Christian faith doesn’t just say disasters are God’s retribution

Instead of dwelling on God’s wrath, we need to understand God’s kindness and mercy.

 

File 20170905 13726 y65mre
Daniel Arrhakis, CC BY-NC

Mathew Schmalz, College of the Holy Cross

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It’s been a time of calamities: Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, flooding in South Asia and Africa and a massive earthquake in Mexico have led to widespread devastation around the globe.

Some people seem to think this is divine retribution for the sins of humanity: Kirk Cameron, former child actor, said in a video on Facebook that Hurricane Harvey and Irma were “a spectacular display of God’s immense power” and were sent so human beings could repent. Earlier, after seeing the devastation of Hurricane Harvey, conservative Christian pastor John McTernan had noted that “God is systematically destroying America” out of anger over “the homosexual agenda.”

Others disagreed over the reasons for God’s anger, but not necessarily with the assumption that God can be wrathful. Jennifer Lawrence suggested that Irma was “mother nature’s rage and wrath” at America for electing Donald Trump.

It is true that many religious traditions, including Judaism and Christianity, have seen natural disasters as divine punishment. But, as a scholar of religion, I would argue that things aren’t that simple.

The Genesis flood

Some of the earliest narratives of divine retribution go back to 2000 B.C. The Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh tells the story of a catastrophic flood.

The gods decide to bring rain down to end the “uproar” of humankind. But the god of the waters, Enki, warns the righteous man, Utnapishtim, about the impending disaster.

Utnapishtim saves himself and his family by constructing a boat.

Elements of this story are later echoed in the Hebrew Bible’s Book of Genesis. God is angry because the Earth is filled with violence caused by human beings and vows to “destroy both them and the Earth.”

Noah is a “blameless” man, and God tells him to build an ark that would be large enough to hold his family and “two of all living creatures.” Although humanity perishes in a deluge, Noah preserves life on Earth.

It might seem straightforward to say that natural disasters in the Bible are associated with God’s anger, but that means missing the complexity of the text.

God makes a covenant with Noah.
Fr Lawrence Lew, O.P., CC BY-NC-ND

In the Genesis account, after the waters subside, God makes a covenant with Noah:

“Never again will I destroy all living creatures.”

This promise not to destroy humankind is also referred to in the Book of Isaiah, the Israelite prophet and seer. In a vision, God says that just as he vowed to Noah that water “would never again cover the Earth,” so too he promises not “to be angry.”

Biblical approaches to suffering

The question of God’s anger is intimately connected to the problem of human suffering. After all, how can a loving God cause indiscriminate human misery?

We first need to look at how suffering is portrayed in the texts. For example, it is also in the Book of Isaiah that we find the story of the “Man of Sorrows” – a man who takes on the sufferings of others and is an image of piety.

While the Bible does speak of humans suffering because of their sins, some of the most moving passages speak about how innocent people suffer as well.

The Book of Job relates the story of a “blameless and upright man,” Job, whom Satan causes to experience all sorts of calamities. The suffering becomes so intense that Job wishes he had never been born. God then speaks from the heavens and explains to Job that God’s ways surpass human understanding.

The Hebrew Bible recognizes that people suffer often through no fault of their own. Most famously, Psalm 42 is an extended lament about suffering that nonetheless concludes by praising God.

The Hebrew Bible’s views on suffering cannot be encapsulated by a single message. Sometimes suffering is caused by God, sometimes by Satan and sometimes by other human beings. But sometimes the purpose behind suffering remains hidden.

The Christian tradition also provides diverse answers to the issue of suffering.

The Christian tradition provides diverse views on suffering.
Fr Lawrence Lew, O.P., CC BY-NC

The New Testament does refer to the Genesis flood when talking about God punishing human beings. For example, Paul the Apostle observes that God brought the flood on “the ungodly” people of the world. Earthquakes are also mentioned as signs of the end of time in the Bible’s Book of Revelation.

