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Faith in a Time of Ukraine

C. Gourgey, Ph.D.


Where is God?

I would not want to debate an atheist right now. The atheist would win. On the basis of observable experience, the atheist has a stronger case. In what meaningful sense can we say that God is with us, in the face of all we are seeing in Russia’s willful destruction of a peaceful neighbor? Of course, the standard answer is that war crimes have nothing to do with God; it is all human beings exercising their free will. That is a pallid response when a professional military is shooting down people in the streets where they live, bombing a maternity hospital and a children’s shelter, and, as of this writing, importing HazMat suits in possible preparation for using chemical weapons on unarmed people. If God is not with us under such circumstances, in what meaningful sense is God ever with us?

Occurrences like this pose a deep challenge to faith. If your faith is not shaken by things like this, it should be. Religious people tend to look down on atheists, to view them with contempt, or condemn them for being cynical, or just dismiss them out of hand. And that is a big loss, because atheists keep religious people honest. I think of people like Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris, whose atheism grew from a deep moral sense. Or people like Bart Ehrman, one of the foremost Bible scholars of our time, but disrespected by many religious people because of his agnosticism veering toward atheism. Ehrman was once a committed Evangelical Christian, but lost his faith because it could not deal with all the evil in the world. That is a far more honest response to the problem of human suffering than I find in most religious people.

The question of theodicy, how a good and all-powerful God can permit the virtually unrestricted excess of evil in this world, is too vast to address here (though I do address it in my book Judeochristianity: The Meaning and Discovery of Faith). The question I am asking in this article is more modest, but difficult enough: Can we still have faith in God as we witness the very worst things human beings do to each other?

At the outset, the answer most commonly given must be rejected: that God permits all these atrocities to preserve human free will. The exercise of free will can never be an absolute value. Every civilized society has a system of laws to restrict the unbounded exercise of free will. And no decent parents allow their children to commit mayhem on each other with no limit. If God is indeed our Father/Mother, She/He must be a delinquent parent indeed. (There is also the question of “natural evil,” which I will not be addressing here, but at which the free will defense of God fails utterly.)

The sad fact is that most religious attempts to answer the question of suffering and faith are woefully inadequate. I will not attempt a definitive answer here, or one that will satisfy everybody. Such an answer may not exist. All I am looking for is some clue that may help us to live in this world with faith, in spite of so many experiences that seem so strongly to testify against faith.

We are certainly not the first to confront this question. One figure in the Bible had similar doubts about a situation very much like the one we are facing now. And no, it is not Job.

Here is his complaint:

The pronouncement made by the prophet Habakkuk.

How long, O LORD, shall I cry out
And You not listen,
Shall I shout to You, “Violence!”
And You not save?
Why do You make me see iniquity
Why do You look upon wrong?
Raiding and violence are before me,
Strife continues and contention goes on.
That is why decision fails
And justice never emerges;
For the villain hedges in the just man -
Therefore judgment emerges deformed.

“Look among the nations,
Observe well and be utterly astounded;
For a work is being wrought in your days
Which you would not believe if it were told.
For lo, I am raising up the Chaldeans,
That fierce, impetuous nation,
Who cross the earth’s wide spaces
To seize homes not their own.
They are terrible, dreadful;
They make their own laws and rules.
Their horses are swifter than leopards,
Fleeter than wolves of the steppe.
Their steeds gallop - their steeds
Come flying from afar.
Like vultures rushing toward food,
They all come, bent on rapine.
The thrust of their van is forward,
And they amass captives like sand.”

You, O LORD, are from everlasting;
My holy God, You never die.
O LORD, You have made them a subject of contention;
O Rock, You have made them a cause for complaint.
You whose eyes are too pure to look upon evil,
Who cannot countenance wrongdoing,
Why do You countenance treachery,
And stand by idle
While the one in the wrong devours
The one in the right? (Habakkuk 1:1-9, 12-13, JPS 1985)

We know very little about the prophet Habakkuk. Apparently he was active in Judah during the late seventh century CE, at the time of the Babylonian conquest.

