It can seem a cruel twist that hurricanes are called “acts of God.”
Yet it is crueler still when the label is confirmed by careless statements from both televangelists and secular celebrities alike (This sentence may contain redundancies).
Recently, the actress Jennifer Lawrence remarked (omnisciently) that the devastating hurricanes assailing Texas and Florida are Mother Nature’s “wrath” toward a nation that elected Donald Trump.
And while conservatives rightly decried the “word of knowledge,” it bears reminding that certain fundamentalists have long been making similar pronouncements. Pat Robertson blamed Haiti’s earthquake on their “pact with the devil”; Jerry Falwell attributed 9/11 to “gays and lesbians”; and John Hagee blamed Hurricane Katrina on the wickedness of New Orleans.
Why do people do this?
The problem, it seems, is not exclusively a liberal or a conservative one, but a tendency of human nature.
Despite our talk of grace, we often find karma more appealing.
There is something comforting about rendering disaster meaningful as retribution. Retribution implies simplistic telos—and telos gives us consolation. After all, it is always “the other side” that is to blame.
WERE THEY WORSE SINNERS?
Jesus faced this fallacy as well.
In Luke 13, Christ is approached by the ideological ancestors of “Katniss,” Hagee, and Robertson. A tower had fallen in Siloam and there were casualties. The natural assumption was therefore that the event was God’s judgment on the victims’ egregious sins.
But Jesus isn’t buying it.
“Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no!” (Lk. 13.2–3).
The problem, it seems, is not with the notion that God sometimes judges sin dramatically; scripture says he does. Rather, the fault lies in the presumption that one can easily peer behind the veil to parse out when and how this happens.
When we do this, our statements usually become a kind “Rorschach test for prophets”—telling a lot about the speaker, but virtually nothing about Ultimate Reality.
When this happens, whether with J-Law or Pat Robertson, we often end up with a “God” who conveniently hates all the people we do. And this move manages (impressively) to break both the first and second commandments simultaneously: we kick God off the throne of judgment (#1), and we remake him in our camera-ready image (#2).
For such reasons, the majority of Christians–not to mention past Hunger Games champions–resist the urge to openly attribute hurricanes to divine anger at specific targets.
THE HARDER QUESTION
Yet this hardly quells the questions posed by such disasters.
Especially to theists.
Case in point:
A few years ago, I was introduced to a new colleague of mine, named Mark. In telling me about his life and family, he mentioned that his boy had been struck and killed by lightning.
While the conversation continued, I did not. I had recently become a first-time father myself; and my question was a blunt one:
Could I be Christian after that?
REDEFINING “ACTS OF GOD”
Are such terrible events really, as the insurance papers tell us, “Acts of God”?
One strand of Christianity says “Yes.”
While “Deism” views God as entirely detached from earthly affairs, “divine determinism” claims that every creaturely occurrence has as its cause God’s active will.
As David Bentley Hart explains it, in his excellent response to the southeast Asian tsunami (The Doors of the Sea):
Some theologians – Calvin, for instance – have denied that the distinction between what God wills and what he permits has any meaning at all.
Yet Hart finds this “unhealthy fascination” with God’s “dread sovereignty” unacceptable.
Thus he resists the urge to attribute every lightning strike on a suburban soccer field, every Indonesian child drowned in a tsunami, and every flattened Caribbean village to a simplistic “act of God.”
As he concludes:
It is a strange thing to seek peace in a universe rendered morally intelligible at the cost of a God rendered morally loathsome.
What though is the alternative?
THE LORD IN THE STORM
Between Deism and determinism lies the majority Christian position—and it is one that I share as a Wesleyan theologian.
God sometimes permits terrible disasters. We don’t know why entirely. (Perhaps grasping for the “knowledge of good and evil” is as troublesome now as it was in Eden.) Yet we trust that God is present in the suffering. Jesus proves this.
The claim here is that while the LORD is in the storm, he is not there as a sadistic force of retribution against the afflicted—much less his people.
Hart says it this way:
I do not believe we Christians are obliged — or even allowed — to look upon the devastation visited upon the coasts of the Indian Ocean [or elsewhere] and to console ourselves with vacuous cant about the mysterious course taken by God’s goodness in this world, or to assure others that some ultimate meaning or purpose resides in so much misery. Ours is, after all, a religion of salvation; our faith is in a God who has come to rescue His creation from the absurdity of sin and the emptiness of death, and so we are permitted to hate these things with a perfect hatred.
For while Christ takes the suffering of his creatures up into his own, it is not because he or they had need of suffering, but because he would not abandon his creatures to the grave. And while we know that the victory over evil and death has been won, we know also that it is a victory yet to come, and that creation therefore, as Paul says, groans in expectation of the glory that will one day be revealed. Until then, the world remains a place of struggle between light and darkness, truth and falsehood, life and death; and, in such a world, our portion is charity.
As for comfort, when we seek it, I can imagine none greater than the happy knowledge that when I see the death of a child I do not see the face of God, but the face of His enemy.
The point here is that Christians should resist naming horrific natural disasters as “acts of God,” just as we should resist the urge to blame them on whatever persons we find disagreeable.
When we fall victim to such errors we are more likely to be distracted from the final way that God is in the storm—not as a vindictive force of carnage, but as a healing presence in the hands and feet of his people.
In the end, the LORD is in the storm most palpably when we stop blaming long enough to pray and give and help.
For those interested in giving to those affected by Harvey and Irma, here is an organization that I trust (World Hope – Texas/Harvey). (World Hope – Irma Relief).