Not So Blessed: When disaster hits your enemy

 

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I had to resist rubbing my hands together in a weak moment of delighted schadenfreude when I read that Tony Perkins — rabid right-wing, anti-gay leader of the Family Research Council — lost his house this past week in the floods of Louisiana. The same guy who preached that natural disasters were God’s vengeance on America for tolerating gays, abortion … and whatever in-vogue sin of the day is tolerated in our society. Maybe you’re not so blessed, so privileged as you think.

“Karma,” some of my friends were saying. “With the measure you use, it will be measured back to you,” someone quoted Jesus. “You reap what you sow.”  All just different ways of saying the same thing: that there is some kind of cosmic reward and retribution system built into the fabric of our existence.

Okay, Tony Perkins is just one of the thousands effected by the floods. A dozen people died and 40,000 homes were destroyed in southern Louisiana this week. It would be tragic to overlook the devastating effects of nature on so many people, just so we can grab a few seconds of delight in the misfortune of one of our enemies. Surely karma is also concerned with the plight of the innocent. God takes no pleasure in the suffering of others. So maybe let’s not be so quick to get happy over the news.

Otherwise, we’re just as guilty — and mistaken — as those same people who’ve blamed other tragedies on us, on our “sins” and grievances against a holy God.

Jesus never gloated when his opponents were humbled. He never threw a stone, even at those who seemingly deserved it. And when people came to him wanting to point out the sinfulness of those who died when a tower in Siloam fell on them, or when a Roman governor slaughtered a group of people in the temple, Jesus rebuked them harshly. “They were no greater sinners than you — so if that’s the case, you’d better watch out for what’s coming your way” (Luke 13).  That’s a paraphrase, but that’s the gist of it. God doesn’t dole out to us what we “deserve.”  In fact, speaking of himself, giving himself a name, God declares, “this is who I am: the LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness …” (Exodus 34).

But enough sermonizing. My fleeting moment of hubris over wanting to rub Tony Perkins’ face in it, in reality, was quickly shouted down by my own conscience. This is not who we are — or how God works. We’re better than this. We’re called to be better than this. To look upon even our enemies with compassion. And not be so quick to point the finger of judgment. Especially in moments of tragedy.

Bad stuff happens to good (and bad) people. That’s not an “act of God.” God’s hand actually moves through us when we do something to help each other.

My hope (and prayer) is that Tony Perkins, and those who follow him, will take this moment and rethink their theology. I hope real life will temper their theories, give them a reason to weigh the ugliness, the coldness and inhumaneness of this aspect of their beliefs. Good theology is born out of life experience. It can’t be just academic or based on a simple, literalistic reading of a holy text. That way leads to legalism, to hard-heartedness, to death. It dishonors “the compassionate and gracious God” it claims to reflect.  Bad stuff happens to good (and bad) people. That’s not an “act of God.” God’s hand actually moves through us when we do something to help each other.

This wasn’t a shining moment for me either. This harsh moment of history when people are suffering is making me pause and rethink my own “gut reactions.” It’s a cold look in the mirror of my soul.  I’m in need of some personal transformation as much as the Family Research Council is in need of some theological transformation.

May the tender, correcting voice of God’s Spirit work in us all.  And then may we move past our moments of introspection and theologizing to actually step up and help take care of those impacted by these so-called “acts of God.”

 

Ways to help & donate:

Salvation Army’s Gulf Coast fund – volunteer or donate to help
Operation Blessing relief fund – providing hot meals and helping in recovery
Second Harvest Food Bank of Greater New Orleans & Acadiana – distributing food, water, and supplies to flood victims

 


photo credit: Tony Perkins’ home after the flooding. Taken from Tony Perkins’ Facebook page.

And then God struck …. Not.

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Minutes after the US Supreme Court handed down their ruling overturning bans on same-sex marriage, posts were already going up on Facebook and across the blogosphere about “Spitting in the face of God” and “God’s impending wrath on America.

*Sigh* Really? Of course, this kind of reaction is not surprising. There are a surprising number of people who are invested in preserving tradition and a strict moral code that does not allow for love between two people of the same gender. It’s a religious thing, not a rational one. Not a civil one. Not a constitutional one. And frankly, not a godly one either.

But there it is.  Wrath. Christians who on most days of the week boast about living in God’s grace, now suddenly focused on the doom about to be unleashed on this now pagan America.

But let’s forget about the bantering back and forth about “WWJD?” or what the Bible says (or doesn’t say) about homosexuality. We’ll never agree on that anyway. We will always read and interpret the Bible in ways that agree with what we already want to believe. Let’s just look at our own history in Europe and America, and judge whether God is still in the wrath-inflicting business.

