September came hard as massive hurricanes slammed into our nation’s Gulf coast. Like many, I found myself completely distracted and immersed in the round-the-clock news coverage of the damage. When it comes to bearing witness to destruction, we seem unable to look away. While the information does soothe our need to know and connect with important people and places in our lives, too much information can damage our emotional balance. We must turn and turn again to the present of our own life, and help as we can with donated blood, money and specific resources to relief agencies. This is how communities recover; this is how we can help.
Yet we are meaning-making beings. We naturally tell stories of what happens in the world so we might order and understand what can feel like chaotic circumstances. Some of those stories involve theology, or talking about God. Preachers pounding out prayers, sermons, articles and social media comments, as they do. Believers repeating them. And some of these God stories make me sad and upset.
Despite centuries of passionate and careful study of the Biblical texts by both Jewish and Christian scholars, research that helps readers understand how this big library of old stories, poems, hymns, histories, letters and Jesus narratives is put together into a single volume, there are still those who read the Bible as if it were dictated word for word by Jesus himself to a single scribe somewhere. They pull verses and stories out of their original context, ignore the subtleties of language, form, history, and culture and proclaim the words as current truths about God.
This literalism has led one strain of popular theology to declare that hurricanes, earthquakes and destruction of land and people as evidence God’s wrath. This way of reading scripture has harmed untold numbers of people who have sought comfort, direction and help from God in times of disaster. This perspective takes as a starting point the way that the people of Israel, over 3,500 years ago, made sense of their own suffering.
The Jewish people are descendants of a tribe of people who believed they were God’s chosen nation. The only way those ancient people could reconcile that closeness to God and their suffering was to tell the story that both good and evil come from God. That included natural disasters, physical and mental disease, and war with neighboring tribes. Suffering? That must be God’s punishment. It made sense three millennia ago. It makes no sense now.
Jesus came fifteen centuries later and challenged that older way of thinking. If you read through the different versions of his story in the New Testament, you will read how he frequently challenged that theology. In several healing stories, people wanted Jesus to tell them who was to blame for someone’s suffering: a tower fell and killed several men; a child was born blind; a man was lame from birth. Part of his healing ritual was to tell the suffering that not only were their sins forgiven – the old way of thinking – but to “get up and walk.” There are dozens of these stories of Jesus’ compassion and healing, most of whom he heals without a judgmental word; just a command, and a touch.
Christians can disagree about much, but to continue to use meaning making from 3,500 years ago to talk about contemporary disasters and suffering is irresponsible and useless. Historic storms? They are a result of our complex dynamic atmosphere, now threatened by human environmental pollution and ocean warming. Earthquakes? Science has long ago discovered the massive pressures of our earth’s crust’s plates moving over time. These are scientific stories of meaning we can trust.
Is God our creator? Oh yes. But to assume that God’s action in the world is toward destruction is to fail to look at Jesus. Jesus’ life and death was a song of praise to a God of love and mercy, of healing and hope, of struggle for the sake of this difficult human family. If you’re hearing anything else from your church or religious media in these difficult days of natural disasters, wars and rumors of war, you’re not hearing the Good News.
(Published first in the Savage PACER 9.16.2017)