Tag Archives: Harvey

Where is God in Hurricane Season?

God did not send Irma, Harvey, Jose, and Maria. I hope you know that.

Why didn’t God prevent Irma, Harvey, Jose, and Maria? Larry King asked a variation of this question on Twitter last night. If God is omnipotent, why doesn’t he prevent natural disasters like hurricanes and earthquakes? King noted that no religious leader has ever been able to answer that for him. The tone of the tweet was not antagonistic. It felt like an honest question mulled over a lifetime. It’s a question we’re all asking. And it’s not just about natural (or human-made) disasters. It’s about all kinds of tragedy and injustice and loss. It’s the cry of Jesus from the cross.

Before going further, let’s ask ourselves what we actually lose if start to allow for the possibility that God might not be omnipotent in the way we traditionally mean.

In philosophic and theological studies, the question of why terrible things happen to good or innocent people is known as “The Problem of Evil.”  Millions of attempts continue to be made to solve the conundrum as classically presented:  if God is all-good, all-powerful, and all-knowing, why does evil persist?”  Some answers are more satisfying than others, but none seem entirely sufficient in the moments they feel most needed.

Martin Luther said that we know God best through God’s love and compassion, not God’s power.  There’s something to that, but we’re still left asking “but if God has the power to prevent X,Y,Z, why won’t he?”

Luther also wrote at length about the suffering of Jesus on the cross as real spiritual trauma for God.  On the cross, Jesus (God in time and space and flesh and blood) experiences the quintessential human question: “God, why have you forsaken me?” On the cross, God experiences the human condition in totally, because on the cross, God experiences the feeling of being Godforsaken.  God experiences what we experience. God knows the pain we know.

We lose nothing, really, if we allow ourselves to consider the idea that God, who is mighty to save, may not be omnipotent in the way we generally think we mean.

My response to Larry King’s tweet was “maybe God isn’t omnipotent. but I do believe God is in the suffering and mourning and struggle. That’s why I follow the Crucified.”

It took the cross for God to know Godforsakenness. And God stayed on the cross. Christians follow a murdered God.  I think that tells us something.

If God isn’t omnipotent in the way we’ve traditionally said, how can we say God is mighty to save?

I think the answer to this part of the question lies in the call to take up our own crosses and follow Jesus.  To sacrifice confidence and trust in anything besides the love and compassion of God as the grounding of our being and the source of our identity.  The cross frees us from seeking our personhood or salvation in systems of politics, economics, and empire.  Naked and crucified, the God born in the poverty of the manger completes his final to move to total solidarity with us.  The life and death of Jesus are no quaint pantomime:  God knew hunger, tragedy, temptation, weakness, and loss.  God felt utterly abandoned by God.  We know and feel all of those experiences on the ebbs and tides of life.

In the person of Jesus, God found the fullness of God’s identity: the God who relies on the care of others for survival, the God who struggles within complex family systems, the God who celebrates at weddings and mourns the loss of friends.  The God who rejoices in our triumphs and the God who suffers the way we suffer.

Where is God in Harvey, Irma, and Maria?

God is in the shelters.  God is in the living rooms of family and friends where displaced people are finding hospitality and healing.  God is in the suffering and loss. God is in the hope of resurrection, in the kindness and compassion of strangers becoming friends. God is in the clean-up crews and buckets.

I don’t know what God is able to do about preventing human suffering.  I pray as if God can do every single thing.  But I do know what God is able to do in the wake of devastation.  Christians follow a crucified God, yes, but also one of Resurrection.  On the cross, God felt the horror of feeling Godforsaken.  In the Resurrection, proof of God’s attendant care breaks forth as Easter Morning.  Jesus was not forsaken or forgotten.  The power of God, mighty to save, manifests in healing after horror. We feel Godforsaken, but we aren’t ever really.  God’s attendant care is there in healing after horror. That’s another way God saves us.

I’m okay with the idea that the God who heals us might not have the power to prevent everything that hurts us.  Come what may, I always seem to find God in the aftermath.  None of this is to say with certainty that God’s not omnipotent in the classical sense.  But if God is, it seems God may have more to answer for than what the cross itself sets right. While it’s true that the frequency of extreme weather events rises with pollution, and while it’s true that so much of what we call evil or unjust is the accretion of broken people living broken lives, and while it’s true that none of that is God’s fault, a classically omnipotent God ought to be able to find a way around the human noise we throw up to heaven.  A classically omnipotent God, we hope, would say “regardless of your free will and brokenness, I have abolished evil, entropy, and want.”

That’s not the reality we seem to experience.  But that doesn’t mean God isn’t here, isn’t moving, isn’t active, isn’t real.  Jesus was killed by systemic injustice and the evil choices of his enemies.  Jesus was raised to glory by the God whose attendant care is there, healing after horror.

 

Considering Jonah and Noah in Light of Harvey and Irma

I said earlier that  I’d been re-reading the flood narrative in Genesis.

The devastation from Harvey, and, soon, Irma, compels me to say something about what God isn’t doing.

God is not sending these storms as a punishment on America.

God is not sending these storms as a punishment on the world.

God is not sending these storms, period.

Remember the story of Jonah?

