Calamity, Guilt, and Justification

As cyber space has opened up the world to the voice of anyone with a keyboard, the Christian sub-culture has created what is now almost a scripted response.

Immediately after the tragedy, the conservative Christians will point fingers at their favorite sin du jour, saying that the tragedy was brought by the hand of God in punishment for said transgressions.

With a lag time of perhaps 8 nanoseconds, liberal Christians will descry their country bumpkin counterparts, asking how they could know about the mind of God on such matters, highlighting other, worse places that did not get hit, and creating mock interpretations of other tragedies.

While the conservative response seeks an acknowledgement of guilt leading to repentance, the liberal response enables another sort of self-justifying. The former perhaps operates as a self-justification of the “in group,” the latter operates as self-justification of humanity as such.

And each, in their own ways, seek to justify God: the conservatives assuming that the sovereign God allowed or brought about the tragedy for a holy purpose, the liberals assuming God has had no part in it (science people, science!).

I feel sympathy with both views. I appreciate the conservative insistence that God is involved in the world. I also appreciate the liberal insistence that the world does not unfold in a direct set of responses of a holy God to people’s holiness or sin.

If the world operated like that, there would be no Job, no Ecclesiastes, and, ultimately, no cross.

So how might we respond faithfully when tragedies strike–be they natural disasters such as tsunamis or man-made disasters such as planes crashing into buildings or collapsing economies?

While agreeing with the liberal response that God might not be directly punishing or rewarding, disasters have the power to unmask the idols in which we have been putting our hope without knowing it.

I don’t worship money. I give a good deal of money away. I don’t make major life decisions based on what will have the best financial ramifications for me (I live in San Francisco, for crying out loud).

And yet, when the stock market tanks or the housing market plummets, I discover that I have a sense of anxiety. When man-made disasters remove what I assume is a firm foundation for my future, it discloses to me that I have an idol I was unaware of.

Thus, while agreeing with the conservatives that disasters should prompt heart-searching, we should not assume that we know in advance what sorts of sins we will discover in the process. How many folks on the right, when hearing of natural or man-made disasters, point the finger at the unbridled greed, usurious interest, and unbridled expenditure of military power as the points at which we should repent?

Rarely, if ever, do the stereotyped sins articulated by the “pious” come in for God’s heaviest judgment. This is the point of the transition from Romans 1-2. You can say all the right things, condemn everything that’s condemnable–and still come in for equal judgment at the hand of God.

We might say similar things about natural disasters–we have created a world that isolates most of us from daily dependence on the functioning of the natural order. We have water piped into desert areas; we have food shipped in from Mexico. We are more vulnerable than we realize, and depend on the works of our hands for our life and health. This is good, but may also become an idol, removing us from our dependence on God.

But perhaps above all, disasters and death are calls to get outside of ourselves. When people die or are left destitute or homeless, this is the time when we are called to be instruments of comfort of new life. We are children of the Father who puts the fatherless in houses–and thus should enact the home-giving love of the Father. We are children of the father who gives seed to the sower and bread for food–and so we should pour ourselves out to ensure that those left without sustenance by such disasters are fed.

The God we worship is the God who has promised to be God for a world that is imperfect in its “natural order” as well as the “world of humanity.” The Son sent by this God has come to make his blessings known far as the curse is found.

And so, if we will be the faithful people of God, we will respond to disasters, whether natural or man-made, by entering into this God’s project of restoration through self-giving love. We respond by love, by presence, by consolation. We respond by tending, caring, building.

And we trust that these acts of love are, themselves, the proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

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