When Europe was filled with terror over religious wars in the previous centuries, with people being brutally tortured (Spanish Inquisitions, Holy Wars, Crusades, etc), did God hurl lightning bolts at Rome or London or Castile? Did comets plummet to the earth, wiping out vile Europeans? Or during the Holocaust in the 1930s and -40s, with millions of Jews (“God’s chosen people”), Gypsies, gay people, and others were exterminated, and their ashes literally rose to heaven as their bodies were incinerated — did God inflict his wrath?

In our own illustrious American history, with the genocide of Native Americans, with centuries of slavery, with witch hunts and burning people at the stake, oppression of women and racial minorities, of anti-Semitism, of Islamophobia and homophobia, of lynchings, of gay-bashing and public violence… What about our neglected poor, and those who fought so hard to make sure the poor among us would NOT have food or shelter or medical treatment? Yeah, Social Security is part of our national existence now, but it was strongly resisted when FDR tried to bring it about. Same with Medicare and Medicaid. Just look at the fight over Obamacare, or the hostility directed at “illegal aliens”.

The Bible is full of examples (and commands!) concerning treatment of the weak, the helpless, the widows, orphans, the poor, the aliens in the land. The prophet Ezekiel even declared that that was the reason for God’s punishment on Sodom and Gomorrah — for the citizens of those cities’ lack of concern for the vulnerable among them, while they fattened their own purses and stomachs. Greed, gluttony, selfishness, and turning a blind eye to the needs of others is what irks God. (Ezek 16:49)

Jesus came along and turned a spotlight on these concerns close to God’s heart. Love for our neighbor became a motto. “What you do unto the least of these …” was a standard against which we would ultimately be judged in the next life.

And about “imminent judgment” for sins committed, Jesus pointed at examples in his own day, and said “NO! Those people hurt by disasters were no more sinners than you” (Lk 13:4). And when his own disciples wanted to call down fire from heaven upon those who rejected God’s Good News (listen up, Mike Huckabee!), Jesus smacked them in the face: “You don’t know what Spirit you belong to”  (Lk 9:54).

If America were to invoke the wrath of God — whether by drought or famine or hurricane, flood, earthquake or other natural disaster — it would not be over passing laws that allow people to love and celebrate each other. If anything, we’d fall under his curse for our neglect of the needy among us, the minorities, those illegal aliens who come here looking for a better life. He’d judge us for being the wealthiest nation in this history of this planet, yet 1 out of every 5 children in this country go to bed hungry. We drive our Lexuses, we buy bigger houses, we pad our 401K plans, and our neighbors can’t feed their children. Our grandparents can’t afford their medicines. Our youth are living on the streets, kicked out of their homes by angry parents.  Surely we deserve God’s wrath — but not for marriage equality.

Thankfully, God doesn’t seem to be in the wrath-hurling business. Grace is his trademark characteristic. Love extended to the unworthy, the undeserving. And judgment — by HIS standards, not ours — reserved for the Great White Throne in the next life.  And anyone who is predicting the coming wrath because their traditional moral values no longer hold force in this country, only proves that their traditions were built on sand. They don’t know the heart of God. The same words of Jesus apply today as well as then: “You know not what Spirit you are of.”

 

[box type=”bio”] STEVE SCHMIDT is the Teaching Pastor at Expressions in Oklahoma City. He is a graduate of the seminary at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, OK, and holds two masters degrees in Biblical Literature and Divinity. He did his doctoral research at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York. He is editor of IMPACT Magazine, and blogs here on the Cafe Inspirado column. Plus you can find him making random comments about life on Facebook. [/box]

School Prayer, School Massacre, and Tying God’s Hands

“It’s an interesting thing. We ask why there’s violence in our schools, but we’ve systematically removed God from our schools. Should we be so surprised that schools would become a place of carnage … ?” (Mike Huckabee).

That statement by a former presidential candidate sparked a fire in both civil and religious circles, and well-meaning people have fallen into it, turning a national tragedy into a political and religious argument.

To be fair, Mr Huckabee wasn’t stating that this massacre was a direct result of prayer being taken out of that school. He’s talking about the overall decline of moral and religious values, of personal responsibility and accountability and an awareness of eternal judgment, brought about by removing God and religious instruction from public discourse. He seems to be saying that this is the inevitable consequence of separating church and state. This is what we get for pushing God out.

I can’t tell you the number of Facebook posts I’ve seen portraying this same sentiment: “Dear God, why do you allow so much violence in our schools? Signed, a concerned student. Dear Concerned Student, I’m not allowed in schools. Signed, God.”

The logic is the same as Huckabee’s. Because some people have rejected God in official government arenas, God has been forced out, powerless. And like a spoiled, petulant child he’s going to punish us now by granting our wish. “Okay, I’ll teach you! See what you get?” It seems silly from the outset.

