One of the questions that the Bishop asked me in the pre-ordination interview was “Where was God in Grenfell Tower?” The context was a reporter from Sky News (say) holding a microphone up to my face.
The question stayed with me throughout my pre-ordination retreat – not so much because of theodicy (aka “why does God allow suffering?”), but more because conversations with the other ordinands, the bible readings, and my own reflections have cast it in several different lights.
Let’s be clear – the events at Grenfell Tower were horrific. I had to turn off Radio 4 when I was driving because the stories being told were so upsetting and harrowing that I was in real danger of weeping (not good when driving) and/or crashing the car. This isn’t a sterile theological exercise, or an attempt to justify or apologise for God. I have no answer for why He didn’t intervene, and – idolatrous as it is – if I were God I can’t help thinking I would have done something. Yet He didn’t stop the fire. Scores, maybe yet more than a hundred innocent people – some of the babies and children – were burnt to death, many by following the official (and good, in normal circumstances) advice. It has broken our hearts.
There is no easy answer. There may be no answer at all. And it seems to me that there is a serious danger of being insulting and disrespectful to the victims and survivors. I write this entry with the refrain “fools rush in where angels fear to tread” very much in the front of my mind. I also don’t think that God needs defending or justifying, although it is only natural to try to understand how the God of love, the God who is love, can allow these senseless tragedies to happen.
My response in my interview was that God was and is right there. In the incredible stories of sacrifice, courage, and love. In the firefighters entering that building to try and save people. In the money raised, food and clothes offered, accommodation provided. In the neighbours banging and shouting on one another’s doors. He was comforting those who mourn. So while I can’t answer the question “why did God allow this”, I fully affirm that God was there, fully present and suffering with those who suffered. The Bishop spoke (and I paraphrase) of mess – that the world is messy, and God is in the mess. He embraces it. He stretches wide his arms to welcome us, and we see the ultimate expression of God entering into the mess, and stretching wide his arms on the cross, in the person of Jesus Christ.
To go back to my own thoughts, I have also found myself reminded that God is in the business of redemption – which could be described as bringing good things out of bad. Grenfell was unmitigatedly bad, but I have faith that God can, has, and will bring good out of it, as hard as this is to stomach or fathom.
It is worth reflecting that it is increasingly clear that human sin is at the heart of this tragedy – the age old story of the (relatively) rich and powerful thriving so at the expense of the poor and powerless. This story goes back to the Old Testament, and issues of Righteousness and Justice (mishpat and tsadaq in Hebrew), which are close to God’s heart, especially regarding the poor and oppressed. In this case, cheap(er) but highly flammable cladding was used on the building, with no regard for the occupants safety. Please understand, in no way am I talking about punishment – it is the innocent who have suffered. Yet if we do want to point the finger of blame, does it really point to heaven? And, as uncomfortable as it may be, most of us have played a part in creating a society and culture within which events like Grenfell happen. Maybe this is in part what Jesus was getting at in Luke 13, when he responded to a similar question with the answer “repent” (as was pointed out to me by someone else at the retreat).
The fire on the 14th June was a senseless and avoidable tragedy, beyond our comprehension. Yet I also believe this life isn’t the whole story, and that God through Jesus, can redeem and overcome all darkness, as He did that first Easter. But in the meantime I weep with those who weep, do what I can to help, and firmly believe that God is with us in the mess, embracing us and inviting us to sit and eat with him.