My brother and I once had matching police costumes. This was when we were about five and seven. An accessory to the outfits was a pair of plastic handcuffs which, when clasped around ones’ wrist, could only be undone with an accompanying key. One morning, I was sitting innocently at our kitchen table – painting pictures for orphans, as I recall- when my brother jumped me. A struggle ensued in which he managed to hook my left hand into one of the handcuffs and deftly attach the other cuff to the chair.
Well, I’m right-handed. And that hand raised to slap him… right when my mother entered the room. My brother whimpered like a puppy. I received a stern reprimand, the commandeering of all my painting materials, and a time-out confined to the chair. A moot punishment, of course, because I was handcuffed to it, a detail (among several) Mom failed to notice.
In an infamous scene from The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky records a conversation between two brothers regarding God. The first brother, Alyosha, is a novice monk. The second, Ivan, has renounced the faith.
Ivan’s objections to Christianity rest on the cruelest and most inexplicable sufferings: that of children. He tells of a child beaten, smeared with excrement, and left in an outhouse during winter. Another child is stripped naked, made to run, and set upon by a pack of hunting dogs.
Ivan believes in God. It is not God’s existence that he cannot accept. But it is the world God has created, the world that allows such atrocities. He cannot- will not- accept that the suffering of such a child might some way, somehow, be redeemed.
To this declaration, Alyosha replies, in a murmur, “That’s rebellion.”
I read this my senior year of college. I was sitting in an overstuffed chair of my apartment. Dishes piled in the sink; posters occupied an entire wall; late-autumn gray shone through our window; upstairs a door shut; a tap dripped; silence.
I’ve never seen a child tortured, never seen any great atrocities. I am not a witness to such unspeakable pain. But I can, from some of my first moments of cognitive memory, recall sensing the reality of pain of the world.
As a child, I owned a goldfish. It lived for several months, then died. The concept of death by that age made sense to me. Enough that when Dad flushed Guppy down the toilet, I was distraught. A trite example. But from that point on, I was aware of the fact that every good thing held the inverse possibility for pain.
I’m not alone. The oldest Biblical text is about a man wrestling with the question of God’s silence in the face of pain. Before anyone wrote an account of how God made the world, we were questioning the way it runs. (That’s got to be annoying.)
And I remember that moment in college so vividly because I knew, without a doubt, that I agreed with Ivan. He articulated the objection I’d always sensed. And I heard Alyosha’s judgement like he was in the room. “Rebellion.”
A child’s pain- or anyone else’s- on a linear perspective is redeemable because it has passed. The moment is (thankfully) lost. But if God is eternal, then that must mean that all points in time are accessible to God at all times. The child’s pain is in God’s purview for eternity. Which means that God’s inaction at that moment might- must– also be eternal. My primary encounter with injustice as a child resulted in a time-out. Still, I can’t believe it’s wrong to wrestle with the (albeit, abstract) reality of horrific evil.
Perhaps this is wanting to have my cake and eat it too. I want to have faith and question God. I want to object to God’s world and embrace it. A pastor recently reminded me that laments emerge from hope. Can’t we say the same for rebellion?
Maybe I can lead a curious rebellion. Maybe I can raise a hand against injustice and God, when she enters the room, will see it as such. Maybe God shares our objections. It’s a paradox. But so is the reality of a God who is all-good, all-powerful, and all-present in a world that also allows unspeakable evil.
I wasn’t a perfect child. More likely than not, my brother’s scheme was preempted by me stealing his football cards and/or dropping his toothbrush in the toilet. But my mother, upon consideration, found my indignation reasonable. Which is the hope, isn’t it? That God will not hold our own pleas for justice against us?
Perhaps we might see God joining our rebellion. If so, then maybe we can also ask her to find the key to these handcuffs.