Category Archives: justice

Eclipses, Hurricanes, and an Integrated Christian Worldview

The sun will be turned to darkness…before the coming of the … day of the Lord.

Joel 2:31

Eclipses, hurricanes, and earthquakes have dominated the twenty-four hour news cycle in recent days and weeks. Total solar eclipses seem infrequent and are magnificent, but entirely harmless (unless, of course, viewed with the naked eye) and predictably regular; hurricanes and earthquakes, especially when of the magnitude of Harvey and Irma or the earthquake that took place a few days before I sat down to write this (9/11/17), occur with greater regularity, but can cause great damage and loss of life, and are notoriously unpredictable.  All share the capacity to evoke in human beings a sense of awe and wonder, even of fear and dread. They eerily remind us of the power of nature.

For the same reasons, they also tempt some to see them as portents and to seek in them some dire expression of God’s explicit will.  Surely, such demonstrations of power represent divine warning (eclipses) or divine wrath (hurricanes, earthquakes, tornadoes, floods, epidemics), some say. Recently, for example, none other than Billy Graham’s daughter, Anne Graham Lotz (see www.annegrahamlotz.org/2017/08/07/gods-judgment-coming-america/), Pastor Mark Blitz (see www.wnd.com/2017/08/eclipse-warning-history-shows-america-headed-for-judgment/), and no doubt scores of other lesser-known preachers and pastors have declared the recent solar eclipse to be a divine warning for America to repent.  Further, Blitz has likened Harvey’s impact and import to those of the biblical Flood (see

www.conservativedailynews.com/2017/08/first-eclipse-now-hurricane/) and by now, no doubt, someone has incorporated Irma into the scheme. Such equations of natural phenomena with the admonitory voice of God are, it seems to me, dangerous, disingenuous, and detrimental.

The danger in such pronouncements takes at least two forms.  First, it engages in victim-blaming, disregards God’s reputation for justice, and manifests little awareness of the complex biblical discussion of the question. One need cite only three texts to illustrate that God’s administration of justice in the world is far too nuanced, even mysterious, to conform to the “sinners merit punishment: you have suffered disaster:: you are a sinner” syllogism. As early as Gen 18:25, Abraham insisted on the converse position that, as the Judge of all the earth, God would surely not commit the injustice of punishing the righteous along with the unrighteous. Job rejected the syllogism as championed by his “friends” until, in the end, God affirmed Job as in the right. Jesus reminded his disciples that God “manages” the weather, in particular, with no intention of micro-targeting it.  Instead, sun shines and the rain falls on both the just and the unjust (Matt 5:45).

Pronouncements such as those cited above are also dangerous for those who make them. They bespeak a spiritual arrogance, suggesting, as they do, that the speaker knows the mind of God to a degree of intimacy surpassing understanding. Yet the Bible repeatedly warns against too readily assuming the role of divine spokesperson (cf. Deut 13; Jer 27-28; Mark 13; etc.) and specifically against fascination with signs, seasons, and times (esp. Mark 13 and parallels; 1 Cor 1:22; Gal 4:10). All preachers and teachers must struggle against the temptation to identify our opinions and biases with the will of God.

Such pronouncements are also disingenuous. Assuming for the moment and for the sake of argument that hurricane Harvey represented God’s warning to someone, how would we know whom God intended to address?  Lotz, Blitz, and others like them blame the whole gamut of “liberals,” especially those in or sympathetic with the LGBTQ community, for Harvey. Yet, Houston, the largest city in TEXAS, hardly makes the best target for such a warning – it is no San Francisco. Far from a hotbed of liberalism, it is home to mega-churches such as Second Baptist (arguably, the largest Baptist church in the world), Lakewood Church, and Windsor Village UMC whose pastors are among the SBC’s fundamentalist leadership (Ed Young) and the nation’s leading advocates for the so-called “prosperity gospel” (Joel Osteen, Lakewood; Kirbyjon Caldwell, Windsor Village).  If I were so inclined, I might suggest that God’s warning addressed a different audience.

I am not so inclined, however, because such pronouncements are also detrimental to the cause of Christ because they contribute to the popular perception of Christianity as anti-intellectual, even superstitious. One need not deny the evidence of science in order to believe in a creating, sustaining, loving God.  The time has long past for some Christians to abandon their warfare with science. Solar eclipses occur, on average, twice a year. They occur because of the geometry of the solar system.  They are geometrically predictable. Individual eclipses are visible only from parts of the globe, but that, too, is geometry.  I believe that God created the geometry, but I see no evidence that God manipulates its regularity to send messages. Instead, I view them, even or especially in their predictability and grandeur, as I view the birth of a child – mundane, everyday, natural, yet profound signs of God’s creative power.  Hurricanes (and tornadoes) are less predictable in occurrence, but also result from the geometry and geography of the world. In a world with a tilted axis, with oceans covering almost three-quarters of its surface much of it along the equator, with a sun the size of ours and at our distance from it, and with continental–sized, asymmetrical, and unequally distributed landmasses, there must be hurricanes (and tornadoes).  – Incidentally, as my mother used to remind me, when I complained of the heat and humidity in the South, without them, we could not grow tomatoes and okra. I love tomatoes and okra: no hurricanes, alas, no tomatoes. – There have been hurricanes for as long as the world has been so configured.  Again, I believe that God created the geometry and the geography, but I see no evidence that God manipulates the temperature of the Atlanta Ocean off the coast of Africa and the steering currents to target hurricanes for the purposes of punishing or of sending messages. Earthquakes occur along fault lines where two tectonic plates meet. They produced the Rocky Mountains, the European Alps, the Appalachian mountains, the Jordan River Valley (Rift), and Death Valley – all wondrous, majestic, and beautiful. When they shift and if people live in the vicinity, there will be disaster. They are going to shift because God apparently decided to shape the world through the mechanism of tectonic plates.  Yet again, I believe that God created the geographical parameters of this world, but I see no evidence that God manipulates tectonic pressures to send messages to the Californians or the Mexicans or the Italians or the Japanese.

