Misfit Disciples in an Orthodox World

Misfit Disciples in an Orthodox World
"You had better be a round peg in a square hole than a round peg in a round hole. The latter is in for life, while the first is only an indeterminate sentence." – Elbert Hubbard

Japan: Discerning the Hand of God in Tragedy

Friday, March 18, 2011

Acts of God by Amy Nelson
The recent events in Japan have been absolutely horrific. Hundreds and thousands of people are suffering, having lost loved ones and homes, their future bleak with uncertainty. Sitting in the comfort and relative security of my own home, it is so hard to connect with such carnage. The pictures come across the computer screen and television, almost like foreign invaders. Foreign to my thinking because I've never suffered such a horrid turn of events. And, it is even more terrifying to think that this all happened, literally, in a matter of seconds, to people just like me.

Given that it's been a whole week now since all this transpired, I was somewhat encouraged by the lack of religious idiocy surrounding this event. It seemed almost immediately after the Haiti quake, that claimed over two hundred thousand lives, that Pat Robertson was basking in free publicity after announcing the ludicrous notion that the quake was God getting back at Haiti because of voodoo and other things that offended Robertson's religious sensibilities. I remember hearing this and hanging my head in shame, being embarrassed that someone who claimed to represent my faith to the world would utter such unconscionable words in the name of Christ.

Unfortunately, this tendency could not be kept at bay forever. I woke this morning to read several articles speaking about the the comments made by the Governor of Tokyo. He stated that the quake and subsequent events were a result of divine retribution, enacted  because of Japanese greed. I was really hoping against hope that we could table the question of theodicy this time around. Maybe, just this one time, we could abstain from trying to put God's stamp of approval upon it, and choose not to discuss divine complicity with yet another  global atrocity. Obviously, this has not happened. And, to my surprise, this ill-considered rhetoric has come from someone within the crisis itself, which is somewhat unique. It's really easy to sit outside the tragedy and pontificate and speculate, but it seems somewhat unusual, to me, that this question has arisen from someone inside the crisis.

The fact is, our Christian faith and how we present God to the world, kind of generates and perpetuates these kinds of discussions. And in so doing, this logic has become so ingrained in our thinking that it is virtually impossible to ignore. I mean, anytime something like an earthquake or bad storm occurs, we automatically call it an "act of God." It is a term with legal standing as well. So, even within a secular context, the assumption that God has something to do with these horrible tragedies is a foregone conclusion. 

Much of our Christian teaching, ontologically, lends itself to these assumptions. We say that God is pure love, omniscient, omnipotent, and of course, these very ideas just beg the question of why. Why then, does God allow these  horrible things to happen? If he is love, knows everything that is going to happen before it happens, has all power to stop it, why doesn't he? In essence, it is our very own assumptions about God that creates this paradox.

Personally, if it were up to me,  I would take God out of the "why" equation altogether. For instance, I was raised in eastern NC. I can think of numerous structures: houses, restaurants, piers, etc, that have been destroyed by storms and then rebuilt over and over again. Perhaps the first incident, we could possibly blame on God, if we're so inclined; but, after that, doesn't some responsibility have to fall upon the people who continue to rebuild on that spot? So, in this case, God really doesn't have to have anything to do with it. 

Acts of God by Amy Nelson
There are other examples, such as the Katrina Hurricane that destroyed so much in New Orleans several years ago. It was totally infuriating to read of how many years the Army Corps of Engineers knew of the problems with the dam and how this tragedy could have been minimized, or possibly, prevented altogether.  

Earthquakes and subsequent tsunamis are a bit different. But, even here, we know allot more about fault lines and plate tectonics than we ever knew before. If a massive earthquake was to hit San Fransisco, I don't think anyone would be surprised. They've been waiting for the "big" one for years. And when it does hit (because I don't think its a matter of "if" anymore), it will have a huge impact on the loss of life and property. I don't think we'll be able to blame God on that one. 

Now, I am not saying that natural disasters are completely inside man's ability to control. I am just saying that we do not always have to naturally jump to the conclusion that it's all God's fault. We do not always have to indict God when things like this happen. 

Obviously, this still leaves allot of questions unanswered. And, I am not sure we can ever come to a satisfying conclusion. I don't think we will ever reconcile the notion of God's sovereignty with the idea that God is pure love. It really is a paradox; and that, in and of itself, is very frustrating to me. It is in my nature to want to know. I despise open ended question to which I can not find a satisfactory answer. I don't believe that these types of horrific events are God's ultimate plan for the world. When I contemplate the new heavens and earth that Peter talked about, where righteousness is at home  (2 Peter 2 :13, NRSV)), I can not imagine that human suffering and destruction is a part of that.   

Rembrandt, 1650-55
With all this said, I think that if you really want to see God in these events, you do not have to look very far. I think it is often the arguments above that detract from and prevent us from seeing the real hand of God in these tragedies. I think here of the Good Samaritan (Lk 10:29-37). Those that passed the injured man by without helping, had their own ideas as to why the man was there and because of this, they absolved themselves of any responsibility to help. The man who stopped, however, did not consider these things. He simply took the man and got him help. This was God; this propensity to help, to do what one can to alleviate human suffering--this is the spark of the divine within the halls of human existence. And this, I think, is where our energies are best expended during these inevitable times of great calamity. Rather than seeking an answer to rhetorical questions for which no suitable answer is available, we should seek to discern God in our suffering neighbor, working to ease his pain and suffering.

Religion Dispatches, an online magazine, in response to the Governor's remarks, wrote an excellent article about the various religious groups at work in Japan and the wonderful job they are doing in coordinating relief efforts and reaching out to help those in need. These religious expenditures cut across all sorts of religious and cultural boundaries. Christian and Buddhist are working side by side, trying to minister love and mercy to the people of Japan. You can access the article here

We will always wonder about God and the role he plays in our world: what he could or could not prevent. Questions of why will remain in our hearts and minds. And one day, I do believe we will have our answers. I could speculate and give my opinion here, and it might be well and adequate for me. But, for someone else, it might likely complicate matters. So, in lieu of a satisfactory answer which we can all identify and accept, I propose that we change the conversation. Let's see God in the heart and hands of those who minister peace and mercy to the suffering. There is no doubt that God can always be seen and found there. Of this, we can all be sure!  


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