Sunday, 21 August 2016

The God of Catastrophic Things? Rejecting 'Disaster Theology'

In my last post, I mentioned in passing about how ironic it was that Alanis Morissette’s hit song ‘Ironic’ listed many examples of situations that she described as ‘ironic’ when none of them were actually, well, ‘ironic’.

This past week, we were all presented by a report from the floods in the southern US that served as a perfect example of irony:

A pastor who had insisted that floods are God’s punishment for the ongoing sins of America had his home destroyed in a flood.

Louisiana-based Pastor Tony Perkins had sparked controversy in 2015 sparked controversy by agreeing with the idea that Hurricane Joaquim, which had just devastated the Bahamas, was a punishment sent by God. 

Perkins had been interviewing Jonathan Cahn, a ‘messianic’ Jewish pastor, when Cahn referred to the hurricane as ‘a sign of God’s wrath’ for, among other things, legalisation of marriage equality, abortion, and the US’s relationship with the UN, which he didn’t think supported Israel enough.

Perkins agreed with his assessment; ‘God is trying to send us a message’, he said.

This week, Perkins’ Louisiana home was destroyed by a flood.

Now that’s ironic…

Please understand that I don’t want to mock or belittle the suffering of Perkins and his family. But I do want to poke around the edges of this and other examples of an absurd theological discipline I’d call ‘Disaster Theology’.

‘Disaster Theology’ is any theological reflection that sees earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, hurricanes, etc. never as naturally-occurring phenomenon, but solely as instruments of divine warning and wrath.

‘Disaster Theology’ is by no means exclusive to Perkins. Televangelist and (let’s never forget) former candidate for President Pat Robertson has been going at it for decades, as when he linked Hurricane Katrina to legalized abortion;

Prominent evangelical and former Nixon counsel Charles Colson attributed Katrina to the US not prosecuting the ‘war on terror’ aggressively enough;

Evangelical author and pastor Henry Blackaby concluded that the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami was God’s judgement on Muslims for the persecution of Christians;

Author and journalist Joe Farah stated that a 2011 earthquake in Virginia was God’s punishment for ‘lawlessness in our world today’.

You get the idea.

So, where to begin?

To echo the ancient Church father Tertullian's assessment of the heresies in his own time, to merely describe these ideas is to refute them.

Needless to say, the proponents of ‘Disaster Theology’ see God punishing only the social ills that they themselves want punished- abortion, LGBT rights, UN policy, not supporting the state of Israel robustly enough…

(As always, it’s one of the great coincidences of human life that God always seems to share your own political views).

It would be just as easy for Christians on the liberal/progressive or radical end of the spectrum to suggest that natural disasters were God’s punishment for not providing comprehensive, affordable health care, economic inequality, marginalization of LGBT people, the failure to dismantle structural racism at home and support for repressive regimes abroad…

The biblical text records God and his prophets railing against ignoring the weak, the poor, the fatherless, and the widows at least as much- and often more- than it does about any of the supposed ills the ‘disaster theologians’ emphasize...

Might not a flood or an earthquake be God's warning to us about any of that?

Also, the US Midwest- the area with the highest density of Evangelicals in the country- is annually bombarded by tornadoes, yet the 'disaster theologians' let them pass without comment... which is odd, because tornadoes are extremely localized, leveling one town and sparing the one next door. So you'd think they'd fit the Disaster Theology' worldview to a 'T'... 

Of course, in Perkins' logic, the moment a righteous Christian (like, presumably, himself) is the victim of disaster it ceases to be a punishment and becomes a test, a teaching tool, lovingly given by God to help us grow. Perkins wrote on social media that the Christians should look on the recent southern floods that destroyed his and so many other homes and businesses as an ‘incredible, encouraging spiritual exercise to take you to the next level in your walk with an almighty and gracious God who does all things well.’

So, Christians should be encouraged; the disaster is a blessing to them and a curse on everyone else. And everyone else needs to be told that they're being cursed. How else will they know to repent?

