After the crash: Where is God?

The images of debris and death from Swissair 111 are all too familiar, as are the scenes of grieving families gazing at a distant crash site.

Four years ago, Father Thaddeus Barnum was caught up in a similar drama, when USAir flight 427 fell in a 23-second death dive into the wooded hills about a mile from his church outside Pittsburgh. The Sept. 8 crash killed 132, virtually shredded the aircraft and remains one of the great mysteries in aviation history.

After rushing to the hellish scene, Barnum became one of the few clergy allowed inside the yellow security tape to minister to the stunned investigators and rescue crews. Over and over, he rushed through the same kind of media gauntlet clergy are facing this week in Nova Scotia.

The Episcopal priest kept hearing the same question: "Why did this happen?"

"Everybody knows what that means," he said. "What they were asking was, 'Where was God? Why did God allow this to happen?' What else could that question mean?' "

After all, Barnum wasn't a mechanic, a federal investigator, a coroner or a pilot. He was just a man in a clerical collar, someone who is supposed to provide comforting answers on demand. The reporters were asking questions about the very nature of God, live and on camera.

"That's fair. We need to face tough theological questions. The problem was that they really didn't want a real answer. They wanted a sound bite," said Barnum, who wrote a book called "Where Is God in Suffering and Tragedy" about the crash. "I wanted to tell them, 'Come on. You're journalists. You cover accidents and murder and death all the time. Does a plane have to fall out of the sky for you to realize this is a sinful, fallen world?' "

Truth is, jet crashes provide today's archetypal images of sudden death and grief in a land that has little direct experience with war and mass terrorism. While heart attacks and car wrecks lurk in private nightmares, the fall of a jetliner is big news. This hits close to home, especially since millions of people regularly spend time strapped into airplane seats, thinking about life and death as the wheels leave the ground.

But life goes on. On the first anniversary of the USAir 427 crash, noted Barnum, mourners gathered at the site, waiting in silence for the clock to reach 7:03 p.m. Then the weeping was interrupted by a familiar sound - another Boeing 737 following same flight path, at exactly the same time. It was just part of the routine.

Life goes on, but the questions linger. Theologians have given a technical name - "theodicy" - to the ultimate question raised by such tragedies. Barnum states the equation bluntly in his book: "Either God caused the tragedy and is not good, or He couldn't stop it and is not all-powerful. Either way, God is less than God." One bitter rescue worker simply said, "Do me a favor when you get up in your pulpit. ... Don't let God off the hook."

There is no sound-bite answer to questions about free will, evil and the impact of sin on all of creation, said Barnum. Christianity also insists that God is not above suffering and death, but chose to experience both in human flesh. In the end, Christmas leads to Good Friday, which is followed by Easter. This answer infuriates many people, while offering hope to others.

Near the point of impact, Barnum discovered a torn human body hanging on a scorched tree on the hillside. He wept, yet this horrible sight also reminded him of the cross. It was impossible for a priest to avoid that kind of mysterious experience while wearing a decontamination suit in that particular valley of the shadow of death.

"When we went into the crash site, we were facing the facts and I guess that shocked some people," he said. "It's OK for clergy to sit on the outside and comfort the grieving families. We're allowed to offer our answers in places like that. But we're not supposed to take Jesus Christ with us inside the yellow tape where everything is broken and bloody."