One moment, people were cheering, anxiously anticipating their friends crossing the finish line in the Boston marathon. The next moment, stunned and bloody, they were fleeing in fright from harm's way. Chechen-born Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, and his 19-year-old brother Dzhokha had turned their would-be victory shouts into victims' screams of horror and pain.
The bomb blasts of these two young terrorists killed three persons and wounded over 180 other innocent bystanders.
With well-calculated cruelty, the two brothers devised their bombs to seriously maim or kill as many people as possible at the Boston Marathon on 15 April, Patriots' Day. The shrieks of horror. The bleeding and dismembered individuals strewn on the street. The deaths. Bodily pain and emotional grief: these were the weapons that the brothers used to create a scenario of fear and chaos.
With the older brother dead and the younger brother in custody, there began the long, tedious process of searching out motives and examining links to other individuals or groups.
Acts of terrorism
Terrorism in any form and in any place makes us feel insecure and vulnerable. And this feeling is not new. We have suffered through this before.
In 1995, Timothy McVeigh bombed the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people. In 1996, the bombings at the Atlanta Olympic Games killed two people and injured 111 others. In 1999, two students killed 12 of their fellow students and one teacher in a shooting rampage at Columbine High School in Colorado. In 2012, Adam Lanza killed 20 students and six adults in Newtown, Connecticut.
Who could ever forget the untold harm and incredible suffering inflicted on thousands of Americans on 9/11 in 2001? The Boston bombings are not unique. All these murderous attacks rob us of our peace and tranquillity.
When we begin to list the growing number of violent, terrorist acts at shopping malls, movie theatres, schools, sporting events, political rallies and religious gatherings, we question: Why would anyone want to harm or kill others for any reason? Why kill and injure on such a large scale? Why so much hatred, violence and disregard of life?
These questions torment us because they bring us face to face with the problem of evil. How can there be evil, and of such a great magnitude, in a world created by an all-loving God? Has our world actually come from the hands of God who cares about us and watches over us? How can the world be really good if there is such darkness lurking in unexpected places ready to rob us of life itself?
These questions are so perplexing and so painful that, if left unanswered, they lead more individuals to abandon their faith than any other reason. If God is real, if God is all-good, how could he ever allow evil to exist? Philosophy and theology can provide an answer. But, in the end, that answer may not heal broken hearts.
God has created us with the frightful gift of freedom. We are not puppets on a string. We are not predetermined in our actions. We have the freedom of choice to do good and to avoid evil. The reason? God has created us for love. God who is perfect love wills to give himself to us.
God loves us and he wills that we love him in return. Not because he is selfish, but because he is generous and wants to fill us with love. Love cannot be coerced. Love must be free. And so God gives us the freedom to love him by doing the good that leads to him. But, this also means he leaves us free to do the evil that turns us away from him and our true happiness.
"When freedom does not have a purpose [of love], when it does not wish to know anything about the rule of [love] engraved in the hearts of men and women, when it does not listen to the voice of conscience, it turns against humanity and society" (Blessed John Paul II).
God does not will anyone to do evil against humanity. But, he allows it to happen because he respects his own gift of our human freedom. Because God is infinitely wise and all-powerful as well as all-loving, he can bring out in this world an even greater good when evil happens.
The immediate and heroic actions of those who rush to aid the victims of violence and terrorism. The first responders. The police. The medical personnel. The casual bystanders who immediately get involved. Their heroic goodness gives us comfort. But the greater question still remains. Why did the evil have to happen in the first place?
No rational or intellectually accurate answer to the question of evil will ever suffice. Someone whom we love dies through sickness, an accident or violence. Hundreds of people lose their lives in an event of catastrophic devastation. We shed tears that cannot wash away the pain. Evil does more than confound the mind. It tugs at the heart.
As God's logic is beyond our rational explanations, so also his goodness is greater than all the evil in our world. God does not ignore our pain and sorrow. God loves us so much that he sent his Son and allowed him to suffer on a cross the cruel effect of all evil. Evil contradicts the goodness of God. That is why God's answer is the Cross!
Our human, finite reason alone will never answer the question of evil. But faith can. For faith is much more than an intellectual assent to the goodness of God. It is the heart trusting in God even in the moments of darkness. What we cannot see by reason, we can experience in faith. On the Cross, God took our suffering to himself. He is with us always, even in our pain and grief. He does not abandon us. The heart that knows his presence through faith will always find the way to love.
Bishop Arthur Serratelli is bishop of the Diocese of Paterson, New Jersey. The above article is reprinted with the permission of The Beacon , the diocesan newspaper in which this article was first published