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. 

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