maybe it takes awful examples like these for people to recognize how silly it sounds.  Yet many people still maintain, “Things happen for a reason.”  God is at work, engineering some plan.

A second reason exists as to why people think this way.  One of the most difficult things for human beings to put up with is — the idea that life is out of control.  It is known in psychology that a child who is beaten by one’s parents will blame one’s self.  “I must not have cleaned my room — that’s why my father beat me.”  It couldn’t possibly be that the father is out of control.  That concept is too difficult for the child to bear.  The child needs for life to seem under control — even to the extent of fantasizing about why his father was right to beat him.  This psychic maneuver is known as “fantasy bonding.”

Kids think this way towards parents; people think this way towards God.  Things MUST be happening for a reason.  It can’t possibly be that God does not have control over life.  The terrible things that happen simply can’t be random and rudderless.  There must be a purpose.

At my second church (in New Jersey), there was a young woman who was staying at a clinic, getting treatment for a brain tumor.  One day, her parents drove to visit.  After the visit, the mother, an elderly woman, was standing in front of the clinic while the husband went to get the car in the parking lot.  A delivery truck drove by recklessly — and struck the elderly woman standing in front of the clinic, killing her.

A week later, the adult daughter died from the brain tumor.

You should have heard members of the church “explaining” it:  “The mother died first, so that she could welcome her daughter into heaven.”

Is this explanation anything other than a pain-killer?  It is an anesthetic for the mind as surely as a drug that goes into the arm through a needle.

Even more than dulling the pain, this type of explanation that “things happen for a reason” convinces a person that life is under control.  These things aren’t just random.  They happen for a reason.

It is too difficult for people to believe that life is NOT under control.  It reflects badly on their belief in God.  It also makes us shudder that these tragedies could happen to any one of us!

A friend of mine whom I have known since First Grade has had to contend with multiple sclerosis.  He has been unable to walk for years now.  He told me that when others first learned that he had the illness, they would tell him things like, “God only tests those He loves.”  “Things happen for a reason.”  Etc.

I cringed to hear it.

He knew — and I knew — that people were pronouncing these easy platitudes because they were trying to relieve THEMSELVES of the pain of seeing somebody else in pain.

This is how badly people need for life to SEEM under control — even when it isn’t.

And so they come up with sayings that are easy to say but a stab in the heart to listen to.

In 1963, in New York City, a young couple had a baby — a boy.  When the child was 8 months old, he stopped growing; he stopped gaining weight; he also didn’t have any hair.  The parents took the child to a specialist.  The specialist told the parents heart-breaking news.  Their child had a rare illness.  The illness caused the boy to age rapidly.  The toddler was aging so quickly, he would never grow to normal height.  He would never have hair.  He would look elderly.  He would not survive beyond his teenage years.

in fact, the boy died at the age of 14.

In his son’s memory, the father — a rabbi — wrote a book.  Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote When Bad Things Happen To Good People.

He wrote that he grew up like everybody else, thinking the ideas that everybody thinks:  Things happen for a reason.  When there’s suffering, God is testing us.  There’s something better up ahead.

Rabbi Kushner said, it all sounds biblical — it’s easy to say when you’re saying it to others — it all sounds fine — UNTIL it’s YOUR CHILD they’re talking about!

The rabbi could not imagine God taking a child’s life for ANY good reason; could not imagine taking a child’s life as a test of the adults’ faith, as though having a happy, healthy boy would have spoiled them.   Crushing them was better.

This is the third problem with people saying, “Things happen for a reason.”  Those of us who believe in Jesus maintain that He is the clearest characterization of God.  You don’t need belief in Jesus in order to have a mature understanding of God as merciful and compassionate rather than eager to punish.  There is sufficient material in the writings of the Old Testament prophets to make the point.  Jews as well as Christians — and those of other faiths — and those with no belief at all — can hardly bear the ancient concept of God being wrathful.

The idea that God unleashes invasion and disease and famine to punish people fails to match up with a mature understanding of God in the person of Jesus, let alone a mature understanding of why bad things happen.  Typically, ill fortune is thought to be authored by God — be it as a test of faith or as punishment.

The classic portrayal of such a God inflicting pain and punishment is connected to the classic definition of sin.   Sin is said to be an insult to the holiness of God.  Therefore, God can not ignore sin.  It MUST be punished.  God can no more bear the presence of a sinful person than a bonfire could humor the nearness of the Scarecrow.

Thus, God is a danger.  We need “protection.”  For Christians, the protection is Jesus, dying on a cross.  His suffering means that He has been punished in our place.  In the Roman Catholic Church, even the sacrifice of Jesus is not sufficient.  Further intermediaries are needed in order to approach God — and thus, Mary and the saints are prayed to.

But these ideas, too, belong to distant, barbaric ways of thinking.  Belief in an angry, punishing God is childish.  A more mature understanding of life is that we don’t need an outside agent to punish us for our wrongdoing.  The wrongdoing itself carries its own punishment.

If you’ve seen any or all of the three Godfather films, the point is made clearly.  Notice that none of the members of any crime family is arrested; nobody is ever brought before a judge.  And yet the Godfather loses his oldest son; the Godfather’s successor, Michael Corleone, loses a daughter (and a wife who divorces him).  These are consequences of the family’s criminal activity that are worse than any punishment they would receive from a judge!

