Monday, February 28, 2011

Disaters and Theology

Monday after Epiphany 8
February 28, 2011

The Lord be with you

The recent 6.3 earthquake in New Zealand has catapulted Christchurch, which was devastated by the quake, into the international spotlight. Christians around the globe have kept the people of this city in their prayers. However this is only the most recent natural disaster that has hit humanity in recent years. We all remember the hurricanes that hit New Orleans, the earthquake that hit Haiti, and the 2004 earthquake in the Indian Ocean that caused a title wave that killed hundreds of thousands in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, and Thailand.

When such disasters strike, it is natural for people to ask, “Why?” An explanation that speaks of moving tectonic plates is most unsatisfying. Disasters move people to look for moral explanations. Even the most hardened seem to consider God. Some use them as justification for their lack of faith in God. Others use them as a way of pointing the blame at the people who have been affected by the disaster. Still others think of the mystery of God. No matter how people understand the disaster, one truth is accented by the very questions people are asking. Faith in the existence of God is hardwired into human nature. No one blames Sigmund Freud, or the psychoanalytical method for the disasters, or seek to exonerate them. No one blames democracy or communism or socialism, or seeks to exonerate these governing systems. When we look for ultimate meaning, we look to God.

The Winter 2011 issue of Concordia Journal was dedicated to the whole question of understanding disasters from a biblical perspective. The disaster the issue focused on was the January 2010 Haitian earthquake, but the observations apply equally to other natural disasters. I especially liked the contribution by Rev. Jon Diefenthaler, the president of the Southeastern District.

When the earthquake hit Haiti there were not a few people, even in Haiti, who blamed the Haitian people themselves. This impoverished nation has a history of Voodoo. The idea was that God was punishing them for this sin. I’ll call this the “special judgment” view. Justification for such thinking might be found in Deuteronomy 28:38 and Joel 1. Here we read, not about earthquakes or title waves, but about locust. This natural disaster is a judgment from God intended to call the Israelites to repentance. However the analogy fails because these recent disasters did not hit ancient Israel, but New Zealand, Haiti, India, the USA, and so forth. Ancient Israel had a special place in salvation history. They were the people selected by God to carry the promise of the Messiah, first given to Eve. If they abandoned their God-given roll as the carrier of the promise, then there would be no humanly possible way to be assured that Jesus was the one foretold. They always had to have at least a remnant that remained faithful; that passed on the true faith. For the analogy to work we must be able to demonstrate, from the Bible, that Haiti, India, New Zealand, the USA, and so on, hold a critical roll in salvation history. As Christ has already come, it can’t be in relation to that. It would have to be in relation to the Second Coming. In other words, we would have to demonstrate from the Bible that if one of these nations dropped the ball the Second Coming would not happen. Now I am a patriotic American, but I cannot assert such a special roll for us.

Another place in the Bible one might cite for the special judgment view of disasters is the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19. However this analogy also fails when we realize that the danger that Sodom and Gomorrah posed was again a danger to the promise God gave to humanity (Genesis 3:15). Abraham, from whom the nation of Israel descended, was the carrier of that promise. These cities of intense immorality and idolatry (even though they knew of the true God – Genesis 14:17-20), possessed such a draw to abandon the true God that even Lot was being attracted. To preserve the promise, the cities received their “End-Times” judgment early.

The special judgment idea also fails because we would have to demonstrate that the sins of this or that nation, or city, so exceeded the sins of other nations and cities that it called forth special treatment from God. In the USA, since the legalization of abortion, over 40,000,000 babies have been legally executed in abortion clinics. Are the sins of Haiti worse than that? 600,000 to 800,000 people right now, half of which are children, are slaves in the world today. (Some say many more are enslaved right now, but I’m using the smallest number I found.) They can be found in Toronto, Canada and San Diego, CA, (and elsewhere, of course). Are the sins of Christchurch so much grater than those of Toronto, where slave auctions have been reported? What about all the countries that have outlawed Christianity? At least in India Christians can hold to their faith and share it. Sure the people who live in Haiti, Indonesia, New Orleans and Christchurch are sinners, but so are we. It really doesn’t seem to me that their sins are so much more terrible that God is compelled to strike them, while sparing others because their sins “aren’t so bad.”

So, if we can’t say that these natural disasters are the result of special judgment from God on these cities and nations, does that mean that there is nothing of theological and spiritual significance about them? Of course not.

First off, all natural disasters are the result of the general judgment of God. They are the result of the earth being cursed at humanities Fall into sin. God tells Adam, “cursed is the ground because of you” (Genesis 3:17). St. Paul writes of this in Romans 8. “For the creation waits in eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now.” To put all this another way, things like earthquakes, title waves, and hurricanes, happen because we live in a fallen world.

The next thing we can learn is that all disasters are a call to repentance. Quite obviously, this is a message to those who survive, not to those who died. This is our Lord’s message in Luke 13:1-5. “There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”

The third thing any disaster is, is a call to every Christian to be about the works of God. That is to say, it is a call for us to exercise compassion in the name of Jesus. Paul tells the Galatians, “So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (6:10). Certainly such disasters give us an opportunity to do good. We do not limit our compassion to those who are Christians. Paul also accented this in Romans 12:19-21. “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ To the contrary, ‘if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” When someone asks, “Where is God in all this,” the answer is to point to his Body, the Church, which is responding with the compassion and love of God in Christ Jesus, our Lord.

This is not all that can be said about disasters, but this post is already much longer than I thought it would be. A fuller treatment would certainly also accent that God has not abandoned the earth or her people. I would also want to explore how God's judgment against sin was taken by Jesus on the cross. He has born our punishment. Another area that could be examined are the "hidden things of God." With what I have touched on, though, we have some understanding as well as a call to action. We are to repent of our own sin, keep these people in our prayers, and as we have opportunity, reach out in acts of mercy.

Blessings in Christ,
Pastor John Rickert
(The first picture is of post-earthquake Haiti. The second picture is of post-earthquake Christchurch.)

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