Tires on a Jeep
It was the year 1990. I was in West Africa and not happy about it. Thousands of Liberians had been forcibly displaced from their country by marauding army and rebel forces. Fleeing families were living in squalor, drinking
and washing in filthy water, and eating whatever scraps poor villagers could share.
My assignment was to interview these refugees from hell and report on the events that had put them to flight.
In a quiet voice, a man described to me a fellow villager being slowly cut to death by teenage boys wearing women’s
wigs. A young woman explained that she’d survived an attack on her village by hiding in the bush, from where she watched armed men wrap her mother in a gasoline-soaked mattress and set it aflame. A university professor who had fled with only the clothes he wore—a business suit—wept while we spoke, bizarrely, of the indignity of eating with his hands. Having lost everything, he yearned for a fork.
I took notes, filling pages of my notebook with hideous, degrading, pitiful stories, one after another. Then I rejoined
my fellow travelers, a group of American and French relief experts, for a jouncing Jeep ride through the bush back to our hostel in town.
When we arrived, one of my colleagues, an Ethiopian evangelical woman, broke into joyful prayer. She thanked the
Lord for our safe arrival and for sparing our overland vehicle a flat tire.
I thought I’d vomit. I had literally overdosed on malaria medicine—a French doctor in the refugee camp told me, mistakenly, to double my dosage, so I did. Antimalarial drugs in those days caused hallucinations, and I was having them. I hadn’t eaten or slept for three days, and I was trembling with revulsion and fear from the stories I’d heard. Praising God for our spectacular privileges, right down to our intact tires, in the face of the hunger and trauma we’d just witnessed, struck me as downright obscene. I wasn’t a Christian at the beginning of that trip, and by the end of it I could scarcely tolerate the sight of those who were.
I’m not sure I was an atheist. No self-respecting atheist would bother to curse God daily for misery and injustice as
vigorously as I did for forty years. I must have believed in something good to have felt so betrayed and heartbroken by every day’s fresh load of cruelty and suffering around the world. I would think bitterly, “Thanks, God. Thanks a whole lot for that.” And I don’t think agnostic is the right word either, if that means I weighed the evidence for and against and couldn’t form an opinion. I wanted there to be a God who was good and whose creation mirrored it, and it just wasn’t there. So perhaps the term for me was “twisted, pissed-off, betrayed, former Christian.” I can’t find that in the dictionary, but it’s what I was.
I once heard it said that you can believe in an all-powerful and loving God or you can believe in the Holocaust, but you
cannot believe in both of those things. Yes. When I think of the Holocaust and other atrocities that have become horrifyingly ordinary, it seems just stupid to imagine a good God who put this in motion and only watches it unfold. He-she-orit appears to be either uninterested or helpless against the forces of violence and cruelty that clearly have the upper hand most of the time, especially if you’re a woman, a child, disabled, or poor. It’s less painful to believe that the Creator doesn’t exist at all than to witness the daily betrayal of everything a loving, sovereign God represents.
I didn’t start out this way. I was born in 1954 to a devoutly Christian family. My grandparents were Mennonite missionaries in India, and we Burkhalters were committed churchgoers throughout my childhood. As a matter of fact, we sat through two services—sermon and all—every Sunday because my dad conducted the church choir. My parents were so respectful of their teetotaling religious roots that there wasn’t a drop of alcohol in our house until I was in my late teens.
All of which is to say that we were steeped in Mennonite values, and church was the warp and woof of my childhood. I
didn’t have a very sophisticated grasp of Christianity, but it never occurred to me that God might be a colossal fake.
It became brutally clear that the whole business was fraudulent when my lovely grandfather died. He was an old man
who had lived a good life in India as a pastor and then in gentle retirement in a sleepy Ohio town. But his death so devastated my grandmother that she had a mental breakdown. She, the most faithful of believers and devoted servants, lost her connection to the God she’d worshiped her whole life. She wept, asking out loud, “Where are you? Why did you leave me?” She lapsed into catatonic depression for a long time.
I was sixteen and I loved her very much. God’s apparent absence during her greatest need made me furious. What
good, after all, was God if the minute somebody lost a loved one, he went AWOL? The choices were that God was indifferent to my grandmother’s loss and sorrow, and thus a bad God, or he was aware of her suffering but powerless to help, and thus a weak God. The third choice was that he didn’t exist and never had.
My grandmother’s faith returned when she regained her mental health, but my faith, such as it was, certainly didn’t. I
basically ignored God until I started working in the international human rights field in the early 1980s. For the next
thirty years, I was nose to nose with the worst things that human beings can do to one another. I worked first as a human rights staffer for Congress and then for Human Rights Watch and finally for Physicians for Human Rights. I loved those organizations and my work, but I got a sickening education in human beings’ insatiable zest for raping, enslaving, torturing, and murdering those weaker than themselves.
It didn’t help matters that many conservative churches in the United States harnessed themselves to a right-wing political agenda that I loathed. Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority was founded in 1979, the year I came to Washington to work for Congress. The politics of abortion, school prayer, creationism, and homosexuality roiled Capitol Hill. For liberals like me, the word Christian came to be synonymous with bigotry, exclusivity, and antiscientific fundamentalism.
But it was the Rwandan genocide of 1994 that cemented my horror of atrocities against the vulnerable and my cynicism about a good God. You remember. The country had just reached a peace agreement between Hutu and minority Tutsi Rwandans when the Rwandan president’s plane was shot out of the sky by political extremists. To divert attention from their attempted putsch, Rwanda’s politicians unleashed the army and the militias on unarmed citizens. They proceeded to terrify ordinary Hutu Rwandans into systematically and thoroughly exterminating almost every Tutsi in the country.
My colleagues at Human Rights Watch tried so hard to make a difference. The organization meticulously monitored
and reported the carnage as village after village was engulfed in butchery. We published dozens of editorials in prominent newspapers, lobbied Congress, and met with top officials in the US government and the UN Security Council. We begged for the civilized countries of the world to intervene. It wouldn’t have taken much. A couple thousand well-armed soldiers in armored vehicles moving across a country the size of Maryland would have ended the killing promptly. That’s what we asked for, in hundreds of press releases, interviews, meetings, and letters.