Faith and Reason: A case for taking the long view: In a further article in our series on whether God can be held to be guilty when crimes against humanity are committed, Sara Maitland argues that a fair verdict is one of 'not proven'.
Saturday 21 May 1994
Actually, however, the person guilty of my sin is me. This is shaming and it is easier to foist it on my parents, or my education, or my class, or my God. I don't want to do this. I want to take responsibility. The blame for Hitler lies with Hitler; Hitler is guilty of being Hitler, not God. Hitler and all the people who voted for the National Socialists; all the people who colluded with appeasement; all the people who had nourished anti-Semitism in public and private discourse for so many centuries, mainly it would seem to evade a guilt of their own. And all the people who really did not want to know. This means me. It means, by fairly straightforward reasoning, every single person who was not involved as directly as was feasible in resisting racism and the British National Party in Tower Hamlets over the last year.
However, I am not convinced that part of my duty was to go out and kill every BNP candidate, let alone every resident of the Isle of Dogs who voted for that particularly nauseating brand of patriotic hoodlum: I will not take this upon me even if this nascent little bud grows into the vast plant of Nazism. But this it would seem is what Helm thinks that God should do to demonstrate Her innocence: She should not have let Frau Hitler's pregnancy continue. The growth of fascism in Britain is not a good thing; it is a highly dangerous thing - should I, or you, poison the water so that no future Hitlers can be born? Should God? If we should not do evil that good may come of it, then we can be certain that God does not.
The pronoun in the above paragraph is not just feminist showing off: the question is not what a Judge-God does, it is what a parent-God does. As a parent I could of course bind my offspring in their high-chairs and keep them there. They would almost certainly do little harm, and they could scarcely grow up into monsters of destruction. The point is that they would not grow up at all.
As a parent I know that I do not want to keep my children as imprisoned babies, I want them to become grown-ups; and they will not become grown-ups if I destroy them the moment they do not do what I want them to. If occasionally they do some horrible things - because they are human, because they are selfish and stupid and have rather short- term self-interest - I will not hold myself guilty and nor, until very recently, would anyone else have done so. They are guilty.
I refer to occasional horriblenesses of course. If all my little darlings were consistently diabolical I might have to inspect my child-rearing practices, but a fact too often overlooked is that Hitler was something of a rarity: more people work for meals-on-wheels than run concentration camps. By and large human beings are weak with a terrible tenderness. We spare the mutants, treat the infertile, heal the sick, feed the hungry, cuddle pet dogs, cherish our teddy bears. Where does it come from, this dangerous compassion, for we did not learn it from nature? And the answer, if the genetic evolution gang are right, has to be God, because such behaviour serves no physical or evolutionary function whatsoever, indeed impedes the free- flowing risky beauty of the wild card in the gene pack.
This is not in any way to deny the unutterable awfulness of the awful: it is to ask how could God have made it better? By keeping us infantilised, powerless, enslaved, which would in itself not be good in the sense of loving, does not seem like an answer. Nor does casually disposing of anyone who breaches our partial code of good behaviour: we pride ourselves that, as a civilised society, we do not hang murderers; by and large those of us with enough time to spare from the business of getting by in a difficult climate to think about the metaphysical guilt of the deity, don't even approve of vandals in Singapore getting a sound thrashing. Why should God be expected to deliver the short sharp shock we don't think an elected government should? Do we want to believe in a God meaner, more punitive and more uncouth than ourselves? The God who does not stop Hitler dead in the womb is not so much like a gambler, a Las Vegas swaggerer, as like an exhausted but devoted mother wondering even at 3.30am, when he said he would be in by midnight, if it is fair to emotionally blackmail her teenager with her tears, or on the other hand never to let him out of the house again for the rest of his life. If she is sensible and affectionate she is more likely to do the former than the latter, and I agree with her.
Moreover there is another particular problem with finding God guilty - we do not have the least idea of the timescale we are dealing with. The early Church could apparently take a longer view than we seem able to. 'Oh happy fault, oh necessary sin of Adam, which won for us so great a redeemer,' they sang. The sin, which led, they were taught, directly to Cain, and Babel, and the Flood, and exile and slavery and national apostasy and colonisation and a gruesome death on a cross was all worth it; and more.
A comparison with running might work here. If this is a sprint then God is apparently totally useless compared with the forces of misery and evil; if it is the opening stages of a marathon then God has perhaps got the pace right, and has the whole thing under control. We don't know what the event is and we don't know what stage of whatever event it is we are at. The signs are that we aren't going to know, until it's all over. But without this data it is virtually impossible to judge God's guilt or innocence.
It is the duty of the prosecution to prove their case beyond reasonable doubt. On the evidence available it is not beyond the reasonable to conclude that God is not negligent in requiring our co-operation. God is not guilty because I make a mess of things. God is neither a reckless gambler nor an incompetent conjuror. God is a parent, a lover, a friend, who prefers my freedom over Her will. Given that we cannot see the scale - in time or space - even doubters should bring in a verdict of 'not proven'.
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