When we are mature enough to understand life, we don’t need an outside agent like God to punish us for wrongdoing.  We learn to fear not God but the wrongdoing itself, for we know that eventually the consequences will come back onto us or onto others.

Thus, Jesus hanging on a cross becomes re-interpreted.  It is not merely the classic explanation by the Apostle Paul of atonement, Jesus being punished in our place, thus “satisfying” a God who needs to punish somebody (Jesus, if not us).

Rather, Jesus on a cross demonstrates the consequences of human wrongdoing.  We see in this innocent being lynched the ugly results of our human behavior.  He was sold out by the mob — those testifying against him lied — the politician who managed the trial gave up Jesus in order to keep people satisfied.  What put Jesus on the cross was — corruption, lying, cowardice…in short, human wrongdoing.  We learn to fear not God but the wrongdoing itself.

This reasoning may seem to be taking us away from the topic of “Do things happen for a reason?”  But the theology is necessary in order to make the point:  A mature understanding of God means we can jettison the idea of a God Who inflicts pain, be it punishment or a test of faith.  This concept of the pain-inflicting God is for the immature believer.

The idea that our misfortunes and illnesses are from God fades when we gain a deeper  understanding of life.

As well, the idea of God visiting tragedies on people is difficult to swallow when our standard for God is Jesus.

A fourth problem is evident when people say, “Things happen for a reason.”

Not only is the concept of tragedies and misfortune and illness being visited upon people unworthy of a mature idea of God  — there is also the very limited viewpoint that each of us has as to the activity of God.  For example, in 2013, tropical storm Andrea swept up & down the East Coast, causing terrible damage.  I read on Facebook a believer in New Jersey cheerily exclaiming that the electricity in their house didn’t go out.  “God is so good!”

Never mind that the entire East Coast was battered and flooded; people died; entire towns were awash, houses were destroyed…The electricity in this one house didn’t go out.  “God is so good!”  What a narrow, egocentric way to look at life!

This is the Joel Osteen approach–a narrow view of life.  It’s all between you and God.  If you only have enough faith, God will work wonders in your life.

This is such a narrow and naïve view of life as to be misleading.  Life isn’t just about one’s self and God.  We are interconnected with so many others, with so much else going on.  You can be the safest driver in the world — that won’t stop a drunk driver from bashing into you.

Some years ago, the office of the Secretary of State of Illinois was raising funds illegally for the campaign of the Governor.  The office was taking bribes and issuing commercial truck licenses.

One man who got a commercial license by paying a bribe was driving down Interstate 94 between Madison, Wisconsin and Milwaukee.  A cinder block on the flatbed of the truck fell onto the highway.  Driving right behind the truck was a van driven by a pastor.  In the passenger seat was his wife.  In the back seats were their four kids.  The cinder block fell off the truck onto the highway.  The van rode right over the cinder block, puncturing the gas tank.  An explosion and fire followed.  All four children died.

This family was on a Sunday outing.  They had the misfortune of driving behind a truck being driven by somebody who had paid a bribe for his license and whose truck was not secure.

The ensuing disaster was eventually traced back to the office of the Illinois Secretary of State and the corrupt campaign for the Governor (who wound up in prison).

Our lives are so interconnected with the lives of others — there is no way to single out an incident in a person’s life and to isolate that occurrence as the doing of God.

And yet with the narrow, egotistical way that so many people view God, whatever happens to them — happens for some reason.  God is working out some divine plan in their lives.

They persist in citing passages from the Bible.  Most common of all is Paul’s letter to the Romans, chapter 8, verse 28:  “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him…” [New International Version]

That seems to say it in black & white:  Things MUST happen for a purpose.  God works for the good of those who love him.

But let us not forget the pagan influence.  This was the thinking about ALL gods in those days — they were engineering a person’s fate.

With all that we know today about God — and whether the Supreme Being brings tragedy into people’s lives as a test of their faith or as punishment — can we still stick to the literal, word-for-word assertion that “God works for good” in people’s lives — things happen for a reason?

There is a world of difference between these two ways of looking at life:

One goes:  God is arranging this tragedy because there is some good up ahead.

The other view of life goes:  Life is not under control — it is more random than any of us would like — we are all so interconnected with things that are beyond our control — and so tragedies occur.  But because God is in my life, tragedy will not defeat me.  I have the morale and strength to turn it to something good.

In 1981, in Hollywood, Florida, near Miami, a 6-year-old boy went to the mall with his mother.  The boy’s name was Adam Walsh.  The mother dropped off the boy at the toy department at Sears.  Then she went to another part of the store to look for a lamp shade.  When Mrs. Walsh returned to the toy department, her son was gone.

Two weeks later, 120 miles away, the young boy’s head was found in a canal.  The body was never found.  Nobody was ever charged with the crime.

Now who would dare say:  “This happened for a reason.  God had some plan in mind”?

The parents were crushed.  But they vowed they would not be defeated by this act of evil.  They pondered what they could do.  Today Adam Walsh’s father is known all over the United States.  John Walsh is the host of America’s Most Wanted.

Something good came out of the tragedy.  But there is a world of difference between saying, “God arranged it — it happened for a purpose” vs. “It happened — tragedies happen — but because of God in my life, I have the morale and the strength to make out of this something good.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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