And why, by the way, would God try to warn America of its sins by sending a hurricane to destroy… the Bahamas? If you’re opposed to LGBT equality, the Bahamas might just be your idea of paradise:

Same-sex marriage and civil unions are illegal;

Gay couples are not eligible for any of the same legal protections available to hetero-married couples;

The Bahamian government has done nothing over two decades to ensure that LGBT citizens are included in non-discrimination clauses in statute laws;

And discrimination in employment, education, housing, health care, banking, and public businesses on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity is perfectly legal.

So, God punishes the Bahamas… to ‘send a message’ to America… about what might happen to them if they… don’t do exactly what the Bahamas is doing?

It obviously makes perfect sense to Perkins and his ilk, but I can’t wrap my head around it, and I’ve studied systematic theology at a postgraduate level…

But I’ll go out on a limb here and just say that ‘Disaster Theology’ doesn’t make sense because it’s nonsense. It’s unsystematic, illogical and- unless you resort to an incredible amount of arbitrary proof-texting- biblically baseless. Any theological model that requires so many loopholes and exceptions to be in any way systematic is simply bad theology- random, pointless, and anti-Christian.

The most damaging aspect of ‘Disaster Theology’ is that it utterly ignores the person of Jesus.

Jesus’s message in the Gospels is that he came to reveal the Father and to proclaim the Kingdom of God.

‘Whoever has seen me has seen the Father (John 14:9)’;

We saw Jesus feed the hungry, heal the sick, refuse to condemn the sinner, argue with the fundamentalists, bind up the broken-hearted, raise the dead, and tell stories filled with love, compassion, and mercy.

‘I and the Father are one (John 10:30)’.

One of the things Jesus revealed about the Father was that he ‘causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous (Matt. 5:45)’.

Simply put, Jesus- the incarnation of the Son of God; fully human and fully God; ‘of one being with the Father’; Saviour and Messiah- told us explicitly that God does not punish evil with weather.

‘Disaster Theology’ only works if Jesus was lying or didn’t exist.

To be truly transformative- socially and spiritually- the focus of theology, as I see it, is to reflect on the lived experiences of the people of God in the light of our faith. Its priority is acknowledging the value of that lived experience in the eyes of God, and in raising the consciousness of the community. It does this through rigorous praxis, the cyclical process of reflection and action. And the direction of our theological reflection should always be toward the most poor and the most marginalised.

‘Disaster Theology’ transforms nothing and accomplishes nothing. It condemns and criticizes, moralizes and marginalizes. 

It’s not theology. 

Sunday, 14 August 2016

Trump, Truth, and Reflecting On a Politics of 'Yes' and 'No'

Donald Trump has made many controversial, questionable, and patently false statements in his run for the presidency.  I’ll not take time to relate them all here, as they’ve been dutifully collated by many journalists, commentators, and bloggers.

For the sake of my topic, I’ll need to explore one, delivered on 10 August at a rally in Florida. Trump declared to supporters that President Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton are responsible- personally- for founding the Islamic State (ISIS).

‘ISIS is honoring President Obama’, Trump said. ‘He is the founder of ISIS; he is the founder of ISIS, OK? He’s the founder. And I would say the co-founder would be crooked Hillary Clinton. Co-founder. Crooked Hillary Clinton.’

As with many of Trumps declarations, the statement left many- opponents and supporters alike- pondering questions like ‘did he really say that?’ and ‘what did he mean?’

Many prominent Republicans took his comments at face value and strenuously defended his analysis on media outlets.

Others, like conservative radio host and Trump supporter Hugh Hewitt, wondered if he might have been speaking metaphorically. ‘I know what you meant’, he said to Trump in an interview. ‘You meant that he created the vacuum, he lost the peace…’

Trump was having none of it. ‘No, I meant he’s the founder of ISIS. I do. He was the most valuable player. I give him the most valuable player award. I give her, too, by the way, Hillary Clinton.’

By Friday, however, Trump was insistently tweeting that his comments were never meant to have been taken seriously:

Ratings challenged @CNN reports so seriously that I call President Obama (and Clinton) "the founder" of ISIS, & MVP. THEY DON'T GET SARCASM?

So… Where to begin?

The easiest place to start is that it’s obvious Trump doesn’t understand sarcasm either. This tweet commits one of the biggest misuses of rhetorical terminology since Alanis Morissette co-wrote a hit song titled ‘Ironic’ that contained no examples of irony. 

