“Everything happens for a reason.” Is that what you think? Lots of people do. I don’t know whether I agree or not. That is because I’ve no idea what people mean when they say that. Do they mean that there is behind the scenes an all-knowing and perhaps all-powerful God that ordains events to happen just as they do? Do they mean that God might not be manipulating events, but is indeed working through them to bring about God’s own purposes for God knows what reasons? Do they mean that there is a non-personal but very real meaning in any or all events that, if you have enough courage and discernment, you may discover? Do they mean that life is just full of endless lessons to be learned and that we humans have the possibility and capacity of learning those lessons from whatever happens to us?
Some of these positions make more sense to me than others. The Bible and the larger Christian tradition certainly make plain that God does not always get what God actually wills. Yet there is no denying that ultimately, God’s Will is sovereign. In the end, God’s will for love and justice and peace will indeed win out. Stories bear that out on a small scale. And in the larger scheme of things, Christian faith sees that there is an end towards which all things are moving, and that in the end, God will be all in all.
Because Christianity is often, and in my opinion quite incorrectly, assumed to be a system of belief rather than a way of life, such thinking as the notion that God’s will finally will be victorious, supreme, indeed ultimately uncontested, seems to provide considerable comfort to a great many people. I myself find it attractive, and like lots of other people, can fill my mind with images of a world that is healed, a humanity no longer full of people at each other’s throats, a creation restored to pristine beauty. I am, as possibly you are, able to imagine that God is at work in human efforts, willing to bring about peace, equality, justice, and shared abundance, through the very energies we exert towards those things. They are the will of God, aren’t they?
But then there is tragedy. You are familiar with tragedy, because the way we know about it at all is that it continually shows up in our lives. Tragedy has its own particular niche in our experience. It is different from disaster, which might be caused by natural forces or by a collision of things that happen to get in the way of each other and spoil life for any and all things touched by the resulting wreckage. Tragedy is different, too, from stories that simply have sad endings, even terrible endings, as melodramas frequently do. Tragedy in the sense that I am talking about it involves a good person who is in many ways exemplary, whose very strengths become the impetus for a bad mistake—an error in judgment. You will notice that your very strengths are the things that give birth every once in a while to such an error, usually when your strengths tempt you to go beyond human limits, so that like a misguided Icarus, flying for the first time, you get carried away with what you can do and fail to take into account that what goes up must come down. Tragedy results when such a failure leads to ruin, misery, and even death.
David in today’s story is a tragic hero. Indeed in the story of the Absalom rebellion, he is more tragic than hero. If you have been tuned in to the unfolding story the last several weeks, you may recall that things start to unravel one afternoon in Jerusalem, when David, left in his palace while his army was off fighting, notices a woman bathing, sends for her, lies with her, and gets her pregnant. Bathsheba, the woman, is the wife of Uriah the Hittite, exemplary boy scout. David has him come home on leave, does his best to get him drunk so that he will sleep with Bathsheba, fails to crack Uriah’s moral vow of sexual abstinence, and sends him back to the front with a note pinned to his uniform meant for the Commander Joab, saying, “Please kill me. Send me to the front.” For doing such a dastardly deed, Nathan the prophet assures David that the sword will never depart from his house and that what he has done surreptitiously will in fact be done to him when his neighbor invades his harem and sleeps with his wives in the sight of all Israel.
Darling of God, a man after God’s own heart, David has royally messed up. He knows it. He admits it. But that does not avert the tragic consequences. The example that he has set is one that his sons quickly pick up on and emulate. Amnon, oldest son and heir apparent, seduces his half-sister Tamar, rapes her, and then spurns her. Tamar goes public with the story. David professes anger, but does not say quite why he is angry or at whom. Absalom, next in line, is Tamar’s brother who bides his time to avenge his sister’s shame. After a couple of years, he kills Amnon, for which deed David banishes him from the royal court. More time passes. Absalom is determined to get David’s attention and burns the field of General Joab to do just that. David welcomes Absalom back, yet won’t quite reconcile with him. Perhaps David knows that Absalom is a real threat to his own kingship. Again, Absalom bides his time, interjects himself into the judicial system where David is obviously weak, wins the hearts of a large slice of the population, and ultimately sets himself up as king, ensuring thereby that civil war has begun.
