Deciphering God’s Silence in Human Suffering: Reflections on “The Trial of God” by Ronald E. Osborn

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Published:
May 8, 2019

I. Introduction: Is God Silent?

Across time and culture, men and women maintain their dignity while facing monstrous torment, but a reason for their suffering is rarely satisfying. The only certainty is that violence against a fellow human being should be a subjective matter; the Innocents at least deserve empathy instead of analysis. In “The Trial of God,” the culmination of his anthology on humanity’s struggle to understand its savage history, Anarchy and Apocalypse: Essays on Faith, Violence, and Theodicy, Osborn uses the Christian lens to view the Shoah with respectful acknowledgement and Jobian questioning. Too often, those who endow God’s image upon humans cannot face the world’s evil lest what they abhor be in the mirror. They, as Osborn skillfully shows, hurriedly ask who is responsible and why God is silent. Sadly, such interrogation ignores the glaring reality that the human doers (and enablers) are accountable and betrays passive-aggressiveness toward the call to be God’s loud witnesses against brutality.

II. Overview: Hearing the Deafening Silence

While Osborn’s dramatic anecdotes and authorial vulnerability make possible a smooth reading about the most widely affirmed human suffering in modern history, he puts to shame those who approach the conversation from a comfortable distance or arrogant objectivity. Using Elie Wiesel’s play of the same name as a springboard, Osborn’s courageous essay faithfully moderates between a smorgasbord of contenders in the age-old theodicy debate: Wiesel’s other works, Primo Levi, biblical Job and his “friends,” Eastern philosophies, Bonhoeffer, Kierkegaard, self-righteous (anti-Semitic) Christians, self-sacrificing (Chambonnaise) Christians, Dostoevsky, and the mitzvah-centric Hebrew Bible.1 The author invites all who can handle the truth to ponder up close what it means to be God’s humanity in defiance of Medusa’s face that keeps reflecting back. Above all, he urges us to accept that humanity is not just academic lingo but each of us.

III. Strengths of the Propositions: “Come Now, Let Us Argue It Out”2

Osborn’s presentation of the Jewish “charge against God” begins on the right note with the most basic question about God’s existence — or rather, human “belief, or disbelief” in it.3 To blame God for anything, one must first assume a divine reality, and losing one’s faith due to inhuman cruelty presupposes the Creator is responsible for malfunctioning creation. Before the conversation itself can begin, the parties must decide whether they believe in God and — if so — what kind of character they attribute to the Creator. This will then make clear whether there will indeed be a God to indict, as well as the charges to be brought out. Ironically, people angrily hurl accusations at the Divine One precisely because they expect unconditional love and omniscience. The important role of a person’s conviction regarding God’s nature for faith is partly shown in the author’s initial investigation, for we find polar opposite reactions to the same horrific experiences (e.g., Levi’s renouncement versus Wiesel’s transformed faith after surviving the Nazis).4

Next, Osborn introduces the heart of his well-prepared exhibit: the three-fold phenomenon of silence along with its two contrasting effects. The victims (regarding whom “survivors are the exception; the dead are the rule”), the bystanders (“the anonymous stranger[s]”), and God (if real and alive) are all eerily and hopelessly inaudible; it then remains to be seen whether each silence will bless or destroy.5 While one can reverently mourn the first and easily condemn the second group, the dilemma only keeps getting bigger about the third entity; we have no way of arresting the Defendant. While evidences in God’s favor still do not emerge, all cannot help but agree that any human efforts to justify divine restraint “only heaps shame, not honor on His name.”6 Consequently, nothing moves the cosmic trial beyond the hollow opening statements, but Osborn’s observations direct our eyes to an obscure finger writing on the courtroom wall and the ground outside: charges against God’s absence, apathy, and heartlessness convict us instead.

In this context, “The Trial of God” shines most brightly in its forthright and impartial treatment of Christian responses to Jewish affliction. According to Osborn, the range goes from judgmental gloating (e.g., for Jesus’s murder) to sympathetic pity (e.g., hiding Jews during the Shoah), besides a flagrant support of The Final Solution; unfortunately, “the crisis of modern Christianity” only gets worse upon inspection, and “divine justice” does not seem so just after all.7 The more questions are asked, the stronger the quicksand pulls the inquirer down to the point where reasonable Christians have no excuses to explain away the Shoah on their merit or theology. They join the previous group of three Silents — not from choice but due to utter shame.

IV. Debatable Aspects: Whose Silence Is It?

In view of the close inspection upon the “crime” (i.e., silence) above, what seemed — by instinct anyway — to be a surefire trial against God rises to the surface as a bona fide kangaroo court. In the face of such horrifying human tale as the Holocaust, one cannot rebuke those who have needed to assume God is at fault. After all, what better target to heap all the blame on than the One who created humans and allegedly promised to be with them always — to the point where Godself became one human being to save all? If that is true, so the seemingly foolproof logic goes, God needs to answer and pay for human suffering. However, Osborn takes a loyal but safe, dangerous route to vindicate Elohim — “safe” for none will disagree and “dangerous” because just one tiny step will seriously misguide listeners to a comfortable point of no return: oblivion.

