This past weekend, I saw a story on the evening news about a Jay County basketball manager with special needs suiting up and scoring a couple of three-pointers during a recent varsity basketball game. There was much jubilation expressed by the 16-year-old boy who had faithfully served as his high school basketball team’s manager as he took to the floor in uniform for the first time. The crowd, the team, the coach, and his family all erupted in cheers as he put up and sank two threes within moments of entering the game. During an interview following this joyous occasion, the team’s coach, in awe and surprise, proclaimed that “it was divine intervention.” These words hit me hard.
While I don’t think it was the coach’s intention, his comment about God being responsible for the young ball player’s success denigrated and denied all of the time the manager-turned-player had invested in developing his shot. He had spent hours and hours on the court, practicing his form as he took shot after shot. Rather than acknowledging that the young man’s hard work and effort had produced tremendous fruit, the coach took away all sense of his agency giving God all the credit for the spectacular moment.
Beyond this difficulty, the coach’s statement reveals a problematic underling theology, which understands God as having the ability to reach into time and space to do whatever God wants to do. I cannot help but to think how this coach (and those like him, who hold similar theological understandings about God’s activity in the world whether intentionally or implicitly) would conceive of the tremendous suffering and loss being experienced by people in Ukraine at the hands of the Russian military. Why had God chosen to reach into time and space to cause those two 3-pointers to go in but do nothing as tanks roll into Ukraine, cities are decimated by Russian missiles, lives are cut down, and more than 1.5 million Ukrainians are forced to flee their homes. Perhaps God has been too busy with the Big 10 tournament? The theology expressed by the coach’s seemingly innocent statement raises the question: “Why is God not at work then in Ukraine stopping the missiles?” It’s a mystery? We cannot know God’s ultimate motives? These are some of the responses folks who hold this understanding of God’s power offer in response. I find such answers to be exceedingly lacking and to represent a God I have no use or time for.
My response to this question is that God isn’t stopping the missiles because God does not have that kind of power. God does not force or coerce members of creation to do as God pleases. Rather I understand and experience God as working through relationship, calling us, inviting us to act for the good, for beauty, for truth, for healing, for wholeness. But, we must put pen to paper; we must choose how to respond to that call. God cannot stop the missiles from striking the people and places of Ukraine just as God cannot sink a 3-point shot; that responsibility, that power is all ours.
Rev. Jessica Petersen-Mutai, Senior Minister