‘Sarcasm’ is the use of irony to mock or convey contempt; Trump’s statements that Obama and Clinton founded an international terror organization- whether Trump believes that or not- were not sarcasm. They were lies, obviously, but the technical term would be either ‘slander’ or ‘defamation’.

Secondly, Regardless of his earlier insistence he was serious, backed up by many defenses by his own party, it appears that Trump does not, in fact, believe that President Obama and Hillary Clinton founded an international terror organization. The amazing thing about this particular candidate is that we can’t really be sure…

This is uncharted territory in US politics, one that the voters and the media have never encountered. Traditionally, a candidates speeches, interviews, and position statements- as well as unscripted gaffes or mistakes- made on the campaign trail are the news story, building a broad picture of the candidate's beliefs; but Trump makes so many incredible, outrageous, and downright unbelievable statements that they are news in and of themselves. It’s almost impossible not to report them. 

In this case- the initial statement, the confirmations, the double-downs, and then a declaration that he never meant them to be taken seriously- we are now in the position of not knowing if the candidate believes what he is saying or not. Moreover, Trump’s unvarnished loathing for the media means he revels in the idea that the media doesn’t understand his meaning, as he did in a Friday tweet:

I love watching these poor, pathetic people (pundits) on television working so hard and so seriously to try and figure me out. They can't!

Finally, the whole episode displays all the classic, strategic hallmarks of a bully- say something outrageous, abusive, violent, or rude, and when confronted, insist you were kidding… and imply that anyone with any intelligence would have known you were kidding.

But the point I’ve been thinking about is this:

The important question, in my opinion- and what Trump and his supporters don’t seem to grasp- is that is not so much whether or not people understand that a potential US President was being sarcastic, but whether or not people should be put in the position of having to figure that out…

The biblical text contains many and varied statements about the importance of honesty and plain-speaking. Needless to say, it is unequivocal in its condemnation of lying; lying gets condemned more often than any other sin. The Hebrew understanding of ‘bearing false witness’ bore a legal and moral imperative, encompassing slander, libel, defamation, and false reporting of events. Lying could even carry the death penalty; if a person was found to be lying against a defendant in a capital case, they would receive the punishment they sought for the defendant.

In the political sphere, we’ve become so accustomed to lying that we are almost totally inured to it. We often dismiss or overlook lying as ‘just a campaign promise’, ‘the way it works’, ‘the way you get things done’, ‘spin’, or ‘putting bad news, in the best light’.

But the biblical text is adamant that lying destroys community, is a window onto bad character, damages personal credibility, and rots the soul.

But since Trump insists he was being sarcastic, what can we take from the biblical text on that?

I’d reflect on the words of Christ in Matthew 5:37:

Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.

Now, sarcasm is not a sin; it certainly wouldn’t be thought of in the biblical text as a sin in the way that lying is a sin. Indeed, among close friends, it can be harmless fun. But it carries an enormous capacity for abuse- abuse that takes subtlety and cunning. It brings a complexity into what is being said that runs the risk of being problematic or offensive.

It pretends to give positivity and praise- things we all need and desire- while actually delivering disparagement.

It uses wit and 'knowing' against someone with seemingly less wit or knowledge and punishes them for not being in on the joke.

It forces its victim to interpret what is being said until finally realizing that they are actually being insulted.

Sarcasm is also very culturally specific; it requires intimate knowledge of the norms, customs, turns of phrase, humour, and culture of all involved in the exchange.

At bottom, sarcasm is a form of communication in which it is nearly impossible to convey respect, affection, or admiration… and it is absolutely impossible to convey love.

The message of Jesus was the love of God, particularly the love of God for those whom the rest of society found it difficult to love- women, the poor, the bereaved, the marginalized, the diseased, and the lost.

The message of Jesus was ‘yes’ and ‘no’- ‘yes’ to love, life, justice, goodness, reconciliation, and liberation; ‘no’ to hatred, oppression, marginalization, fundamentalism, and death…

We should expect and demand ‘yes’ and ‘no’ politics- a politics of truth, transparency, honesty, integrity, reconciliation, liberation, and transformation.

We should reject any candidate or system- at any level- that can’t or won’t deliver that.