Two things in this passage are striking:

First, Habakkuk’s faith is shaken by his witness of the use of overwhelming violence to invade and control people who have done nothing to the invader.

Second, unlike more familiar prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, Habakkuk does not attribute the invasion and defeat of Judah to the faults of the people and their leaders. The Babylonian aggressor is “the one in the wrong.” And Israel is “the one in the right”! This makes Habakkuk more relevant to our own situation than the other prophets may be. While it is not unhealthy to examine oneself and seek to identify systemic weaknesses that make a society vulnerable, sometimes the aggression is so powerful and overwhelming that it dwarfs any conceivable punishment the people may have deserved (Isaiah 40:2).

So like many of us, Habakkuk was looking for a way to preserve his faith. What he found is a bit mysterious.

I will stand on my watch,
Take up my station at the post,
And wait to see what He will say to me,
What He will reply to my complaint.
The LORD answered me and said:
Write the prophecy down,
Inscribe it clearly on tablets,
So that it can be read easily.
For there is yet a prophecy for a set term,
A truthful witness for a time that will come.
Even if it tarries, wait for it still;
For it will surely come, without delay:
Lo, his spirit within him is puffed up, not upright,
But the righteous man is rewarded with life
For his fidelity. (Habakkuk 2:1-4, JPS)

I often prefer the Jewish Publication Society (1985) translation for its more accurate renderings of the Hebrew. However, what it gives us for verse 4 is not even a translation, but an interpretation, and not a very good one. It uses eleven words to translate a Hebrew phrase containing only three, many more words than the already high average English-to-Hebrew ratio.

“But the righteous man is rewarded with life for his fidelity.” Not only does this translation fall badly on the ear, the Hebrew does not even come close to supporting it.

In the traditional Hebrew text those three Hebrew words literally mean, “And a righteous person in his faith(fulness) will live.” The meaning of this is certainly not clear and has been disputed. Who does “his” refer to? Are we talking about the faith of a righteous person, or the faithfulness of God? This is arguably the key phrase of the entire book, and we can’t even be sure what it means!

There is another reading of this pivotal verse that might help us. It is from the Septuagint. It reads:

And the righteous shall live from my faithfulness. (Habakkuk 2:4)

The difference between the two versions (Septuagint Greek and traditional Hebrew) is “his” in the Hebrew and “my” in the Greek. The difference hinges on a single letter in the original Hebrew word. It is likely that the Septuagint version was made from a Hebrew original that had this variant reading.

What we do know is that things are different after this verse than they were before. As the story continues:

For a stone shall cry out from the wall,
And a rafter shall answer it from the woodwork.
Ah, you who have built a town with crime,
And established a city with infamy,
So that peoples have had to toil for the fire,
And nations to weary themselves for naught!
Behold, it is from the LORD of Hosts:
For the earth shall be filled
With awe for the glory of the LORD
As water covers the sea. (Habakkuk 2:11-14, JPS)

Something new has been introduced. It is the voice of those who are attacked, who face destruction, crying out, and that voice being heard. It is a voice of condemnation of the aggressor.

Ah, you who make others drink to intoxication
As you pour out your wrath,
In order to gaze upon their nakedness!
You shall be sated with shame
Rather than glory:
Drink in your turn and stagger!
The cup in the right hand of the LORD
Shall come around to you,
And disgrace to your glory. (Habakkuk 2:15-16, JPS)

The aggressors may achieve a military victory, but it will be pyrrhic. They will earn not glory but disgrace. Habakkuk sees this as the work of God. You cannot treat human beings inhumanely and come out intact. You cannot blow apartment buildings apart with artillery and tanks, fire on civilians fleeing through “safe passage” corridors, or bomb hospitals and schools and playgrounds and shelters without severely damaging your soul. And that will have consequences, both in this world and the next. This, I believe, is what Habakkuk would say if he were alive today.

Habakkuk presents us first with a world devoid of God, then an assertion of God’s faithfulness, and then a world in which the voice of God is heard and the aggressor is condemned.

