Why do bad things happen? It’s a question that has taxed so many people for millennia. Some threads in the Bible will imply that it’s because we are punished for some misdemeanour. You could read some elements of our readings this morning as implying this. The Gospel particularly gives that impression with ‘repent or perish’ (Luke 13:3). The Epistle referred to the Hebrew people rebelling in the wilderness and being bitten by snakes – a particularly good punishment for their grumbling and stirring (1 Corinthians 10:9; Number 21:6). How grumbling and griping can be like a snake slithering through a community – it is poisonous, so watch out. In the Old Testament reading, the call was to turn to the Lord and be pardoned (Isaiah 55:1-9). The implication there was if you don’t, bad things will happen.
There is some truth in this. Actions, attitudes do have consequences, but the direct link is something to be very cautious of. If you suffer it does not mean you are being punished by God; it is much more complex than that and sometimes just unfair. Fortunately the readings also had some nuance in them. For the whole question of testing and being able to meet it, in the Epistle, implies that there are forces at work that come from outside of what we have done (1 Corinthians 10:13). The Gospel too said that the deaths of various people was not because they were bad, but that they got caught up in other’s evil or failures. The crashing of a tower may well have been a building accident. The mixing of blood with sacrifices, hints at Roman violence being at work at a sacrifice, so we get the blood of the innocent mixed with the blood of the sacrificial animals (Luke 13:1-4).
We are seeing so many examples of how others’ actions have implications beyond, touching the lives of people who are unconnected directly with them. What we are seeing in Ukraine is evil at work and the bombing of maternity hospitals, children’s homes and apartment blocks can never be said to be any fault of those on the receiving end. It is victim blaming and gaslighting to suggest otherwise. And those who have been on the receiving end of gaslighting – a tool of coercive relationships where truth is twisted to convince another that what happened didn’t happen – and victim blaming, will recognise this with painful familiarity. Some politicians employ these tricks with alarming regularity to make you question their integrity and moral values.
This week, after six very long and tortuous years, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and the less well known Anoosheh Ashoori were released from their captivity in Iran. Nazanin was a charity project manager; Anoosheh a retired civil engineer. Both were used as political pawns over a debt that everyone admitted needed to be repaid. In the case of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe her plight was worsened by Boris Johnson’s careless use of words when Foreign Secretary – he seems to make a habit of that. Their suffering was not of their causing. Yet suffer they have and their release at last is a moment of much rejoicing. There is a third, Morad Tahbah, a businessman and wildlife consultant, who has not yet been released, just ‘furloughed’, whatever that is supposed to mean – given the hint of release from incarceration but not freedom.
The protections afforded by repentance and changing our ways is not just for ourselves. Indeed it might lead to quite the opposite if it then requires us to make a stand for what we believe to be right. The complex web is such that there can be implications beyond what we can imagine at the time and so constant repentance, the humility that recognises that we may be making things worse or just treading where we do not realise, is a wise one. We confess the personal but also the corporate, the things we are caught up in that are bigger than we are. The sins of a system that operates and others suffer because they are in the way when whatever it is comes crashing down. It’s like kicking a football with no sight of where it lands and there is the sound of breaking glass as it comes down from its blind trajectory.
Bad things happen because we live in an imperfect world where there is sin, there is fallibility, there is sometimes wilful evil at play. A response we can make to this is to be repentant, to be humble enough to realise that we can have effects we don’t see, or even intend, but nonetheless happen. It is to be humble to how political systems and economic systems can be set up in such a way as to make life worse for others, especially those who don’t have a voice where decisions are made. It is to be humble to realise that we have blind spots and therefore be open to them being pointed out. It is to be humble to be open to the challenge where we have stopped realising that the other is actually a person with feelings that our intemperate emails, Tweets, or just angry phone call may trample on. It is a strange phenomenon of social media that it depersonalises social contact, and so can switch off compassion and empathy, sensitivity and just plain human decency.
In the case of P&O Ferries, who made 800 of their UK staff redundant this week so they can hire cheaper staff on much lower wages and worse conditions, bad things happen when employees are seen as disposable units of production and profit, rather than personnel they have responsibilities for. It happens when business is disconnected from the web of relationships in which it operates and thinks money exists outside of human values and human purpose. This is why the Church in Wales has an ethical investment policy which we have adopted – all money is connected with relationships; many we don’t see.
Why do bad things happen? Because we mess up and others mess up. Some are through negligence, some through weakness and some through deliberate fault. And then there are others that just show the world is fallible and the complex web of relationships and actions can lead to them. We can’t stop all of them, but by walking more humbly we can reduce the impact of quite a few. Accidents happen. But grumbles and stirring are like a snake that slithers and bites, it is toxic and poisons. Those we can change more easily. We can be different, make a difference and thereby be a catalyst for change.
Sermon for Lent 3, Newport Cathedral, Sunday 20th March 2022