On one hand, Osborn makes the perfect move against the “stubborn logic” of Wiesel’s troubled character; contrary to Berish’s final reproach, “God’s justice and human justice” are not confined to an either-or interpretation (i.e., either intra-relational or non-relational).8 On the other hand, the author wraps up the inspiring chapter with powerful-but-incomplete theologies from both the Jewish and Christian traditions in favor of God’s innocence. His genuinely comforting conclusion is mutual-inclusivity of the Christian “imitatio” and Jewish “divine pathos” beliefs: the verdict is against Evil and not the loving God who offers “solidarity in sorrow.”9 This idea is not inherently wrong, but it stops short of proving the case to be a mistrial. In other words, God is certainly Jehovah Rapha and El Roi but also YHWH and the I Am.10 God cries with humanity but is inscrutably bigger than their sufferings. In fact, God is bigger than any human theologies.

Thus, both Jews and Christians will find clearer concepts of God and implications of Imago Dei by taking each other’s (and their own) traditions more seriously past just respectful tolerance. Christians profess Jesus Christ the Immanuel; this must lead from a risky dualism (debasing God to an equal level with Evil) to the realization that Jesus’s suffering freed us from our penalty to suffer. However, humans still suffer, and we turn to the Cosmos for the final rebuttal:

HUMANITY: Who is responsible?

COSMOS: The human agents of evil.

HUMANITY: Why do Innocents suffer?

COSMOS: This world has been hijacked, and humans voluntarily immigrated to this hell.

HUMANITY: True, but why is God silent?

COSMOS: Seen your otolaryngologist lately? By the way, why are you silent?11

V. Conclusion: God Still Speaks

Contrary to what Osborn suggests, the Shoah is not unique in its “scale,” atrocity, or perpetrating “intent.”12 The 12.5 million Africans forcibly uprooted during the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade were in a “catastrophe” when their captors disembarked. Girls of all nationalities abducted to “comfort” fifty Japanese WWII soldiers per day in filthy bamboo huts certainly were not reveling in God’s presence when the captors ripped their uteri out sans anesthesia or sadistically force-fed them boiled human flesh.13 Closer to home, every time a person treats a fellow human being maliciously with a look, word, or deed, the latter’s spirit gets snuffed out. Thus, the Holocaust’s real uniqueness lies in the politico-cultural power victims have courageously and painfully procured from the global community — to be the voice not just for their grief-stricken history but to be the representative trumpeting for all whose victimization is still unheard.

Osborn’s “The Trial of God” stands out due to his Jeremianic demand for us to honestly face the unbearable and relentlessly ask the unanswerable questions about our relationship with God. He also gets our respect by not pretending to have an easy answer, since a quest for one “can only be profane.”14 The final verdict then is that God is neither dead nor silent — even in the darkest moments of recorded human history.15 Rather, humanity has tuned God’s voice out by its mutated will and distorted self-esteem, but hope is alive if — taking Osborn’s lead — we find an iota of God’s image remaining and pray together for the primordial Light to show the Way.

 

Notes & References:

1. Ronald E. Osborn, “The Trial of God,” in Anarchy and Apocalypse: Essays on Faith, Violence, and Theodicy, (Eugene: Cascade Books, 2010), 127-156.

2. Isaiah 1:18 (NRSV).

3. Osborn, “The Trial of God,” 129-130.

4. Ibid., 132.

5. Ibid., 135-136.

6. Ibid., 143.

7. Ibid., 138-142.

8. Ibid., 144.

9. Ibid., 146.

10. In Hebrew, Jehovah Rapha means “The God who heals”; El Roi interprets as “The God who sees me.”

11. I am deeply indebted to Dr. Wonil Kim for inspiring this dialogue into being.

12. Osborn, “The Trial of God,” 135.

13. George Hicks, The Comfort Women: Japan’s Brutal Regime of Enforced Prostitution in the Second World War, (New York: W. W. Norton, 1994), p. 96, and Michele Park Sonen, “Healing Multidimensional Wounds of Injustice Intersectionality and the Korean ‘Comfort Women’,” Berkeley La Raza Law Journal 22, no. 14 (2012): 283.

14. Osborn, “The Trial of God,” 155.

15. I am grateful to Dr. John W. Webster (and Karl Barth) for ideas related to “God with us” in this essay.

 

Jeeyoung Lee is currently finishing her MDiv (2019) and EdD (2020) at La Sierra University. As a former navy reserve officer and a hospital chaplain, she’s also been blessed to receive an MBA in General Management, MA in English, EDs in Brain, Affect, and Learning, MFA in Acting for Film, and MMin. In Jeeyoung's “other life,” she creates films and music that aim to instill hope in audiences of all backgrounds.

Book cover image courtesy of Cascade Books, an imprint of Wipf & Stock Publishers.

 

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