Why that’s silly …

First of all, bad things happen to good people. All the time. Evil has been occurring since the days when Cain murdered Abel – to “godless” and God-fearing people alike. To say that because something bad happened, it’s God fault or that God allowed it to happen in order to punish us is an argument Jesus himself dispensed with back 2000 years ago. Maybe some of these perhaps-well-intended people out to defend God’s honor should go back to the book before spouting off religious sounding drivel that has the sound of holiness but lacks any of its truth or power.

When Jesus sent out his disciples to “bring God into the public arena” (okay, the New Testament phrases it more like “to proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom of God”), some of the towns absolutely rejected the message. And those disciples wanted to call down God’s judgment on them, destroying them with fire from heaven. If ever anyone could be accused of removing God from their culture, from a Christian viewpoint, it would be those villages.

But Jesus’ response? “You don’t know what Spirit you are of. I did not come to destroy lives, but to save them!” (Luke 9:56). What’s that mean? For one thing, that hostile, retaliatory reaction you’re feeling is not from God. It is not some divinely inspired “righteous anger.” That vengeful spirit is coming from some other place. And second, the Spirit you’re supposed to be representing doesn’t do that kind of thing. That’s not who God is, and that’s not who we are.

Any kind of projecting this attitude back on to God – “You kicked me out, so here you go!” – is actually antithetical to God’s heart.

On a different occasion, some people came to Jesus to get his spiritual assessment of some victims who were murdered by the Romans as they offered sacrifices to God. Surely, this was God’s wrath. They must have done something to deserve this. Jesus’ response: “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you … Or, those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them – do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you. And unless you repent, you too will all perish” (Luke 13:1-5).

Catastrophes are not caused by divine judgment – at least that’s what Jesus was saying there. “Don’t be looking for fault, don’t try to make sense of it by blaming the victims or those around them. Do you think you are any better? You’ve all escaped a tragic fate you probably deserved because of God’s grace. Now act like it.”

That kind of spiritual smugness – “this happened because so-and-so did such-and-such,” with the unspoken implication that we live so much more worthily and are undeserving of similar tragedy – just rubs salt in the wound of those suffering. It reflects badly on those saying it, and completely fails to reflect the true heart of God.

And it’s diametrically opposed to the description of God loving a faulty humanity so much that he went to the extreme of letting his Son be crucified just to restore unimpeded connection.

Were God’s hands tied in this Newtown school because some politicians made it illegal for schools to force students to pray? Did God stand by helpless as a gunman mowed down 26 people in a Connecticut elementary school all because they weren’t allowed to post a copy of the 10 Commandments on the wall? Or worse: did he allow it to happen as punishment?

Not according to Jesus.

To give Mr. Huckabee a little credit, he did say something that was spiritually accurate. “God wasn’t armed. God didn’t go to that school.” Finally, truth. God did not cause this. “But God will be there in the form of a lot of people with hugs, and with therapy, and a whole lot of ways in which, I think, he will be involved in the aftermath.”

God’s hands are not tied

The divine promise, “I will never leave you, never forsake you,” is not restricted because “activist judges” separate civil government from faithful practice. “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you, God, are with me.” That is the correct perspective. The people rushing back into the building, to rescue and support the injured – these are the hands and feet of God. The comforting presence, both human and divine, that will be there to pick up the pieces of these shattered lives – that is the act of God.

We may never be able to make sense of this tragedy – or of any other, for that matter. Hurricanes that flood cities, tsunamis that destroy villages, earthquakes and fires, plagues and diseases … all the calamities that befall this troubled earth. They are part of our existence, part of our “fallen creation” as some theologians explain it. God, for some reason, chooses not to intervene sometimes. He sometimes allows events to occur that shake us to the core, make us question his love, question even his very existence. And in this life, we may never get the answers we’re looking for. But we cannot start pointing fingers at each other, laying blame for “divine wrath.” It serves no one, and certainly does not reflect the heart of God. It is “not the Spirit we are of.”

Instead, let’s be more focused on bearing fruit of our true spirituality. We need to put on more love, more joy, more peace, more patience and tolerance, more goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and humility. Let’s be the hands of God reaching out to help, the lips of God offering words of consolation and encouragement, and the strength of God by helping to restore and rebuild broken lives. That’s something more worthy of us. That’s really the heart of God, and that is the spirit we are of.

 

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STEVE SCHMIDT serves on the pastoral staff of Expressions Church in Oklahoma City. He is a graduate of the seminary at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, OK, and holds two masters degrees in Biblical Literature and Divinity. He did his doctoral research at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York. He blogs at CafeInspirado.com, and you can always find him skulking on Facebook.
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