Friday, November 11, 2005

Not Again

Pat Robertson has once again spoken for God, and declared God's wrath against people who disagree with him. The last time he did this, the shock-waves it sent through my congregation eventually drove me out of pastoral ministry.

After hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, inspired by Pat Robertson's vision of God, the overwhelming majority of my church declared that the destruction that ensued was evidence of God's judgment against that city for its sins. The next Sunday I felt that I had to respond, so I gave a sermon entitled: God of Wrath or God of Mercy? My congregation was so bothered by this sermon that they devoted the rest of my short time there to making me and my family so miserable that we had to leave.

Yesterday, in response to the city of Dover's rejection of a school board that inserted their theological beliefs into the science curriculum, Pat Robertson, on his TV show, said "I'd like to say to the good citizens of Dover: if there is a disaster in your area, don't turn to God, you just rejected Him from your city."

I cannot let that stand without some form of comment, and so I am posting my original sermon on this blog. Here it is:

God of Wrath or God of Mercy? A Christian
Response to Katrina

There are two great mysteries that consume our existence. The first of these can be summed up in a question raised by the French existentialist Sartre: Why is there something instead of nothing? Existence itself is a mystery. Those of us who have truly contemplated the nature of life; those of us who have stared into the eyes of another, or into our own eyes, and seen something stare back know this. There is no accounting for the fact that anything exists, much less this mysterious experience of life, of consciousness.

Christians account for this mystery by proclaiming that God is the reason, the only reason, why there is something instead of nothing. God is the source of all things, the ground of all being. God is the creator and sustainer of the universe.

We describe this God in many ways, using metaphor and plain description, as well as a combination of the two. Sometimes, in fact, we can't tell whether we are describing God by use of metaphor, because perhaps all descriptions of God, if they hope to be in any way accurate, are metaphors of some kind or another. Just as the nature of life, or existence, is as mystery, the nature of the God who is its source is mysterious.

Traditionally, however, we Christians have described God by giving God particular attributes. We say that God is omnipotent, or all powerful; omniscient, or all seeing (or all knowing); benevolent, or all loving. These attributes which we ascribe to God have been very meaningful, because they remind us that the God who is our source, and the source of all things, is so much greater than we are. But these attributes which we ascribe to God create a problem with the second great mystery.

Those who do not believe in any kind of God, like Sartre, have great difficulty with the mystery of existence. But those of us who do believe in God have, perhaps, greater difficulty with the second mystery, the mystery of suffering. A fundamental problem with traditional Christianity is called the problem of suffering. It points out that our description of God is logically incompatible with the fact of suffering. It says that these statements cannot all be true:

1. There is a God.
2. God is all powerful.
3. God is all seeing or all knowing.
4. God is benevolent, or all loving.
5. There is suffering in the world.

Surely a God who loves us (and all things), and who knows all things (including what will lead to suffering), and who can do all things, would not allow suffering in His world. And yet we experience suffering, and this is, to us a mystery.

The world is full of all kinds of suffering; this is one of the facts of existence. We were, this week, slammed by that fact, as a devastating storm destroyed much of the city of New Orleans, as well as other parts of the states of Louisiana and Mississippi. This is a great tragedy. Many of us are shaken by the scenes of devastation. Entire communities have been leveled. Homes and lives have been destroyed. And now, in the wake of this natural disaster, we are witnessing a very unnatural disaster, as looters, murderers, rapists and thieves take advantage of the chaos.

In the face of such suffering; in the face of such natural and unnatural evil, we are left wondering how this can be in accordance with the will of our beloved God. This is roughly the same question that every Christian is asked by the problem of suffering, and it is a question which every Christian, at one point or another, must answer, either privately or publicly.

An attempt to answer, or resolve, the problem of suffering is called a theodicy. There are many kinds of theodicies, but, perhaps the most effective of these involve a notion of free will. If suffering in the world can be explained by human free will, then perhaps God is off the hook. The basic question becomes, then, one of balancing what is gained by human free will against what is lost by suffering. If suffering can somehow be balanced against human freedom, then it may be justified.

