On the heels of Hurricane Harvey, Irma is chugging through the Caribbean, taking aim at Puerto Rico and perhaps hitting Florida this weekend. In the wake of this record-breaking hurricane, there will be 185 mph winds, catastrophic flooding – and bad theology.
We heard it after Harvey. Huffpost contributor Christian Chiakulas blamed Harvey on the “satanic system of capitalism” and suggested that the flooding of Texas oil refineries, which have contributed to climate change, was a sign from God. Other writers took glee that Texas was being punished for being a red state, including a Florida professor who said it felt like “instant karma.”
But before the right wing takes umbrage over a leftist interpretation of a natural disaster, remember that several conservative clergymen claimed that Hurricane Katrina was divine retribution for the debauchery of New Orleans.
I’m afraid that many people adopt a simplistic “cause-and-effect” theology; that is, misfortune is the direct result of sin. And let’s be clear: sometimes that is true. If you’re a serial cheater, you can expect broken relationships. If you use and manipulate people, you might want to prepare for turmoil. There is no doubt that a lot of heartache is our own doing. But, in the case of natural disasters, I can safely say that God does not play the “tit-for-tat” game.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus challenged the Old Testament view of sin-and-retribution. He flatly stated that God caused the sun to rise on the good and evil and, conversely, sent rain on the righteous and unrighteous (Matthew 5:45). Harvey and Irma are not divinely-engineered instruments of God’s wrath. They are natural phenomena that disrupt the lives of anyone who is in their path – from the pious churchgoer to the common thief.
But Jesus goes deeper: the fact that the sun and rain effects the good and bad equally is a basis for loving both our enemies and friends. Those who show no favoritism to a fellow human being in need are imitating the Heavenly Father. The popular view that God sends storms, accidents and disease to those who deserve it must remember that “no one is righteous; no, not one” (Romans 3:10). The good news that Jesus proclaimed is that God loves the world, so much so that He sent His Son to die for it. As such, we should never pin natural disasters on God. Rather, we should roll up our sleeves and serve anyone who is suffering, just like our Lord did.