Monday, September 05, 2005


Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck. Answer me, O Lord, out of the goodness of your love. I sink in the miry depths, where there is no foothold. In your great mercy turn to us.

Just recently on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered program, I heard an interview with members of the J. Eric Brown & Charity Gospel Choir. The choir was stranded in Chicago on the heals of Hurricane Katrina and could not return to their homes in Moss Point Mississippi due to the destruction. What caught my attention about the piece was the theological context in which the choir seemed to place the event. At the end of the interview the choir was heard singing and, supported by the rest of the musicians one voice (I assume it was Mr. Brown himself) said something to the effect of, “thank you Father, even in Katrina I saw your power.”

The devastation caused by a hurricane or tidal wave, a volcano, or an earthquake is often an occasion for people to reconsider, and to voice, their perspective on the role God plays in erstwhile natural disasters. In J. Eric Brown’s case I was impressed by the strength of his conviction that even in the face of devastation, which he clearly saw God having a hand in and direct responsibility for, God was to be praised as though Hurricane Katrina were a gift. This is not my position on the matter but I deeply respect Mr. Brown’s theological integrity here.

I think there are three basic positions, with a great many variations, that circumscribe the theological reflection about the confluence of God’s power and Human suffering. Perhaps four were we to include the position that there is no God and everything is merely random planetary activity. But since we are speaking theologically we can discount that fourth position for the moment.

The first, and perhaps the most prevalent position at least in Christian circles is the one that suggests that God controls every little thing that happens in life and beyond life. This is the position voiced by J. Eric Brown and many, many others. The idea is that God is involved directly in the minutia of life, that nothing happens without being a specific event in a very purposeful but complex plan that unfolds as God wills it, that there is a reason for everything, nothing is accidental or meaningless. Admittedly there is something profoundly comforting about this perspective. You are never on your own. No matter what happens to you in your life you never fall outside the realm of what God has in mind for you. Even the worst of events, the most seemingly devastating, fit into a well designed whole. As a means of making some kind of sense out of the vagaries of life, I suppose this perspective offers at least the assurance that nothing is wasteful and random in a universe of such size and complexity. We may not understand the rationale behind such destruction and loss of life, but it fits somehow into the divine flow chart.

I get this thinking, but I have real trouble accepting it. For one thing it makes God directly responsible for all the suffering, disease, destruction, and death in the world and I cannot find satisfaction in the notion that it all somehow fits neatly into an historical plot. For another, it completely flies in the face of any notion of free will. How can your choices have meaning or validity if every one of them has been predetermined so as to fit into the divine structure? It also makes the theological image of a good God who stands with those who suffer a little hard to swallow. But my primary objection to this theology is the subtle way in which it absolves human beings of their responsibility for suffering. I may participate in causing the suffering of others, but hey, it’s part of God’s plan. No, believe me, I understand the comfort that such a perspective can engender, and I admire the integrity of those like Mr. Brown who can remain steadfastly thankful in the face of such devastating loss, but I am one of those people who gets deeply agitated whenever I hear someone utter that fatuous expression, “there but for the grace of God go I.”

A second perspective is a largely heretical notion still very much alive in certain fundamentalist circles. It is the dualistic idea that this world is the realm of, or at least partially controlled by Satan. Bad things happen because Satan is in charge if not of the whole world, then at least of enough souls to generate an abundance of evil in the world. Satan walks the earth and, in contravention of God’s desire, causes pain and suffering and death. Satan tricks people into doing all those things that hurt themselves and others. The people of God must resist and overcome the satanic influences in the world. We are at war with evil. Of course, for most fundamentalists satan is in charge of everyone who does not believe exactly as they believe. I don’t buy this world view either. It gives God too little credit and Satan too much. It once again absolves us of our role in creating the conditions for evil and treats humanity like someone else’s puppets.

The third broad perspective, and the one to which I more closely ascribe, revolves around the notion that things happen and unfold not in an entirely random way but not in a divinely manipulative way either. The universe was designed and structured in such a way that, over time, a certain system of balance would pertain. Everything happens for a reason but the reason isn’t personal. Weather happens all the time, it is a necessary function of the atmosphere, and the fact that we fail generally to notice it until it becomes devastating or inconvenient doesn’t mean that God just suddenly decided to wipe out a whole section of the Bible belt or that Satan has become suddenly powerful on the Gulf coast. The fact that people die does not mean that God has become capricious, punishing, or violent. We would love to live in a world where God manipulates the weather and we manipulate God (prayer) but we do not, I think, live in that world. Things happen. They happen not because God has designated them to happen but because they happen. There is risk involved in living in this world and no perfect security. You can’t keep yourself from harm on this planet. Get over it.