But the Epistle of James, a letter in the New Testament often attributed to Jesus’ brother or stepbrother, says that God tests no one. In fact, those who endure trials are eventually rewarded. The early Christian philosopher Origen argued that through suffering we can understand our own weaknesses and dependence on God.

In these views, suffering is not punishment but something that draws human beings to closer God and to one another.

Moving to more contemporary reflections, philosopher Dewi Zephaniah Phillips argues that it is mistaken to attribute to God a human feeling like anger because God lies beyond human reality.

Believing that hurricanes, floods, and earthquakes are “God’s punishment” reduces the divine to human terms.

God is merciful

Some theologians totally reject the idea of suffering as divine retribution because such an act would be unworthy of a merciful God. From a Christian perspective, God also suffered by being crucified on the cross as Jesus Christ.

And so, as a Roman Catholic scholar, I would argue that God suffers with people in Texas and Florida – as well as with those in India, Nepal, Bangladesh, parts of Africa and Mexico.

In the words of German theologian Jurgen Moltmann,

“God heals the sicknesses and the griefs by making the sicknesses and the griefs his suffering and his grief.”

So, instead of dwelling on God’s wrath, we need to understand God’s kindness and mercy. And that, in times of crises and distress, it is kindness and mercy that require us to reach out to those who need comfort and assistance.

The ConversationThis is an updated version of a piece originally published on Sept. 6, 2017.

Mathew Schmalz, Associate Professor of Religion, College of the Holy Cross

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Just because

Next to the Word of God,
the noble art of music
is the greatest treasure in the world.

Attributed to Martin Luther

Music continues to shape us, inspire us, humble us, thrill us, and so much more as humans and as Christ-followers. Music is a treasure we carry with us and share. “Sacred” music is everywhere, not just in church. Many of us in the Sunday Morning Forum (in the meeting room and online) meet God, dance with God, enjoy God, share God in ‘the noble art of music.’

Here is a recent discovery we share with you. Enjoy:

Continue the conversation, please share a comment. And, if you know the source of the Martin Luther quotation, I/we would like to be informed via your comment. Thanks.

Wind Chimes: 4 Mar 2013

Then the Lord said,
“I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt;
I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters.
Indeed, I know their sufferings, and
I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians,
and to bring them up out of that land
to a good and broad land,
a land flowing with milk and honey…

Exodus 3:7-8 NRSV

Soacer40x20Friendly and intimate sounds come from the chimes today. What do you hear?

A God who is friend

On Sunday (3/3/13) we heard a lesson from Exodus 3:1-15 and we discussed this further in the Sunday Morning Forum. Believing that the scriptures reveal all that we need to know “for salvation” we focused on the truth of the intimate involvement of God with a whole People and by extension with individuals like you and me. Oscar Romero understood this and opens it further:

This is the beauty of prayer and of Christian life: coming to understand that a God who converses with humans has created them and has lifted them up, with the capacity of saying “I” and “you.” What would we give to have such power as to create a friend to our taste and with a breath of our own life to make that friend able to understand us and be understood by us and converse intimately–to know our friend as truly another self? That is what God has done; human beings are God’s other self. He has lifted us up so that he can talk with us and share his joys, his generosity, his grandeur. He is the God who converses with us.

Source: The violence of love as quoted on inward/outward: a project of the church of the saviour

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Wind Chimes: 3 Nov 2012

Ruth said [to Naomi], “Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die—there will I be buried. May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!”

Ruth 1:16-17 NRSV

The next two Sundays offer readings from the Book of Ruth. One commentator sets us on a deeper understanding of one of the treasures found in the Book: “Near the end of the book, the Bethlehemite women will articulate to Naomi what has been evident all along, that Ruth’s love is worth more than seven sons. Grace is walking right beside Naomi, unseen, yet refusing to leave her.” Let’s explore “being present.” ~dan

Persistent, pleasant, reminding us of the graces we receive through no effort of our own, the chimes sound. What do you hear?

