Peace Like A River

It was a wide river, mistakable for a lake or even an ocean unless you'd been wading and knew its current. Somehow I'd crossed it... Now I saw the stream regrouped below, flowing on through what might've been vineyards, pastures, orhards... It flowed between and alongside the rivers of people; from here it was no more than a silver wire winding toward the city. - Leif Enger, Peace Like A River

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Did God cause Katrina?

The Radioblogger has transcribed some remarks made by Jesse Jackson Jr., where Jackson seems to blame God for the disaster left behind by Katrina:

I hope [President Bush] will stand on a pile of rubble. And he will look up to the heavens and say to God, "You're responsible for this. And soon you will hear from us."
God is responsible for this. And in His own time, He will reveal why.

What is the Christian response to horrific events like this hurricane? Is it fair to blame God? Is it fair even to ask if God causes such events?

New Orleans has long held some notoriety for its corruption. Did God allow the hurricane to strike the city as punishment for corrupt people who showed no signs of mending their ways?

The hurricane struck a wide area, though. Hundreds of thousands of people were affected. Were they all corrupt? Surely there were committed Christians among the dead and displaced? Why would God allow a disaster to befall the faithful just to punish the wicked?

If we don't believe there is a God, then such questions are pointless. However, if we do believe there is a God who is interested in human affairs, who acts in our lives, who seeks a relationship with us, then what would be our basis for dismissing a priori any notion that God might have a hand in disasters? Are we so sure of our understanding of God's ways that we deem it beyond the pale even to consider the possibility God could allow, or even bring about, suffering on this scale?

After 9/11, Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson opined that God may have permitted the attacks as a response to a condition of moral decay in this country. As a representative example of the reaction to Falwell and Robertson, William F. Buckley called this an "ignorant misapplication of Christian thought." There was no consideration, even among conservatives, of even the remotest possiblity that Falwell and Robertson were in the vicinity of the truth.

(Falwell and Robertson placed the blame for the attacks squarely on the terrorists. They never said God caused the attacks to happen.)

Why? Why were conservatives and Christians so quick then, and so quick now, to refuse even to countenance a God who plays a role in such disasters, whether through "direct aggression engineered by God", or through "the forfeit of God's special protection"? (Again, from Buckley's column.)

In response to these questions I have posed, let me start with what I think is the clearest picture of God's feelings about sin in the Old Testament. In Zechariah Chapter 3, Zechariah has a vision of Joshua, the high priest, standing before an angel in dirty garments. Zechariah 3:3 says this (RSV):

Now Joshua was standing before the angel, clothed with filthy garments.

The word translated filthy here literally means excrement. In our sinful state, as we stand before God, we appear to Him as if we were covered in excrement. We are not basically good people, with a few smudges of sin around the hems of our otherwise clean garments. We disgust God. It's as if we crawled out of an outhouse pit and walked towards God asking for a hug. God cannot stand to be anywhere near us in our sinful state. We are that revolting.

The vision goes on to show how God puts clean robes on Joshua, and it is a foreshadowing of what Christ would do for us on the cross. Christ would take away our sins and we would appear clean in God's eyes, and be welcome in His presence.

My point of bringing this up, though, is to say we cannot dismiss how nauseating and putrid our sin is to God, how the reviling the stench of our sin is. Would you dunk a child in an outhouse pit, and then willingly and cheerfully cuddle that child on your lap? No, I rather doubt it.

So why do we insist on telling God He should ignore our fallen state and accept us as we are? Why do we insist on wagging our fingers at God and chiding Him for overreacting to our sins?

At this point, you might be thinking I am leading up to claiming this disastrous hurricane was divine judgment sent by an wrathful God to punish the wicked.

You might be surprised to learn I am not saying that. I am saying we cannot know God's thoughts in allowing this hurricane to happen.

And surely, if we Christians believe in a sovereign, omniscient God, we must believe that at the very least God knew what was coming.

When the wave that would become Katrina first formed over the Sahara, God knew what would happen. When that wave blew out into the Atlantic waters off the west coast of Africa, and began to feed on the heat and moisture, God knew what would happen. When that disturbance first formed into a tropical storm and began to move westwards across the Atlantic, God knew it would grow into a powerful hurricane and strike the Gulf Coast. If God knew all this, why did He allow it to happen?

There are two cases in the Old Testament where individuals asked similar questions of God. These individuals did not understand why God allowed hard times to come upon them, and they asked God to explain Himself.

The first is in Habakkuk. In Habakkuk Chapter 1, the Babylonians are in the process of dismantling what was left of a wicked Israel, and Habakkuk poured out his frustration at the violence and evil he saw. In Habakkuk 1:1-3 (RSV):

O LORD, how long shall I cry for help, and thou wilt not hear? Or cry to thee "Violence!" and thou wilt not save?

Why dost thou make me see wrongs and look upon trouble? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise.

God replied the Persian empire was coming, and would defeat the Babylonians. This did not reassure Habakkuk, however, who didn't understand why God would allow his people to fall into the hands of the violent Persians. In 2:1, Habakkuk says (RSV):

I will take my stand to watch, and station myself on the tower, and look forth to see what he will say to me, and what I will answer concerning my complaint.

Isn't that often our approach to God? We're going to stand right here, arms folded, and demand that God explain Himself.

What I find so interesting about the account of Habakkuk is that God does not explain Himself. He does not address Habakkuk's complaints. God's answer is summed up in 2:4 (RSV):

Behold, he whose soul is not upright in him shall fail, but the righteous shall live by his faith.

We are to live by faith in the midst of situations we do not understand.

