When I was in elementary school, I lived on my bicycle. Our house was located in a small, tight-knit community, and the times were different fifty years ago, so if I didn’t check in at home regularly no one assumed I was lying in a ditch somewhere. I would often leave home early in the morning and wouldn’t return until after sunset, and I was on two wheels everywhere I went.
To a ten-year old boy, the world was both huge and comfortably small, and there was no place I wanted to go that I couldn’t reach by bike with a little effort. I knew all the trails, the bike paths through the woods, and the back roads, and I also knew the places where I probably shouldn’t go (at least when I was alone). I had the confidence of the inexperienced; the sure and certain sense of safety of a child who (at that point) had never been hurt. I was a kid, and although I doubt I could have explained why, I was convinced I was bulletproof. How could I not be? No one had ever shot me, after all. I trusted in the invisible umbrella of protection I assumed followed me everywhere I went, and my trust had never been tested.
I remember a sense that I was being watched by a magical presence that was composed of family oversight, community protection, and my childlike mental image of God. As I grew older, that sense of protection disappeared like an iceberg, by slow erosion punctuated by catastrophic events. I came to the conclusion that my perception of “divine protection” was a fantasy created from wishful thinking, unconscious disregard of the facts, and youthful inexperience with the world.
“God is in control.”
I’ve heard that statement, in various forms and with multiple meanings, for my entire life. When I was a child, my grandmother used it to help explain away unexplainable tragedies on the evening news that gave me nightmares. When I was a young adolescent, I told myself the same thing as I struggled to come to terms with my father’s abuse. As a young man, I vehemently rejected the statement as an attempt to explain the ups and downs of life: successes and failures, triumph and tragedy. And when I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, well-meaning, good-hearted friends and family offered it as a way to help me process the enormity of the impending change in my life. I don’t reject the statement out of hand any longer, but I recognize now that it means different things to different people.
For some, it’s an acknowledgement of the fundamental uncertainty of existence. Bad thing happen to good people, good things happen to bad people, and sometimes it seems that randomness rules our lives. The belief that the Creator is in control of His creation, that there is an underlying order to our lives that we can’t see but that we can trust, is like an incantation of hope. It’s a prayer to an inscrutable and mysterious God, ending in a question.
“I don’t understand what’s happening in the world, and everything I see and hear scares me or makes me angry, but I have faith that there is a reason and a plan. After all, God is in control. Isn’t He? Please, God, aren’t You?”
For others, however, there is a darker, more militant meaning. They’ve grown tired of persuasion, and have decided to give overt coercion a try. There is a triumphant, slightly snide tone to their pronouncement, and an almost scolding undertone.
“Stop whining – God and I are sick of it. Don’t you know God is in control? If you only had the right kind of faith you would see that everything is according to plan.”
There is an even more potentially troublesome connotation to the phrase in today’s social and political environment, though. There are those who ascribe to the notion that the economic, political, and military turmoil in the world today has been designed and ordained by God, and that our chief executive was chosen by God. In this view, there is a silver lining to the atrocities, injustices, and indignities perpetrated by human predators around the world, and there is no point in trying to limit the damage that human stupidity, greed, and malice causes in our world. Any attempt to do so works at cross-purposes to God’s plan, and is heretical in addition to being doomed to failure.
“Yes, I know that the current U.S. administration and president are an embarrassment on the world stage and actively harmful to U.S national security, global stability, and basic human rights both here and abroad. I know that the “leader of the free world” presents himself like a drunk crack addict with an unlimited trust fund. I know that his lack of foresight and inability to think strategically is destroying international relations, and that his willingness to publicly praise despots and dictators at the expense of his own advisors is concerning, at very least. You need to understand that God is in control, though. Our leader was chosen as a part of God’s plan, and who are we in the face of God’s plan? Besides, we won the election, so just shut up.”
Often, the claim that “God is in control” is nothing more than an excuse to abdicate personal responsibility and a way to perpetuate division. If God is in control of the outcome of every event in the Universe (which I doubt, simply because of the existence of free will, not to mention the impact of quantum mechanics, one of God’s trickier innovations), then we are absolved of any obligation to take action because God’s plan will unfold with or without our help, and our interference in the unfolding is unnecessary and probably counterproductive. The only exception is action by the self-appointed elect who claim to know God’s intent, and who are thus safe in helping things along.
I think we are facing an existential crisis in America. Other societies have faced similar turning points; some successfully, some not. Our current president is the focal point of the crisis, in my view, but he’s only a symptom of a larger problem. We will either survive, with our values and dignity damaged but largely intact, or we won’t. Either way, it’s neither God’s fault nor to God’s credit. We did this to ourselves.
Opinions vary – mine is that God is inscrutable, but not magical. God does not find us a parking place when we ask. God grieves with us when we suffer, but does not ordain the suffering. God did not give me Parkinson’s disease. God did not force my father to abuse me. God is not “in control.” God gives us free will to act as we choose; we are not robots with predetermined roles to play.
We have a responsibility to do right and avoid wrong. We cannot control everything that happens to and around us, but that’s not the goal. In my view, the true goal is to be living examples of the Golden Rule: to treat others as we would want to be treated. We are not doing that as a nation, and if we don’t cut it out, it will be our downfall.
I do not want to live in a world without kindness, compassion, and love, under the boot heel of an oppressive, dictatorial despot. Neither do I want to live in a world where principle is unimportant, where there is nothing worth fighting or dying for. They are not mutually exclusive states, though.
I hate what is happening to my country. I am embarrassed and ashamed to read the news every day, and discover what fresh hell we’re embarked upon. It makes me ill to know that the institutions that I have sacrificed my life to support are eroding and disappearing like an iceberg. And, it’s not because I am a dinosaur, stuck in the past and unwilling to change. It is because freedom, liberty, honor, truth, and justice are important, and we have forgotten that.
I have limited ability to take action, but I can’t just stay silent. I can see what’s happening in the country that I love, and I have to fight back. It’s not in my nature to just capitulate – “Oh, well, the folks in Washington have this in hand. After all, what can I do?” I won’t just give up – I have to speak out, even if I lose friends.
I’m not sure who said it first, but I was recently reminded of an old saying: “If you think you’re too small to have an impact, try spending a night in a room with a few mosquitoes.”