There are two main ways in which it is asserted that human freedom is responsible for suffering in the world: directly and indirectly. If human free will is claimed to be the direct cause of suffering in the world, then suffering results immediately from the misuse of human freedom. This is particularly obvious in situations in which suffering is obviously directly derived from a human act. I punch my brother, and this causes him to be injured. I drink before I hop into an automobile and drive, and this directly leads to the death or another and the suffering of the affected friends and family.

But this does not account for certain natural disasters, such as hurricanes, tornados, earthquakes, or even illness. In these, if human freedom is to be the sole cause of suffering in the world, there must be some subtler argument. Illness is still in some cases easy to describe in terms of being directly caused by the misuse of human freedom. I am promiscuous sexually, and contract AIDS or another STD. I smoke for years and acquire a cancer. I have an unhealthy diet and get a heart ailment or diabetes. But some diseases are not obviously directly related to human behavior. And hurricanes, tornados, earthquakes and the like are certainly not obviously related to human behavior. These may be indirectly related to the misuse of human freedom. They may, in fact, according to some, be God's response to our misuse of freedom.

The notion of a "fall" is central to the Christian faith. All humans, despite having been made in the image of God, have in some way chosen to rebel against God. God gave us freedom so that we could freely choose the ways of God, but we have used this freedom to pursue our own selfish desires. As such, all humans are estranged from God, and in rebellion against God. If this were not so, then we could expect a world in which there is no suffering. But this is so, and so suffering is created. As we have seen, sometimes suffering is directly caused by our bad choices. But sometimes it caused by them indirectly.

God would not be just in bringing suffering upon "good" people, but as there are no good people, then, some claim, God is justified in causing them harm. This has often been used to explain the kind of suffering that cannot easily be explained. Sodom and Gomorrah, we read in Genesis, are destroyed by God for their sins. This same God, in the time of Noah, destroyed the entire known world in a flood as a way to try to purge evil from all creation. In this we are introduced to a holy and just God of Wrath, who is justified in bringing destruction upon sinners.

This mindset was applied by some to the events of September 11th. It was claimed by some Christians that the terrorist attacks of that day were evidence of God's judgment against the United States for its manifold sins and wickedness. The same kind of argument was made by some members of my church in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina. These honest Christians, who see in parts of the Bible a God of wrath, wonder if perhaps this hurricane wasn't sent by God to destroy the city of New Orleans because it had become too wicked.

In seeing events like these as being signs of God's wrath on mankind - or, at least, on certain portions of mankind - these people knowingly or unknowingly appeal to a particular kind of argument (mentioned above) to explain away the problem of suffering. They see suffering as a product of the misuse of human freedom, which is what they mean by sin. They see God as standing apart from the earth, estranged from sinful humanity as it is estranged from them, externally judging and condemning. They see a righteous God of wrath, who is justified by that righteousness and our own wickedness. The suffering in this case may be a tool for redemption, if it causes sinners to repent, or it may merely be just desserts.

This view is supported by a particular reading of scripture. The Hebrew Bible is full of references to the holy wrath of God. In it we do get a picture of a God who can visit destruction on humanity for its wicked, sinful ways. But this view is, in my mind, not justified by a full reading of scripture. In saying this I am not saying that those who disagree with me are not fully Christian, nor am I saying that they do not read their Bible. Rather, I am saying that they emphasize on aspect of the description of God which we find in the Bible, without taking other aspects of scripture's description of the divine nature into account.

But, before I deal with that, first I must ask those who hold that natural disasters like what we see in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina are evidence of God's judgment against the world a few questions:

1. If God uses events like hurricane Katrina to smite sinners, and if scripture is correct in asserting that all have sinned, why are any of us left? Wouldn't a just God, if such a God were inclined to annihilate sinners, annihilate all sinners and not just a few arbitrary ones?

2. If hurricane Katrina and other natural disasters represent the judgment of a God of Wrath on sinners, and if we as Christians seek to follow the will of God, how should we respond to victims of natural disasters? Most of us, even and especially those in my church who have wondered whether or not this hurricane represents the judgment of God on the city of New Orleans, feel a moral, spiritual, and religious obligation to help those who have been victimized by the storm. Yet if the devastation of this storm represents the active will of God, aren't we standing in God's way if we help those whom God has harmed?

3. If natural disasters like Katrina, and unnatural disasters like the terrorist attacks of September 11, are manifestations of the wrath of God in a way that can be compared to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, why haven't those who remained behind or helped the victims, or even witnessed the events on television, suffered the same fate as Lot's wife, who was turned into a pillar of salt?

