A theological drama is unfolding: the notorious Westboro Baptists are picketing Elizabeth Edwards’ funeral. Though the media has dealt with them primarily as useful symbols of religion’s intolerance, I don’t think their religion unsound: I don’t see any religion at all.
Elizabeth Edwards was not a perfect person. No one is. But it strains credulity to think that a just and benevolent God would punish her for being confused about homosexuality (per hypothesis), for showing imperfect judgment in spouse selection, for seeking prominence, for anger at her fate, or for the mistakes of her fellow citizens. Recall for a moment what this “punishment” consisted of: the death of her teenage son, the loss of her husband, loss of her health and painful death. Anyone who intuitively regards this as an appropriate punishment for anything we know Elizabeth Edwards did in life has the morals of child, if that. Anyone who finds it plausible as a reading of Judaism or Christianity does not read, in particular,
“And My servant Job shall pray for you, for I will accept his prayer not to deal with you according to your folly. For you have not spoken of Me what is right, as My servant Job has.”
It is far from clear what the Voice regards as the right thing Job has said. Perhaps it is when he says
“It is all one; therefore I say, He destroys both the blameless and the wicked. When disaster brings sudden death, He mocks at the calamity of the innocent. The earth is given into the hand of the wicked; He covers the faces of its judges—if it is not He, who then is it?”
Or perhaps it is only his confession of ignorance in the end:
“I know that You can do all things, and that no purpose of Yours can be thwarted… Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.”
Elizabeth Edwards herself understood these things. She said, “I had to reconcile the God I thought I had with the facts I knew. I couldn’t pray anymore for God to intervene, which means I can’t pray for him to intervene in my cancer. Instead, the God that I came to accept promises salvation and enlightenment, and that’s the God I live with now. It’s not entirely the God I want, but it is the God I believe I have.”
The Book of Job wrestles with the evident fact that the happiness and suffering of this world betrays no obvious relationship to any conception of justice we can understand. As such, it presupposes the Law, but moves beyond it; it represents a further moral development, and implicitly calls on the fortunate to comfort and not ignorantly judge the suffering of others. Much later we will be told the sun and rain nourish the just and unjust alike, and that we are to emulate this, that vindictiveness is not for us at all. So I honestly don’t know what religion the Westboro Baptists purport to practice. I find it unrecognizable in light of those traditions of ours I think I understand. And whether you believe or not, these are your traditions too: this is where our conception of democratic tolerance has its origins.
But enough of this. Elizabeth Edwards was a human being, not a symbol, and her sufferings were terrible. Light a candle for her.