Brilliant and charismatic though he is, Absalom is no match for the wily old king, who knows just what to do to bring down the rebellion. He and the royal entourage flee Jerusalem, while Absalom comes into town and proceeds to fulfill the prophecy of Nathan by sleeping with all the royal concubines. While keeping some spies in Jerusalem and by making sure that one of his trusted allies infiltrates Absalom’s circle of advisors, David is nonetheless anxious. When the day of battle arrives, in his headquarters down near the Jordan River, the king gives orders to his commanders to “deal gently with the young man Absalom” for his, David’s sake. They do no such of the kind. Riding through the thick Forest of Ephraim, Absalom is caught by his beautiful hair in the branches of an oak, while his mule goes on riderless. Told where he is, the impetuous, efficient, loyal, no-nonsense General Joab takes three javelins and spears Absalom through the heart as he remains hanging in the oak. Joab’s men surround Absalom and finish the job. They throw his body into a pit and cover it with stones.
David hears the news from the Cushite messenger. “May all the enemies of my lord the King be like that young man.” And the tragedy has come to its head. David is deeply moved. As he goes up to the chamber over the gate, they can hear him grieving: “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom. Would I had died instead of you! O Absalom, my son, my son!”
What to do about tragedy: that is the question. We cannot undo the past. We cannot go back to some afternoon years ago, when passion got the best of us and we lost our heads there for awhile. We cannot retreat to several years ago when it seemed so right to hold on to our grudges while somebody else squirmed. We cannot erase injudiciously chosen words, spoken in anger, or take back poisonous gossip we have injected into a conversation. We are lucky if bad choices do not get away from us causing more damage than we could fathom. Nor can we ease ourselves off the hook by noting that whatever tragedy is unfolding is somebody else’s tragedy, not our own. For if it is happening to somebody in your life, even remotely in your life, it is indeed your tragedy. For all Jerusalem and all Israel pay the price for the tragedy of David. Sometimes one terrible negligence can set off a bombing or a shooting spree or an assassination that plunges half the world into chaos and mourning. So it is with the choice of somebody else’s wife or husband on a spring afternoon. Tragedy unfolds with no denouement until hell has been paid right and left.
There are various kinds of tragedy, as different people have pointed out. Aristotle, Hegel, and Nietzsche all looked deeply at tragedy and saw if from differing angles. Sometimes people are caught in the grip of circumstances that they simply cannot escape. Sometimes a Hamlet will carry so much loathing and disgust that his spirit is weighted down to death long before the sword fatally pierces him. Sometimes a Lear will rave in the wilds about treacheries that have only taken place in his warped and paranoid mind. Many times, as in Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy a Clyde Griffiths will be so enchanted with society’s promised trophy of success that he will kill rather than risk losing what he can never really have. Sometimes, as in Faulkner’s tale, Absalom, Absalom, the hate-filled, racist structures of society will conspire to wreck the lives of people who on occasion try to act nobly but cannot find a way to do it. What do we do about tragedy?
Frederick Buechner, writing about David’s tragedy, said that when David wished he had died instead of Absalom, “he meant it, of course. If he could have done the boy’s dying for him, he would have done it. If he could have paid the price for the boy’s betrayal of him, he would have paid it. If he could have given his own life to make the boy alive again, he would have given it. But even a king can’t do things like that. As later history was to prove, it takes a God.”*
That is the gospel. It is not that God wills everything to happen just as it does. But it is that a Divine Presence, a thoroughly moral Presence, makes itself felt in the midst of the deepest human tragedies. We may or may not learn from them, but God does not appear to give up providentially watching over us, nor to withdraw a loving-kindness that extends to the most broken of us. God is at work on human made crosses to loosen the grip of death in what we call resurrection. God takes the stupid blunders made by the best of people and redeems both the people and their blunders. The tragic Hamlet himself says to his friend Horatio, “There is a divinity that shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we will.” No purpose of God can ultimately be thwarted. And though we do not know and may never know how to avert the tragedies in which we are the main characters and supporting characters, we do know that our Redeemer lives, and that at the last day, he will stand upon the earth; and though our bodies be destroyed, yet shall we see God, whom we shall see for ourselves, and our eyes shall behold as our Friend, and not a stranger.
* Frederick Buechner, Peculiar Treasures: A Biblical Who’s Who (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1979), p. 6.
© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2012