Still, the Bible does contain a “doctrine” (the word may be too strong) of the (nearly inevitable) relationship between a deed and its consequences.  According to this viewpoint, it is not so much that God “punishes” people for their wrongdoing as it is that wrongdoing warps the world in which one lives and (nearly) inevitably “comes home to roost.”  This is the idea in the mind of the author of Lamentations 1:14 who has a personified Jerusalem say, “[God] bound my wrongdoings into a yoke, God’s hands tied them together, God placed them on my neck…” (my translation). Can you imagine opening the door to find God standing there with all of your wrongdoings tied into a bundle and hearing God say, “These are yours; I have brought them back home to you”?  It is the idea behind discussions in Leviticus 26 and Jeremiah 3, for example, of sin “polluting” the land.

If I hear a warning from God in hurricanes Harvey and Irma it is this: by our treatment of the environment and our hubristic patterns of housing development, to name just two of our “wrongdoings,” we have sown the wind.  Harvey and Irma are the whirlwind.  God’s message is not that God manipulates God’s world, but that we have abused it and brought imbalance that is already weighing on our necks.

Plain Language is Difficult to Misinterpret, but Easy to Ignore

For this commandment which I command you this day is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, “Who will go up for us to heaven, and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?” Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who will go over the sea for us, and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?” But the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it. (Deut 30:11-14 RSV)

This summer, I have been blogging about the harm done by propagating misinterpretations of scripture. In most cases, the scripture passages in question have at least been tricky enough to open the door for such misinterpretation – although not enough to excuse it.  Recent events at Charlottesville, just a few miles to the west of my Continue reading Plain Language is Difficult to Misinterpret, but Easy to Ignore

Perpetual Poverty?

“…you always have the poor…”

(Mark 14:7; Matt 26:11; John 12:8)

The two most recent entries in this blog have examined how people have used poor biblical interpretation of, admittedly, difficult texts to justify and undergird racism and misogyny. This entry turns attention to the ways in which some have perverted a saying of Jesus – who elsewhere called the poor blessed and equated how one treats the poor with Continue reading Perpetual Poverty?

The Curse of Ham: An Admonitory Case-Study in Misreading Scripture

And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brothers outside. Then Shem and Japheth took a garment, laid it upon both their shoulders, and walked backward and covered the nakedness of their father; their faces were turned away, and they did not see their father’s nakedness. When Noah Continue reading The Curse of Ham: An Admonitory Case-Study in Misreading Scripture

No Stream without a Source

Part II

In the most recent entry in this blog, I reacted to Brent Strawn’s, The Old Testament is Dying: A Diagnosis and Recommended Treatment by offering reflections concerning factors that may contribute to the phenomenon Strawn describes.  This second entry on the subject will examine some of the dangers for believers and for the church inherent in Continue reading No Stream without a Source

America First or Not my Problem

Mark 9:37

For a couple of weeks now, I have been preoccupied with the perception that the public discourse influences even believers toward stridency, rigidity, and lack of compassion. Oddly, at the same time, I have been hearing again and again in my mind’s ear the lyrics of a children’s hymn I learned to sing in Vacation Bible School:  “Jesus loves the little Continue reading America First or Not my Problem

Get Thee Behind me… (Mark 8:33)

“Hadst Thou taken the world and Caesar’s purple, Thou wouldst have founded the universal state and have given universal peace. For who can rule men if not he who holds their conscience and their bread in his hands? We have taken the sword of Caesar, and in taking it, of course, have rejected Thee and followed him.”  The Grand Inquisitor, Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky

President Trump has dangled the forbidden fruit before the church with his promise to “destroy” the Johnson Amendment that prohibits non-profit organizations, including the church, from taking overtly partisan political action Trump has complained that the effect of the amendment on religious institutions is that “their voice has been taken away.” To Continue reading Get Thee Behind me… (Mark 8:33)

Confusion: Rights or Love

For God is not a God of confusion but of peace. (1 Cor 14:33 RSV)

Last week’s blog included the sentence:  “Let the cacophony begin.” It has.

I have not intended to focus this blog on politics, but, like Moses’ experience with the burning bush, the current din of confusion in the political realm beckons me to turn aside to listen.  When I do, I hear that a significant component of the confusion involves the mistaken identification of national interests in self-protection with Christian motivations. Continue reading Confusion: Rights or Love

Tireless Exertions

A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever. Eccl 1:4 RSV

Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable… Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.  Martin Luther King, Jr.

 

I was born in February of 1957, when the union still had only forty-eight states, three years after the US Supreme Court handed down the historic Brown v. Board of Education (347 U.S. 483), and just a few months before the first nine black students enrolled in Little Rock Arkansas schools implementing the ruling.  Local sit-in campaigns began at a Woolworth Continue reading Tireless Exertions

“Blessed are the peacemakers” – Matt 5:9

Saying, “Peace, peace,” when there is no peace – Jer 8:11

Jesus began the Sermon on the Mount with nine “Beatitudes” that readers often unfortunately reduce to platitudes.  The seventh, “Blessed are the peacemakers,” for example, can sound like a call to passivity and placidity:  “Blessed are those who accept life with serenity, remaining calm, preserving calm, spreading calm.”  Both the context and Continue reading “Blessed are the peacemakers” – Matt 5:9