The Theology of Hurricanes

I need to freshen this place up before my mother notices that it’s been 5 days* since I last updated the blog. School is back in full swing, and I’m a little disorganized and a little grumpy. I just need to find my rhythm and figure out how much sleep I can give up without suffering cognitive impairments. (*”Missing link” added.)

But maybe the grumpiness explains my admittedly-less-than charitable reaction to this: At work I received a sort of diary-email sent to many, many people describing the sender’s recent visit to New Orleans as a medical volunteer. It was a long email, and probably very compelling, but I didn’t get much further than the first few paragraphs, wherein the writer shared an anecdote about an evacuee and then described herself giving the woman a hug and whispering “God gives us these things to test us.” Or words to that effect. I can’t verify because I deleted it so quickly and irretrievably at precisely that point.

You’ve heard the term “theodicy“? This is, loosely, an attempt to explain how evil can exist if God is good and all-powerful. Sometimes these efforts lead to proclamations better described as theo-idiocy. I have so far steered clear of posting links to the inevitable “God is punishing New Orleans/the US”-type bandwidth-wasters on this site, even knowing that they can be very entertaining. (I do wonder, along with Left Coaster, what these folks will be saying now that a Category 5 hurricane is churning toward the president’s home state.) But I find this kind of “God is testing you” pablum equally meaningless.

We were inundated with theo-idiocy in January after the tsunami in the Indian Ocean, and we’ll be inundated with it now. I don’t believe God sends hurricanes, tsunamis, and earthquakes (or that God “lets” terrorists pilot airliners into buildings) to punish humans. I do believe, however, that God is keenly interested in how we treat one another in the aftermath.

Last January I posted a goodly chunk of a Jan 5 ’05 LA Times editorial by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. I don’t think you can link to the editorial anymore, so for convenience, I’ll repost it here, since it remains relevant.

…The simplest explanation is that of the 12th century sage, Moses Maimonides.

Natural disasters, he said, have no explanation other than that God, by placing us in a physical world, set life within the parameters of the physical. Planets are formed, earthquakes occur, and sometimes innocents die.

To wish it were otherwise is in essence to wish that we were not physical beings at all.

Then we would not know pleasure, desire, achievement, freedom, virtue, creativity, vulnerability and love. We would be angels — God’s computers — programmed to sing his praise.

The religious question is, therefore, not “Why did this happen?” but “What then shall we do?” That is why, in synagogues, churches, mosques and temples, along with our prayers for the injured and the bereaved, we are asking people to donate money to assist the work of relief.

The religious response is not to seek to understand, thereby to accept. We are not God.

Instead we are the people he has called on to be his “partners in the work of creation.” The only adequate religious response is to say: “God, I do not know why this disaster has happened, but I do know what you want of us: to help the afflicted, comfort the bereaved, send healing to the injured and aid those who have lost their livelihoods and homes.”

We cannot understand God, but we can strive to imitate his love and care.

Along these lines, Melinda Henneberger had a good column in Newsweek last week taking Democrats to task for forgetting their roots and failing to challenge Conservative Christian immorality and inhumanity toward the poor:

(Excerpt) But have Democrats loudly decried the inhumanity—or even the hidden, deferred costs of the Bush cuts in services to the most vulnerable among the already born? Heavens, no, with a handful of exceptions, such as former vice-presidential nominee John Edwards, who spoke every single day of his campaign—and ever since—about our responsibilities toward those struggling just to get by in the “other America.”

Most party leaders are still busy emulating Bill Clinton, who felt their pain and cut their benefits—and made his fellow Dems ashamed to show any hint of a “bleeding heart.” Clinton’s imitators haven’t his skills, though, so his bloodless, Republican Lite legacy has been a political as well as moral disaster.

That’s not, of course, because voters give a hoot about poverty, but because along with the defining moral strength of its commitment to the underclass went most of the party’s self-confidence, and all of its fervor.

Incredibly, they even ceded the discussion of compassion to President Bush, a man who has always struck me as empathy-free—to an odd extent, really, as we saw again last week when he cracked jokes about his carousing days on his first trip to the Gulf Coast.

Immediately after the disaster, Bush quickly intervened—to make it possible for refiners to produce dirtier gasoline. He has since zapped working people on the Gulf Coast all over again by suspending the 1931 law that requires employers to pay the prevailing wage to workers on all federally financed projects.

Others in his party have expressed concern about all the freebies evacuees will be enjoying: “How do you separate the needy from those who just want a $2,000 handout?” Alaska Gov. Frank Murkowski asked—by way of explaining why debit cards for Katrina victims were a bad idea.

So far, though, I’d love to be wrong, I see no reason to think the president’s sinking poll numbers will persuade him that there’s more to (pro-)life than opposing abortion.

I still dare to hope Democrats may yet remember why they are Democrats, though. And that would be a real come-to-Jesus moment.

If I have a quibble with the piece, it would be where she suggests that we’re all complicit in the government’s failings because “top to bottom, we picked this government” — ‘scuse me, but who are you calling WE?!

(Incidentally, all those folks I didn’t pick seem to be losing their edge as citizens awaken to the fullness of Bush administration incompetence, and even their own cheerleaders are noticing. Of course, the Democrats are certainly no better organized or united, but it’s still kinda fun to watch. (There are, however, tantalizing reports of spinal ossification among leading Democratic figures.)

FYI — Daily Kos has introduced a new “community” for discussions of faith and politics: Street Prophets. Read more about it here. I’ll add it to the blog links on the side bar.


One thought on “The Theology of Hurricanes

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  1. Thanks so much for posting this–I totally agree. God made the world just as much as he made you or me, and as such, the world has to do its own thing. In fact, it was having hurricanes and sandstorms and tornadoes long before we were around. ~_~


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