I remember the exact point when I fell in love with literature. Even as a small child I loved to read. Whenever I had a spare minute, my mother tells me she would find me curled up in a corner reading a book. But it was in 1972 (when I was thirteen years old) that I really fell in love with literature. My parents had given me a copy of Thornton Wilder’s classic novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey, first published in 1927 and a best-seller ever since. It was like no other book I had ever read. I wouldn’t have understood it as a thirteen-year-old, but the book is actually about the problem of evil.
The fictional story takes place in Peru in the year 1714. There was a long rope bridge that stretched across a canyon. It had been woven together years before by the Incas. At noon on July 20, 1714, five people were crossing the rope bridge when it suddenly broke sending all five down the canyon and to their deaths. This horrible tragedy was witnessed by a Franciscan friar named Brother Juniper. He wonders why those five people were on the bridge at that particular time. There were several who were just a few feet from stepping onto the bridge when it broke, and several others who had just completed the crossing seconds before it broke. Why were those saved and the others lost? Brother Juniper spends six years interviewing everyone he could find who knew those five people, trying to discern some underlying reason or theme which would make sense of this tragedy. But, there was no common thread. Some were godly people, some were not; some were rich, others not; some were beloved, others, not so much, etc. Without giving away the plot, let me just say that Brother Juniper struggles in finding a satisfying answer.
The novel has come back to me in recent days as the coronavirus has swept across our nation and the world. It is amazing that the peak of the death toll will, more or less, hit during Holy Week. Daily stories pour in about the people who have died. We are now told that the number of dead just in the USA, even with complete adherence to stay-at-home orders and social distancing will be around 100,000 people, perhaps more. There are already quite a few examples of devout Christians who have died from COVID-19. There will surely be countless Christians who will someday praise God because they never caught it.
There are many examples of active shooters—like at Columbine or Sandy Hook—where multiple people are killed, but several close by were left unharmed. Why did those die and not the others? I have a friend from Boston who took American Airlines Flight 11 on the same day and time every week for his work, which took him to California each week. It was American Airlines Flight 11 that was that tragic flight Muhammad Atta hijacked and crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center killing all passengers and crew. The day of that flight my friend got up and wasn’t feeling well and decided at the last minute to take a later flight to California. That decision saved his life. He asked, “Why me?” What about those who boarded the plane that day? Why were they not spared?
These kinds of experiences raise deep questions. The church has always struggled to know exactly how to respond because there is a mystery to all of this which cannot be resolved. Brother Juniper learned that in the novel.
Jesus himself addressed a situation like this in Luke 13. There was a tower in a neighborhood on the south side of Jerusalem known as the Tower of Siloam. It unexpectedly collapsed and eighteen people were killed. Jesus clearly states that those who died in the tower that day were not “worse offenders” than others who lived in Jerusalem. But, he uses the tragedy as a general call for all people to repent. What can we learn from this? First, we know that the collapse of the Tower of Siloam was not a sign of God’s particular judgment against those particular eighteen people. Second, we learn that all people need to be mindful of the brevity of life and Jesus himself reminds us of the importance to live each day with an attitude of repentance and humility. Tomorrow, we will continue this reflection as we walk through Holy Week together and move closer to Easter.