Damage caused by a fire at Breezy Point is shown on Oct. 30, 2012, in New York. Fire officials say the blaze was reported in an area flooded by the superstorm.
When natural disasters like Hurricane Sandy hit, there is usually a groundswell of theologizing which “explains” how the death and destruction are a punishment from God, and typically for a very specific sin or set of sins. While the past few days have brought some of that, there seems to be less of it than there has been in the past. Who knows, perhaps we are getting more spiritually evolved?
In the past, we have seen high profile religious and even political leaders – people with significant followings – make claims about how a variety of storms, earthquakes, etc. were signs of God’s displeasure with human beings in general, America as a whole, or specific groups and/or nationalities. We are talking about people including Pat Robertson, Michele Bachman, and too many others to list here.
In each case, these leaders rushed to explain God’s anger. Lo and behold, God’s wrath was always directed at the same people the human speakers were themselves angry at! They simply dressed God up as a larger and angrier version of themselves. If that doesn’t come perilously close to idolatry, I don’t know what does.
This time however, as the clean-up from Sandy proceeds, the list of those interpreting the weather as a sign of divine wrath, includes only one such well-known figure –Shirley Phelps-Roper, the daughter and heir of Westboro Baptist Church founder Fred Phelps. And when you consider that her entire community includes no more than 100 members, it really is similar to a dog whose bark is worse than his bite.
Beyond that, a quick search of who is making grotesque calculations about other people’s suffering, yields a few no-name preachers, an angry anti-gay ultra-orthodox rabbi, and a few offshore Islamists. In other words, the trend line for those who claim not only to see God’s hand in all things, including the weather, is down. That does indicate that we are getting wiser.
Even if the same number of religious and cultural leaders who still believe in their hearts that they know why things like Hurricane Sandy happen, they seem to know that more and more of us find their almost boorish theological certitude to be offensive. They know that making claims about why dozens of lives and billions of dollars are lost actually cheapen and demean the faith they represent in the minds of the larger American public. Good for us!
To be perfectly clear however, there is no problem with asserting that Sandy, or any other meteorological event, is an act of God. In fact, all those theologians who dismiss such assertions are the ones who are departing from the norm of the past two millennia in western religious thought.
Ironically, their desire to de-couple God as the cause of such painful events is as much about avoidance as is the easy sin-suffering calculus they reject.
Those who refuse to even wrestle with God’s role as a cause of these terrible events, do so for the same reason as those who claim to know why they are happening. Each has difficulty squaring their belief in a merciful and just God who remains involved with the world, with the events themselves. One group simply divorces God from causation, and the other group pretends to know the mind of God.
Perhaps in the coming days, we should all resist easy answers which avoid the pain caused by Hurricane Sandy. Perhaps we should all find the courage to live with not having answers. Perhaps in the coming days, instead of focusing on answers, we should focus on responses.
How could each of us respond to the suffering created by the hurricane? How could we respond, such that questions about the presence of God, questions that are entirely natural in the face of such catastrophes, would be answered by the examples of compassion, care, and concern that we create in our respective communities?
Whatever one thinks about God’s role in sending Sandy, we could probably all agree about the presence of God in such responses.
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