Question: I'm a Holocaust survivor who made it to the United States through the Dominican Republic by a big miracle. As time went by, I realized one thing: God did not let the Holocaust happen; we let it happen.
Recently, I read a newspaper article about the death of a 6-year-old child. This child had been suffering since the age of 2.
She'd done nothing against nature. Her parents didn't even have a chance to teach her the difference between right and wrong. Why do children have to suffer before they even have a chance to enjoy life? — A., of Farmingdale, N.Y., via email@example.com
Answer: Sometimes people are saved by miracles, and sometimes not. The ways of God are beyond us, but I do agree that the suffering of children is the most spiritually challenging form of evil in the world.
The death of children like the one you mention from incurable diseases is terrible, but it's a fact of our biological fragility that people of all ages succumb to disease. However, the death of children from avoidable and savage cruelty, such as during the Holocaust, is morally and spiritually numbing.
If I were an atheist, I would certainly use the murder of children as my checkmate move — even though, ultimately, I don't think it succeeds.
What I would humbly suggest is that our agony in the face of all suffering, particularly that of the young, comes from an understandable but incorrect and scripturally unsupported belief. Contrary to the teaching of Scripture, God does not promise us all a long and untroubled life on Earth.
God promises all of us a life accompanied always by God's love. God promises us a consoling partner as we live through life's troubles, and eternal life after death in heaven.
I understand that it's easier to believe only in a God who gives us our lives and blessings, and not also in the God who will reclaim those lives and blessings some day. I try to believe in God's giving and taking equally, and I pray that you might do the same. Justice for the evildoers among us is our responsibility. Eternal, unconditional love is God's responsibility and remains God's only and best gift.
I know a story told by the Jewish philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel. He said that the first time he heard the story of the sacrifice of Isaac (Genesis 22) read in the synagogue, he cried.
His father asked why he was crying and he answered, "I'm worried that the angel will be too late to stop Abraham."
His father calmed him by saying, "Don't worry, my son. Angels are never too late. People ... people can be too late."
My prayer: May we never be too late again. God bless you.
Q: I'm willing to bet you're philosophically opposed to the death penalty because it's inconsistent with a civilized world, but that you wouldn't say so in a column because it's too controversial and a minority opinion in this country. Any chance you'll prove me wrong? — S., from Durham, N.C. via firstname.lastname@example.org
A: Never bet on what you think I believe. I'm a defender of the death penalty.
It's clearly allowed in Scripture: "He who sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for in the image of God has God made man." (Genesis 9:6, as well as Exodus 21 and Deuteronomy 19.
Also see that the spiritual validity of capital punishment is affirmed in John 19:11, Acts 25:11, Luke 23:41 and Romans 13). Scripture counts and Scripture supports capital punishment.
I think the deep reason behind this view, and an argument I rarely hear made, is that the death of a murderer is the only way for the murderer to atone for the ultimate crime of taking a life made in the image of God. Even if the murderer doesn't want to atone for his or her sin, it's the only way to set right the scales of justice.
To simply assume societies that execute murderers are uncivilized is morally untenable. If murder is the greatest sin, and it is, then the execution of a murderer, which is the greatest punishment, is morally fitting and morally equivalent. It's about atonement and justice. It's not about vengeance or blood lust.
There are societal reasons that augment the scriptural view. Society has no clear moral obligation to sustain, house and care for its predators. Those funds should be used for other socially-constructive ends.
The arguments against capital punishment, though unconvincing to me, are nonetheless serious and well meant. It is argued that a miscarriage of justice cannot be corrected if a person is wrongly convicted and executed. Capital punishment cases also are costly and often drag on for years.
I'm also deeply troubled that the number of people of color who are executed seems disproportionately large. However, the use of DNA testing has made certainty in these cases far easier to achieve than in the past. Not all convictions for capital crimes are flawed.
I know it may seem inconsistent to urge mercy in the killing of animals, as I've argued in defense of vegetarianism, yet support capital punishment, but one moral distinction explains it all. The murderer is morally guilty, and the cow on its way into a Big Mac is morally innocent. Good people with good hearts can disagree, but in the end, I'm convinced that the need to destroy our predators serves moral, societal and spiritual goals.
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