The recent statement of the Catholic Bishops of Onitsha Ecclesiastical Province, read in Catholic churches of the area, made mention of the Ozubulu church massacre of August 6th and urged security agents to speed up investigation of the matter and apprehend the culprits. At least we are assured that the tickling novelty of fresher news has not pushed that event off our radar.
It was in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy that the above headline question was raised by a columnist of the Daily Sun newspaper, Amanze Obi (August 10, 2017). I thought it was not too late in this article to give what I advisedly call a “Catholic answer” to that question. Not too late because God's role regarding the problem evil, especially moral evil is a perennial one which can unsettle even believers in God. Besides, in today's world getting crazier by the day, senseless massacre of innocent people by deluded individuals is no longer a rare occurrence. For instance, followers of world news must have known about the horrendous massacre in Las Vegas, United States on the night of October 1st when we in Nigeria were marking our 57 Independence Anniversary. A lone gun man fired into a crowd of thousands of music concertgoers in the fun city, killing at least 58 people and wounding hundreds, in what has been described as the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history. In fact, that event pushed me further to revisit the tragedy nearer home because they both raise the same question regarding God's role. He was brought into the Las Vegas incident by an American blog post asking: “What is God saying about Las Vegas?”
Let me here now, as it were, kill two birds with one stone, by trying to answer the twin questions: “What is God saying about any human tragedy?” or “Why does God permit evil?” My focus is on the Ozubulu incident and the reason for taking the Catholic line will be seen shortly.
Older folks among us may remember the late Dele Giwa, the famous journalist who was infamously cut down by a letter bomb delivered to him at his house in Lagos in the 1980s. Her five-year old daughter was asked how she felt about her father's death. I remember her answer: “God travelled. That's why they killed my father”!
Obviously, we adults do not agree with the little child's answer vis-a-vis the killing at Ozubulu church, - viz that “God travelled” when a dozen and more of His worshippers gathered in church were sacrilegiously murdered in cold blood. If God didn't “travel”, then why did He not prevent the murder? Why did He allow it to happen? These are legitimate questions for us to ask because we believe in God who is All-Powerful, All-knowing, All-Loving, Creator and Protector. Nothing happens without His knowledge, without at least His permission, if not His outright Will. We must though ask such questions with a deep sense of respect and humility. Recall Job in the Bible who bitterly protested to God about his suffering as an innocent man. When he was challenged by the Almighty Lord proclaiming His infinite Power and Wisdom, poor Job had to cower down and confess: “I know that you are all powerful; no plan of yours can be thwarted…I spoke of things I did not understand, too wonderful for me to know” (Job 42: 2-3).
It is with such sentiment that I proceed with my “Catholic answer” – call it even Christian or believer-in-God answer. Why? There was this 1943 classic film drama called The Song of Bernadette. It revolved around the story of Bernadette Soubirous, later St Bernadette, the young French visionary in Our Lady of Lourdes 1858 Apparitions. The film began with this prologue on the screen: “For those who believe in God, no explanation is necessary. For those who do not believe, no explanation is possible”. Maybe this statement was adapted from the great Catholic theologian and theological writer, St Thomas Aquinas. He is credited with the saying: “To one who has faith, no explanation is necessary. To one without faith, no explanation is possible”.
My aim therefore within the limited scope and space of this article is not to try to convince an atheist who has taken a position that God does not even exist. In fact, the human tragedy at Ozubulu, like other human tragedies, is one of the planks that atheists take as confirmation for their belief – mind you it is just a belief like any other. My objective is rather two-fold: 1) to reassure believers that God is ever-present in every situation - good or bad - that is experienced in life even though the manner of His presence, especially in tragic and unpleasant situations, is sometimes hidden from us. 2) to help us therefore confirm our faith in the mysterious ways of Divine Providence. In this world, we see God and His ways “dimly as in a mirror”; only in after-life shall we see clearly as it were, “face to face” (cf 1 Cor. 13:12).
Having cleared the ground, let me now elaborate a few specific points that help us better understand where God comes in when tragedies such as the one at Ozubulu happen. The points will also help us cope with such traumatic experiences and not allow our faith in God to be dampened.