Being Present

Being present in the spiritual life always has a double meaning. There’s present, as in here, in attendance. And there’s present, as in now, a moment of time. What is the spiritual practice of being present? Being here now.

The world’s religions all recommend living in the moment with full awareness. Zen Buddhism especially is known for its emphasis on “nowness.” Hindu, Taoist, Jewish, Moslem, Christian, and other teachers urge us to make the most of every day as an opportunity that will not come to us again.

Also under the rubric of being present is the traditional spiritual exercise called practicing the presence of God. This means recognizing that God is here now moving through our everyday activities, no matter how trivial they might seem.

Being Present” a spiritual practice on Spirituality & Practice

Nature: ever present

“The last debate of the presidential season belongs to Mother Nature. Uninvited, unmentioned throughout the political debates on this most important of election seasons, Mother Nature, incarnated by Guabancex, Caribbean deity of weather systems, invites herself.” Read more on Indian Country Today Media Network

This understanding of Nature and the Creator is remarkably like the discovery of Job (see God’s ‘speech’ in Job 38 and Job’s response in Job 42). ~dan

ERD: Healing a hurting worldGive to the Hurricane Sandy Response Fund
administered by Episcopal Relief and Development

One great thing about growing old

One great thing about growing old is that nothing is going to lead to anything. Everything is of the moment.

Joseph Campbell in A Joseph Campbell Companion edited by Diane Osbon and quoted on Spirituality & Practice (Quotations for the Spiritual Practice of Being Present)

Commentary by Patricia Tull A.B. Rhodes Professor Emerita of Old Testament Louisville Presbyterian Seminary (Jeffersonville, IN) on WorkingPreacher.org

Photo: By Jkadavoor (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons ~dan

Wind Chimes: 2 Nov 2012

A church cemetary

Brothers and sisters, we want you to know about people who have died so that you won’t mourn like others who don’t have any hope. Since we believe that Jesus died and rose, so we also believe that God will bring with him those who have died in Jesus.

1 Thessalonians 4:13-14 CEB

We continue to remember those ‘saints’ known mostly to us and to our families on this day. Though gone from this earth, who is it that continues to shape you because of their love? ~dan

The loveliness of the sounds from the chimes catches our attention today. What do you hear?

Commemoration of All Faithful Departed (Nov 2)

In the New Testament, the word “saints” is used to describe the entire membership of the Christian community, and in the Collect for All Saints’ Day the word “elect” is used in a similar sense. From very early times, however, the word “saint” came to be applied primarily to persons of heroic sanctity, whose deeds were recalled with gratitude by later generations.

Beginning in the tenth century, it became customary to set aside another day—as a sort of extension of All Saints—on which the Church remembered that vast body of the faithful who, though no less members of the company of the redeemed, are unknown in the wider fellowship of the Church. It was also a day for particular remembrance of family members and friends.

Though the observance of the day was abolished at the Reformation because of abuses connected with Masses for the dead, a renewed understanding of its meaning has led to a widespread acceptance of this commemoration among Anglicans, and to its inclusion as an optional observance in the calendar of the Episcopal Church.

Holy Women, Holy Men introduction for the “Commemoration of All Faithful Departed,”

Bishop Mathes encourages our helpful response in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy

“As we continue to absorb the news about Hurricane Sandy, I ask your prayers for all impacted by this powerful storm. We are the one body of Christ, which means we all suffer when one suffers. Let us reach out to those who have lost electricity, homes, businesses and loved ones. And let no one face the storm alone.” Read his statement

ERD: Healing a hurting worldGive to the Hurricane Sandy Response Fund
administered by Episcopal Relief and Development

The Collect for the Commemoration of All Faithful Departed

O God, the Maker and Redeemer of all believers: Grant to the faithful departed the unsearchable benefits of the passion of your Son; that on the day of his appearing they may be manifested as your children; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Holy Women, Holy Men, p. 665

Photo: The cemetery at Mission Santa Ysabel in San Diego County (CA) on Google Maps. ~dan

Wind Chimes: 1 Nov 2012

Revelation 5:8 presents the saints in heaven as linked by prayer with their fellow Christians on earth.

