Mwizenge S. Tembo, Ph. D.
Professor of Sociology
A strange small sickly brown dog emerged from nowhere and chased a group of children who were happily playing in my home village in Lundazi in the Eastern part of Zambia in Southern Africa. This was fifty-one years ago. The little sickly dog nipped one of the kids in the butt through his shorts as they fled. The tooth scratch was so small that the boy did not bother to report it to my parents. On June 15 1966, my 8
year old younger brother died a horrible death of rabies in my mother’s arms at the local clinic. The rabies medicine was there but my brother had been brought to the clinic too late. Had the bite been reported to my parents, they would have brought him to the clinic immediately about four weeks earlier? It was a tragedy for me and my family.
Life and Death
The twins of life and death in all their mysteries and especially the terrifying finality and irreversibility of death have shadowed human beings for thousands of years. As humans we have toyed around the edges of life and death. We have used technology to destroy and alter life. We have post ponded death where possible through use of medicine. As humans we have a tremendous sense of triumph, reckless bravado and sometimes hubris as we feel we are conquering the frontiers of knowledge about life and death. Although we celebrate the joy life gives us, but what we may consider unjustified or untimely death still terrifies, puzzles, frustrates, and humbles us. Our belief in God as the omnipotent power and creator has helped us to cope with and make some sense of these two mysteries that always shadow our lives.
Amidst all this mystery, what really drives us into deep seething anger that makes us question and sometimes in extreme cases dismiss God, is when tragedies happen to us or to any people we consider innocent.
Buried in our deep pain of tragedy we ask what kind of God will let the deadly war go on in Syria including the gassing of children and other civilians. Millions of people are fleeing the Middle East and North Africa as refugees heading to Europe. Many are drowning trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea. Why did God allow the First and Second Wars to happen in which millions perished? Why did God allow NAZI Germany, Hitler to even be born to gas 6 million Jews? Why did God allow Stalin to kill 20 million innocent Soviet citizens? What kind of God let the Atlantic Slave Trade happen during which Europeans used mind boggling brutality to forcibly bring 10 million Africans in chains to North America, the Caribbean Islands and South America?
European colonialism in Africa and elsewhere under the guise of “The White Man’s Burden” brought untold suffering and death on the continent. Thousands died in Belgian Congo and one Nelson Mandela sacrificed 27 years in jail to end the racist Apartheid policy in South Africa. What kind of God lets innocent children become victims of cancer? Evil so overwhelms us in society that when we live very humble, clean, hard working lives filled with our strong beliefs in God, we exhibit righteous anger when evil and tragedy strikes us. We angrily ask, “Why me Lord? But I am your most faithful servant!”
The Movie: “The Shack.”
Philosophers, religious leaders, scientists, and others have tried to grapple with these questions. The issue was the center of a heated public debate in the 1980s such that Rabbi Kushner wrote the book: “When Bad Things Happen to Good People”. Recently I watched the Hollywood movie: “The Shack”. When I arrived at the theatre, I was surprised to see so many older people in the audience. That puzzled me as I am not a movie buff and had just impulsively picked the movie because I did not have anything better to do. This is one of the very few movies that have made me think of so much after leaving the theater.
The movie addresses the very serious issue that many of us painfully grapple with in our own personal lives. When a tragedy happens to a good innocent person, is God to blame for having permitted the tragedy to happen? The movie made me ask for a millionth time: “Why did God allow my brother to die? Was God to blame? Should the owner of the rabid dog been hanged?” My parents never lost their faith in God and continued to be loyal and devoted Christians up to this day in their nineties still living in the village.
Is God Human?
The way God is portrayed in the movie “The Shack” made me come to one conclusion: for hundreds of years since the advent of Jesus Christ, the entire Christian faith has been wrong to portray God and Jesus in any human images. In fact God himself in the Bible says: “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image” is one of the Bible’s Ten Commandments. Although I like or was comfortable with the way God is ultimately portrayed in the movie, that portrayal should not happen in the first place. Humanizing images of God, Jesus Christ, his mother Mary, and spiritual husband Joseph have created serious weaknesses, human biases, and distortions in the Christian faith. It is because of this human folly that for hundreds of years since the rise of statues and later the ability to make hundreds and now millions of photo images, Christ has been wrongly Whitened and Europeanized. This folly may have alienated millions of followers and potential Christian believers who are non-white or non-European. This may also create idolatry and vanity of worshiping their skin color among European believers and non-believers perhaps wrongly assuming that Jesus was white or European as understood today. It is also in this vein that some of the Christian missionaries abused Christianity for selfish ends during European colonialism in Africa and elsewhere. Some of these abuses may go on among some Christian believers today.
God and Jesus today
Even the current CNN special “Finding Jesus: Faith, Fact, Forgery” about Jesus and Christian history and other religious beliefs is victim of and perpetuates this folly as they portray Jesus’s history using images humans create. Do we really know that people during that era of Jesus Christ thought of people as “white”, “black”, “brown” or “Asian” or whatever physical categories of human we have created today in the presence of the deep racism Europeans created? All these images of God, Jesus, and other figures in Christian faith should never be humanized in any way.