FIRST IS FREE WILL: In His love, God gave human beings the gift of free will as part of His image and likeness in which humans were created. God decided in his Infinite Wisdom, to ever respect this gift bestowed on his human creatures. He can take away other gifts like health, wealth, offspring, material success, and bodily wholeness or even our earthly life, but not free will. That means that while we are free to do good, we also have the ability to do evil. The person or persons who murdered worshippers at Ozubulu chose to do an evil act. In no way did God cause this to happen but He permitted it because of His respect for the perpetrators' free will. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) states: Through sin, “moral evil, incommensurably more harmful than physical evil, entered the world. God is in no way, directly and indirectly, the cause of moral evil. He permits it, however, because he respects the freedom of his creatures, and mysteriously, knows how to derive good from it” (CCC 311).
THE QUESTION OF GREATER GOOD: St Paul states in his Letter to the Romans: “We know that in everything God works for the good of those who love Him, whom he has called according to his plan” (Rom 8:28, emphasis mine). Note, it is everything, not just the good things, but the bad things too. You may ask: what good can come out of the slaughter and maiming of innocent worshippers, as happened at Ozubulu church? I cannot claim to know all God's reasons. But let me point out a few things.
Recall what we learnt at the time. The Police and the Anambra State Governor said that the shooting was a drug-related war or business-related gang war that spilled over to Anambra State from another African country. If it is so, it is reasonable to surmise that involved in the “war” was some satanic brawl over money matter, so satanic as to result in the monumental evil of opening fire on innocent worshippers including women and children in church on Sunday morning. We are talking therefore of crime rooted in an utterly irrational craze for “filthy lucre”.
In many places in the Gospels, Jesus did not mince words to warn about the great danger that lies in lust for mammon. Further, we are familiar with St Paul's warning that “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil” (1 Tim 6:10). Talking then of good coming out of evil, can it not be said that the shocking tragedy at Ozubulu is a kind of “shock therapy” meant to wake us all up to the dangers, spiritual and material, that unbridled chasing after wealth at all costs can bring? Today, money-making by all means, fair and foul has become the craze of society. To parody the blog post's question about Las Vegas mentioned above, one may ask: “What is God saying about Ozubulu?” Part of the answer is: Stop making money your god. Pope Francis has been hammering against “the idolatry of money”. We must begin to re-order our values away from inordinate quest for material acquisitions and from indiscriminate celebration of worldly wealth irrespective of how it was acquired.
Further to the question of good coming out evil, CCC confirms: “In time we can discover that God in his almighty providence can bring good from the consequences of an evil, even moral evil, caused by his creatures…From the greatest moral evil committed by human beings – the rejection and murder of God's only Son caused by the sins of all men – God, by his grace that 'abounded all the more' brought the greatest of goods: the glorification of Christ and our redemption. But for all that, evil never becomes a good” (CCC 312) .
Perhaps another lesson from the church massacre is the obvious one that the living can draw from the suddenness of the end for those who lost their lives at no notice whatsoever. While we must continue to pray for their eternal repose, the survivors of the attack and all of us were reminded again to be prepared at every moment for the end, since we neither know the day nor the hour.
In Luke 13, Pilate's murdering of Galileans was brought to Jesus' attention. He himself mentioned also the falling of the Tower of Siloam, an accidental tragedy that took many lives. In response to both cases, Jesus took us down a surprising path. He says such happenings should prompt us to return to God in faith and repentance: “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish”. The lesson then is: Nobody is promised tomorrow, or even the next breath. We have to sort ourselves out with God now, this moment.
INVITATION TO PRAYER AND CHARITY: Recall that the tragedy triggered an avalanche of prayers, sympathies, various kinds of assistance and offers of assistance from far and near, for the victims, the wounded in hospitals, the families and all directly affected by the tragedy. This outpouring of solidarity is a form of good always emanating from a tragic incident affecting our fellow human beings. Charity is stimulated and the feeling of common humanity is solidified. Even the tragic shooting in the U.S. so far away from our shores should stir our sympathy and prayers for the victims because all humanity is diminished by such dastardly acts.
FINALLY LOOKING HEAVENWARDS: As much as we would like it to be, this world is not perfect. Pain and suffering arising from physical and moral evil perpetrated by ourselves or others do exist. Accepting this condition of our earthly existence will cause us to remain calm in every eventuality and to intensify our desire for heaven where there is no more pain and suffering. Blaming God for suffering, oftentimes brought about by human folly – though understandable – is neither accurate nor wise. Let us strive to obey His commandments and, assured that He loves us, strive to see His goodness even when “bad things” happen.