These questions call our belief in a God of Wrath into question, because they point to an inconsistency in the theology of a God of Wrath. But, those of us who take scripture seriously should also take the theology of a God of Wrath seriously, because evidence for it can, as stated earlier, be found in scripture. In the Hebrew Bible God calls for and brings about the destruction of cities and nations. Entire races are wiped out by the hand or command of God. This leads us to declare that this Bible depicts a God of Wrath.

But there is also in the Hebrew Bible evidence for a very different kind of God. The God who destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah is the same God who sent Jonah to Nineveh. Jonah, who served a God of Wrath, refused to take the message of a God of Mercy to the sinners there, and so, serving his idea of God, he rebelled against and ran from God. But still, despite Jonah's protests and rebellion, God changed the heart of the Ninevites.

It is said that God cannot tolerate sin, and this must be so, for we know that sin is separation from God. But the God who cannot tolerate sin shows a remarkable toleration of sinners. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the biblical story of King David, who used his political power to sleep with a married woman and then kill her husband after failing to cover up the affair. Surely this bent toward sinning - assuming that we can come up with some sort of hierarchy of sins, which is not an entirely safe assumption - is worse than that of the average victim of hurricane Katrina. Yet, rather than being destroyed by God, David was redeemed, and even called a man after God's own heart.

The picture of God that we get from the Hebrew Bible, then, is not an unambiguous picture of a God of Wrath. Rather, it is a complicated picture of a God who is sometimes characterized by wrath and sometimes characterized by mercy. This picture is troubling to Christians who hold that God is by nature unchanging. After all, the account of God in scripture seems clearly to change. Thus the picture of God that we get from the ministry of Jesus ultimately looks nothing like the God of Wrath that we see in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah.

In the ministry of Jesus we see not a God of Wrath but a God of Mercy. Christianity is founded on the notion of the incarnation of God. That notion of the incarnation flatly contradicts the theology of the God of Wrath. The God of Wrath is a God that stands over and apart from creation, looking down on it, judging it, and punishing it. The laws of the God of Wrath are as absolute as they are arbitrary, and the penalty for disobeying those laws is sift and severe. But, the defining attribute of the God of Wrath is separation. Sin is separation from God, and as all have sinned, all are separate from God. Just as all are separate from God, God is separate from creation. This is why God can so harshly judge creation. But in the ministry of Jesus, and the theology of incarnation, we see God, in Christ, entering into the world. This God of mercy enters into the world in Christ to take on the sin, and the suffering, in the world, to reconcile the world to God.

Christians see Jesus as the Christ, even as the Son of God. Jesus, in a mysterious way, represents the merging of the divine with the natural. If God were a God of Wrath, a God who visits judgment on sinners, why would God send us a Christ who is a suffering servant? Surely a God of Wrath would send a conquering ruler to judge the world and destroy the wicked. And, as we believe in a universal fall, surely all would be destroyed by such a Christ.

But in Jesus we have a very different Christ. We have a Christ who lives a poor humble life. We have a Christ who prefers the company of sinners to the company of the self-righteous. We have a Christ who preaches love and mercy. We have a Christ who suffers and dies on the cross. We have a Christ who humbles, even humiliates himself. We have a Christ who takes on the sin of the world. We have a Christ who does not judge, but removes judgment, who does not punish but forgives. In short, we have a Christ who embraces the grace which comes not from a God of Wrath, but rather from a God of Mercy.

This Christ teaches us how to respond to the suffering in the world. We are not to create some sort of theology to explain it away and let God off the hook. We are not to comfort ourselves in the midst of it. Rather, we are to take it on, just as Christ, in taking on our sins, took on as well our suffering (as sin, being separation from God, is the root of suffering). We are, like the God of Mercy we see in the ministry of Jesus and the doctrine of incarnation, to enter into suffering. We are to share suffering. And we are to, in sharing suffering, work to alleviate suffering.

Fortunately even those among us who believe in a God of Wrath serve a God of Mercy insofar as they feel called by God to share in and alleviate the suffering caused by Katrina. This divine calling is the proof we need to know that the one true God is not the God of Wrath, but the God of Mercy.

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