Altar-ed Thinking

A revelation for one Memphis minister? Personal responsibility.

Some preachers need a gag order.

I refer to the Reverend Hubon "Dutch" Sandridge, who back in March told the crowd attending a service for several victims of the Lester Street murders that the terrible crime — one that took the lives of six people, including two children, and stunned the world with its horrific violence, bloodshed, and grief — was God's will.

And I quote: "[H]e does what He wants to when He gets ready to do it. And there ain't nothing you or I can do about it. But He's still an awesome God. He's a loving God. And He's still a loyal God. I don't know why they keep going back to that house looking for evidence . . . God is the evidence. He said, 'Whatever I want to happen will happen.'"

What comfort, do you suppose, did survivors draw from that pronouncement? What possible straw did loved ones clutch? Above all, what message did it send about decisions that each of us makes, for better or worse, every day?

We don't know why the innocent suffer, or why "bad things happen to good people." But in this case and countless others, they do so at the hands of men (and women) who are driven by rage, revenge, and bloodlust. By humans who choose to unleash their fury by emptying a gun into their "enemies" or thrusting a knife into the skull of a child barely old enough to walk.

Attributing the crime to God — saying in so many words that He wanted it to happen — lets a killer like Jessie Dotson off the hook. The devil didn't make him do it. God did.

In the name of all things holy, give the Almighty a break. This isn't about theology, however, and God doesn't need my defense. It's not about free will versus God's will, not about cosmic order versus chaos. It's about recognizing that what each of us does — or doesn't do — matters today, tomorrow, and yes, despite a popular saying to the contrary, even 100 years from now.

We know that life's unfair; for some, heartbreakingly so. Yet, despite that truth, millions of beleaguered people get out of bed each morning, care for their children, tend to sick parents, do their jobs (often several of them), put food on the table, curb their base impulses, stay out of jail, and get up the next day and do it all over again. And by choosing to stay the course, no matter how hopeless it may seem, they keep the world from spinning out of control for those they love . . . and for us as well. Thanks to individuals who simply do the best they can beyond all odds, we are all spared the misery of one more horror story blaring from the television, one more reason to believe the worst about mankind.

Others, like Jessie Dotson, succumb to every violent urge. They like to play the victim card — everybody's out to get them, everybody's done them wrong. After the murders, we heard lots of "if only" possibilities. If only Dotson had received help for his anger. If only, early in his life, someone had intervened. All probably valid, all perhaps true. Others declared that Dotson was as much a victim as those he butchered. Tell that to the child who identified him as the killer and will live with the memory of his uncle's rampage the rest of his life. Who is the victim here?

Putting aside talk of "if only" and "poor Jessie," the fact remains that Dotson made a monstrous choice — a whole string of them. God didn't tell him, "I want you to kill six people so I can take them home." Dotson did that all by himself.

With any luck, the survivors — and that includes not just the relatives of Dotson's victims, but all those who take the calamities life throws at them and don't go on a killing spree — have people who love them and help them get through the day. We hope, at the very least, they have a clergyman who offers more spiritual sustenance than, "[God] does what He wants to when He gets ready to do it."

I think I know what Sandridge meant: That no matter how ugly life gets, God is still in charge and justice will prevail. But here's what the good reverend said: "There ain't nothin' you can do about it." What cruel "comfort" to inflict on someone who is already bearing so much.

Let's tell people this instead: You can use an unspeakable horror to change your life. You can let it bring you down to Dotson's level. Or you can see the havoc he wreaked and vow to rise above it. Listen to your child. Reach out to someone who's hurting. When your own pain and anger reach the danger point, talk to a friend, join a support group, confide in a pastor. But don't let anyone tell you "whatever God wants to happen will happen." We have the right to choose. Use that right — with caution. M

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