We cannot expect a world without pain and suffering. There really is no answering “why,” but we can just observe that if life were totally pain free, we would not truly become aware of others. We would be self-satisfied, content to enjoy our lives of pleasure. Experiencing suffering at its greatest depth also opens us to compassion at its greatest depth. That may not solve the mystery, but it may provide a clue.

We may think Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is something new, because we see images of devastation and suffering beamed into our living rooms at an unprecedented level and frequency. But this is not new. It is the human condition ever since Cain killed Abel. The strong have always preyed upon the weak, just because they could. Morality was never a consideration, anymore than morality applies when a lion devours a deer. Human history is a sequence of movements of different groups striving for dominance over one another. Russia’s “new world order” is really a move to throw the world back into the same old “order” that always governed human behavior, in which physical power determines everything.

But in the midst of that old world order came the prophetic voice. In the name of God, the prophets protested this old world order. The prophets are best known for their ruthless criticisms of their own people, when their own societies became corrupt. What is less well known are the numerous prophetic utterances against the powerful nations of the world, who exalt themselves by crushing their weaker neighbors. The prophets pronounced against those nations in the name of God. God has implanted in us this sense that might is not synonymous with right, and that nations as well as human beings must conform to a certain standard of behavior.

What we are now seeing was hardly ever seen before the prophetic message was received. The prophetic voice is God speaking to us through the mouths of human representatives. It is a check on our egoistic and nationalistic impulses, and it does have an effect in the world. We see worldwide revulsion against what Russia has done, and nations coming together as never before. It is an almost biblical vision, and perhaps we can be permitted to see God at work in this. If the purpose of Russia’s quest is to restore some imagined imperial glory, it is destined to fail. The moral voice organizing half the world in protest was implanted within us by God. It is God’s word speaking to us in the night.

”And the righteous shall live from my faithfulness.”

We live by God’s faithfulness, God’s word that is always available regardless of our external circumstances. In this regard, the conclusion of Habakkuk is remarkable. He continues with what sounds like a song of praise for God’s victory over the forces of aggression, and we may wonder how realistic this is, that immediately after Habakkuk’s cry of despair all of a sudden everything is made right again. But looking closely at the language, we find things are not so simple. Most of the Hebrew verbs are in the imperfect tense. The hoped-for victory may (or may not) happen. But then we get this:

Though the fig tree does not bud
And no yield is on the vine,
Though the olive crop has failed
And the fields produce no grain,
Though sheep have vanished from the fold
And no cattle are in the pen,
Yet will I rejoice in the LORD,
Exult in the God who delivers me.
My Lord GOD is my strength:
He makes my feet like the deer’s
And lets me stride upon the heights. (Habakkuk 3:17-19, JPS)

After the dream of victory, we are brought back to earth. The trees and the fields are barren, and the animals are gone. But still the prophet rejoices in the Lord. How is this even possible?

It becomes possible when we contemplate what this life really is. Most of us, for most of our lives, are under the illusion that we will live forever. Of course we know intellectually that death is inevitable, but we can’t really conceive of our existence on earth coming to an end, not until we come so close to death that we can no longer turn away. And when it finally does arrive, no matter how many years we have lived we are likely to feel that life was too short, that it passed over us like a vapor. In the cosmic scheme of things, that is exactly what life is. A barely discernible fraction of a moment on a microscopic speck in an unimaginably vast universe that will forget we ever existed almost as soon as we disappear from it. Our friends and family may miss us for a while, but they too will be gone before they know it. And yet we cling frantically to this tiny particle of time and space as if it were supposed to be permanent.

There is just one thing that might keep us from despair, if we take all of this seriously. That is our conscious connection to the eternal. It is the conviction that there is something beyond this finite world to which we belong. An all-encompassing whole far greater even than the physical universe. It is the “place” where God dwells. We should not try to imagine it or conceptualize it; that risks turning it into a puzzle for the intellect. Instead, we can just feel the clues.

We have already witnessed one clue in the moral voice that rises to protest and confront the evil that is facing us. That voice takes us beyond the natural order where everything is determined by strength and power. It speaks to us of something beyond that order. And who knows whether at some point that voice might propel us toward a critical mass that can defeat even a powerful army?