… you are no longer strangers and aliens,
but you are citizens with the saints
and also members of the household of God …

Ephesians 2:19 NRSV

Today is All Saints’ Day. A great day to remember those in every ago and circumstance, known to many, known only to a few, or known only to you, who have helped (or are helping) shape your faith, your service, and your love. ~dan

The chimes are glorious with sounds today. What do you hear?

We believe … in the communion of saints …

What is the communion of saints?

The communion of saints is the whole family of God the living and the dead, those whom we love and those whom we hurt, bound together in Christ by sacrament, prayer, and praise.

“An Outline of the Faith,” The Book of Common Prayer, p. 862

The companionship of the dead

Quote . . .As we grow older we have more and more people to remember, people who have died before us. It is very important to remember those who have loved us and those we have loved. Remembering them means letting their spirits inspire us in our daily lives. They can become part of our spiritual communities and gently help us as we make decisions on our journeys. Parents, spouses, children, and friends can become true spiritual companions after they have died. Sometimes they can become even more intimate to us after death than when they were with us in life.

Remembering the dead is choosing their ongoing companionship.

Nouwen, Henri J. M. (2009-03-17). Bread for the Journey: A Daybook of Wisdom and Faith (p. 252, August 29). Harper Collins, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

I sing a song of the saints of God

I sing a song of the Saints of God sung by the Choir of Grace Cathedral, San Francisco to the tune “Grand Isle”. From the album “Hymns of Grace”~

St. John on Patmos: Wikimedia Commons

Wind Chimes: 30 Oct 2012

The Large Hadron Collider. Image: National Geographic

I had heard You with my ears,
But now I see You with my eyes;
Therefore, I recant and relent,
Being but dust and ashes.

Job 42:5-6 NJPS

We’ll stay with these verses one more day. Where does wonder begin? Where does relationship become more important than information?  ~dan

Do the chimes sound humble? Defiant? Confused? Harmonic? What do you hear?

As civiliaation advances

As civilization advances, the sense of wonder declines. Such decline is an alarming symptom of our state of mind. Mankind will not perish for want of information; but only for want of appreciation. —Abraham Joshua Heschel

Meet Wicahpi Cavanaugh, a “Garden Warrior”

“When Wicahpi Cavanaugh (Cheyenne River Lakota) was 14, he seemed headed in the wrong direction. … But all that was before Cavanaugh took up … gardening.” More

In a garden, building relationships with Nature and with co-workers, experiences even more wonderful than splitting the atom become possible and even more life-giving. A sense of wonder is born and nurtured. ~dan

Read more: ‘Garden Warrior’ Credits ‘Dream of Wild Health’ With Transforming his Life, Receives Scholarship on Indian Country Today Media Network.

See also:
Dream of Wild Health
Camp Stevens Environmental Education Programs

The beauty of the trees

The beauty of the trees,
the softness of the air,

the fragrance of the grass,
speaks to me.

The summit of the mountain,
the thunder of the sky,

the rhythm of the sea,
speaks to me.

The faintness of the stars,
the freshness of the morning,

the dewdrop on the flower,
speaks to me.

The strength of fire,
the taste of salmon,
the trail of the sun,

and the life that never goes away,
they speak to me.

And my heart soars.

—Chief Dan George

Roberts, Elizabeth; Amidon, Elias (2011-04-26). Earth Prayers: 365 Prayers, Poems, and Invocations from Around the World (p. 42). Harper Collins, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

I encourage you to read more about and more from Indian Country Today Media Network: Serving the Nations. Celebrating the People. ~dan