“Eloi Eloi Lama Sabachthani?” cried Jesus from the cross.

Never ever let it be said of Jesus that he didn’t live and die a Jew.

“My God my God, why have you forsaken me?”

My ears are ringing with this cry, as images of Japan flicker across the television screen and web news pages and my mind.

“Eloi Eloi Lama Sabachthani?”

It is a worthy cry, a lament, a question that begs for an answer (and yet what would be an acceptable answer?).

It is a bold question, a question that holds God accountable for inaction, for unreliability, for shirking critical duties, for being missing in action.

But I think that when we holler out this question, we are really rejecting–or at the very least, struggling with the idea of–theodicy.  The word presses into service two Greek words: theos, meaning ‘God,’ and dike, meaning ‘justice,’  to form this new term now used to maintain God’s perfect goodness and perfect power in the face of evil.

Good luck with that.

Since World War II, the notion has fallen into disrepute in many corners of Christian teaching, because in the face of terribleness, both suffering due to human choice and suffering due to what are ironically called “Acts of God,” the idea of omnipotence (all-powerfulness) is incompatible with a merciful God.

Elizabeth Johnson writes about why theodicy doesn’t work:

The Classical form of the theodicy problem is predicated on this unexamined assumption, namely, that divine omnipotence means God can do directly whatever ‘he’ wants.  The fact that destructive events are not prevented indicates not that God actually wills them, for God wills only the good, but that the divine will permits them to happen for some purpose….

This can lead to very poignant theological probing, as seen in the dilemma posed by Anselm of Canterbury.  Experiencing the effects of diving mercy and yet under the sway of the notion of the impassible God, he queries with inexorable logic: “But how art thou compassionate, and at the same time passionless?  For if thou art passionless, though dost not feel sympathy; and if thou dost not feel sympathy, thy heart is not wretched from sympathy with the wretched; but this is to be compassionate.”

…[I]n the face of these and all the singular and communal ills which plague living creatures in history, the idea of the impassible, omnipotent God appears riddled with inadequacies.  The idea of God simply cannot remain unaffected by the basic datum of so much suffering and death.  Nor can it tolerate the kind of divine complicity in evil that happens when divine power is conceived as the force that could stop all of this but simply chooses not to, for whatever reason.  A God who is not in some way affected by such pain is not really worthy of human love and praise.  A God who is simply a spectator at all of this suffering, who even “permits” it, falls short of the modicum of decency expected even at the human level.  Such a God is morally intolerable.  (She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse, 247-249).

Johnson doesn’t leave the reader to wonder much about what she makes of theodicy: “unexamined,” “inadequate,” “unworthy” “indecent,” “morally intolerable.”

Add to that the adjective given to it by the late German theologian Dorothee Sölle, “sadistic.”

“The situation,” she wrote:

is not viewed from the standpoint of the sufferer; rather it is through God’s eyes that things are seen and, above all, judged….All suffering is attributed to God’s chastisement; ‘the nations who thou now smitest…the individuals who are receiving thy stripes…all who are bound in prison or afflicted with disease or poverty’ must have sinned…The logic of this sadistic understanding of suffering is hard to refute.  It consists of three propositions which recur in all sadistic theologies: 1) God is the almighty ruler of the world, and he sends all suffering; 2) God acts justly, not capriciously; and 3) all suffering is punishment for sin. (Suffering 22-25, with some quotes from Calvin).

So such theology might be “logical” but it is, as Johnson agrees, intolerable.

And Sölle is right: it is also sadistic.

And so feminist theologians, among others, point out that sadism is no grounds for relationship.

Just as a parent feels the pain of a child more acutely than the child, as a lover knows that as adoration increases so does the risk, as a partner knows that love can only be trusted where there is freedom, so too is God present in the midst of agony and uncertainty and profound feelings of forsakenness, working to bring relief, hope, healing.

Instead of theodicy, instead of a notion of a fickle and therefore abusive God, consider the powerful and long-standing tradition of God’s commitment to life, to healing, to restoration, to building up, to renewal, to solidarity, and to compassion–which means, by the way, to suffer-with.

And where you see that occurring in the rubble, so you will see a flicker of God in the darkness, instead of God flicking the tectonic plates to capriciously cause destruction upon death.

For those of us who are able to help, even if from afar, a lament intertwined with action might be the only response to Japan.

For those who are in Japan, or who have family or friends in Japan, a lament is enough.