Ultimately, that which connects us to the eternal is non-self-interested love. It brings us beyond ourselves and the survival/domination-by-the-fittest impulses that govern the natural world. It is how God becomes known to us.

Here is an example, as reported in the Washington Post (March 12. 2022):

When Fania Rosenfeld Bass was a teenage girl in the Ukrainian town of Rafalowka, the Nazis invaded and killed the members of her family. They dumped the bodies into unmarked pits in the Rafalowka forest. Fania managed to escape, and a non-Jewish Ukrainian woman named Maria Blyshchik found her and hid her for two years until the Red Army liberated the town in 1944. After that, Fania made her way to Israel and started a family.

Lesia Orshoko is Maria Blyshchik’s daughter. Citizens of Ukraine, she and her cousin Alona Chugai found themselves desperately trying to escape the Russian bombs.

Fania’s granddaughter Sharon grew up hearing the story of Maria’s kindness. Over the years she maintained contact with Maria’s family. When things began looking bad in Ukraine, she tried to find a way to bring Lesia and Alona to Israel. A bureaucratic system thwarted her efforts. But then she found a reporter at Israel’s YNET News. He publicized the story, and so many people came forward to demand action that senior officials of Israel’s Foreign Ministry stepped in to help. Visas for Lesia and Alona were approved.

But getting out of Ukraine was not so easy. The two cousins found a bus from their small Ukrainian town to the Polish border. They made their way to Warsaw, where they found a plane headed for Munich. Then Sharon helped finance their flight from Munich to Tel Aviv. A lifesaving kindness offered almost eighty years ago was finally repaid.

That this can happen in the midst of such a brutal war hints of a greater reality. It is the eternal, beyond mere time and space and even death, and characterized by non-self-interested love. There is always a word that speaks to us of the eternal, and perhaps the highest form of prayer is to listen for that word. When we do hear that word, we respond with hope.

What can we say of those who did not survive? Their deaths also speak a word we need to hear. They are true martyrs - the word “martyr” means witness - and they are witnesses both to the human capacity for limitless cruelty and the awakening of compassion in those stirred by their deaths, even at a distance. Their destiny is tragic, unjustifiable, but it has something to say to those willing to listen, and it too speaks a word from God.

God may not answer our pleas for miraculous intervention. God allows this world to be what it is, not for the sake of human free will, but perhaps because it is the only way we can learn the true depth of compassion. We can take refuge in the word of God that speaks to us from the depth of our experience and signals our bond to something greater than this transient life, something that does not die. The righteous will live from God’s faithfulness.

Let’s now take a moment to address a common reaction in sensitive watchers who are not in the field of battle, who are relatively safe on the sidelines. That reaction is guilt. Why is it they in Ukraine who suffer, while we are far away, unharmed? There are also Ukrainian refugees whose gratitude at finding a haven in a neighboring country is tarnished by the guilt they feel for having survived and left others behind. Is there a word from God for them? For us?

We cannot know why one person’s destiny is to die as a martyr, and another’s is to survive. The lives of both are infinitesimal compared to the expanse of time. In that respect they are not very different. But the survivor may wonder what sense life still makes. A healing response can be that the survivor becomes a channel for goodness. By devoting oneself to non-self-interested love, exploring how one’s life might express this love in great or tiny ways, those who survive can help make God visible on earth. And if enough of us participate, there will be no more effective way to counteract the evil that humans practice on each other. We can all be channels to the eternal, and even in very small ways it will make a difference. And as this love is God’s essence, our devotion to it, even in small ways, can have an effect in shaping our own destiny to the good. It will provide direction for our lives, which we may experience as divine guidance.

“Truly, you are a God who hides” (Isaiah 45:15). The brutality of this world does not mean there is no God. It makes the search for God more challenging, but it also makes God’s revelation possible in the most radical way. Without suffering, compassion for those who suffer cannot exist, and in that compassion is born our awareness of God. This is our first hint of the eternal, in the midst of this passing world. In the fullness of time, when eternity finally overcomes this world and its limitations, we may see more clearly. But for now, we can rest in the assurance of these scattered hints we receive. The righteous will live from God’s faithfulness.

March 2022