A similar confrontation takes place in the more familiar Book of Job. After 37 chapters of the disasters that came upon Job, after being prodded by his wife and friends to blame God, Job remained faithful, yet questions remained. And as with Habakkuk, God did not explain Himself to Job. In Job 38:2-8 (RSV), God said:

Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?

Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me.

Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding.

Who determined its measurements--surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it?

On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone, when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?

Or who shut in the sea with doors, when it burst forth from the womb;

God goes on for several more chapters, but says this in Job 40:2,8 (RSV):

Shall a faultfinder contend with the Almighty? He who argues with God, let him answer it.

Will you even put me in the wrong? Will you condemn me that you may be justified?

God is saying to Job, you don't understand everything, there is so much you are unaware of, and because you don't have a complete perspective, it is not right for you to question what I do.

This, then, is the Christian response to terrible events like Katrina. It is not right to preclude the possibility that our wrongdoing in some way brought on this disaster. On the other hand, we cannot say that is the case. We can only say we do not know, we do not understand. To say more would be to speak words without knowledge.

In the end, it is our responsibility as Christians to live with faith, to believe the God who knows when sparrows fall can take care of us through these trying times. We leave it to God to judge those who do wrong, and we just trust God will provide for all those in need. It is not up to us to tell God how to run His universe.

Update: See the comments, where Jeremy from the excellent Parableman blog points out where I mistakenly referred to the Persians in Habakkuk Chapter 1.

Also, I had a followup to this post here.

The Evangelical Outpost has some thoughts on where trust, and blame, should be placed.
Stones Cry Out has some related thoughts from Hugh Hewitt's program, and has some original thoughts as well.
The Parableman blog has a very thoughtful look at this topic. He points out the truth that the Bible never says hard times won't come to believers.
Northern 'burbs blog looks at the issue of evil, and if it relates to disasters.


  • At Tue Sep 06, 04:37:00 PM, Technomage said…

    For Me the answer is plain. If Katrina was GOD's wraith on New Orleans, it would have head straight in and made eyefall right on Burbon Street. Of course if that was the case your would think, Las Vegas, L.A. and Rio would been gone first.

    Some of these poeple have choosen to live in a city that is on average 2 feet below sea level. Can we really blame GOD when we decide to smoke while pouring gasoline into our cars?

  • At Wed Sep 07, 03:47:00 PM, Anonymous said…

    God did not cause this hurricane, nor did he/she "allow it to happen." There is NO GOD. People in colonial times thought thunder and lightening were caused by god's wrath, until Benjamin Franklin enlightened them about natural phenomenon like static electricity. This was a natural occurrence, plain and simple, and one our society should have been better prepared to cope with. The failure here was inadequate human response and terrible government.

    Think for yourself for one minute: What would you say about an omniscient, omnipotent god in control of everything who allows/causes elderly people, children and "the least of these" in our society to suffer, drown, dehydrate, starve, suffocate to death. Not just in this hurricane, by the way - those things happen day after day after day. What kind of god would do that? No god that I would have any respect for. And don't tell me "the devil did it," or "it's a mystery" or "god only knows" why, and we'll understand when we get to heaven. I was a Christian for 40 years and have heard all the excuses - none of them truly make any sense. They're all twisted, tortured attempts to apologize for the god who is not there.

  • At Thu Sep 08, 11:45:00 AM, Jeff said…

    I ended up putting my responses in a separate post, which can be found here.

  • At Mon Sep 12, 05:23:00 PM, johngrif said…

    What is missing here, as you say, Jeff, is man's faith. Can he not see the hand of God around him?

    The hand that gives life to this precious blue globe in the immensity of a blacker than black night that stretches to infinity.

    It is right to fear. As Anonymous does. He cloaks it in rejection. But God has not rejected him/her, has He? Does he not enjoy the same right to the joy of existence as does the upright believer? If he/she will take it..

    One of my FIRST DVD purchases was called Blue Planet. If you will watch the play of lightning across the earth as does the viewer here..
    to see the glory of it from the viewpoint of the Space Station.

    If you will see the thunder and the rain and the teeming life of the African veldt, if you will REALLY see it, then you will wonder, too, at the God who cares for us. To know Him better is our reason for life.

    Anonynmous is seeking Him, even in his/her rejection.

  • At Mon Sep 12, 06:49:00 PM, Jeff said…

    Well said, John. Isn't it ever thus? We all can see the majesty of creation. How do we choose to react to what we see? Lucifer's sin was to say "I will [be like God]". Our sin is to say "I will not [follow God]".

  • At Tue Sep 13, 01:32:00 PM, Jeremy Pierce said…

    Habakkuk was writing during the Babylonian empire, not the Persian empire. It was the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar that the prophesy was about.

    I don't think you're right that God doesn't answer the question. He answers it in ch.2. It's just not the kind of answer Habakkuk wanted. He asks how God could allow an evil empire could come and destroy God's people, God's temple, and the city God chose to make his dwelling. God responds that Nebuchadnezzar will indeed by judged for his evil actions. Habakkuk is satisfied by the answer, judging by the psalm he includes as his response to God's answer (ch.3).

    It's an interesting juxtaposition of two themes that many people assume are contraictory (absolute divine sovereignty over every event and human responsibility for evil actions that God is sovereign over), but the biblical authors state them right next to each other all the time.

  • At Tue Sep 13, 02:10:00 PM, Jeff said…


    Thanks for setting me straight. I did conflate the prophecy about Babylon in Chapter 1 with with Chapter 2, where God did speak of punishment for Babylon.

    You're right that Habakkuk was satisfied with God's answer. Those verses 3:17-19 are among my favorites in the Bible.

    To me, they speak of faith in the face of disaster, when one doesn't understand the whys.

    I like your point, too, about the presence of two themes that aren't really contraictory.


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