God (Yahweh in the text) calls Jonah to cry against the city of Nineveh, “for their wickedness has come up before me.”  Jonah wants nothing to do with this mission, and embarks for Tarshish instead.  He doesn’t get far.  Trapped in the belly of a great fish, Jonah offers an incredible prayer:

“I called to the Lord, out of my distress,
    and he answered me;
out of the belly of Sheol I cried,
    and thou didst hear my voice.
For thou didst cast me into the deep,
    into the heart of the seas,
    and the flood was round about me;
all thy waves and thy billows
    passed over me.
Then I said, ‘I am cast out
    from thy presence;
how shall I again look
    upon thy holy temple?’
The waters closed in over me,
    the deep was round about me;
weeds were wrapped about my head
    at the roots of the mountains.
I went down to the land
    whose bars closed upon me for ever;
yet thou didst bring up my life from the Pit,
    Lord my God.
When my soul fainted within me,
    I remembered the Lord;
and my prayer came to thee,
    into thy holy temple.
Those who pay regard to vain idols
    forsake their true loyalty.
But I with the voice of thanksgiving
    will sacrifice to thee;
what I have vowed I will pay.
    Deliverance belongs to the Lord!”

“And Yahweh spoke to the fish, and it vomited out Jonah upon the dry land.”

Jonah preaches a warning from God in Nineveh: “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” The people, from beggar to king, repent of evil.  God responds in kind.

Jonah gets lit.

“But to Jonah this seemed very wrong, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord, “Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.”

I’m going to repeat the most important part of this passage, ignoring, for a moment, Jonah’s impossible dramatics.

“I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.”

God could have left Nineveh tore up from the floor up.  (The justice of such an action is another matter.)  Rather than sending calamity, God sent a prophet.  Rather than a tidal wave or a series of storms or an earthquake, God sent correction.  Jonah held Nineveh in contempt; God wanted its people to repent and flourish.

In Jonah, God does not send calamity.  God sends correction.

The devastation from Harvey, Irma, and other natural disasters are not punishments from God.  Modern-day Jonahs, eager to see the things they despise brought to ruin and claim the destruction as mighty acts of God, be warned.

As for Jonah’s (and would-be Jonahs’) histrionics:

“Yahweh replied, ‘Is it right for you to be angry?’

Jonah had gone out and sat down at a place east of the city. There he made himself a shelter, sat in its shade and waited to see what would happen to the city. Then the Lord God provided a leafy plant and made it grow up over Jonah to give shade for his head to ease his discomfort, and Jonah was very happy about the plant. But at dawn the next day God provided a worm, which chewed the plant so that it withered. When the sun rose, God provided a scorching east wind, and the sun blazed on Jonah’s head so that he grew faint. He wanted to die, and said, ‘It would be better for me to die than to live.’

But God said to Jonah, ‘Is it right for you to be angry about the plant?’

‘It is,’ he said. ‘And I’m so angry I wish I were dead.’

But Yahweh said, ‘You have been concerned about this plant, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?'”

This stands in quite the contrast to the moody, brooding God of the Noah’s Ark narrative.  In that story, Yahweh (still smarting in familial dysfunction?), kills almost every man, woman, child, and animal on Earth with a great flood.

One of these stories is partly about the nature of God.  One is partly an attempt to explain an historic calamity in concert with the notion that God is all-powerful and good, and is also a claim that God has established a certain covenant with a certain elect band of people.  “Good” people.  And whatever these stories seek to say about God, they say an awful lot about the nature of people.  Jonah longs for the destruction of people God would rather save.  The writer of the flood story hedges that the payoff of a national god who can control nature will be worth the scandal of having that god kill innocent children.

These stories are “about” God, but they are more fundamentally about how we can only understand God in conversation with others.  Left to our own devices, we inevitably cast God in exclusionary terms.  We become like the writer of the flood narrative’s darkest moments.  We become like Jonah.

As I said yesterday:

It’s important to remember that when we study the Scriptures, we’re not simply interpreting a set of neutral or sacrosanct writings.  The very act of reading Scripture is an act of encountering a diverse collection of people’s perceived, longed-for, and actual experiences with God.  There is incredible richness in such and undertaking.  Whatever else they’re meant to do, these stories, poems, parables, and teachings are meant to put us in conversation with ourselves as much as with each other.  With our own preconceived notions about God and everything else.  Understanding the Scriptures, even a little, requires engagement with other people.  That’s incredibly important, especially if you believe or want to believe in a God who’s still speaking, a God who lives beyond story and page, beyond symbol or sacrifice.

I don’t know what God is literally able to do in the face of calamity.  But I know God does not send it.

For the victims of these and all raging storms, let us pray with Jonah:

“I called to the Lord, out of my distress,
    and he answered me;
out of the belly of Sheol I cried,
    and thou didst hear my voice.
For thou didst cast me into the deep,
    into the heart of the seas,
    and the flood was round about me;
all thy waves and thy billows
    passed over me.
Then I said, ‘I am cast out
    from thy presence;
how shall I again look
    upon thy holy temple?’
The waters closed in over me,
    the deep was round about me;
weeds were wrapped about my head
    at the roots of the mountains.
I went down to the land
    whose bars closed upon me for ever;
yet thou didst bring up my life from the Pit,
    Lord my God.
When my soul fainted within me,
    I remembered the Lord;
and my prayer came to thee,
    into thy holy temple.
Those who pay regard to vain idols
    forsake their true loyalty.
But I with the voice of thanksgiving
    will sacrifice to thee;
what I have vowed I will pay.
    Deliverance belongs to the Lord!”

Amen.