I teach at a college in Guayaquil, the largest city in Ecuador—and the city reputed to be the most dangerous in the country. Taking a cautious approach to my commute, I have arranged for a driver to pick me up at my house every morning and drive me to the college.
Carlos, my driver, is a very kind, honest, and punctual person. He has offered to take my family to church on Sunday with no charge for transportation. He didn’t charge me for a ride when a tire blew just two blocks from my destination because he didn’t complete the trip. And, he’s an overall genuine person.
Then, this morning, he didn’t show up to get me, and he didn’t answer his phone. I arranged for a new ride and moved on, slightly worried about him given his regular punctuality. But, I told myself, “Things happen.” Traffic, broken down cars, minor accidents, forgetfulness, and so on.
Then he stopped by my house today to apologize. He was on foot. He had been kidnapped and his car was stolen, along with his phone. That’s why he didn’t pick me up. He wanted to apologize and tell me he could not pick me up the next day, either.
I was upset the rest of the day. What kind of person would do this to such a kind, honest person? Who could look at a person who is so authentically good and tell him that they are about to destroy their day, their week, their year? Who could steal this person’s phone, money, and car—his sole source of income as a driver? How could that sort of evil exist?
I later realized, though, worse things happen. Children are raped by their own parents. Missionaries of Charity nuns were killed by gunmen in Yemen. Babies go hungry and sick children fail to receive proper medical care. And if a car being stolen from a good person could wreck my day, imagine what all these things—if they were just as close—could do to me.
In Ecuador, we see the large beautiful flower of the Brugmansia plant—also known as “angel’s flower”— that provides a drug that incapacitates a person’s reasoning abilities and allows criminals to control the victim.
Scopolamine is the drug that comes from this droopy, pleasantly smelling flower. It can render a victim unconscious for 24 hours or more, but the initial effect is to render a person complacent and unaware of their surroundings. Victims under the influence have regained consciousness to find they’ve been robbed or raped. Reports range from stolen cash, jewelry to cut-out organs. And the victim has no memory of any of it happening.
In the moment, it seems too simple to blame it all on the Devil. It doesn’t make me feel better when I think of the things in humanity and nature that cause so much harm.
When considering the holiness of Creation it is easy to wonder about those things that do not seem so holy. Then, we see in the Book of Joel where, for Joel, a plague of locusts in Judah led to deep insights to God’s universal plan. Joel had no doubt that God was behind the plague. In fact, he imagines God leading the locusts like a mighty army into battle.
Unlike many of the other prophets, Joel did not devote time to an analysis of Israel’s failings. He concentrated, instead, on a cure to the problem. Joel urged the priests to call a day of prayer and fasting to lead the people back to God. Then God would roll back the damage done by the locusts, and more: “You shall eat and be filled, and shall praise the name of the Lord, your God, because he has dealt wondrously with you.” Often a disaster has pressed God’s people into a deep relationship with him.
I don’t pretend to have a deep understanding of these things. To pretend to have an answer and a justifiable complaint regarding the workings of the universe would only warrant the response given by God in the Book of Job.
After much loss and pain, Job asks why the righteous suffer. In reply, God does not explain Job’s hardships. Instead, God cites divine wisdom, asking Job:
“Where were you when I founded the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding, who determined its size; do you know? Who stretched out the measuring line for it? Into what were its pedestals sunk, and who laid the cornerstone, while the morning stars sang in chorus and all the sons of God shouted for joy? And who shut within doors the sea when it burst forth from the womb; when I made the clouds its garment and thick darkness its swaddling bands?. . . . Have you ever in your lifetime commanded the morning and shown the dawn its place for taking hold of the ends of the earth, till the wicked are shaken from its surface?”