Welcome to Comics Are My Religion, a look at theology through the lens of comic books. There are some basic ground rules about engaging in respectful dialog about religion in this column. There be spoilers ahead, so beware!
Religion seems to be fine, until something tragic happens. When life is happy and things are going our way, it’s easy to give credit to God by thanking or praising God. We get a new job, we have a baby, we move out of the way in the last second before that car creams us, we toss up a “Thank you, Lord!” Even those who aren’t very religious tend to thank the universe for smiling upon them when things go well.
However, people are just as quick to vilify God the moment something bad happens. I think of the friends I have had who experienced real tragedy for the first time in their lives, and find that the God they assumed would be there for them seemed distant or completely absent. They trusted that God would protect them, would save them, would bless them, but in the day of complete tragedy, it felt as if God did none of those things.
In Will Eisner’s classic and seminal graphic novel A Contract With God, this parable is beautifully rendered. The story centers around Frimme Hersh, a faithful and pious Jew, who literally makes a contract with God early in his life to prove that God is all-knowing and just. He moves to New York City and lives in the tenements of the Bronx. He dedicates his life to following God, being faithful, and doing good deeds. He becomes a leader in his synagogue and a well-respected and wise person in his community. He follows his end of the contract to every dot and tittle.
One night, a child is put on his doorstep and he faithfully takes her in, seeing this as a blessing from the contract he has with God. He raises her and she grows, and they are extremely happy with one another. Yet, tragedy strikes and she becomes ill. She eventually dies, and Frimme staggers home in the rain following her funeral.
Upon hearing of her death, Frimme screams to God that in her death, in the pain that he feels, God has broken the contract. “NO! Not to me…You can’t do this…we have a contract! YOU VIOLATED OUR CONTRACT! If God requires that men honor their agreements…then is not God, also, so obligated? I ask you…were the terms not clearly written? Did I ignore even one tiny sentence – or perhaps a single comma? Enough.” He picks up the contract that was etched into a stone, spits on it, and tosses it into the night rain.
Frimme eventually denounces his entire faith, and becomes very rich through real estate. He becomes hardened and cold. He uses his congregation’s bonds as collateral to buy his own tenement building. After he becomes very successful, he goes back and pays the congregation back (a hint that he is not completely devoid of morality). He asks that the leaders of the congregation draft him a new contract with God, which gives him hope for a new and better life. Perhaps he would marry and have another child. Yet before he can barely sign the contract, he has a heart attack and dies suddenly.
Eisner’s bold and honest tale seems about as real as it can get. We can all identify with Frimme. What do we do when it seems God has broken a contract with us? Whether or not we draft an actual contract with God on rock or paper, it does seem as if we have a standing agreement with God. We’ll stay faithful and will do good deeds so long as God continues to keep us happy.
But does God make such contracts with us? I’m not sure that our relationship with God is contractual. My relationship with my wife or my friends or my children aren’t contractual. My love for them is not dependent on their love for me. Sure, I will hurt them and they will hurt me, but if the relationship is real, it’s not dependent on whether or not things go well all the time.
I recently was reading Psalm 30, which has a person talking to God about the fact that they’ve met a lot of personal tragedy. He’s been defeated by enemies, he’s had illness that brought him to the brink of death. He says, “While I felt secure, I said, ‘I shall never be disturbed. You, LORD, with your favor, made me as strong as the mountains.’ Then you hid your face, and I was filled with fear.” But the difference between the psalmist and Frimme is that the psalmist hangs in there. He doesn’t see his relationship with God as a contract. Instead, he knows that if he hangs in there, there is hope.
Things are never going to be perfect and happy for those who are faithful. Among the most faithful Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, Christians, and any other religious person I know are the ones who have met personal tragedy and have persevered. Their faith is never the same again, but it is deeper, it’s more grounded in the reality that if we stick with God in the midst of tragedy, we find that God is actually sticking with us. Psalm 30 shows us that if we hang in there long enough, tragedy can never last forever. God turns sorrow into joy and wailing into dancing, not the other way around.
So when it feels like God has broken the contract, if we hang in there, we find that there was never a contract to begin with.