When we suffer God does bear with us and surround us with a comforting spirit so that we can come through devastation and emerge stronger perhaps and wiser. But God does not send affliction to punish or produce results. God abhors suffering but suffering is part of the risk of this world. With this, I believe that God also has given us free will and respects the same. So while God may attempt to influence or lure or call us into better relationships and wiser choices, God does not make decisions for us. So we can choose to pollute the world in which we live, to be selfish and self-centered, to use up all the resources, to treat our neighbors like garbage and hurt the ones we supposedly love but there are consequences to these choices. The mere fact that our actions come back to bite us in the ass does not mean God is taking anything out on us.

Could Hurricane Katrina have been prevented? I doubt it, but I don’t know. Is it possible that the strength of the storm and the path of the storm were influenced by patterns arising from Global Warming and the atmospheric changes that are taking place because of our own choices? Maybe, but there have always been storms, its part of how the planet functions.

Could the devastation have been lessened in the Gulf coast area? Undoubtedly. Maintanence of the levies could have been done more thoroughly and more regularly. Perhaps they would have held. Perhaps if we took more seriously the issues arising from already devastating poverty in this country we might not have had so many very poor people trapped in inner cities without the means to evacuate in the face of such a storm. Perhaps building coastal cities below sea level might not be such a terrific idea after all. Perhaps if we had political leaders who didn’t simply treat such tragedies as photo-ops we might not be as cynical about federal assistance in a disaster.

The storm was an act of nature, part of the planetary ecosystem, a thing that happens regularly as a part of our planet’s balancing act. The devastation could well have been mitigated not by divine intervention but by human decision making at a number of points along the route. This is always the message at the heart of the Biblical Prophets by the way. We cannot simply make such poor choices in our world and then shake our fists at God when we don’t like the results. If I build my house on a fault line, I risk losing it to an earthquake. If I keep my neighbors poor and homeless and hopeless so that I can become rich and comfortable, I can expect some reaction from desperation. If I smoke two packs of cigarettes every day for forty years can I really be surprised when I get lung cancer?

God is surely at work in our world but I find the image of a manipulative, puppet-master God highly suspect. I prefer the theological perspective that allows for human freedom and dignity while envisioning a God who grieves with the victims and helps them find the resources they need to recover and resume living. I prefer the image of a God who tries to help us grow wiser and deepen our own spiritual capacities for understanding and compassion to the extent that we become the answer to our own prayers. I prefer the God who calls us into being good neighbors in communities of love and understanding rather than being isolated, selfish, and judgmental. I prefer the God of Life.

If you want to help the God of Life in the recovery efforts there are plenty of ways to do it. The United Church of Christ is sponsoring a fund raising effort called Hope Shall Bloom, the proceeds from which will be used to support the more long term recovery efforts. Church World service is always active around such tragic events and this time they are supplying us with both a means of contributing money and - if you are inclined to do more - the recipes for several kinds of "kits" that they use in disaster areas. There are also some other organizations like the Red Cross and Second Harvest that do wonderful recovery work in disaster areas.









Blogger Lindsay Lobe said...

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Best wishes

11:51 PM  
Blogger Convergent said...

As per Edward Schillebeeckx:

"Christians must give up a perverse, unhealthy and inhuman doctrine of predestination without in so doing making God the great scapegoat of history" . "Nothing is determined in advance: in nature there is chance and determinism; in the world of human activity there is possibility of free choices. Therefore the historical future is not known even to God; otherwise we and our history would be merely a puppet show in which God holds the strings. For God, too, history is an adventure, an open history for and of men and women." Church: The Human Story of God, Crossroad, p.91,1993 (paperback).

In my opinion, this conclusion is one of the most important of the last 60 millennia as it rectifies the tragic history of humankind and voids all Old Testament and contemporary prophecies. Rabbis, priests and preachers have a hard time voiding OT prophecies so they continue their constant harangue about "Acts of God".

God's gift of "free will/ choice" equates to the gift of future !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

By the way, Holland since 1953 has spent over a trillion dollars trying to prevent "God's" storm surges in their country and still they are not sure the present system of dikes and dams will work for a Katrina-type surge. Rebuilding New Orleans and beach front or near-beach condos/homes/casinos are significantly stupid ideas.

11:40 AM  
Blogger bohemiantroubadour said...


10:42 PM  

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